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An interview with Neil Emblen

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As anyone who’s anyone already knows, the Northern League gets underway again in two short weeks! This pleases me very much, as I am sure it does you too if you are a person of class and taste. To celebrate, as has become my custom, I have selected a prominent figure in the Upper North Island footballing community in order to procure said figure’s thoughts on life, football and the season ahead.

Neil Emblen needs very little introduction (but I’m going to write one anyway). He’s played professionally for such famous English clubs as Wolves, Norwich, Crystal Palace (where he spent the best part of a season in the Premier League), Millwall and Walsall. He came to New Zealand in 2005 to join the ill-fated New Zealand Knights in the A-League, and then when that turned to custard he became player/coach at Waitakere United – leading them to three straight ASB Premierships.

He has taken up roles as the New Zealand Olympic football coach, and assistant coach of the All Whites under Ricki Herbert. He was interim coach of our national team when Herbert stepped down, and by all accounts only narrowly missed out on being appointed to the role permanently after a couple of solid outings. He is now player/coach of Western Springs AFC, who he has led to two straight Northern League promotions, and he has recently been named assistant coach of the New Zealand Under 20 side, soon to compete at a FIFA World Cup on home soil.

Wow, right! Knowing all that, you might be forgiven for asking why he would agree to talk to a nobody like me for an hour of precious time… Well, the answer is because he’s a very, very, very nice guy! And it’s not just me who says that, a LOT of other people do to. I think when you read the interview you will get a pretty good feel for why.

EG: So first up: What’s the most memorable game you played in in the UK?

NE: I’ll probably say my professional debut, for Millwall, in 1993. I’d only been at the club for ten days, and it was an unfortunate situation for the guy whose place I took – he actually got burgled on the Friday night, a guy called Pat Van Den Hauwe, who was quite a famous player, played for Wales and Everton and had a model for a girlfriend (Mandy Smith). They got burgled on the Friday night, and I think Pat had a wrestle with the burglar, and he couldn’t play the following day! So I had only been signed as a professional for ten days, and I came straight in.

The coach showed faith in me, Mick McCarthy, chucked me in and we beat Tranmere, I got Man of the Match, and everything was superb! That’s definitely a day that… you know, there have been some really good games, some good days, but it all just clicked and the crowd were singing my name after five minutes.

It was just an amazing feeling going from playing in front of 300-400 people for a non-league team [Sittingbourne] to, ten days later, I think there were 16,000 there because it was a big game. Tranmere were actually quite high at the time. They had Pat Nevin and I remember coming up against him a few times, I think he was a Scotland International at the time.

That day just sort of kick started a whirlwind year for me, because I ended up going to Wolves eight months later at the end of that season for quite big money really for a non-league player, so yeah, it was good!

EG: Two million pounds, you got signed to Crystal Palace for… I’ve always wondered what it’s like to have someone say “you’re worth two million pounds”. As a human being worth two million pounds, do you think about it like that?

NE: At the time it was one of the highest transfers. I think through my career, Millwall paid Sittingbourne GBP 175,000, which I think was the second highest non-league transfer ever at that stage, and then the two million pound move to Crystal Palace… I know at the time when I came to New Zealand, I was saying I was worth six million dollars because it was three to one at that stage!

It’s not so much money now, but yeah, you don’t really think about it at the time. All you really think about at that stage, as a player, is paying the club back with performances, because they put that investment into you, and it puts a little bit more pressure on you than if you were a player who had come in on a free transfer. But those players who came in on the free transfers probably got more wages!

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EG: As someone with a bit of a soft spot for Arsenal, one of the games that stood out for me was the FA Cup when you came on as a sub against their double winning team in ’98, do you remember anything about that?

NE: Yeah! I remember that game. I was lucky enough to play against Arsenal a few times. I played against them in the FA Cup for Wolves as well and I remember getting Nigel Winterburn’s shirt at the end of the game – there were some top, top players playing – Overmars, Bergkamp, Anelka, Petit, Viera, they were all playing, and all the boys at the final whistle were grabbing shirts. Good old Nigel Winterburn was there, and I thought “he’s an Arsenal legend”. He’s not as big a name as some of the other guys but I’m sure, for Arsenal fans, they appreciate him just as much as some of those other top boys. So I managed to get his shirt, and kept it for a long time, and then I gave it to a young lad named Jono. He’s a good guy, he’s over here in New Zealand, he was an Under 20 prospect for New Zealand as a goalkeeper and unfortunately he was involved in a bad accident and he’s been in a wheelchair ever since so… He’s a big fan of Arsenal so I donated the shirt to him, which he was buzzing about.

