There is a book, edited by ‘Fever Pitch’ author Nick Hornby, called ‘My Favourite Year’. It’s a wonderful collection of essays by British and Irish writers, each on the subject of their favourite seasons as football fans. From ‘The Commitments’ author Roddy Doyle on the Republic of Ireland’s ride through Italia ’90, through to Political Scientist Chris Pierson’s account of a year when his beloved St Albans City did exactly what I’m not entirely sure, it’s evocative reading from cover to cover – and partly the inspiration behind this blog.
I’ve often wondered which year I would write about if I was ever invited to contribute a chapter. (Nick, if you’re reading and contemplating volume two, I’m totes available)
There are two big contenders.
One would have to be Italy’s 2006 World Cup, even though I actually think that kind of easy success isn’t really what the concept is all about.
The other is Roma’s 2007/08 season, when I attended two games in Rome and saw the most incredible goal I’ve ever seen in real life. We knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions League and the Serie A title was decided on the last day of that season as a helicopter containing the trophy hovered in mid-air halfway between Catania (where Roma were playing) and Parma (where Inter ultimately prevailed).
Either of those years would be fitting in different ways, but I’m not going to write about either of them here.
Ideally, you need a bit of distance before you can judge one season over another. When feelings are still fresh it’s easy to say something more recent is better than something in the distant past. But even so, I’m calling this one early. My favourite year is WaiBOP United’s 2014/15.
Why would I choose that? And more to the point, what is it that makes any year in the life of a sports team you love stand out above the others?
Many would say winning trophies is what counts, but I would disagree with that completely. I say it’s all about people. The game is fine when you watch it by yourself. But when you can enjoy the team you love matched with people you love spending time with, then that is what separates the good from the great. And a few wins don’t hurt either…
The end of the jinx
Up until 13 December 2014 I had never, I repeat never, ever in my entire life, seen WaiBOP United or its predecessor – Waikato FC – win a game of football.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
In ten long years of ASB Premiership fandom, I had never seen them win. Yet still I stayed true. If that’s not loyalty, then what is?
Don’t answer that question. Because I’m going to answer it for you. I happen to know of another definition of loyalty altogether – my mate Grant Stantiall.
Before I met Grant in real life, I only knew him on Twitter where his politics are the polar opposite of mine (he makes me wince every day) and, as a football fan, he would have to be the sorest loser I have ever seen. Now, that might not sound like a ringing endorsement to you but the truth is, for all we romanticise fandom, football fans can be pretty unpleasant to be around sometimes – usually when things aren’t going their way.
There’s no excuse for bad behaviour, and I’m not about to make excuses for it here, but to only know that side of Grant is to miss out on a hell of a lot. For example, last season I knew him as a photographer who went to every WaiBOP game he could get to, on a voluntary basis, to take professional quality photos from the sidelines for the club to use. Why? Because he’s a fan and he’s someone who would literally give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. He has exceptionally generously given me, and a lot of other people for that matter, many things over the years – including time and knowledge as well as ‘stuff’.
But there’s something else you need to know: Grant was the founder of Waikato FC. When it went bust he lost most of what he and his wife owned in the fallout.
And now let THAT sink in for a moment….
Waikato FC’s record in the ASB Premiership was never that crash hot, despite coming third in year 1. So for someone who is as bad at losing as Grant is to have founded the club, sacrificed everything to keep it going, to then watch it fold, at enormous personal cost, then still be there taking pictures for free on the sideline for its successor – THAT’S loyalty.
Grant and I both enjoyed this win against the Phoenix youth team – and it was an honour to share my first ever win with him.
To top things off, this game was the curtain raiser to an A-League encounter between the full Phoenix side and the Central Coast Mariners. There were a group of us taking photos of the WaiBOP match and we all wanted to stay on the pitch for the so-called main event. But there weren’t enough media passes to go around. So Grant went and sat in the stand. Because he’s the sort of person that, in his language, he would describe as a GC. And I concur.
Weenix 0, WaiBOP United 2
For the turnstiles
It was the first day of my annual four week long summer holiday from work and as I drove down to Cambridge, blasting my eardrums with Neil Young’s ‘On the Beach’, little did I know that this would be the day on which it didn’t rain so much as it poured.
