Winter is over and spring is here (allegedly).
The last NRFL game of the season is tonight. Birkenhead United and Western Springs cap things off with a positively Italian 8pm kick off on the turf at North Harbour Stadium. It will be well passed my bedtime when the season concludes tonight, so instead of being there to watch the curtain come down in person, I thought I would mark the occasion with my top ten personal highlights of the winter. Here they are in reverse order:
10 – The derby della Tron
The minute the final whistle blew in the 2015 playoff, and Hamilton Wanderers won promotion to the Northern League at the end of last year, I was hanging out for this day. And my first Women’s Premier Division Hamilton derby didn’t disappoint. An enthralling game that had thrills and spills, four goals, two leads for the underdog new kids, two comebacks from the more illustrious home side, and a bit of a dampener on things with two seriously injured goalkeepers in amongst the usual niggle that comes with local rivalries. The game wasn’t perfect, but it was one of the most exciting watches of my year to date.
9 – Jack’s flares
Any game that sees fans letting off flares is a highlight for me, and Jack Hobson-McVeigh’s farewell match for Birkenhead United certainly fitted that bill. But it wasn’t just the flares that made it stand out for me, it was the way the club really turned it on for their favourite son from start to finish. It was the kind of send-off that any well-loved player anywhere in the world would be proud to receive. It turned out to not quite be his last game, as he miraculously reappeared fresh off the plane from Germany for a Chatham Cup quarter-final later in the year. But even so, it was a day to remember.
8 – Chip Butties in the Koru Lounge
I didn’t really write about the one game I saw at Tauranga City United’s Links Avenue this year, because I had other things on my mind. But the thing that really stood out about the day was the hospitality. How many other clubs have a ‘Koru Lounge’ where you can eat chip butties, chew the fat with ex-players and get treated to a pretty darn good game of football to boot? The answer to that question really should be “all of them”.
7 – Evan’s Mum
It has been a winter of road trips for me. At one stage I worked out that I had driven 25km further than the exact distance from my house to downtown Melbourne. The first of these great journeys was to the Northland town of Dargaville to watch Northern Wairoa play their first ever Chatham Cup game. Despite being mistaken for a reporter from the local newspaper (I was wondering why they were so happy to see me) I had a delightful time. The undisputed highlight being the uncovering of a story that ended up getting some mainstream media coverage as a result of my blog post. A committed fan by the name of Evan Montgomery was watching the game, via video call, from Melbourne. Pity. With enough notice I could have given him a lift!
6 – King Kevin of Manukau
Long-time followers of this blog will know that I’ve long had a soft spot for Manukau City. It dates back to watching them beat local rivals Papatoetoe on penalties in a thrilling Chatham Cup round of 16 game way back in 2012. I haven’t written about them in the NRFL this year, because John Palethorpe also caught the bug and followed them a lot. But despite that I was extremely happy to be there to see them, and their legendary coach Kevin Fallon, win Division Two in Ngaruawahia a few weeks ago. There simply aren’t any other clubs that I think deserve success like that any more than they do.
5 – Ultras in Ranui and ‘La Banda del Pipazo’
My undisputed discovery of the year, perhaps of the last few years, has been the ultras of Waiheke United. From the very first moment I heard them from the Starling Park carpark, a good twenty minutes before kick-off in their Conference game at Ranui Swanson back in April, I haven’t quite believed my ears. What they bring to all their away games, as well as at the home of ‘La Banda del Pipazo’ (band of the pipe), Onetangi Sports Park, is without a shadow of doubt in my mind the best football atmosphere that I have experienced anywhere in New Zealand. No question about it.
4 – Meeting in the middle
To state the blindingly obvious, there’s no such thing as football without people. And it’s the people that make football so great. Sure, you can enjoy it by yourself, but your enjoyment is only magnified by the presence of good friends. That’s why one of the real highlights of the year had to be our fan meet-up in Taupo for Round 1 of the Chatham Cup. Grant, Cathy, Michael, Melissa, Dave, Gina and I had a great day watching Herbert and Fallon battle it out and even our post-match hour long search for a decent place to have dinner was memorable and worthwhile. Here’s to doing it again next year!
3 – The team bus
It might have been a bit uncomfortable at times, and that might have been so for more people on the trip than just myself, but there’s no doubt that my bus ride to Hamilton with Glenfield Rovers was a bona fide top-three highlight. Getting to be an embedded reporter and seeing what goes on behind the scenes, as well as learn a great deal about one of my pet topics, was an opportunity that money can’t buy. I didn’t report on all the things I could have, but what I did end up writing about came together to make what was the best piece of work I have done this year to date in my opinion.
2 – The good Inter
Internazionale di Milano is the Italian football club that I absolutely have the least amount of affection for. So it says a lot that I was able to overcome this and thoroughly enjoy my amazing trip way up to the far north to watch Stefano Virgili’s Kaeo Inter. Further, the real test of my maturity was this: When they were a goal down to Kerikeri with time running out in the game, I even found myself running after a stray ball to get it back to Stefano for a corner as quickly as I possibly could. That’s how big a person I have grown to become in recent years. See mum, I told you I can adult!
1 – The taste of victory
But the number one highlight of my winter definitely stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a moment so powerful that it’s not really necessary to talk about it except to trot out the old cliché – a picture is worth a thousand words. I felt like a bit of a fraud, because in some ways you shouldn’t get to do that unless you earn it out on the pitch. But when presented with the opportunity who could turn it down?
So that was my Winter 2016 and I think it was my best yet. It’s hard to see how 2017 could top it, but I’m looking forward to giving it a good go!
Categories: Other Football Topics
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.