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The biggest game

Waiheke 2, Fencibles 2
Onetangi Sports Park, Waiheke Island, June 17 2017

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Yesterday, before setting out for yet another epic adventure to Waiheke United, I tried to spark a bit of controversy by labelling this the biggest game of the year in New Zealand domestic football. And if the All Whites didn’t have an intercontinental World Cup playoff coming up in November (assuming they get past the Solomon Islands) I might have been tempted to call it the biggest game of the year on New Zealand soil full stop! To my surprise, nobody really tried to argue with me save one half-hearted mention of the Chatham Cup.

Of course that might very well be because people have better things to do than bite at every stupid thing I say on social media. But I was prepared to back up my position with some solid arguments.

Here we had a top of the table Division 2 clash between two unbeaten teams after 13 rounds. Fencibles have looked like they are on a procession to lifting the Pascoe Shield. Waiheke are tucked in behind them ready to pounce, scrapping their way towards the second promotion spot with a combination of unvarnished talent and raw passion. This was their chance to see if they could make a serious challenge for the title in just their first season in the NRFL.

The one and only previous meeting of these two sides was a 1-1 draw under lights at William Green Domain. That night saw Waiheke ultras scaling the fence to let off flares from high above Pakuranga Road. This time, on a brilliantly sunny winter afternoon at their Onetangi Sports Park home, a phenomenal crowd of circa 600 gathered to sing, dance, drum, throw streamers, rip flares and provide easily the best atmosphere you will ever see at a football game in this country.

To illustrate my point, here’s La Banda in ‘quiet anticipation mode’ before kick-off…

And they don’t stop. Ever. Their beat penetrates your soul for days afterwards.

Yes – of course the Chatham Cup final is the pinnacle of New Zealand domestic football in a strictly technical sense. But compared to yesterday, it’s a Scrabble tournament held in the Takapuna Public Library with loud breathing punishable by death.

Waiheke United’s passion on the sidelines is equally matched if not surpassed by their passion on the pitch. And Fencibles knew that a win here would almost certainly mean the title. This made for a rather niggly encounter and a rather even one.

The only thing that separated the two sides at half time, after they had gone hammer and tongs at each other for three quarters of an hour, was a mistimed tackle to the left of the D in the 41st minute. That led to a screamer of a free kick from Jarrod Young that the team sheet has as an own goal but it more likely curled straight in. Either way, Fencibles had a 1-0 lead as they hit the sheds.

It was, as they say, still anyone’s match though – as Waiheke had enjoyed plenty of chances throughout. And the home side eventually gave their fans something to roar about right on the hour mark when Aleso Villisany struck the equaliser.

With the scores level, a small group of visiting supporters tried to give their team a boost with a bit of atmosphere of their own! But if you are going to try to compete with La Banda del Pipazo you had better come at them with something a little bit more creative than “Let’s go Fencies, let’s go! (clap clap)” – it was a valiant but short lived attempt.

A draw would have been a fair result at that point, but these two sides weren’t having a bar of that as they kept battering each other. Perhaps a little bit too literally. Handbags came out a couple of times as feelings rose to the surface and at one point a punch was allegedly thrown. I didn’t see it, and apparently neither did the ref as a yellow card was all that was issued – much to the dismay of the crowd.

Then with three minutes left in the 90, at the culmination of a sustained period of Waiheke pressure, things got super interesting! About three players all had goes at bludgeoning the ball into the Fencibles net. I celebrated two of them thinking they had gone in, but somehow they hadn’t, then substitute striker Matthias Brittos finally poked home and everyone – the players, the crowd, me – went completely mental! Waiheke looked to have snatched all three points.

But there was still time. Three minutes plus time added on is an eternity in football when you’re protecting a lead and the way Waiheke play it looked like it could all fall apart at any moment.

Witness La Banda in ‘nervous fingers crossed mode’:

Their shaky defence held firm though and it seemed they had managed to hold on for the win. That was, until literally the last kick of the game.

Matt Chant drove home the equalising goal and Fencibles celebrated like they had won the World Cup – right in front of La Banda with Chant’s arms motioning furiously up and down like a front end loader on acid goading the ultras to sing louder! They didn’t like it and as the final whistle sounded the AR2 had to put on his best angry face to butt heads with a few fans, demanding that none of them enter the field of play.

But when everyone took a chill pill and looked back on the game after they had calmed down, I think they would all agree that it was a classic that probably deserved to finish all square. For Fencies, the result means they maintain a degree of comfort at the top but they shouldn’t think they’ve got it won. The gap is seven points but with Waiheke enjoying a game in hand and if they can keep the pressure on it would only take one Fencibles slip up to make things interesting again…

Waiheke United are doing a wonderful service to football in New Zealand – a game that has been so English for so long. Let’s hope not only that they can sustain it but, more importantly, that more clubs embrace their local diversity and create cauldron atmospheres so that fixtures like this become the norm rather than the biggest games of the year.

Categories: NZ Northern Men's Division 2

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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.

7 replies

  1. Great summary of the game Enzo. Glad we turned it on for you here on Waiheke. A cracking day and game

  2. Amazing Enzo, Thank you very much for ocming to the island and covering an amazing game.

    Hope to see you more often!!!

  3. Waiheke United and their fans have brought something very special to Waiheke Island and football in NZ. Saturdays game was great in every way I suggest anyone that’s remotely interested in football come to a game a get behind these guys 🙂

  4. Very awesome. Without a blog like this you would never know this passion exists in football in New Zealand.

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