This was the first game of the season held at John Kerkhof Park, a place where every time I’ve been there the sun has been shining, the crowd has been big and great natured, and the volunteer army from the local club has always been out in force making sure everything is as good as it can possibly be. There is absolutely no doubt that if this season had not predominantly taken place in Cambridge, I wouldn’t be writing about it right now. But that’s not all down to an accident of geography. It’s also all about the people.
As I arrived for this game, the first person I saw was the Chairman of Cambridge FC, Peter Martens. He and I are just about soul mates, we have so much in common. Unlike with Grant, Peter and my politics are in lock step, we both love football teams that play in yellow and red (Roma and Watford), and at the time we both even owned the same model of Alfa Romeo! When I saw him pulling into the driveway of the club in his 156, I afforded him the greeting that all Alfa owners share and understand – with a look of mock amazement – “Oh my God, it goes!!!!”
Now, the usual pattern with WaiBOP is for ‘nearly’ to be the watchword of the day and this day gave every indication that it was no different. That was, right up until the point when it proved itself to be fundamentally different in every possible way.
35th minute – We went a goal down – no surprises there.
45th minute – We clawed it back to 1-1 – yeah, like that’s gonna last…
48th minute – We went 2-1 down – see I told you!
64th minute – We clawed it back to 2-2 – typical WaiBOP, giving us false hope.
68th minute – We went 3-2 down – just shoot me now.
81st minute – We managed to pull it back to 3-3 – oh well, we might manage to salvage a draw…
90th minute – GOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL FERGUS NEIL!!!!!!!!!!! Wait… What just happened?
I’ll tell you what happened, WaiBOP won, I almost pulled a muscle in my leg jumping for joy, all of a sudden I was two wins from two WaiBOP games and the home crowd was singing – THE HOME CROWD WAS SINGING!!! – none of those things had ever happened at a WaiBOP United game in the history of the World before the 17th of January 2015.
And when we left, Peter and my Alfas both started first pop.
It was the most perfect day I have ever experienced following the ASB Premiership and that’s a distinction it’s likely to hold for a great many years to come – maybe forever.
WaiBOP United 4, Canterbury United 3
Return to form
Winning away at Kiwitea Street is like the Spanish Inquisition – nobody expects it. In a funny kind of way, that’s the nice thing about it too. No expectations = no stress. You just rock along and enjoy the day at New Zealand’s best boutique football ground serenaded by the refrains of the 248 Service crew, singing such old time classics as:
“Angel Berlanga you are the love of my life,
Angel Berlanga I hear your paella’s nice,
Angel Berlanga do you know Penelope Cruz?”
I defy you to hear that ten times and walk away without it being stuck in your head for the rest of your God forsaken life. And don’t get me started on the percussion section…
Let’s be real, nobody honestly goes there trying to in any way compete either on the field or off it.
Nobody, except Josh Easby. Josh is somebody who thinks big. He’s an ideas man and not only that but while some like him are all talk, Josh is also a doer. When it comes to hard graft he does his share and that of a good dozen other people too. He’s on the board of Cambridge FC, he is on the board of Friends of Football and he edits the Friends of Football magazine as well as doing all their comms. In this particular year he was editing all WaiBOP’s match day programmes, overseeing match day operations at John Kerkhof as well as St Peter’s School for the WaiBOP youth and ladies teams, and doing a bit of coaching and ground announcing for good measure. And on top of all that he edits York City publications from the other side of the world! And that’s just the stuff I know about.
According to legend he sleeps sometimes but I think that’s just a vicious rumour circulated by his enemies to discredit him.
When Josh does something, he does it properly. So when he comes to Kiwitea Street, he doesn’t just come incognito and sit quietly like all sane WaiBOP supporters do. Oh no! He brings two mofo flags, each one the size of Texas, and basically makes himself a one man active fan zone! I’ll also throw in the fact that he was wearing an in-the-back-of-the.net t-shirt that he had agreed to purchase some weeks earlier in exchange for me buying tickets to an event he was organising!
