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Birkenhead United 1, New Zealand Under 20 3
Shepherd’s Fridge, Auckland, May 27 2014

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Cripes it was freezing last night, and it’s not even bloody winter yet! However, we can’t let trifling little things like freezing to death keep us from a decent night of football now can we? When I found out that Birkenhead were supplying the New Zealand Under 20’s with a warm-up game ahead of their imminent trip to the Panda Cup in China, it was an opportunity so good that not even the spectre of losing limbs to frost bite, nor even my perennial frustration with trying to take half decent photos under floodlights, could put me off!

So I donned my warmest thermal underwear, grabbed my snow-shoes, crampons and ice pick, and even dragged my wife along to an extremely rare football excursion for her – so at least if I died of hypothermia there’d be someone to drive the car home! Such is my commitment. To answer your question, yes, if you would like to nominate me for the Victoria Cross in recognition of my valour and selflessness, I will reluctantly and humbly accept.

Of course there were good reasons, aside from sheer masochism, for braving the blizzard and it would be remiss of me not to make mention of a few of them.

Chief amongst them was the fact that the majority of the Junior All Whites ply their trade with professional clubs such as Vicenza (Jesse Edge), Real Salt Lake (Te Atawhai Wihongi Hudson), Braga (Birhanu Taye) and the Wellington Phoenix (Matthew Ridenton and Alex Rufer) to name but a few. It’s not every day you get a chance to witness players with this kind of pedigree playing in Auckland, so it is incumbent on us to take these opportunities when they present themselves. It was also a mild surprise and privilege to note Waitakere United goalkeeper Danny Robinson making an appearance in the Birkenhead goal, filling in for Damien Hirst who is going to China with the Under 20’s.

Birkenhead United are a very young side who put a lot of store in youth development so in that sense this was a great choice of warm-up opponent for the Under 20’s. And despite what you might think when a national team takes on a very youthful club team, they competed very well! In some ways Birko deserved a better scoreline but two defensive lapses right at the end of the first half ruined the game for them a bit.

Having said that though, Birkenhead’s opening goal was also a bit flukey, coming about 40 minutes in from a melee arising from a well-directed Hobson-McVeigh corner. No sooner than they finished celebrating, they found themselves picking the ball out of their own net due to a very prompt Junior All Whites reply. Then right on the stroke of half time Birko found themselves behind after almost retaking the lead themselves. The U20 keeper managed a fine fingertip save after Keegan Linderboom was released with nobody else to beat, only to then see the resulting corner hoofed down field and in, taking the score to 2-1 with all the scoring happening in the last five minutes of the half.

After the break, Birkenhead emerged from the sheds with a revamped line-up with only three players over 19 on the pitch including goalkeeper Robinson, so it was U20’s vs U20’s from that point on. I was concerned that this might result in a blow-out, but no! They only conceded one more goal so at least defensively the young guns were better than their first choice colleagues!

The under 20’s impressed me with their speed and a possession based brand of football you don’t often see at levels I’m used to watching in NZ. Some might even call it tiki-taka! They moved the ball from side to side at the back probing for openings at a pretty breakneck pace. Whether this was how they usually play the game or they were just trying to keep warm wasn’t clear!!

Regardless, waiting for them in China in addition to the hosts the Junior All Whites will face the giants of the international game that are Brazil and Croatia, so they need all the pace and skill they can muster! They certainly desperately needed this prep game to get their combinations going, given it was their only chance to play together before the huge challenge that awaits them. Based on what I saw, I trust that they will be competitive, and if nothing else the experience will do them a power of good as they build towards the Under 20 World Cup next year, which they will compete in as representatives of the host nation – us!

I’m sure I speak for everyone reading this when I wish them well on their trip.

Categories: All Whites NZ Northern Men's Premier

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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