EG: Who did you support as a kid?

NE: Ahhhhhh you’re not gonna like this! I actually had a couple of clubs. The first club that I went to watch was Brighton and Hove Albion, with my uncle – he lived in Hove, and we went to… I think it was the 1983 cup final against Man United , the first leg, and that was a great game to watch. I think Brighton should have actually won that game in extra time. It went to a replay and Man United won 4-0 in the replay.

But also around that time, Glenn Hoddle was a favourite of mine, and Ozzy Ardiles, Ricky Villa, so that sort of era around Spurs and I liked their white kit so… A lot of Arsenal fans would say “ahhhh that’s not great”, but around that time…

And ever since I started playing on a Saturday as either a pro or a semi-pro you never got to watch games really, it was always just on tele, so I never became an avid fan of that team but if there were results that I looked for it was generally Tottenham, and Brighton and Hove Albion and then all the clubs I’ve played for…

[Phew! For a minute there I thought he was going to say Lazio!!]

EG: When you have been paid by some of these big clubs, does it change who you look to first when you open up the paper?

NE: Yeah, I’ll always look for Wolves first now. I had my fondest memories as a player there, seven years, 230 odd games, which is a decent amount of games for any player at one club now so… and I had a great rapport with the fans and the people who ran the club so Wolves is always the team that I look for and you have your chest out when they were in the Premier League a few years ago saying you used to play for them. Now they are creeping back up there and hopefully they can sneak into the playoffs and have a shot at the Premiership again, because that is such a great club, with good tradition, and I think they deserve to be a Premier League team.

EG: Troubled times at Walsall and Paul Merson made the transition from player to coach while you were there. Are there some parallels between that and the way things happened for you?

NE: Yeah, in a way! Merse was still a great player when he took over. He probably wasn’t ready for management. Probably he would also tell you that mentally, in a way as well, he probably wasn’t the right person at times to do that, or to take that on. But he certainly had the experience and the football knowledge to pass some good information and experiences on to the players.

I actually got on great with Paul and he rewarded me with a new contract when he took over. I’d had a year of injuries at Norwich and I’d been given a ‘come back and see’ type contract by Colin Lee. Then that year I played really well and Paul took over near the end and gave me another two year contract. So he showed a lot of faith in me and I felt I played well for him.

I just think the whole situation with Merse was quite funny because you do learn, when you’re player/coaching, you have to try and lead by example and Paul wasn’t that type of player. He was a man who could do nothing for parts of the game then come out with individual brilliance and win you a game like that. You always respected what he did but he wasn’t the hardest working player, especially when he was around 38 years old, which is what he was when he took over Walsall. It was hard for him to lead by example because he was towards the end of his career and he was just trying to hang on to his playing days. But certainly when he had the ball at his feet, definitely one of the best players I’ve ever played with. Just a genius on the ball.

Great guy, love watching him on Sky at times and him coming out with funny stories and that’s just how he is. Bubbly character, knows he’s made a lot of mistakes in life, but he’s prepared to take everything on the chin and enjoy his life. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him apart from he probably needed to run around a bit more!

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EG: So that was an interesting introduction for you to player coaching?

NE: You do start thinking about coaching when you’re towards the latter part of your career and I think when I joined Waitakere, Chris Milicich was then a fairly youngish sort of coach as well and hadn’t had experience of overseas stuff. Rex Dawkins thought, “well if you can be player/coach you can help Chris and lead by example on the pitch and be like a second captain or a manager in the middle of the pitch”, and it certainly worked. We were successful at Waitak and had some good times!

EG: What made you want to come out to the Knights?