I always love talking to Josh and hearing about whatever scheme he’s working on at the moment. We lost the game, of course we did. The score looks close but we were never really in it. The players battled hard and maybe deserved a draw, but hey, it’s Kiwitea Street and that is the closest we’ve ever got both on the scoreboard and on the sideline too thanks to Josh!
Auckland City 3, WaiBOP United 2
The first time I met Peter Smith was shortly after it was announced that he had got the WaiBOP coaching job and I had been invited to do a long form interview with him for this blog. I immediately liked him a lot. He was a gentleman and very generous with both his time and his thoughts that he was willing to share.
One of the questions I asked him was “where do you see yourself in 10 years?” He smiled a cheeky Edinburgh smile and said “good question mate…” then, amongst other things, he told me that he wanted to build a legacy at WaiBOP.
When I saw him before the Team Wellington game, played on my 39th birthday incidentally, he had a similar cheeky grin on his face. “Hey Enzo!” he exclaimed, “look at this!” He then proceeded to pull a crumpled up piece of paper out of his pocket, which he unfolded and showed me. It was a referee’s report. It detailed how Mr P Smith had been sent from the technical area at Kiwitea Street the game before because he had “clapped sarcastically”. “Can you believe that??” I had to admit that I couldn’t. I begged him to let me take a photograph of the report but he sensibly declined. He was in enough trouble as it was!
And so it was, for this game we were treated to the comical sight of Peter Smith watching on from the top of the stand at the pavilion end of the pitch, clapping and cheering with the crowd as punishment for the sin of clapping the week before.
From there he got to witness, once again, his team come back from an early deficit. This time it was to take a 2-1 lead during first half injury time not long after goalkeeper Danyon Drake had managed a superb save from a well struck penalty right in front of where his coach was sitting!
The second half was a white knuckle ride to the finish that Peter Smith enjoyed in the same way as the rest of us – living and breathing every second from the cheap seats, surrounded by fans and behaving just as raucously as they were with that Edinburgh grin still plain to see.
As for me, if you say to any genuine football fan that all they are getting for their birthday is three points from their favourite football team, nine out of ten will be thrilled with that. And that’s a real statistic. There’s a study and everything (there really isn’t but there might as well be).
On 31 January 2015, Roma drew 1-1 with Empoli, but that’s ok because my Italian team still finished second that year. And as for my New Zealand team:
WaiBOP United 2, Team Wellington 1
Peter Smith was the first ever coach of WaiBOP United and he will still be the coach when the last person out the door turns off the lights in a couple of months from now. That’s not a bad legacy really, being the only coach ever in the entire history of a club! Certainly makes his odds pretty short on being the subject of a pub quiz question or two in coming years. But his real legacy will be that he took a franchise of easy beats and moulded them into semi-final contenders.
You might think I blog every game I watch, but I don’t. Sometimes I go just for the simple pleasure of watching and being a fan without tweets to send, photographs to take or write-up angles to ponder. It’s nice to just relax, let off a little steam, and it reminds me what being a fan is really all about.
And guess what happened? We came from behind just for a refreshing change of pace!
Wanderers SC 1, WaiBOP United 2
It just so happened that this was the first leg of yet another double header for me. At full time I jumped in my car and headed straight across town from North Harbour Stadium to Bill McKinlay Park where the New Zealand Women’s National Team were playing Korea DPR. I did have media accreditation for that and was due to shoot from the sideline.
I’m sorry, but I must digress here to tell you that I’m a terrible stalker.
To exemplify this, a few months ago I tried to have breakfast at the hotel Roma were staying at in Melbourne for the purposes of meeting a player or two. It was a disaster. I had to leave without seeing a hair on any of their heads because essentially I was a nervous wreck and couldn’t handle the jandal.
To make matters worse, later that day I was strolling along the banks of the Yarra when Miralem Pjanic and Mattia Destro wandered along right towards me in their team tracksuits enjoying the sunny day. They looked straight at me in my Roma hoodie and, to my eternal shame, I just froze. Tragically, there was no selfie.
