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The fabulous Baby Blues

I was chatting with Steve Built at the pub. “Twenty two points at least, for safety” he said. Twenty two points, what? “That will keep a team in the Northern Premiership.”he said.

It may have escaped the notice of many football fans, certainly the mainstream media have studiously ignored it, but after 7 games in the Lotto men’s Northern Premiership the team that sits atop the table, at least for now, are the lads from my club, Hamilton Wanderers.

Auckand is generally the football hotbed of the region but for those who aren’t sure of where Hamilton is, it must be mentioned that our fierce local rivals Melville are leading the first division and Claudelands Rovers are well placed in the second. Is there something in the Waikato water this year?

Although largely unheralded, there are one or two notable things about the lofty position of our Wanderers team. For starters our lot could be known as the ‘Baby Blues’, rather than the ‘Blues’ this year. This in reference to that youthful team Manchester United had in the 1950’s, known as the ‘Busby Babies’, after manager Matt Busby.

This Wanderers team are also extremely young – one recent line up had an average age of 19- and even the coach is a veritable babe-in-arms. 25 year old Kale Herbert bears the surname of his distinguished father, Ricki, but this is his first head coaching role. 25, really? I have items in my fridge older than that.

Another factor to consider is that the Wanderers national league side, under Kale’s dad Ricki, had a fairly wretched summer season, albeit with focus on future team-building and it was run on a shoestring budget. It was the willingness of Ricki to throw national league debuts and regular game time to the club’s young players in the latter part of the ISPS Handa Premiership season that is paying dividends now.

The Lotto Northern Premiership is arguably the top winter competition in New Zealand. The Southern and Central league lot might dispute the fact but on a purely population-based reckoning the Northern league would edge those other competitions, ok, in my eyes anyway.

Like the summer one, the winter league can boast many clubs with more resources and moolah than our humble old Wanderers. So you have to start with the pragmatic goal of staying in the league. It’s a bit like the English Premiership where, unless your coffers resemble Scrooge McDuck’s money bin, each club will set their sights solely on survival at the start of the season and then see what happens.

I know that in penning this article , I am no doubt risking a jinx on our lads. After all, last year, in a similar position after 6 games with a young and inexperienced team, we went on a terrible run, losing 9 in a row. But I hope not. This year feels different.

The team have drafted in one or two experienced players including the formidable Tommy Semmy, a Papua New Guinean international and rock solid centre back, Joe Nottage who has previously had stints with Glenfield and Eastern Suburbs in the Premier Division plus the return of the ageless duo, David Samson and Alexis Varela. But most of the squad are young and some actually never saw last century.

So who are these modern day Busby babies?

For a start young Jackson Hawke has been starting regularly in goal with Matt Oliver out injured. He is only 17, and we all know, goalies don’t peak until about 40 so he has over 20 years to get reallllly good.

Club Chairman David Douglas is also the goalie coach. I asked him about Jackson, “He is a young lad who has been with Wanderers for a number of years and is now in the position of the clubs senior keeper, which he is relishing.” David continues. “Key to performing well in the position week in, week out, is having competition, in this case this is provided by Cory Townsend, who is the same age as Jackson and new addition, Korey Crake.“
“For the last few years, Matt Oliver, has been a mainstay of our team in goal and constantly set the goalkeeping standard both on the field and training ground, and he is as pleased as I am to see Jackson step up to the No 1 jersey.”

A few of the other youngsters have benefited with appearances in the summer league.

At the back Liam Fellows has the ability to go a long way and perhaps emulate his dad Darren (‘Dash’) Fellows who is a local legend. Raheem Hunter is another defender who has come through the teenage ranks and in midfield Steffano Riley belies his teenage years with his confidence and reading of the game.

17 year old Will Stephen has scored a couple of vital goals and Alex Frank ,19, has also discovered where the net is, with his 5 goal contribution this season. Another, young Jack Marden has scored a hatful of goals for our reserve team, average age 17. It’s like a bleeding kindergarten here at the moment.

9403EE7D-C402-4245-8324-B08488B6247A.jpegWill Stephen scores a cracking goal against Glenfield – Photo Gary Konning  

I spoke to Kale about the team. He is typically calm and understated. “We’ve had a pretty decent start but were a little off our best over a couple of the recent games.” Kale’s “off our best ” side played and won all 3 games in a busy week. We’ll take that.

Hamilton Wanderers have recently established a young players academy, in conjunction with the Ricki Herbert Football Academy. This has immediately had success with 45 players enrolled in term 1 and more expressing interest for term 2. “Many clubs have a similar set up” says Douglas. “However when you look at their senior teams their players are from elsewhere, lured by money or whatever. What sets ours apart is the fact our youngsters can actually see a real pathway with a first team that has a bunch of youthful, Wanderers-developed talent. There IS something to aspire to. We feel that is very special to our club.”

As Steve Built reckons, 22 points is the goal to escape the dreaded relegation. On 16 points our guys are already closing in on that. We will no doubt lose some more games, in this league, it is too hard not to. And we did get hammered by Central so no one is getting carried away. However the Baby Blues could surprise, and hey you never know, they may emulate the antics of another famous team in blue that surprised the world exactly two years ago this week. Now THAT would be nice!

Rod de Lisle.

EC7997B7-A31D-42F4-8A75-C5EC4913F8DB.jpeg5th May: Manukau United v Hamilton Wanderers at Mangere Centre Park. KO. 3pm.

Categories: NZ Northern Men's Premier

Rod de Lisle

Waikato based follower of Leicester, Hamilton Wanderers, Allwhites and Phoenix, roughly in that order. Underdogs all. I pen stuff that I feel I'd like to read myself but there's no accounting for taste, eh? Some of my opinions occasionally may be factually correct, sorry about that.

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