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.
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!)
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.
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.
Categories: NZ Men's National League
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.