The Northern League season is winding down, with the majority of sides desperately fighting for either promotion, or to avoid relegation. However, more is at stake for several players in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty region. Thanks to the football season being endless, our national competition – the ASB Premiership – kicks off at the conclusion of winter football, and with that comes the desire of players to progress to higher honours.
With the newly formed WaiBOP United replacing the old Waikato FC entity for this upcoming competition, there has been a renewed focus on selecting local players, rather than relying on Aucklanders to fill the majority of the starting lineup like in some past squads. Because of this, I felt it prudent to create a starting XI based only from players playing their Northern League football for a side based in Waikato or the Bay of the Plenty. Consider it the “All-WaiBOP XI”.
The main criteria is simple – No Aucklanders allowed. While the WaiBOP United side will carry a few Auckland-based players in their matchday squad, this hypothetical squad can only contain players plying their trade in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty region. There are a few debatable calls within the line-up, so if you think I’m a right royal idiot, get amongst it in the comments section. How well would the team fare? Could they beat Manawatu? Am I blind in missing a clear WaiBOP star? It’s all up for debate.
Here is the first, and possibly only, All-WaiBOP XI.
Goalkeeper: Danyon Drake
There are several promising keepers in the greater Waikato region, with the likes of Reuben Parker and James Towers looking like very good prospects. However, stocks are low in senior squads.
Melville’s keeping rotation consists of the veteran Ally Houston and career back-up Stu Campbell, while Vlad Frank at Hamilton Wanderers is a great shot-stopper but on the wrong side of 30.
That realistically only leaves Drake, who has been doing a solid job at Ngaruawahia. Although he sometimes gets himself into trouble with his tendency to fancy his outfield skills, more times than not his ability to rush clear and clear under pressure pay large dividends. He has a good rapport with his two centre-backs, especially John Irving, of whom he receives plenty of back headers from.
A good communicator, Drake is likely to find himself on the bench for WaiBOP United this season due to a likely import signing, but he could very well be the future of goalkeeping in the Waikato.
Right Back: John Irving
I’ll try and keep this short, because I’ve been writing far too much about the qualities of Irving for a long time now. Simply, he is a player of elite calibre, possessing superb technique, speed and tackling ability, as well as excellent communication skills and a decent heading ability for a man of his not-massive stature. Equally capable at right back or centre back, Irving is unlikely to be suiting up in WaiBOP in this year’s competition, with it being understood that the club faces big competition from the likes of Auckland City to acquire his services.
Don’t be surprised if you see the former Evertonian in Wellington Phoenix colours sometime in his career. He’s that good, and he’s going to show everyone in the upcoming ASB Premiership season, regardless of who he signs for.
Centre Back: Aaron Scott
If Irving is the top-calibre player you haven’t seen before, then Scott is the top-calibre player you know all about. A real defensive general, he barely ever puts a foot wrong and is always a huge boost to Melville when he suits up for his long-time club. Already signed for WaiBOP (a great statement of intent), Scott is a player who will be a big fish in the relatively small WaiBOP pond, rather than being swallowed up in the class of Waitakere United.
I’m salivating over the prospect of Scott and Irving teaming up at the back for WaiBOP United, hopefully this can happen, creating what would likely be the best centre-back duo in the ASB Premiership.
Centre Back: Justin Harden
Every team can use a player just like Justin Harden. For those who don’t regularly get to see Melville United (no longer a chore), Harden is an old-school, no-nonsense, insert-other-cliché centre back. A beast of a physical specimen, Harden is a big tackler, good in the air, and doesn’t often get caught out despite his relative lack of speed. A very sound centre back which every coach would love to possess.
Left Back: Adam Luque
Left back has been a trouble spot recently with Waikato franchises, and because of that some natural centre backs have been forced into playing out wide. That’s why I’m partially cheating on this one – anyone of the Wanderers centre back trio of Raymond How, Luque and Johnny Konings could be the selection here.
However, Luque gets the nod in my book for a couple of reasons. He’s a little bit more versatile than How, being slightly quicker and more agile (I’m sure Ray disagrees with this!). The impressive newbie Konings can cover a wing-back position also, but Luque earns the edge in my hypothetical squad due to his added experience, being a core member of the Wanderers squad for several seasons now. With all three players being selected in the WaiBOP squad, it will be interesting to see who gets the most starts this upcoming season.
Defensive Midfield: Scott Hilliar
That’s right, no flat 4-4-2 for me, we have a specialised defensive midfielder to chase around the opposition, making tackles and short passes all game. And there’s no player better in the Waikato/Bay of Plenty region at that than Scott Hilliar.
If you’ve heard of it, it’s highly likely that you know he was the NZ Under 20 800m champion, basically the perfect sporting crossover to being a great midfielder – with stamina as well as speed being possessed in abundance by Hilliar. Thankfully it’s not just the athletic skills he possesses, as he’s a very tidy passer, not afraid of a tackle and has really shown off his shooting abilities over the past few weeks.