NE: Well it was originally through Danny Hay. Danny played with me and Darren Bazeley at Walsall, knew our families, knew our situations back in England and he just basically threw it out there. He said “look, there’s a new team starting in Auckland”. He was going to go back and play for them, they were looking for players, had a blank piece of paper and they could go and sign some players from all around the world and he wondered whether we were interested. Darren committed to doing it first and he came over to New Zealand and had a look, and they were on the phone to me with Danny every night saying “you should come, you should come”. My wife and Darren’s wife, and Danny’s to a degree, all knew each other really well. They sold the lifestyle of coming here and experiencing it for two years and just seeing how that went.

We came in boots and all. We sold our house in England and we shipped all our furniture and we were coming for a long time, but it was still on the basis that after two years we may go back.

Once the Knights finished, I got the offer to go back to Waitakere, and sort of launched my player/coaching type career. I think the experiences of Club World Cups, and being involved with the National Team, it’s sort of flowed on really nicely and it’s been a great move for me.

EG: Do you think that history kind of undersells the benefits, the legacy, that the Knights have given to New Zealand football – yourself and Darren and people like Mauro Donoso who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Knights?

NE: The old owners who helped bring us out here, they wouldn’t mind us saying it, they were totally under resourced. The players that ended up coming from Australia were players that probably people didn’t want from other Australian clubs. I’m not saying they all weren’t good enough, there were some good players in there, but added to that probably the fact that they were… you know, I think I was 34 when I came out. Paul Ifill was 28 – he was in his prime.

I’m thankful for the opportunity and I thought I made a fairly decent fist of those 18 months, but I probably needed to be one of the ones that just helped carry the boys through, not one of the leaders of the pack at 34 and a big import signing! We needed a few ‘Paul Ifill in his prime’ type players and I know… I’m not saying John Adshead did anything wrong, he was going through a tough time personally [cancer scare] and he was battling away, but he just couldn’t do his job properly. I see John now and he looks a lot healthier than he looked then, and he was then, and I’m sure… We spoke about it the other week and he was chomping at the bit saying “I wish the opportunity was now” when he’s feeling good.

So there was a lot of things just put together that just made that a tough experience, but it was a great experience. Going to Australia every other weekend. It was hard on our young families, but the wives got together and they looked after each other at times when we were away, and we were living the dream going to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Central Coast, all these places that we’d never seen before. Although the results were tough, we were trying our best, but it wasn’t good enough.

As for the players that have come, and the three that you mentioned, I think every older player – they want to give back. I don’t meet too many people who don’t want to, if given the opportunity, give back, or won’t give back, fall out of football. There’s not too many people like that.

That’s why I think the level, in five or six years, will be even higher. There’s more and more facilities that are really professional now, there’s different academies, the Phoenix are doing great and people have got something to really aspire to. ASB Premiership as well – I’ve got a personal interest in Roy Krishna, and just seeing him look like a top A League striker shows that, to people in the islands as well, that it can be done. The game is in a good place.

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EG: Have we got the model right with the ASB Premiership in terms of the franchises? Do you think we’d be better off with a club based national league?

NE: It’s hard. Obviously being involved with Waitakere for such a long time, at that stage I saw no wrong in the ASB Premiership. Now I’m in a club environment and I see 1,400 kids wearing Western Springs tops… and on match days, the balcony full of vocal fans that want the first team to do well because they feel affiliated to them… I think that club football is always going to be better supported and better resourced in a way. So, it’s a difficult question because the ASB Premiership is certainly producing some players now who are going on to be professionals, but, those players have probably played in the winter somewhere else…

I know it is being looked at now. But I think that next decision, if it is going to be changed, it needs to be really thought through and there needs to be criteria in place that people have to aspire to have as much as they can of those boxes ticked.

EG: We don’t want 30 or 40 clubs all wasting ridiculous amounts of money trying to get into a national league, right?

NE: No. You hear it now for this year, people saying “oh, I can sense a change”. We lost a couple of players who played last year for us, because they’ve been offered money somewhere else to go and play, and I’ve said “no, that’s not what we’re all about”. If we’re going to get into that type of situation where we are looking to be part of a ‘Superclub’ type of competition then it’s got to be because we’ve got good juniors in place, we’ve got good under 19s all the way down. Reserves are full of young players who have elected to play school or not, and we’ve got a Football Development Officer, Director of Coaching in place. First team coaches that are learning along the way who are ready to step in. That’s all the stuff that we’re really concentrating on.

