NEPHARA'S GREATEST TEAMS: PART FOUR - EMERGENCE
by Patricia Steinbren
In this latest Herald series, our journalists will track down the stories of Nephara's great teams - specifically, the ones that won titles - and really rake up what made them so successful, recount their stories and ask where their key players are now.
The penultimate squad, fourth from five. One, surely, that should be embedded in the mind of everyone to watch the Cormorants. And yet, this is a side that has arguably slipped through the cracks of history, despite the fact that without them, none of those that followed them would have made it to this stage.
This is the side that entered Nephara's first ever tournament - and ended up lifting the trophy, setting the lasting DNA of the Nepharim national team.
The Nephara national football team - then, of course, under the raven banner of New Sideburn - first assembled after the novel method of a player's strike across the recently-assembled Premiership, orchestrated by the iconic Joan Farham. It had a wide-reaching effect greater than they had anticipated. The various state FAs, as well as representatives of the national Premiership and, of course, the footballers' Union, held a meeting at which it was decided to not only create a national team to represent the nation, but to form a national Football Association to act as the governing body of the sport within Nepharim borders.
A bit of impromptu poetry from Football Trident chairman Petra Stubbs played a small but crucial role in the process. With the meeting held in an affluent hotel in Brinemouth, Stubbs looked out the window during a heated argument between the FAs of Aries and Crownsend. As the painstakingly-detailed notation records, she mused; "Look at those f-cking seabirds, just diving into the ocean, ripping out the fish and sunning 'emselves happy as clams. Smug, even. That's how I want our lads to play - fast, hard and dangerous." And thus, the team had their first nickname - the Cormorants. It stuck immediately.
Fairly quickly, the respected 59-year old Esther Falconer - recently having left Crisisbless by mutual consent - was installed as the first national manager, Joan Farham the only real choice as captain and a couple of friendlies within the region quickly arranged. In an era where Sabrefell giants the Moths and Athletic dominated, Falconer's selections were always politically-motivated, ensuring at least some representation for every state and keeping cliques of either Sabrefell giant side from assembling. Its first matches? A 2-0 victory at home over Integristan at the distinguished (as opposed to its current adjective, 'decrepit') Gargoyle's Court, Crisisbless striker Darren Keynan with a brace. In the away leg, Farham converted a penalty in the 89th minute to ensure a late but decisive and deserved victory.
Bullish from their triumph, Nephara immediately forged a grandly-titled Serenes Challenge Trophy and dared anyone in the region to come and take it from them. Twelve teams ultimately showed up - two others (Raging Fire and Integristan) with Premiership sides, another (Valkyrja) having formerly hosted what are now the Coret Hawks and only three others (Sennet, Echidnation and hated Brenecia) having professional leagues in their own right.
The team that started the final against Brenecia.
The group stages were promising and with yet another politically-motivated squad selection Nephara were narrow favourites at best. Sennet, for all their hopes prior to the tournament, were pulverised in the opening fixture 7-0 to a baying crowd in Treason, before Echidnation took points off the Cormorants for the first time in their history, Netzer's 49th-minute free kick flying past the indomitable Slate Heward for the first goal conceded in Nepharim history. No matter, though, as Antoletia were also destroyed 4-0 - still enough for them to edge Sennet into third and make it to the next round. Another milestone - Darren Keynan scored the first hat-trick in Nepharim history.
Eight teams and three rounds left. Raging Fire, the other best third-placed side following a 1-0 win and two scoreless draws, faced them next and took them to extra time. All-female, very physical and with a team in the Premiership, the Hares, that would stick around even into the UICA years, took the Cormorants to extra time before Christian Shirriff, who would later be voted the best player in the tournament, finally found a way past the packed five-man defence, first laying off an assist for substitute striker Paula Slatcliff before smashing one past goalkeeper Gerdsdottir himself. Next up, Integristan - fresh off an exceptionally tasty 3-3 thriller against local rivals Echidnation that had come to penalties. They did not disappoint, and despite their defeats to Nephara (a bit under a year ago by this point) they came out battling, storming to a 2-0 lead in the first half. But, showing the indomitable spirit that would become the side's trademark, the Cormorants would recover - leftback Hellion Schaefer blasted home a goal in the first minute of the second half to silence the travelling away fans, Thorn Beyard smashed home a powerful header off Jacqui Forde's perfect corner and, in extra time, star striker Keynan hammered home goals 3 and 4 of the match for Nephara and goals 6 and 7 of the tournament for himself. Unsurprisingly, he ended as top scorer.
And so to Brenecia in the final, fresh off beating a surprisingly strong Valkyrja side 4-1. The Brenecian First Division was yet to acquire its title of A-League and the nation itself in its infancy - tensions were still high after their rebellion and secession. Furthermore, their national identity as far as style went was, well... eleven very large men, mostly in navy blue, kicking the ball into the stratosphere and lumps out of the opposition with a 4-5-1. Nephara's game had already by now settled into its familiar short-passing, high-pressing, forward-momentum style, as well as matching Brenecia pound for pound in muscle. This clash was so marketable that it even won limited coverage internationally - helpfully, it was a competitive match in a weird timezone during the international off-season.
And the Cormorants did not disappoint. Unlike their other knockout matches, this was not close, it was not a fair contest - but the newly-built Godswatch, Crisisbless' stadium constructed just two months before the tournament began, played host to a decisive 3-1 victory. Brenecia held their own in the first half, goalkeeper Matt Haveland making a number of saves and big winger River Chance equalising following a dazzling Bors Harnwell opener, but in the second half the Patriots (then called, less imaginitively, 'the Blues') lost a goal (Farham's penalty won by Shirriff), their heads (rightback Brooke Pippery hacking down Forde and receiving a straight red for her troubles) and, with a final Sigrun Glass half-volley, the game. And Joan Farham lifted the first trophy in the Cormorants' history. It was not to be the last.
Sadly, it took years for the team to kick on beyond this. It took twenty years after the formation of the NSFA - or, to put it another way, ten World Cups in our absence - before a political bloc spearheaded by the domineering Gethin Ramsey demanded Nephara's presence in the global football world. It's tempting to wonder how the Nepharim would have performed in those cycles, and certainly players like Shirriff, Keynan and the heroic goalkeeper Heward (ignoring the wonderful hypothetical of a Farham in her prime) were good enough to win contracts abroad. But the years in between were spent building, developing... and if nothing else, by the time Nephara did challenge the rest of the world, they were strong enough to give it a proper go, with a full generation of professionals across the country.
And there was, at the very least, a sense of continuity. For who was wearing the number 20 at the time, a young goalkeeper recently forced into the spotlight at the Moths and proving himself under pressure, enough to win a role as the third-choice goalkeeper? None other than Asger Stubbs, who would win the Baptism of Fire aged 38.