By Cordwainer Bull
They served us beetroot for the entree at New Zealand Football’s 125th anniversary dinner.
It was one of those pretentious haute cuisine dishes, lovingly titivated with colourful garnishes, and seemingly designed as much for photographing as eating.
Not that beetroot was ever going to cut it as a conversation piece on a night when the US had just elected a carnival-barking demagogue as president, and some Whangaparoa bozo had won $44 million on Lotto, as we sat in the Grand Tea Room on the seventh floor of the Heritage Hotel in central Auckland.
But it did beg the question: When did beetroot become a thing? And for that matter, when did 125ths become such a thing?
Much, much later it struck me that this teeny-weeny serving of baby beetroot (a couple of tins of Golden Circle would have done the whole room) was designed as our metaphor for the night.
As far as veges go, beetroot is unfashionable. It’s boring, invariably drowned in vinegar, and no-one really loves it (okay, apart from your Gran).
If NZ Football was a vegetable, it would be beetroot.
But if you artistically floss up this beetroot with trimmings of goat’s cheese and frosted walnut salad, suddenly you have something far beyond a strangely coloured, nitrate-intense root vegetable.
That was essentially what we got event-wise at the Heritage: something way better than you might have expected from NZ Football in celebrating its first 125 years.
An organisation which has, at times, struggled with everything from player eligibility regulations to fax machines, delivered an exceptional, seamless evening. Its construction and planning was far in advance of the arguably more “thing-ish” 1991 centenary dinner in Wellington (on the eve of the Chatham Cup final).
There were several audio-visual presentations, including interviews with historian Barry Smith, stage interviews with the likes of John Adshead, Steve Sumner, Brian Turner, Chris Wood, Michael Boxall and Anthony Hudson, and numerous trips down Memory Lane, in a cogent, well-constructed – and only occasionally self-indulgent – tribute to our football.
Smith is a national treasure, with unrivalled knowledge about our Kiwi football heritage. While he often seems to harbour a pathological desire to personally deconstruct every single erroneous football theory in circulation, he also carries the latent burden of ensuring this knowledge is never lost to the rest of us.
Speaking to Barry later, he made a keen point about the importance of having lively debate within the game, rather than mutely agreeing on issues for the sake of unity. “The very best thing is to have a dispute,” he said. “It’s only when you argue that everyone gets to really appreciate and understand the issues.”
Meanwhile on stage Adshead explained how he strove to build an environment where players really liked to play, declaring transparency and honest with players was essential, and a key to success in 1981-82.
“If you weren’t going to be playing for me on Saturday you knew on Tuesday,” he said.
Former All Whites were liberally sprinkled among the 300-odd crowd. Seated at the table next to me was one of Adshead’s troops, and one of our greatest All Whites, left back Adrian Elrick. Adrian was even generous enough to remember me from the mid 1990s when we were both coaching U14 rep teams at a national tournament in Timaru.
It’s worth noting that in pre-Ivan Vicelich days, Elrick would have been fourth in the All White caps pecking order behind Sumner, Turner, and the late Duncan Cole, with 92 appearances. These days he is living in Welcome Bay, Tauranga, where he endures the dodgy knees most from that era now sport, and plays bowls with another All White legend, Bill de Graaf.
Master of ceremonies Andrew Dewhurst was superb, striking just the right balance between formality and levity, and throwing in some amazing broadcasting anecdotes along the way.
He badgered Chris Wood for some dressing room vignettes, perhaps some light-hearted dirt on his fellow team mates, but drew a complete blank.
Wood, who you might have picked as a character from days gone by (remember his underwear-flash goal celebration after scoring against Honduras in 2010?) simply had nothing to add.
But Boxall did his best to fill the vacuum. “The captain (Wood) is like a teacher’s pet,” he confided, to general laughter.
Then there were the Football Media Awards, an important part of our football culture, largely kept alive by the endeavours of NZ Herald subeditor Simon Kay. Michael Burgess (NZ Herald) took Writer of the Year for the third straight year, and Jason Pine trousered both the audio and television broadcaster.