In a way it’s been great to win the two championships, and I’d love to be selfish for myself and go out and have players or keep players that we know would probably make you more of a chance to win the premier league, but that’s just not the right thing to do. I want to attract players here who have got ambition, and then we get them to a place where they may not get to if they are somewhere else.

That’s no disrespect to anyone, and we’ve had older players who have really helped us out in the last two years, the sort of players who are family men now, and every time they are out of the house and away from their families, they deserve something for that. We’ve got to get younger, hungrier players who want to go and achieve, want to get to the Olympics, get into an under 20s or an under 17 national side.

EG: People were scratching their heads a little bit when you left Waitakere and came here to the third tier. Do you think they get it now?

NE: Yeah, you know, the Waitakere thing, I was involved in the Olympic team and they felt my focus…

They’d given me an opportunity to coach, and I was really thankful for that. Then they wanted me to get involved in the National Team and were fine with it. Then all of a sudden I was quite entrenched in that as well because it’s quite a lot of time and it was affecting how much I was there. I didn’t miss too much, but I think at the time they were like, “oh, he’s got to choose”, and well – if I was choosing, there was only going to be one winner. I felt I could always go back and coach in the national league so I stayed with the international stuff.

Then Western Springs came in, and it was after the Olympics – I felt we had had a good Olympic Games campaign considering we had taken nine amateur players, which I don’t think will ever happen again now! But I came back and it was tough for a few months because I was basically out of work and Western Springs approached me and said “just come down and have a look”.

At that stage there was just old grass and they were just getting ready to start it all! But there was someone on the board who was just really, really persistent. He got me back a couple of times, and kept telling me what we could do and basically that I could have the sort of blank canvass that every coach wants to say look, as long as you give the players who are here a chance, you can go and create and build your own sort of kingdom in a way. That was appealing! And once the facilities got finished and we had somewhere to train and play, it’s been great. And I’ve been lucky that, with the relationships you have with people, past players that I’ve coached and played with came in and saw my vision as well and we all got on the ride really early.

You know now, that thing with Waitak, I’m glad in a way that it happened because I can now see what a club is all about. At Waitakere City it was always Waitak City, Waitak United and they were all linked. Everybody was sort of anti Waitak City because it was Waitak United/Waitak City. But with Western Springs, we send players to the Waitakere Youth team, the Auckland City Youth team, the Auckland City first team, the Waitakere first team. Whoever wants them, and we want our players to go and do well and get those opportunities. There’s no bias towards anybody.

I think every club, even the Phoenix, you’ve always got to have your head around the fact that every single club in New Zealand is a development club. There’s always going to be someone better than you that you’ve got to be prepared to pass your players on to.

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EG: Having played and coached in a couple of different divisions in the Northern League, what are your impressions of the league as a whole, what are the differences between the two lower divisions, and what are you expecting from the step up?

NE: They were both hard leagues to win! I’m not sure what people thought the first year. They might have thought “oh he might need a year to get us out of the second division because it’s going to be a scrap. I was trying to bring in some little footballers that wondered whether they could cope with the physicality. But that’s where the turf at Western Springs helps. If you’re technically good, regardless of your size, I think nimble players can get away from those tackles…

I felt pretty confident that we could get out [of the lower divisions] those first two years, but different places like Waiuku away, [big grin!], where the grass wasn’t cut, we played our first game of the season there and the pitch was horrendous! We thought ‘blimey’, but they are all good experiences that… You know what? I treated them exactly the same… set plays would go on the wall, our team talks would be talking about opposition players that could be dangerous. I did the same homework, the players had the same set piece format as the All Whites do, the template is the same, just the badge is changed. I treated it like it was as high as we could get to.

I think the players sort of embraced that and thought “well, we’re giving ourselves a chance to win, and if anybody is going to score against us, they’ve got to earn their goal regardless of where it is or whether we think we’re too good to play in that league.

EG: Based on what you know about the lower divisions, have you got any predictions or things to look out for this season?

