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Guest Post – Dead club walking at Links Ave

Links Avenue

Links Avenue

By Cordwainer Bull

When a football club is launched, invariably there is a garish fanfare of self-serving publicity, back-slapping, and an infectious degree of joie de vivre.

By contrast, it’s a far more uncertain business when the time comes to take a club out the back and shoot it.

WaiBop United, a three-season wonder in the ASB Premiership, are now halfway through their death throes, following a final “home” match on Saturday, a 4-2 win over Wellington Phoenix Reserves at Mt Maunganui.

On Sunday they get the bullet after an away match at Kiwitea St.

So as a keen Waikato football tragic, I took a love-hate trek over the Kaimais, a trip down Memory Lane, to breathe the fumes of a club going through a well-signposted, very public death choke.

Three summers earlier we’d witnessed the demise of 8-year-old Waikato FC, though in that instance the lurch from Waikato to WaiBop had seemed more like a marriage than a death… you know, you change your name, make a few compromises, and find a new home.

But this time we are definitely contemplating a bullet. WaiBop’s broad regional “pathways” vision as a regional entity will next summer be replaced by Wanderers investment in a strong traditional club base (in Hamilton).

So in theory Tauranga should be hit hardest by the passing of the baton to Wanderers Sports Club (who upon formation in 1965, incidentally, were instructed by the code’s hierarchy they were absolutely prohibited from using the “Hamilton Wanderers” name, given it belonged to the club that had just amalgamated with Technical Old Boys a year earlier).

This would quite likely be the last national league match at Links Ave for quite some time. Wanderers Sports club won’t have the same mandate to continue the tradition WaiBop and Waikato FC endured, of annually taking matches to the Bay of Plenty.

While Waikato and WaiBop outings in Rotorua were invariably a complete waste of time and resources – foundation football manager James Pamment glumly reported a head count of 42 spectators during the first visit in 2004 – there is much more of a football culture and history at Links Ave.

For generations Tauranga, or Mt Maunganui, were the Yin to Waikato’s Yang. When Waikato football was weak, invariably things were humming at Links Ave. And vice versa.

When Hamilton was going through an identity crisis from 1985-87, Mt Maunganui were Chatham Cup finalists in 1986 (joyously winning the first leg at Links Ave) and fourth in the national league in 1987. In the very first national league match at Mt Maunganui, they drew 1-1 with a formidable Gisborne City team in March 1987, with Greg Little scoring a second half goal. The Mount squad that day included Frank Van Hattum, David Anderson, Mark Cossey, Declan Edge, Tony Ferris, Richard Gray, Greg Little, Marv Montgomery, Grant Proudman, Graeme Smith, David Wright, Stephen Meharry, and Roy Mitchell.

On the other hand, when Waikato United finished runners up in the national league and cup in 1992, Mt Maunganui were well adrift, down with hapless New Plymouth in winning just two of 26 matches and conceding 71 goals.

And when Waikato fell completely off the national league radar from 2000-2003, there was Tauranga City United flying the flag, and even making the Chatham Cup final in 2002.

We would nick their best players, and they would similarly lure away ours. (Though there is also one delightful apocryphal tale from the early 2000s where Stu Watene and a Hamilton carload of would-be Tauranga trialists turned back at Cambridge one pre-season Sunday when they heard on the radio it was raining in Mt Maunganui.)

When Waikato FC was formed in late 2004, half the squad came from Tauranga. Brett Derry, the superb Craig Flowerday, Cameron Jones, and youngsters Nathan Fry, Colin Gardyne, Clinton Boyle, and Anees Khan were Tauranga products, while Michael Mayne had also been playing there. These days the nearest link I can draw is Wade Molony hailing from Whakatane.

But as it happened, Tauranga fans didn’t need favourite son as any sort of inducement to attend the WaiBop swansong. A respectable crowd of 450-500 turned out at a Links Ave venue which still has enormous potential, though has backslid dreadfully in terms of its playing surface.

The pitch, which was a bowling green back in the 1980s, is pretty depressing these days. Worse, it appeared as if nobody could even be bothered mowing it for their only game of the summer. (Back in the day we used to envy Tauranga clubs not having to pay the whopping ground hireage fees of Hamilton; but not so much these days.)

Nevertheless Links Ave remains a great venue for kids, with a grassed chicken run in front of the covered stand, grass banks and ancillary pitches for kicking a ball.

The clubrooms are spacious and airy – though they could use a bit more furniture. Tables are set out in long straight rows, like a Victorian boarding school, with labels atop. Home team on one side, visitors on the other. And for comedic value, the referees are parked on a small table as far, far away as possible from everybody else. Quaint.

There is dutiful Tauranga City memorabilia on the walls. But it’s tragic there is absolutely nothing to remind visitors that this place was actually built and treasured by a completely distinct club, in Mt Maunganui AFC.

