By Josh Easby
While most of football’s attention last weekend was on the final of the Chatham Cup, another important game was being played a couple of hours’ drive south.
It most likely went unnoticed except to the most ardent of football supporters in the Waikato. But the final of the Soccer Shop Waikato Cup was rather special this year.
One finalist was Te Awamutu B, a side playing in the second tier of Waikato football and representing a club founded 103 years ago.
Their opponents were Northern United Clube A, sporting the orange colours of a club formed only this year. And that’s not a typo – the team’s name is Clube, and yes, it is a bit different.
The coach is a bit different too. He’s Mike Groom, the former All White who has long been a passionate advocate for Futsal and the Brazilian ‘Samba’ style of football.
His team used to play under the name Hukanui-Rototuna Clube Alegria until their club merged with neighbours Hamilton North to form Northern United.
While Hukanui-Rototuna indicates the geographical base of that team, the world ‘alegria’ means ‘happiness’ and reflects the footballing philosophy of a coach who has influenced so many promising players in the Waikato.
All White striker Chris Wood learned his close control being tutored by Groom at the same Samba-style soccer school as fellow international Marco Rojas.
Now, Groom’s young Clube side, which includes his sons Josh, Ben and Dylan, are trying to play their way to the top of the Waikato pyramid – they finished third in this season’s A division – so they can progress to the WaiBOP regional competitions.
Amidst their league schedule, Groom’s team started a cup run that saw them reach last weekend’s cup final held at Cambridge’s John Kerkhof Park.
Having accounted for Claudelands Rovers C1 by 3-2 in the opening round, they knocked out Rovers’ A1 side by 2-0. In the quarter final, United beat Melville United A 4-2 and then they overcame Cambridge A in the semi-final by the same score.
For the final, a large contingent of orange-shirted supporters turned up, many daubed with face paint. They brought a trailer BBQ, their own marquee and took over one side of the ground packed with more than 500 spectators for the final.
The match was a cracker, despite the lack of a goal.
Northern United hit the post, hit the crossbar, hit the underside of the bar and saw the Te Awamutu goalkeeper Kevin Buckle make a series of excellent saves.
One Te Awamutu supporter joked his club had Gladwrapped their goal at half-time.
Halfway through the second spell, coach Groom brought himself on from the subs’ bench, 36 seasons after he made his debut for the All Whites.
His class still showed. Sure, the legs didn’t cover as much ground as they once did but the control was there. The encouragement from central midfield helped his players find something more. Most of all, he looked happy.
With the game scoreless and set to go to extra time, United’s winning goal finally found its way into the net. The excited players ran to the sideline, piling on top of each other in enjoyment. They didn’t have to wait long for the final whistle.
The day still had time for more vintage Groom moments.
The first came in the dressing rooms.
As Northern celebrated their victory, Te Awamutu coach Chris Petropolous asked Groom if his disappointed players could share in their celebration. The two sets of players joined together in an act of sportsmanship that Groom said would stay with him.
Groom used his aftermatch speech to explain his footballing philosophy.
Some coaches ruled through fear, he said, but the better way was to coach through love. He spoke of the affection he had for his players and the pleasure it gave him to see them so full of joy after playing in a cup final.
He reminded a packed clubrooms that he used to play alongside Steve Sumner and the United team had been inspired by the way Sumner never gave up, either as a player or during his current fight for his health.
Groom left Cambridge with his club’s first trophy. Just as importantly, he left with the respect of many who appreciate his refreshing approach to coaching.
[Josh Easby is a long-time football writer whose current obsessions with the game are as club secretary for Cambridge FC and as a committee member for the supporter group Friends of Football.]
Categories: Other NZ Federation Leagues
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.