NE: I actually think Fury have got to be in with a chance. I hear that they are investing. They’ve got players who are playing for WaiBOP and there’s talk of Marquez going there, there’s talk O’Regan has gone there I think. A few of those Tauranga boys were good when we played them in division 2 and I think a few of them are playing for Fury now. For as much as we’re saying we don’t do it that way [at Springs], investment in good people… People slag that but if people want to do it – that’s fine! It gets them more credibility. I don’t ever want to bag anybody who is doing it their way. We’ve just got our own way, we’re going to stick to that, and hopefully we’ll get enough results here so that that counts.

Forrest Hill Milford – we played them in pre-season and I think they will go really well. David Mulligan has got a good team – he plays. Andy Boyens plays. In a way there are similarities between Springs and them. Mully has got a lot of good, hungry, young players and then he plops himself in midfield, and Andy Boyens at the back, and with all that experience I think it will be very hard for teams to beat them. Just because they’ve got energy and experience.

I think Oratia will go really well – Steve Cain is an organised coach. I think he needs a couple of players but they will be organised. They won’t give much away, so I think they’ll be there or there abouts too.

EG: Can you give me any hot oil on changes for Springs over the offseason?

NE: We’ve got lots of good young schoolboys. A young lad from the under 17s, Conor Probert, is coming. Two other boys from Sacred Heart College – Dylan De Jong and Dylan Bull. They are all, in my opinion, top prospects. We’ve got a couple of boys from St Kent’s as well.

And this is the thing – we played Glenfield in a pre-season friendly last week on Thursday, and we started six schoolboys. We were 0-0 at half time, and we changed those players around and we put on a few of the players from last year and a couple of older, newer ones, and they lost the second half 2-0. So I think the schoolboys are going to be a massive part of what we do in the first seven games because they are all available, fresh, those boys will certainly be the ones to look out for.

Obviously we’ll lose Sam Brotherton. We’ve lost Adam Dickinson to Birkenhead – we’re playing them first game so that will be interesting!

EG: In terms of the premier division, are there any teams you are concerned about?

NE: I think every team is going to be good. I honestly do. I can’t see too many weak links. I know all the coaches. You’re looking, thinking you’d like there to be a couple of weak ones, but no.

Our situation, and it’s not me underselling ourselves, we want to survive. We want to stay in the league. We want to do well, we’d love to go out and do the best that we can but realistically, we just want to buy another year so our young players are a year closer to playing. Each year we do that, each year we stay in the premier league, our junior teams from 9 to 14 are outstanding prospects and we’ve got that production line in place. They are going to keep coming through each year but from 14 to 17 we’ve got a little bit of a void because that was before my time in a way and those players are not quite there. So we’re having to bring in players now, and we have done in the last couple of years, to get us better than the level we are playing in the league. But eventually we will have all of our own players. And each year we can stay in this league, and do well in this league, and just keep building those youngsters, they’ll just feed themselves in in a couple of years’ time.

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EG: There’s a bit of a tradition now, that you have to live up to, of newly promoted  teams challenging for the title in their first year!

NE: I know! Glenfield have done it and at the end of the day, they will be nigh on favourites again I think. Again, for those reasons, and I understand those reasons, they go out and get national league players that are ready here and now, better than the level. Now, people ask me “how have you won the two leagues” and I just feel you need a bunch of players who are better than the level you are playing at. So if you go out and get a bunch of national league players, they are better than the Northern Premier League, and you’ve got a great chance of winning it.

I think with us, we’ve got some that I know are better than the level but those players probably aren’t available until seven or eight games into the season. Whether we’ve had a good enough seven or eight games to be in and around the mix – we’ll have to wait and see. I’m looking at our season in three thirds where I’ve got the schoolboys for the first part, hopefully a few national league players back for the second part, and hopefully we can have a strong finish with a couple of boys that have been in the Under 20 World Cup. I know from past experience, being at Waitakere City, there are players who come in late and it’s difficult to manage, but it’s the best fit for us and that’s the sort of image I want people to have of Western Springs. We’re giving those young kids an opportunity to play.

EG: So last question – what are your ambitions for the future, where do you see yourself in five years?