When Mt Maunganui ultimately fell foul of financial problems and league form, the club folded at the end of the 1996-97 summer season. Next thing Tauranga City were “relocated” across the harbour from Wharepai Domain and, like happy cuckoos, made themselves at home in a pretty decent purpose-built facility.

Seeing former Mount coach Eddie Edge sitting in the stands was a further reminder that there is a very high bar for national league anecdotes and history to be found here, and I momentarily forget about our Dead Club Walking to reminisce about another dead club of quite some note.

EDDIE EDGE: taking notes in the Links Ave stand.

EDDIE EDGE: taking notes in the Links Ave stand.

Eddie’s 1989 Mt Maunganui team should have won the national league. But in their final match of the season, on this ground, son Declan – perhaps the most exciting player in the country at the time – failed to score a penalty against bottom-placed Papatoetoe. Astonishing. As a result, Napier unexpectedly won the league by a goal difference of 1. From there it was all downhill for Mount.

Rivalry was always at the epicentre of any visit to Links Ave for old school Waikato fans. There was a love-hate-respect thing with Dave Cook, the Fagan-esque Arthur Daley-style chairman of Mt Maunganui.

Cook had a super recipe as he steered his club through from the northern league fourth division right up to national league, with Edge coach for most of the journey.

Eddie, also briefly assistant All Whites coach, was one of the more quirky characters of the game, and we loved to lampoon him. “Mickey Mouse has been spotted wearing an Eddie Edge watch,” I observed in one cruel 90s programme column. But his 1980s record was worthy.

In one Battle of the Bays encounter in the early 90s at Links Ave, Waikato United coach Roger Wilkinson took the unprecedented step of having his players lift up their dug out and cart it to the far side of the pitch. It was, he explained, so his team didn’t have to listen to the goading vulgarities of Mount coach Grant Turner, for whom all visitors were, it seemed, either “poofs” or “prostitutes”. I’m not sure how much we can safely reminisce about the Turner era, the court suppression orders are probably still in force.

By contrast, these days you would be hard-pressed to pick a bone with anyone at Tauranga, who are on the up again, and back in the northern premier league under coach Duncan Lowry.

Walking out of the players’ tunnel, the WaiBop and Phoenix teams are serenaded onto the pitch by Enimem’s “Lose Yourself”, the tune infamously nicked by the National Party for the last election. Though I can’t help but notice the Grey Power brigade in the stand with their fingers by their ears, obstinately refusing to lose themselves in “the moment… the music”.

And with apologies to Marshall Mathers, but clearly some of these oldies don’t “own it” and actually do want to let it go.

EMINEM: Turn that music down.

EMINEM: Turn that music down.

Still, we are soon treated to a wonderful goal from Sean Morris, a spade-bearded US  import previously best known for having the worst haircut in the league, which is quite a follicle achievement when you look at the likes of Waitakere’s Nathaniel Bowen and Canterbury’s Aaron Clapham.

CELEBRATION: The WaiBOP players bury Sean Morris after loving his goal.

CELEBRATION: The WaiBOP players bury Sean Morris after loving his goal.

He smacks a right foot curler into the breeze, and it sails over Oliver Sail, a shot of rare beauty.

It’s the sort of thing Declan used to do for fun as a teenager here for Mount, and contender for WaiBop’s best goal of the season (though Molony would argue with that).

MORRIS: The most rascal haircut in the league

MORRIS: The most rascal haircut in the league

Waibop add a second through top scorer Stephen Hoyle. Hoyle doesn’t have the mercurial air of Waikato goalscoring legends such as Declan or Dash Fellowes, but he has an admirable work ethic, and the consistency to grab another in the second half, while Mario Illich grabs the fourth.

Referee Nick Waldron turns in a typically slick performance, and it’s hard to recall him getting anything wrong. Is Waldron our best ref these days?

There are a number of good whistlers in Auckland at the moment, but it’s always hard to get a definitive take because the refereeing hierarchy tend to play silly buggers with their annual northern league referee of the year award, often giving it to guys who are well off the pace.

As for the Phoenix, they can’t defend for nuts and are essentially a bunch of kids with the addition of skipper Justin Gulley, who looks about as interested as a bored baby sitter.

But the Phoenix have some real talent when pushing forward, which is a nice variation on the usual theme, from a Kiwi perspective. Waikato product Logan Rogerson is an emerging talent, and I can’t help wondering how he might perform with a few more senior players alongside him. You know, like in a garden-variety national league team.

Meanwhile taking centre stage in the sponsor’s tent is Mark Cossey, surely the great survivor of Waikato football.