I will feel like a failure for the rest of my life. But at least Pjanic kinda smiled at me, which was nice. I think it was mostly a look of pity but that’s not nothing…
The point of this story is to illustrate that not only am I weak willed and basically hopeless, but also that one of the many wonderful things about being a football fan in New Zealand is you don’t have to stake out players at their hotels to meet them – although, on the flip side, taking a selfie with one would probably be seen as slightly lame… I dunno, maybe I’ll try it sometime and report back… But the point is, I think I could probably do that without freezing if I was a sad enough bastard.
Our sportspeople, be they All Blacks or lawn bowlers, are all accessible and approachable in ways you wouldn’t see in Europe. And for the most part all our footballers are exceptionally nice people. They can’t afford not to be – they all have day jobs too!
And even though our footballers walk amongst us, it’s still a bit of a thrill when they kind of know who you are without any stalking required!
As I was sitting at Bill McKinlay Park waiting for the Football Ferns v Korea DPR game to begin, I heard a voice say “hey, you’re Enzo right?” I looked around and it was Mark Jones – no doubt in attendance to watch his partner Sarah Walker, who is one of New Zealand’s top referees, run the touch. “I like your work and so does all the guys – we really appreciate it!” I grinned back my thanks.
The moral of the story is that not only do you not have to stalk players in New Zealand if you want to meet them, but also sometimes they stalk you! I might complain about the government sometimes, but I do love this country.
The inevitable conclusion
You would think that the arch nemesis of any Waikato football team playing in the ASB Premiership would tend to be Auckland City FC. Weirdly, it’s not. It’s Waitakere.
There are a few reasons for this, but mostly it boils down to history.
Stick a pin in any calendar that shows Waikato football punching above its weight and have a look at who it was that ultimately crushed our little dreams with a steam roller. Nine times out of ten, it was Waitakere. It’s always Waitakere. Even when they didn’t directly do it, I promise you they were happy about it.
Another thing too, I’ve never heard more anti Hamilton nastiness come from the mouths of spectators as I have at some Waitakere games against Waikato opposition. I guess that’s because it takes bogans to know bogans…
I should know. I’m from Hamilton and I live in Waitakere, five minutes’ drive away from the dreaded Fred Taylor Park – the scene of so many of those steam rollering occasions…
I’m a bit of an unusual WaiBOP fan in that I don’t mind The Fred. I guess some of the underlying gripes around the perception of its location being in the middle of nowhere don’t really apply to me. And given I have chosen to live in the neighbourhood, treasonous as it might well be, there must be something about the place I quite like!
Fast forward to 21 February 2015 and, as it so often does, it all came down to Waitakere.
Unlike previous years, while WaiBOP needed to win here to keep our semi-final hopes alive, this wasn’t a Waitakere side to be particularly feared. They weren’t having a great year and we had every reason to expect three points to be well within our grasp.
But straight from the opening goal, it all started going wrong.
Former Waitakere player Chad Coombes seized the early lead for WaiBOP in the 14th minute. I was ecstatic.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been happy about it at all. It’s just not how we roll. How can we play well, take an early lead and then expect to win a game? At Fred Taylor Park! I must have been out of my football addled mind.
All was not lost though! We duly conceded nine minutes later thanks to a defensive brain fart and just like that, we were back in the hunt!
Our second half performance was sublime. Seriously – we actually played really well, looking for all money like we would get the winner. For the last ten minutes we were raining shots down on the Waitakere goal like hail. Their keeper was working overtime – parrying left, parrying right, tipping over the crossbar, right up until FOUR MINUTES INTO REFEREE’S TIME ADDED ON WHEN……
Waitakere dinked a few counter attacking passes back down the other end and took a stab. Danyon Drake deflected it out for a corner. The corner flew into the penalty area and found the head of Derice Richards, who did exactly what Waitakere does.
Waitakere United 2, WaiBOP United 1
So it ended in tears, of course it did. What else did you expect?
But despite that it was, by a country mile, the most enjoyment I have ever gotten out of a National League season in New Zealand.
The challenge now is to Hamilton Wanderers – better that for me and about 2,500 other people. If you can do that, you will have done a bloody fine job.
The secret is not rocket science. He tangata. He tangata. He tangata. It is people. It is people. It is people. And if you want to go ahead and win the league – that’s ok with me too. Just so you know.
Categories: NZ Men's National League
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: http://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/