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Guest Post – Debut day dawns in Hamilton

Porritt Stadium

Porritt Stadium before it hit the big time

By Rod de Lisle

National League, baby! At Hamilton Wanderers we have just played our first ever game in the big boys division, the Stirling Sports Premiership. A Momentous Occasion.

Given that my summer revolves around mainly going to the beach, eating lots of sausages and mowing the lawns, I had passed the team manager’s baton to a younger fella, David Douglas, and prepared to put my feet up. I was even looking to miss this season opener as we were booked to go to the Coromandel, but na, who was I kidding? Couldn’t do it. The club needed all hands on deck and we could go away after the game agreed my lovely wife, Trina.

So I pondered about also penning a few lines for Back-of-the-net, maybe give a little inside flavour on how a little-club big-league debut works out.

I asked Enzo about it. Would I write from the perspective of my role as mini-bus driver picking up the Southern team from the airport, or my second task as bloke-on-gate or thirdly as ex-manager and confident of the inner circle of Wanderers management (read that as – having a beer in the pub with coach Cossey) giving erudite insights into the psyche of the ‘tron boys?

Editor Enzo sighed and said do all three, Rod, no doubt hoping that there would something (for a change) worth reading within that smorgasbord of viewpoints.

Early Saturday morning Garry Konnings and I rocked up to Hamilton airport and picked up Paul O’Reilly and his Southern charges who’d left Dunedin at some god-forsaken hour. A lovely bunch of blokes with more then a smattering of Irish brogue (apparently the Southern player recruiter fellow had picked up a job-lot, along with coach O’Reilly in Dublin) they were polite and courteous. After loading luggage we drove them to their digs, the Novotel hotel.

Southern practise their midfield formation on arrival at Hamilton airport

Southern practise their midfield formation on arrival at Hamilton airport

Well actually it was a wee tease on the part of NZ Football. Their documentation said Novotel, but on arrival Southern were told they were actually staying in the more downmarket sister, Ibis hotel. We trooped across the road. I was partially hoping to get a bit of intel on their game plan, to feed to our brains trust. But instead, they fed us, literally, by inviting Garry and I to join them for lunch.

O’Reilly explained the Southern team, like us, operated on a slim budget and less lofty goals than big city slickers. I sensed they’d be happy with an away point.

Dropping the Southern men off at Porritt after lunch meant new jobs. Garry turned into a cameraman and scurried away to organise the filming of the match. A quick change of shirt and I was onto the main gate to await the masses. The game was still 90 minutes away but the place was buzzing with busy helpers, bedecking this and polishing that. The match day organiser and joint Wanderers club person of the year (with his daughter Kelsey!), Phil Fletcher, had us all decked out in orange and in the bright sunshine we combined colourfully with the verdant green pitch, so ardently manicured that I was asked by someone, was it an artificial one?

Groundsman and turf expert Phil (another Phil) was clearly happy with his creation and I asked if rain would have disappointed him. “Not at all, our sand based drainage works a treat”.

Now the throngs shuffled in and fellow gate-man John Shand and I were kept as busy as London barrow boys, collecting entry cash, selling raffles, doling out programmes and up-selling (“a season ticket is only $50 sir?”).  Happily I managed to well exceed my self-imposed quota by selling a good number of season tickets. It was a decent turnout, despite the long weekend as Hamilton empties out like water from a bathtub when a holiday weekend arrives. There were even a tiny bunch of fans from Otago (kudos to them!)

Referee Sarah Jones takes time out to watch hubbie Mark take the field. With Ricky Broderson.

Referee Sarah Jones takes time out to watch hubbie Mark take the field. With Ricky Broderson.

The ground was filling up, the patrons being well accommodated. There were couple of new stands joining the eight old ones. We had a borrowed temporary affair, and a splendid new purchased one, all shiny and metallic. Before you ask – all these stands, old and new, are fairly low rise and small. We are not talking the Kop end at Anfield. But it looked great, there was a newly installed camera tower -Sky telly were here!- and a couple of marquees for sponsors.

Club Chairman Brendon Coker, from whose vision this national league caper evolved, was nervously awaiting the start. I asked him how he felt. He was pleased with the turnout of volunteers, his worry always is that small clubs like ours are stretched thin by lack of people willing to put their hands up to assist.

I’d had a drink with head coach Mark Cossey the night before. He was remarkably relaxed, but then again he’s seen it all. The National League is a definite step-up though and Cossey was pleased with some pre-season wins. A key issue was whom to appoint as team captain. Natural choice, Aaron Scott, was away this week so in the end the always passionate Alexi Varela got the nod.

And so to the game. There will be other match reports giving the play by play but the outcome was a 1-0 home win to our Blues, courtesy of a cracking goal from Tom Davis in only the 8th minute. Southern played well in the second half but lacked the killer touch (and custodian Matt Oliver pulled off some tremendous saves) but toward the end Wanderers could, and should, have doubled the lead.

