By Rod de Lisle
Unless you are a professional soccer-ball kicker and focused on the cash aspect of the sport, the real attraction of football for most players is the camaraderie and long time bonds that are forged, on and off the pitch. Ok, reading that sounds very cliche and a bit trite, but it’s true. Anyway, if you’ll forgive my hackneyed phrasing, I decided to investigate the lower reaches of the NZ game where filthy lucre has no place.
In culinary terms, New Zealand football at the top level -the A League for instance- is a silver service restaurant but you are mostly happier with the casual dining, say of the Northern league, that you frequent more often. But now then you just want to sample one of mums home-cooked meals. And they are found in the lower regional divisions.
I went to watch a Waikato C division game this weekend. Lee Massey from West Hamilton United, my old club, invited me to watch their tussle against another of my previous clubs, Waikato Unicol. Having recently retired from my role as Wanderers first team manager and that team playing away this weekend, I was keen for a footie fix. So I trotted down to Hillcrest Park to see the second half of the West Ham match. Ok I was a bit late (over a certain age, getting to a game on time doesn’t seem so important when there’s a coffee to enjoy and the morning paper to read).
Harking back to my opening stanza on the bonding nature of the sport and my long association with it, I was bound to know someone -apart from Lee- at this game. Wandering over, I didn’t recognise any Unicol players (but it had been over 30 years since I played for them) although I had apparently just missed Robin Slade who almost single handedly runs the University club. But there were many familiar names in the West Ham camp.
I was cheerily greeted by Lee’s wife, Sam, who was on manager duties, ably assisted by their two young kids. The couple had recently graced our telly screens, winning lots of loot on Family Feud. Such a tight knit family, they certainly deserve it.
On the pitch Lee was the very model of a midfield major general, captaining the team. My nephew James Rossiter was playing at right back and old club mates Oliver Quinn and Sam Clark were gracing the midfield. I spotted Dan Johnston who’d been round at our place doing some tiling recently, he was lurking up front. Then I spotted Tim Read, the nephew of one of my close friends, who was anchoring the defence. And also in attack was there was an ex-Brazilian army captain I knew: Junior.
A couple of years ago a new fellow was introduced to me at Hamilton Wanderers training. Aurélio Dias Moreira Júnior was his name. “Just call me Junior” he grinned. Getting his details for club rego, I got over the obstacle course of his name then asked him where he lived. “7 Xxxxx Drive” he replied. Of all the 80,000 residential Hamilton addresses he could have given me, this was the most surprising. ‘It can’t be that, Junior, that’s actually my own address’ I replied. Turns out he got his numbers wrong. He was lodging at number 17, a few doors up. A few degrees of separation, literally.
Anyway fast forward a couple of years and here was Junior, now in the burgundy and blue of West Ham. My timing wasn’t great. Arriving at the break, I’d missed his first half trick. Lee told me the lads were 4-0 up and looking good. Ah well, the sun was out and surely a few more goals beckoned?
A typical lower league football venue, the grass was as unkempt as a teenagers hair, the goals rusty and the nets seemed pre-war. In other words, just like a thousand other football pitches populated by the plebeian masses. But we’d suffered a week of flood-inducing rain so at least the long grass was verdant green.
I’d missed it but in the first half the Reid Hall coached Unicol team was briefly reduced to 10 players after only 38 seconds when Conor von Keisenberg left the pitch to revisit his breakfast. A Friday night inebriation perhaps? University life and all that jazz. The West Ham boys were obviously less jaded and this reflected in the healthy lead that Junior’s hat trick and a goal by Massey gave them at half time.
And there were more goals, a couple in fact, but both to Unicol. The second in particular, was worth watching, a 25 metre beauty from Damon Fisher. The scorer of their first? The previously mentioned Conor von Keisenberg. Losing his breakfast obviously gave him renewed vigour.
West Ham spurned several efforts and probably should have won by a bigger margin than the 4-2 final score but the weather was balmy, the spectators relaxed and the odd moment of sublime skill was appreciated as much as the odd air shot was enjoyed (by me anyway).
There were bad passes interspersed with the odd decent one, there was a unique double save by the Unicol keeper Matt Curtis and even the regulation stoush. This was near the end when the bespectacled Clark firstly made a full pitch sprint with the ball, then lost it and scythed down a Unicol player: both sets of players fronting up like angry peacocks while the ref duly doled out a yellow card to Clark.
After game there was the amusing sight of the diminutive Clark being admonished by the tallest player on the pitch, Unicol’s ‘Sky Tower’. (“He’s called that because we have two guys called Rory and we had to rename one of them”, a Unicol sub had informed me). “I was gonna bite his knees” said Clark.
Johnston, subbed off before the end, had changed and in true lower league fashion already had a fag and a beer in his hands. “A good game” he said as the rest of the lads trooped off.
One of the endearing features of the West Hamilton club is their culture of singing and sure enough the raunchy strains of ‘West Ham is wonderful’ echoed from the changing rooms after the game, as the pitch was readied for the next match. Another nephew was preparing to play in that game, in Melville red : his dad rocked up as I left. So another catch up and chit chat. What was I saying about the familial nature of football?
To add to my feeling of well being, the day was completed with news of a third successive win for my Hamilton Wanderers lads as they now sit proudly atop the Northern premier league having not conceded a single goal in those games.
The ties that bind, everyone has them. And apart from your actual family, perhaps no more than on the footie pitch.
West Hamilton C Team:
Lee Massey, Aurélio Dias Moreira Júnior, Tyler Barham, Nick Reed, Luke Barnett, Dan Johnson, John Gilmore, Kris Barham, James Rossiter, Michael Parsons, Michael Apples Appleton, Oliver Quinn, Samuel Clark, Paul Brown
Unicol C Vets team:
Reid Hall, Matt Curtis, Conor von Keisenberg, Justin Hamilton, Steve Garland, Damon Fisher, Jacob Toye, Keenan Wyatt, Shane Laurich, Rory Casey, Patrick Purcell, Gareth Amyes, Ethan Kilgarriff, Travis Sayring, Rory McKenzie
West Ham: Aurélio Dias Moreira Júnior (3), Lee Massey.
Unicol: Conor von Keisenberg, Damon Fisher.
‘Now you can’t break the ties that bind
You can’t forsake the ties that bind’
– Bruce Springsteen
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.