NE: It’s been a strange year in a way. You go from being Assistant Coach [of the All Whites] with Ricki, to being interim for a couple of games, and you know I felt pretty comfortable in the position to be honest as well. I enjoyed it, and I thought the two games I took we actually played OK, and had that mix of still blooding young ones but keeping a few of the older boys. I’m totally behind Anthony [Hudson – the new All Whites Coach] and what he’s doing. I think he’s been really refreshing for the country. Being back involved with the [New Zealand Under] 20s, and us playing the same way and having the same philosophy and game plan, is great because with that running through I think it’s looking really, really positive.

But because I’ve tasted that, and I know how good in a way Anthony is, and how much more organised things are as a whole – it’s not just the coaching side, it’s the resources – that’s something I’d love to do again. I think I’ve just got to continue to learn, continue to keep my philosophies and my visions of what I’m doing at club level and international level just in check. Keep learning and one day just go back to that, for that big job again. Because it was an honour to do and not many guys can say they’ve sung the anthem – not the country I was born in, but I’ve been here ten years now and I feel like it’s home, and just to do that has been great.

Also depending, I suppose, on what happens with the league set-up here, if the national league changes obviously I want to coach at the highest level I can…

EG: No plans to leave the country to do it though?

NE: No. No I haven’t. Just looking at these three or four years ahead, there’s an Olympics coming up, there’s a Confederations Cup coming up, hopefully, there’s another World Cup coming up, so there’s things to look forward to in each year that you sort of think “well, if I was somewhere else I wouldn’t have a chance of getting near any of that.”

But I’ve got a good relationship with Anthony and the All Whites staff. Even Alex, the guy who has come in and in a way taken my role, he’s a good guy, organised, and I’ll learn stuff off of all of them. They’ve shown faith in me, getting me back in, so I know it was more of a… he [Anthony Hudson] wanted his main ally in with him and I totally get that.  But the first possible opportunity they had to get me back in, they did, so, that sort of tells me as well that I’m one of them in a way. So hopefully there will be some good experiences with the national set-up and I can just stay in the right place to be considered for nice roles that I’ve already experienced as well.

I mean the London Olympics, was just an amazing experience. I had Ryan Nelsen as my captain!

And I joke about it, Ryan hadn’t come to any of the internationals that I was the assistant coach for, so the first time I met him was when he was one of the overage players for me in the Olympics and I just remember that first conversation. I said “shall we just go off and have a coffee for five minutes, and me sort of thinking “that’s my most important part of my Olympics, to get Ryan onside”. And we started having a coffee, and I said “how’s things”, and started talking, and telling him about what we were looking to do, and how much I valued his input, how much of a top pro he’d been, and how he can influence this team… And he said “Embers, don’t worry, I’ve done my homework on you. Whatever you want me to do – I’ll do”. He just put me totally at ease and he was absolutely tremendous in that Olympic campaign.

EG: That’s one of the things everyone says – that the players like and respect you.

NE: Yeah, I don’t use my managers too much. You have team managers who text everyone and say “be here at that time”. I prefer a more personal touch. For anything, from registering a player – rather than just going and saying to the club “we want to register this player”, making sure the player wants that, you know? Little things. Players will text ME if they are going to be late for training, where other coaches will go “don’t text me, text the manager”. But I want to know everything. I don’t want anything to be second hand or third hand. I want to know what’s going on with my group, and having that personal touch with every player – I think it’s important.

I’ve learnt now how to distance myself. I’m more the father figure coach now than ‘one of their mates playing but their coach as well’. You get better at that as you get older, and you learn how to keep your distance. You learn how to not get involved in things. You learn when to walk out of the changing room.

First up it was harder and I still thought I could be a joker, you wanted people to like you for that reason, but now I’m just… you have a relationship. It’s not always matey matey, but you tell people when they are not doing it, or when they are letting you down or… I’m getting better at bollocking as well! In the nicest possible way, your timing gets better, you sense things and you go for it when it’s fresh. You don’t think about it and think “oh, what if I…” you just do it.

And that’s what I mean about experience and ‘five years’ time’. You’re just forever learning, aren’t you? I’m sure Alex Fergusson was still learning until the final day of his career.

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Categories: Interviews NZ Northern Men's Premier

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

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