By Cordwainer Bull
Barring a (miracle) qualification for the playoffs, in just over two months WaiBop United will die by lethal injection.
Give there was no wake or graveside ritual when Waikato FC similarly gave up the ghost just a couple of years earlier, I expect the national league baton (licence) will be quietly passed onto the next runner – Wanderers Sports Club – and all that will remain will be for us fans to reflect upon WaiBop’s legacy in the greater scheme of Waikato football.
So for a club with a death sentence hanging over it, it was mildly ironic that national league should, after an absence of nine summers, return to Waikato Stadium – the venue which played such a critical role in assuring a Waikato presence in the New Zealand Football Championship/ASB Premiership era in the first place.
I say “mildly” because there’s also a niggling thought that we’d been through so many venues since late 2004 (Porritt Stadium, Fred Jones Park, Ngaruawahia, Cambridge, Gower Park) there was almost a sense of inevitability that we’d need to go back to the start at some point.
The WaiBop United v Auckland City match on December 20 (4.30pm, televised) wasn’t so much a trip down memory lane as a reminder of the lingering sense of impermanence in our national league arrangements in Hamilton.
WaiBop hasn’t been around long enough – this is its third season – to command description as “an era”, and for most of us the difference between Waikato FC and WaiBop United will soon become a blur.
Yes, they play in different colours, the name is different, as is the governance. But as a non-aligned vehicle to facilitate the presence of national league within the Waikato, the similarities have always outweighed the differences.
And they were really increasing that blur factor by returning to Waikato Stadium – or FMG Stadium Waikato as they call it these days, in a nod to a rural insurance firm that we won’t bother further promoting here.
Waikato Stadium has always had a love-hate thing going on within the football fraternity. Players love the surface, and those swanky changing rooms. Administrators hate the costs (though these have been reduced from 2004-07).
Fans hate the cavernous atmosphere, the ghost-town potential, and the incongruity of squeezing 500 fans into an arena built for 25,000, while somehow needing a masturbation (I’m pretty sure that’s the correct collective noun) of security staff to watch on. On a bad day you can even imagine tumbleweed blowing down the stadium concourse.
But back in early 2004 playing at the stadium was the biggest selling point in Waikato FC being accepted into the then new-fangled New Zealand Football Championship.
Waikato had been off the national league beaten track for four years – but made the national league cut ahead of entities such as East Auckland, Team BOP and Ole Madrids.
At the time the league criteria for “licence holders” was exceptionally prescriptive, right down to the number of dressing room toilets (two with seats and at least one urinal, you know) and hand-basin requirements (hand-drying machine or plentiful supply of hand towels required). Direct protective access had to be provided for players and officials to and from the playing area, inaccessible to public and media. Drug testing rooms (one seated toilet, shower, desk, chair etc) and first aid rooms (medicine cabinet, wide enough for wheelchair access) were required.
There were also stringent media, refreshment, sanitary, parking, seating, public address system and refreshment facility requirements. And don’t start me on the disabled requirements.
If not for the stadium, Waikato would not have got anywhere near acceptance into the league. No stadium, no Waikato FC. End of story.
However over the years that explicit criteria sheet somehow fell behind the fridge. To the extent that in more recent times Waikato/WaiBop got to play pretty much anywhere they wanted as long as the cow pats had been removed from the pitch.
But here we were, in the shadow of WaiBop United’s demise, back again contemplating the dichotomy of Waikato Stadium – once Waikato FC’s strength and also its biggest weakness – with a crowd of about 500-600 not sure whether to celebrate or commiserate the first return of national league since the end of the 2006-07 season.
WaiBop Football’s competition’s manager Karyn Walters was clipping the tickets at the gate, illustrative of how it is the federation’s professional staff who are lumped with the matchday grind until Wanderers take the reins. WaiBop game development manager Graeme Blake was on the PA, with communications manager Dwayne Barlow next to him, and events co-ordinator Shaun Kipara pitch-side. No surprise that the federation is on record as saying hosting national league has not only been a drain on its finances, but also its human resources. There are few volunteers.
On entering the stadium there might have been a case for us to sing the Gary Glitter classic, “Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again”. But we haven’t got that sort of fan culture going on here.
No, that was left to Auckland’s energetic 248 Crew, who were on hand to sing their way through 90 minutes, matching the stamina of their champion team. They brilliantly harnessed the echo of an empty concourse and wind tunnel directly behind them.
When eight or so travelling fans can out-fan the rump of home supporters, score one for the visitors. Their song and dance routine did at least trigger a bunch of 7-year-old kids nearby to offer up a spirited “Ole, Ole, Ole” rendition in reply for a good 15 minutes. From small acorns do mighty oaks grow.