The crowd baked lazily in the heat, the kids raced round madly and the Wanderers volunteer army relaxed. Well as much as a slim 1-0 lead allowed. The most laid-back was the wee fella appointed to the scoreboard. He was literally comatose in the sun in the second half, obviously (and correctly) convinced he would not be troubled again.

Is this the most laid back scorekeeper ever? Well it WAS a hot day.

Is this the most laid back scorekeeper ever? Well it WAS a hot day.

The final whistle peeled and the orange-clad helpers swiftly dismantled the bits and pieces as the crowd dissipated, then adjourned to the bar for beers and chitchat.

Melville’s Chairman and welcome guest Bruce Holloway mused over his beer and wondered out loud whether this was the only ever winning start for a Waikato-based national league football team? He eventually extracted from his impressive memory bank a recollection of a Waikato team beating Manawatu in 19-something or other.

Well it may be short-lived but we are top of the league (ok, top equal) and the players, staff and many volunteers of Hamilton Wanderers can be very proud of that.

A note to close on: if involved in a  club, as parent, player or simply a fan, take a moment to consider putting up your hand to help out on match days. Don’t wait to be shoulder-tapped. It’s not too onerous, it’s bloody appreciated and the beach is always just another day away.

Early morning at Porritt. Look at that gorgeous pitch!

Early morning at Porritt. Look at that gorgeous pitch!

Categories: NZ Men's National League

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

2 replies

  1. Fascinating insight to NZ soccer makes me want to put my hand up for sure.good luck for the rest of the season, who knows you could be the new Leicester…..

  2. A few thoughts on Wanderers Sports Club’s debut in the national league….

    The Wanderers-Southern match was historic, and not just from the perspective of Wanderers dipping a toe in national league waters for the first time.

    As far as I can recall it was the first time since the current iteration of the national league was introduced in late 2004 that we have had a club (in the traditional sense) once again competing. While numerous other national league entities have had strong associations, links and feeder club hook-ups, this was a case of a competing club also having a raft of men’s youth, women’s and junior teams playing under exactly the same banner as the national league side.

    That of course marks the first concrete repudiation of the founding premise of the second coming of the summer league in 2004: the constitutional requirement for national league entities to exist as a one-team entity, and not to be distracted by having a myriad of other teams to think about.

    In effect what we are seeing now is greater embracing of the 1996 inaugural summer league theory: that competing clubs should be all things to all people and have a complete menu of teams. (Though as a cautionary note, some may remember this line of thinking quickly became unfashionable by the end of the 1997-98 summer season, after it was found it was perhaps preferable NOT to have our national league contestants distracted by a myriad of other concerns.)

    Either way, in terms of Waikato history, this was the first singular traditional club entry in the national league since the debut of Hamilton AFC in 1977. (Even Waikato United was a formed as a composite team by Hamilton and Claudelands Rovers in 1988.)

    When Wanderers secured the win, I was particularly pleased for Wanderers chairman Brendon Coker, because of the effort he put in for a number of years in keeping Waikato FC afloat.

    The club had gone to a lot of effort and Porritt was well-presented, with numerous club volunteers circulating in, erm, traditional club orange (I didn’t quite get that bit).

    The new stand on the gully side of Porritt is a most welcome addition to football infrastructure in Hamilton. But now that this venue is taking shape, does the place need a new name? When someone says Porritt Stadium, you think of the athletics track and centre pitch. But from a football perspective that’s now quite misleading, paerticularly with the old grandstand facing away from the new pitch.

    To give it a proper identity, this place needs a distinct name. XXXX park; YYYYY Field, etc.

    I thought it was an ideal first-up draw, having Southern at home (though Mark Jones later made the comment that this was the best Southern team he had played against) and wondered if Wanderers had a done a deal with the devil : Give us Southern at home first up and we’ll suck it up and play at Labour Weekend.

    Crowd-wise there would have been 300 tops. It is always hard to know what to expect crowd-wise. Hamilton crowds are fickle at best, and at their worst on a long weekend. And there were four Waikato clubs (including Wanderers) contesting the Napier U-19 tournament, which took a lot of potential spectators away.

    But talking to Brendon Coker afterwards, he said his draw preference would actually have been to face Auckland at home first up. The thinking was: get a big home crowd, and set a benchmark of expectation on what the national league is all about.

    I went and had a beer at half time and post-match with some Melville soaks (Heineken $5.50). Was disappointed more people didn’t come in to christen a debut home win, and swap lies about the game.

    For the most part, I didn’t think the standard of play was distinguishable from northern premier league. A lot of the players looked nervous, and were playing below peak (though thought Johnny Konings was terrific), but will be much better for the win.

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