Enzo Giordani was named Community-Internet Writer of the Year. It’s a category that could use a bit more explanatory definition – does it just mean anybody not writing for NZ Herald? – but there can be no question that Enzo is a pretty good fit, regardless of how you dice it. I can’t think of anyone more community-minded, or internet-minded for that matter, in football media than Enzo. [We’ll keep you on – Enzo]
Website of the year went to Dangerous Dave Webster, who has metamorphosed from a one-time drunken travelling All White fan into a multi-media phenomenon with his www.thejourneyfan.blogspot.co.nz
Programme of the year was well contested, with Waitemata’s 32-page effort (edited by Mark Reid) nudging out Ellerslie and Papatoetoe to take honours for a second successive year. There was a time when programme of the year never ventured outside the national league, but these days national league clubs aren’t even making the cut agaisn these labours of love.
The Media Player of the Year award was won once again by the defensively brilliant but curiously ineloquent All Whites skipper Winston Reid. So great to watch, so hard to listen to. Which is fine, but does make you appreciate Ryan Nelsen so much more in retrospect.
We moved to a Friends of Football “Medal of Excellence” presentation to Bert Ormond, a Scottish-born New Zealand international and coaching legend from the 1960s and 70s. And it should be mentioned, Bert was also a must-read weekly Sunday News columnist for years. How we could use an insightful weekly commentary like that these days.
Son Iain Ormond, a football VIP in his own right, spoke on behalf of Bert, and said how he had also enjoyed catching up with football people he hadn’t seen for 40 years.
But things got really interesting after Noel Barkley spoke, as chief executive of the Football Foundation, an organisation created by New Zealand Football after the 2010 FIFA World Cup to provide support to the growth of the game in this country.
Barkley introduced a new honorary patron in the form of Business Hall of Famer and former NZ Football president Sir Eion Edgar (KNZM) who happily announced he was donating $500,000 to the Football Foundation coffers to a standing ovation.
There was slightly less of an ovation when Edgar then told us not to worry about Trump. “We need a strong America,” he counselled. Oh dear. Still, if you’re prepared to pony up with $500,000, the least we can do is forgive you a ropey political opinion or two.
But wait, there’s more.
Football Foundation chairman and serious rich-lister Mark Stewart then took the stage and advised he also would chuck in $500,000.
Stewart looks a bit like one of the roadies from Wayne’s World. But if he has a fun haircut, he balances that with a very serious wallet.
At this point I started to worry. Had I missed something on the invite? Were we all meant to bring a spare half a million to the Heritage?
Because I’d not packed the chequebook. I desperately asked my tablemates what they had planned. Maybe a lazy $50,000 each from Tim Adams (Ellerslie), Andrew Kirk (Papatoetoe), Mark Reid (Waitemata), Patrick Barnes (Wellington), and Dave Webster (Wellington) would avoid collective red faces?
But no, they’d seated me at the Miserable Bastards table. Embarrassingly, nobody here could be shamed into coughing up even a miserly $5000. Hell, you’d half expect these guys to be asking for doggy bags for the beetroot, next.
So at the break I broke through the perfumed throng of female admirers to shake hands with the genial Stewart, both to congratulate him on his philanthropy – and to casually inquire if, by any chance, we might share a common interest in a new clubrooms complex at Gower Park, Hamilton.
Turns out Mark’s more of a Canterbury man, but there you go. May this bloke walk more often through our football halls.
The evening finished with an equally nice touch. New Zealand Football President Deryck Shaw and Sumner cut a 125th birthday cake.
Never got to taste it, but I’d like to think it was beetroot flavour.
[Cordwainer Bull is a former Waikato United programme columnist and occasional media gong winner, if you look hard enough. His hobbies include making submissions and disagreeing with experts. His favourite All White was Peter Henry.]
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.