He was the Logan Rogerson of his day, debuting in the national league for Hamilton AFC as a 15-year-old, and proceeding to play for Waikato United, Melville United and Mt Maunganui at that level. Further, he has now coached Wanderers for over a decade. He is the man who will select and coach the new Wanderers national league entity.

SPONSOR'S TENT: from left, Shane Comber, Mark Cossey and Ricky Broderson.

SPONSOR’S TENT: from left, Shane Comber, Mark Cossey and Ricky Broderson.

Cossey was stung when he was overlooked for the WaiBop job in favour of Peter Smith back in early 2013. He’d valiantly stepped into the breech at Waikato FC after Declan Edge was sacked as coach in late 2012, but was not wanted when the federation took over.

However he’s had the patience to play a long game, so to speak.

Cossey will coach Wanderers over summer, with his assistant this 2016 winter, Sam Wilkinson, then taking over next winter. In terms of player pathways at national league level, Cossey will be calling all the shots after Sunday.

In the match programme, editor Dwayne Barlow says it is “a bit sad” in reflecting on the club winding up.

“We never quite achieved the perfect storm. We had several good runs of results, but couldn’t quite stretch those out to make the play-offs.”

As a yardstick, at this point it’s worth reflecting that had playoffs been “a thing” in earlier eras, Waikato United would have made them in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1995. Mt Maunganui would have made them in 1987, 1988, and 1989. Tauranga City United would have qualified in 2002.

So, yes, WaiBop and Waikato FC have really underperformed on the pitch in a historical sense.

But in a final programme contribution chairman Merv Williams argues other key goals have been achieved in providing a pinnacle club that delivered a pathway for the region’s players, coaches and administrators, “and a focal point for fans”.

Coach Peter Smith signs off with a tinge of regret.

“I really thought we had the squad to give the top four a real shake this season, so it is disappointing to fall short. The culture within the squad has been superb, the lads have worked really hard and we’ve played some good football, but it’s just not to be….. So that’s it from me, I’m not sure what the future will bring.”

Smith somehow forgets to add that for him it brings a gig at Mt Albert Grammar.

In retrospect, it was probably tidier this way, in missing the playoffs. Imagine the chaos if WaiBop had soldiered on and qualified for the playoffs, and then the final and next year’s O League.

I asked chairman Merv Williams what would have happened in such circumstances, with a “ghost club” tasked with contesting the O League (with potentially millions of dollars of World Club Cup gold at stake) in 2016-17.

He wasn’t sure whether Oceania would allow a ‘transfer” of eligibility to Wanderers or someone else.

But any monies due to WaiBop from World Club Champs as an existing league entity from 2015-16 will be retained by the federation, rather than new entity Wanderers.

In the final analysis this was a mildly entertaining penultimate match for WaiBop, with a few tidy cameos, but without the blood and snot of a contest with a real edge or uncertainty to it.

Pleasant and inoffensive, but it certainly wouldn’t make my Top 10 Links Ave memories.

I really should have stayed for the post-match formalities.

But the Black Caps were going gangbusters in the cricket test, the beach was beckoning, and I’m not one for wakes.

Besides, I probably would have sat at the wrong table.

[Cordwainer Bull is a former Waikato United and Waikato FC programme columnist. His hobbies include collecting plastic spoons, arguing and studying confidential AFF performance reviews. His favourite player was Craig Jessep.]

Categories: NZ Men's National League

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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/

6 replies

  1. good article mate although you failed to mention that unicol were the only team to beat the mount at the mount when eddie was climbing up through the northern leagues. I like many other football enthusiasts cannot be sure of the future deveopment of the game in nz, a very sad state of affairs when so many have given so much.
    I did submit a very lenghthy proposal to nz football regarding the national league and its promotion and possible regional development, it was forwarded to the nzfa mid 2015 I am still awaiting a reply. could this be where new zealands football problems lay???????

  2. A kind of postscript….

    Readers can make up their own minds on the symbolism of it all, but WaiBop United has had to “default” on its “Final Match”.

    An end of season and “end of existence” function, titled “The Final Match – A Celebration of WaiBop United” which was due to have been held at the Ebbett Volkswagen showrooms in Hamilton on Saturday night (March 12) has been cancelled.

    Chief executive Mark Christie this week advised invitees that many of the players were unavailable.

    “We simply do not have enough able to attend. On top of that everyone seems to be busy and we have had low general RSVPs. I would like to thank all of those who were intending to come and I apologise for the inconvenience.”

    The summer-winter changeover time of season has always been tricky to negotiate, biut it’s sad it had to end this way.

    Still, if anyone wants to reminicse on how it ended for Waikato United 20 years earlier (April 1996) – eating crappy hamburgers in a Taupo parking lot with a can of lager – .read my account at the bottom of this webpage….

    http://waikatofootballprogrammes.weebly.com/waikato-chronicles.html

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