A 10-man Nelson Falcons side was unable to hold on to an early lead as Canterbury United scored two second-half goals for a 2-1 victory at ASB Football Park in Christchurch yesterday.
The Falcons got off to the best possible start when a well-struck Sam Maxwell corner swung in off his left foot.
The goal delighted the Falcons fans, who outnumbered their Canterbury counterparts.
However, the promise of a fair and entertaining fixture was harpooned when referee Hayden McCabe produced a red card in the 10th minute.
The ASB Youth League official appeared to be flustered in the broiling conditions, after a confrontation with several United players over the removal of strapping. He chose a clumsy challenge by Nelson's Hal Fish to stamp his authority on the game.
Fish went into a midfield tackle with his sprigs up, and while the dangerous-looking but ultimately innocuous challenge deserved a yellow card, the lack of contact made a red card unwarranted.
From there, a valiant Falcons side did their best to hold out the defending champions, and they succeeded for the first half.
They continued to cut Canterbury open on the break and could have nabbed a second goal had the rub of the rubber-based artificial turf gone their way.
Omar Guardiola was a terrier on the right flank, going for everything, and the control of Furkan Kokcu was the perfect foil in behind, but with no-one in the central position, balls into the box were lacking.
Tore Waechter had the best opportunity to claim Nelson's second, but a heavy fist touch and a slip at the top of the box saw a one-on-one shot with the Canterbury keeper go begging.
As the game wore on, Canterbury climbed into their work, but turning their mountain of possession into chances proved a tough task.
Falcons captain Mark Johnston, who was incensed at Fish's sending-off, played as if he was the 11th man. He asked the same of his players, to work harder and cover extra ground.
"You need everyone to be selfless, really, to battle for the team and player, to run until they drop," said Johnston.
"I am completely proud of them for the effort. Every one of them can hold their heads high."
Man of the match Niall Young embraced his torrid time in defence, putting himself about the park with a tenacity that only just outdid that of his team-mates.
If it wasn't for a fortuitous Canterbury goal 10 minutes into the second half, their efforts would have been rewarded.
Canterbury centre-half Tristan Nicol sent a long ball into the box, and as it caught the stiff northeasterly breeze, the part-cross, part-shot caught Nelson keeper Coey Turipa off his line and went in over his outstretched hands.
If Canterbury's equaliser was a pot-shot, their winner had all the class of a marksman's best.
Following great buildup play down the right involving a sharp one-two with the pacey Aaron Spain, the ball was centred for Jamie Draper, who touched to his right to evade a diving defender and sent the strike to the right of Turipa.
Canterbury United coach Danny Halligan recognised Nelson's effort.
"Nelson got off to a great start, but the game completely changes when you lose a man. It loses its shape," he said.
"It was important that we equalised, but we made hard work of it. Against a team with 10 men on a [fast] pitch like this, we should have put them away earlier, but credit to them - they are a workman-like unit."
Falcons head coach Davor Tavich said he would have liked to see what his unit could have achieved with a full complement after leading early.
"It's disappointing to go down a man so early and after a goal, but it's all part of the game. There is nothing you can do - the decision was made," said Tavich.
"We just had to keep on fighting. From there, it is all psychological.
"We got broken down by an unfortunate goal, really.
"If it wasn't for that, we could have carried on for a wee bit longer or even all the way."
With the loss to Canterbury United and Otago's win over Manawatu, the Falcons have dropped to fourth place behind the weekend's victors and Team Wellington, who have a game in hand after the bye.
While the Falcons are not out of the running, a first-season grand-final appearance will now rely on a raft of favourable results.
Tavich said the Falcons would not fade during the back end of the season.
"There is lots to play for. There are some goals we want to achieve, and we will do everything we can to achieve those."
Next weekend the Falcons travel to Memorial Park in Palmerston North to take on the YoungHeart side they smashed 8-0 in Nelson.
- The Nelson Mail