By Matt Hitchcock
What is it they say? “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” – this is basically the reason why I have spent a large portion of my adult life coaching football, mostly in the United Kingdom in the inner city and more latterly here in New Zealand.
My footballing career, despite my enthusiasm, was curtailed due to a distinct lack of a left foot and any semblance of skill. Years of sitting on various South London reserve team benches led me to a youthful career in community football coaching. I then got a ‘real job’ (for real job read less rewarding, fun etc.) and moved to New Zealand with my family about 8 years ago.
After having moved here I soon found that Saturday afternoon was the loneliest part of the week. My son would play football in the morning and then at 3pm I would find myself desperately wandering the streets looking for some fulfilment. My football loyalties have always been with Charlton Athletic, so I don’t necessarily associate the game with entertainment and flair – more some sort of deep seated behavioural modification where I had to leave the house and drink Bovril in the cold and wet every Saturday. To fill this void I started watching local teams, East Coast Bays primarily, and then my son moved to play for Paul Hobson at Birkenhead – it was here that I rediscovered my footballing family in New Zealand.
In over 30 years of football I can honestly say that I have never, ever, been anywhere that is as special as Birkenhead United, and doubt that I ever will do again.
Auckland’s North Shore is typically quite a ‘posh’ area, lots of well to do people with well to do kids and well to do football teams. Beach Haven is one of the less affluent areas of the Shore, and its community is a vibrant, diverse cultural and social mix.
No more is this represented than on a Summer/Autumn night at Shepherds Park – where local families play touch and socialise alongside the first, reserve and youth team players doing their best to impress in pre-season. Come Saturday afternoons in the deepest darkest winter, the same families, and members of the local community, gather in the bar and on the bank to watch Birko. This all sounds a bit Utopian I know, but I have not come across a better supported team in New Zealand, especially where the support genuinely comes from the local community regardless of their connections to football. Of course this brings with it a sometimes heady mix of emotions and banter that can create an intimidating and entertaining backdrop to the game – something that is missing at a lot of the more ‘well to do’ clubs – ultimately giving Shepherds Park an ‘edge’ that reminds me of Saturday afternoons in South London.
Birkenhead United isn’t flash, they don’t have the big budgets of others – but they do manage to scrap above their weight year upon year. The team has a reputation for developing youth, and as a father I cannot begin to communicate my gratitude to Paul Hobson and his team for the investment they have made in my son’s footballing life. Every year you will see a first team that includes 15, 16 and 17 year olds alongside some (relative) veterans of the game. The team are close to the fans and the youngsters – the first team players training with the 14 and 15 year olds during the week. The Reserves’ average age is 16/17, and after every home game local kids will walk back across the pitch with the first team to the changing rooms.
The thing is, I really have no idea how they do it. There are no tech heavy sports science processes, PowerPoint presentations or promises of national team/ASB Premiership/professional trials, and when I watch any of the teams train, the thing that comes across more than anything else is that they seem to be having lots of fun.
People talk about bunker and/or siege mentalities, but this overcomplicates the true essence of the club. Nobody (on the North Shore at least) really backs us – I think that they view us with a mix of jealousy and contempt, and you know what – Birkenhead United just don’t care. We just get on with playing attractive football and having a laugh alongside the other magic ingredients that Paul Hobson manages to conjure up.
Soon, my family and I have to return to the UK for a while at least, and I am gutted to be leaving the players and supporters of Birkenhead behind. A part of me will always be at Shepherds Park on a Saturday at 2.45pm, but before I go I felt that I needed to express my feelings on how a small part of Beach Haven has become a part of my footballing DNA.
I did have to make a caveat to my son this week – if Birkenhead make it to the Chatham Cup final, then we have to fly back for it – I’m still not sure if this is a foolish tempt of fate or not?
Regardless of anything else, Birkenhead’s ridiculously young side will continue to play tenacious and entertaining football, and our supporters will continue to terrorise the opposition from the clubhouse balcony.
I’ll miss you Birko………
Categories: NZ Northern Men's Premier
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.