It also brought back memories of a famous bit of Auckland guerilla marketing – in the summer of ’05-06 I think – when Auckland stalwart Colin Cook rocked up to Waikato Stadium, somehow spruiked his way past the security masturbators up to level 5 and gave our dull DJ “this neat football song to play over the sound system”.
So on that day Waikato FC had the dubious pleasure of being serenaded onto their home pitch to the tune of Auckland’s club song. Nice one, Cookie.
Fast-forward and on a day when test cricket was being played less than 1km down the road, it was bloody hot in the sun. But with all parts of the stadium closed to fans apart from the lower section of the main stand, which was covered in afternoon shadow with an etesian wind blowing through, there was a good 10-degree drop in temperature. It was freezing.
For those needing nourishment, there was at least the “StadiYum” food. With “StadiBum” prices. Chips were $4.50 for what looked like a diet-sized punnet. Coke $5, or $6.50 for a can of Waikato Draught. Looking at the half time queue for food, it was a licence to print money.
Elsewhere there was a touch of pathos in seeing Hamilton-based Grant Stantiall, the catalyst for the formation of Waikato FC, now aligning as a supporter of Auckland City. I forget exactly what WaiBop have done to offend Grant’s sensitivities, but it is sad. Our Hamilton football community is too small for this sort of thing, and Auckland clearly don’t need his support.
There was similar cross-pollination on the pitch.
Anyone worried about “pathways” in the post-WaiBop era should note Auckland started Danyon Drake, Jesse Edge and Alfie Rogers. And with Finn Cochran and Mario Ilich on deck for WaiBop, it was possible that Central United were feeding more players to WaiBop than Auckland City.
Indeed, on that subject one Auckland City fan wondered aloud if it wouldn’t have made more sense to give a seat on the plane to Japan to one of the lads who turned out for Central last winter than someone who turned out for Wanderers Sports Club (Rogers).
The match ended 2-0 to Auckland. WaiBop were competitive and battled hard, but the score reflected Auckland’s superiority, even with Zac Speedy saving a penalty.
Typical. The result was in keeping with the legacy of a venue where, while there have been occasional wins over Manawatu, Canterbury and Wellington, these are dwarfed by home losses.
Founding Waikato FC manager James Pamment once observed that the “wow” factor experienced by visiting teams on arriving at Waikato Stadium, often conspired against his team.
“They see the facilities and it gives them a lift,” Pamment mused. I regret not inquiring why it didn’t similarly give a lift to the Waikato lads, but there you go.
It’s highly improbable that was the case in this instance anyway, with an Auckland team fresh back from the World Club Champs.
But while greyer Waikato fans can still celebrate the stadium venue for distant memories of amazing goals from the likes of David Samson, Sam Wilkinson, and Brett Derry – and improbable goals from Adam Crump, for that matter – mostly this is a venue more synonymous with ultimate failure. This game reinforced that feeling. At the stadium we’re mostly gallant losers.
I imagine there was an aftermatch function somewhere within the labyrinth of lounges and conference rooms at the stadium. But if so, it was not one which had been publicised for fan consumption, so I didn’t stick around.
Besides, there’s not many diehards who want to socialise at 7pm on a Sunday after a home loss anyway.
But once again, contemplating the aftermatch did revive memories of the curiously diverse arrangements that existed during Waikato FC’s three “stadium summers”.
Using a corporate lounge was far too expensive in the first summer (they already shelled out over $45,000 in stadium fees) so initially the aftermatch bunfight was held at the slightly geriatric Hamilton Bowling Club about 500m away on Seddon Rd.
At various other times the post-match headquarters became Hamilton Squash Club, Aaron Court Motor Lodge (Ulster St) and the desperately unsuitable Distraction Bar in Victoria St (try getting a bus park outside there).
Only twice can I recall an aftermatch at the stadium, and the loss of such on-premise conviviality is one of the less satisfying aspects of the summer season at all non-club venues.
We have three more matches left for Waikato Stadium, with January 14 and January 21 set for Thursday night floodlit matches. Then there is another Sunday afternoon match against Canterbury on February 7, 4.35pm. That will be the final national league match in Hamilton under the WaiBop banner.
While it would be nice to go out with a win, in a funny sort of way a home loss at Waikato Stadium might bring more closure.
[Cordwainer Bull is a former programme columnist for Waikato United and Waikato FC. His hobbies include rainfall statistics, shovels and collecting belly button lint. His favourite player was Ralph Noble. He recommends fans buy a copy of The National League Debates, via www.nationalleaguedebates.weebly.com]
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.