He works superbly in the Melville midfield with Jama Boss, two jewels in the unsearched Declan Edge rough. Hilliar has been given a shot at making the step up to the ASB Premiership level for the summer, and it’s a richly deserved reward.
Left Midfield: Mark Jones
It was a tough decision in picking the two wingers to make the starting line-up, but the opinion-dividing Jones has plenty to offer. A tireless worker, Jones’ motor is unparalleled, being one of the best defensive wingers in not just the Waikato, but the whole of New Zealand. This motor and stamina gets him into trouble sometimes, with the odd rash challenge resulting in plenty of yellow cards and the occasional early bath.
However, you take the good with the bad with Jones, and he is a more than handy offensive player, one capable of some amazing goals. There may be more promising players than Jones in the WaiBOP region, but none match the experience or quality of the Wanderers number seven.
Right Midfield: Alexi Varela
With apologies to Jama Boss (too central), Steve Morrison (too busy scoring screamers) and Michael Built (departed), Varela gets the right midfield spot. A technically gifted player, Varela can shine in any position on the midfield, having a good dose of pace, willingness for a tackle and some excellent passing skills.
Recruited from Onehunga Sports, Varela was up and down in his time for Waikato FC, before adding a new dimension to Hamilton Wanderers’ attack this season, creating a smooth, calm element to the midfield, with he, Ricky Broderson and Eder Franchini doing an excellent job at receiving the ball from defenders and then releasing their wingers into space. Proficient on attack too, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Varela getting a call from Peter Smith to act add some creative Chilean flair to the midfield.
Next up on the agenda for the Chilean is telling people how exactly to spell his name. Waikato FC programmes switched between “Alexis” “Alexi Caracoma Varela” and even “Alexi Caracas Varela”, while the excellent Rod De Lisle has clearly given up on the task in Wanderers programmes, at one point stringing the whole name together to make one long name which would make Wanderers fortunate they don’t shell out for back-of-shirt name printing.
Attacking Midfield: Federico Marquez
If we’re talking about technically excellent South Americans, then Marquez sees Varela’s talent and raises him 19 goals for Ngaruawahia.
Marquez has an excellent touch and technique, as well as a knack for getting in the right areas at the right time. A very quick player, he has a huge advantage over most lumbering Division One defences, often getting in behind the defence to sneak onto the end of a long-ball from either Drake, Irving, or Hughwyn Habib. He and Irving provide the best pairing in Division One for a long time (sorry Mike Gwyther and Steve Holloway),and Marquez’s goals is the main reason for why Ngaruawahia are so lethal at times.
Is he up to ASB Premiership level? Time will tell. But with other ASB Premiership sides having attempted to sign him, he is a big coup for WaiBOP United. Just ask anyone from Ngaruawahia.
Centre Forward: Jack McNab
You were beginning to think the “BOP” part of this title was redundant, didn’t you!
The truth is, Bay of Plenty football isn’t as strong as Waikato football is, but McNab is the exception to the rule.
The Englishman has been banging in the goals for Tauranga City United, with a whopping 23 in 28 games, continuing his fine spell with the Matamata Swifts last season. McNab came out to New Zealand with an intention of just playing at a relatively social level, and now he’s well and truly on WaiBOP’s radar.
Centre Forward: Gurjeet Singh
Singh was a big contributor in his short spell with Waikato FC last season, and from that earned himself a spot in the Hamilton Wanderers starting unit.
After a slow start, Singh started to fire before injuring his hamstring, and the effect of his absence has been shown through his side’s recent lack of goal scoring. An extremely quick player, Singh was dubbed the World’s Fastest Indian by a certain uninspired Waikato FC writer (May or may not have been me), but he also finds himself offside quite often due to some aggressive off-ball runs. His finishing comes and goes, but he is lethal on his day, and provides a real threat regardless of where he plays. Don’t expect him to start for WaiBOP this year, but he could certainly be a candidate for an attacking option off the bench.
Goalkeeper: Vlad Frank
An excellent shot-stopper, long-time back-up Frank found himself in the starting job for Wanderers last season and has barely put a foot wrong in that time.
Centre Back: Raymond How
Waikato football stalwart, How is a threat from set-pieces and performed well when given an opportunity for Waikato last season. Will fight with his fellow Wanderers team-mates for minutes this season.
Attacking Midfielder: Jama Boss
The latest of Melville’s Somali stars, Boss has been excellent this season. A tricky dribbler, Boss also possesses an excellent strike and isn’t afraid of a tackle despite his small stature.
Centre Forward: Darious Kubuya
The shining star of Claudelands Rovers in Division Two, Kubuya would not be out of his depth coming off the bench in a higher division.
Centre Forward: Jordan MacCarter
Capable of scoring a thirty metre piledriver one minute and then getting sent off the next, MacCarter is frustrating and fantastic at the same time. Either way, “The Tractor” is always entertaining to watch.
[When he’s not stuck doing assignments or arguing about basketball, Niall can be found making bad puns on the sideline of a Waikato Northern League game. He covers WaiBOP United for asbpremiership.co.nz, and you can follow him on Twitter @NiallGunner.]
Categories: NZ Men's National League
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.