By Rod de Lisle
On Thursday our Easter beach excursion was put on hold by the unwelcome arrival of the biggest storm for fifty years. ‘We’ll go on Saturday” I announced as hatches were battened down, three months worth of provisions were laid in, the kids – who were to be left at home while Trina and I escaped- hastily cancelled secret Facebook parties and the wind howled round the crannies in our roof.
But by Good Friday the rain was gone as the fifty year storm buggered off south somewhere. So, because Wanderers were once again playing away, I decided to head to the Peat Palace, home of Melville, to see how the red, less geologically stable, side of the city had fared since Sam Wilkinson had done one from Wanderers to take the managers helm at our fierce rivals. Pretty well, it would seem judging by the renewed output of their PR department and stream of players heading west. Wilkinson and Michael Mayne have good credentials and won their first two games handsomely before tripping up last week at North Shore. This game was against another expected title rival, Western Springs, under Neil Emblen’s tutelage.
Despite the rain abatement the park was still sodden outside the number one pitch and one had to traipse carefully to avoid soaking shoes. It had affected preparation. “It cost us $300 to mow the pitch this morning” Chairman Bruce Holloway told me. Good Friday pricing and the levels you need to go to to get a game played.
It was a tasty encounter on paper and sure enough, the two relegated sides from last year’s Premier division served up a ding dong battle in the first half with Melville dominating but missing a few decent chances. Now I have to be fair here and point out that my vantage point on the Gower Park deck meant that I was a little distracted by idle banter and a Monteiths or two, so excuse a lack of preciseness in my reporting, but I did spot the opening goal tucked away nicely from the left by Spring’s George Debenham, although I missed the build up.
The second half saw the tide turn after Melville’s Steve Holloway (son of Bruce), clear through on goal, was cruelty scythed down by … bang, a traitorous hamstring. Down like a shot Easter bunny rabbit, he knew straight away and vacated the field immediately, in obvious pain and pissed-off-ness. Holloway is a class player and has often scored against my Wanderers team, curse him, but you have to feel sorry. A bit sorry anyway. He might be now wishing his old man hadn’t got that pitch mowed.
Springs went on to score a second, through James Debenham, after an Aaron Scott mistake and if not for the heroics of Max Tommy in goal they could have had another couple. So another loss for the reds but I reckon they do look to have a good chance of being promoted this season. (side-note: Melville won their Easter Monday game 3-0)
And that’s got to be good for the renewal of the old rivalry with Wanderers. Blue versus Red and all the fun that goes with it. Wilkinson and Mayne had recently given us Wanderers lot a right serve in the media, insinuating that it would be a matter of time before Melville reasserted bragging rights in Hamilton and predicting an imminent demise for any delusions of grandeur we might harbour. Hurrumph!
Wanderers haven’t read the script correctly it seems. Under new coach Vladislav Frank, our boys have cracked into the new season with 4 straight wins, all away and all without conceding a goal. Tough games too against the likes of Eastern Suburbs, East Coast Bays and Birkenhead. Then on Good Friday beating Manurewa (while I watched Melville). But maybe most surprising, despite being 3 points clear at the top, only one team in the division had scored fewer goals.
Taciturn Frank was previously best known as one of best shot stoppers in the Northern league. Tough as teak he is known for his quiet demeanour and respected by all. It seems his “you shall not pass” mentality has obviously passed onto his new charges. I’m not a historian but surely this start to the season must have few precedents? A manager of few words, an attack of few goals and a defence as parsimonious as my Scottish uncle, Stingy McFrugal.
We headed back from the beach early on Monday, pre-warning the kids (so dishes and house could be hastily cleared up: parenting 101 – chapter 12). This early departure ostensibly to “miss the holiday traffic” was convenient for me to empty the car and scamper down to Porritt Stadium to watch the boys.
The game, versus Forest Hill Milford, was being played in the stadium centre pitch, the number one turf still being renovated. My first season not managing the team: it’s a weird feeling. There were a few new players I didn’t know and taking my place in the grandstand rather than on the sideline pine was a bit discombobulating. I wasn’t expecting too many goals, perhaps another ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ result?
Early on we enjoyed watching Wanderers go one up through a Jama Boss penalty and then create a few decent chances that bore no fruit. A 1-0 result again? As I settled back to await 75 minutes of perhaps no more goals an odd thing happened. A long ball from defence was well controlled by Forest Hill’s Blair Whitlock who turned and hit it solidly past Matt Oliver to make it 1-1. So, 384 minutes into the season, the impregnable blue defence had finally been breached!
And, like waiting for ages for a bus, as soon one arrives, another is bound to follow. Sure enough shortly after, a Jack Caunter shot was deflected off a defender (was it Sam O’Regan?) and Oliver was left stranded. 1-2.
Wanderers, unused to this state of affairs, bustled back into life and another penalty was given after some shenanigans in the Forest Hill box. Boss once again slotted cleanly. 2 apiece at half time, game on!
A quick beer on the club rooms served by Blue legend Darren (Dash) Fellowes then I took another vantage point for the second 45, this time close to the far sideline, next to cameramen Garry Konings and Grant Stantiall. The latter a bloke who would have been on the bench if I’d coached a team he was in, purely so I could call him ‘Sub-Stantiall’ (ok bet he’s never heard that one before, either).
We were all after a decent shot or video of some spicy action. Me, with my basic iPhone and they with formidable arsenals of photo-geek gear. But we may as well been armed with pre-war Box Brownie cameras, for all the lack of action that the second half delivered.
It ended 2-2, despite a few half chances to Wanderers early in the stanza. We dominated mainly. But nothing that looked close to another goal. Defensively the home rearguard had resumed its fortress-like state and any attacks were mopped up by O’Reagan and Adam Luque. The latter was celebrating his 100th game for Wanderers and received a presentation in the club after the game.
One of those games that peter out rather than finish. But it was good to have football back at Porritt and enjoy the sun. The new fellows seemed to fit in well, especially young Zac Newdick, who looked at home at this higher level, O’Regan and David Smith who is not so new, having returned from foreign climes.
As Dave Douglas, assistant coach, said in the post match speech, “it’s a sign of how far the lads have come when they are so disappointed not to win a game.”
So in their different ways, both the leading Waikato clubs are in good heart. In my view there’s nothing better than a traditional east/west, yin/yang, blue/red, Wanderers v Melville derby. The embodiment of a traditional football rivalry. Long may it continue! (As long as Wanderers win, of course).
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/