Tomorrow morning I’ll either watch the Young Ferns or the Junior Ferns (I can never work out which of the age-groups is called which let alone fathom the logic behind it) take on Japan in the quarter finals of the Under 17 World Cup. For the purposes of this post I’ll call them the New Zealand Under 17 Women’s National Football Team.
Ok, so that’s a bit of a mouthful so let’s make it “the 17s” for short. You know what I’m talking about.
And the reason you know what I’m talking about is because they’ve been making headlines in this fair nation of ours – putting football back on the map for the amazing things we are capable of achieving, especially in the women’s game. And they have looked totally ice cool in the process.
Last week they became just the eighth New Zealand team to qualify for the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament, the first team to do it with a game in hand and just the second women’s team to do it after the 2014 New Zealand Under 20 Women’s National Football Team (the 20s™).
It’s such a great achievement and it’s made all the more special for me by how familiar the players are that I’ve been watching on my TV, rocking it in big stadia with chanting crowds on the world stage. It’s incredible to think that they are all players that at one time or another I have watched kicking about on a suburban park in the NRFL and/or very recently when they have all featured in the National Women’s League.
And a lot of them are players who, even though they are obviously just 17 or under, seem to have been around forever already! You might call some of them veterans!
As a matter of interest, I’ve gone back through some old posts just to see when I first encountered some of these players. Here are a few of my most memorable examples in chronological order:
I first saw Anna play at an Intermediate schools tournament five long years ago! I have often marvelled at that and how I had no idea at the time who I was watching. She’s now a full Fern with a massive career ahead of her – described to me by one of the most respected goalkeeping coaches I know as “a proper keeper”.
A player that I vividly remember first encountering at a Papamoa NRFL game at Gordon Spratt Reserve in 2014. A fellow spectator nudged me in the ribs as a substitution was being made and said “watch this player, her name is Ayla Pratt and she’s only 13!” I took his advice and I’m still watching!
I first knew Georgia as the Hamilton Wanderers second choice keeper in their inaugural NRFL season and for her spectacular collarbone break that made for one of the most dramatic photos I’ve ever taken… She has recovered splendidly from that and come along in leaps and bounds as a keeper of enormous potential. This year she has been nothing short of stunning from what I’ve witnessed.
One of the absolute highlights of the 2016 National Women’s League was the infamous crazy gang that was the WaiBOP Ultras of John Kerkhof Park – WaiBOP when you can boogie, right? Kelli Brown was right in amongst that as a member of the youth squad at the time. Now she’s not only a vital part of the team she used to cheer for, but third equal in the golden boot standings of a World Cup to boot! Ok, Grace Wisnewski is also in that photo but sadly not committed enough to wear a training cone as a fascinator like Kelli and T…
A goal machine that I first knew and raved about constantly as a Papatoetoe AFC markswoman of the highest calibre. That seems like years ago now but it was only 2016. I have seen her play a hell of a lot in the time since and loved every minute.
It was only last year, but I have a strange compulsive need to include this photo of her dispossessing Helena and I figured why not just go with it?
One of the exciting things about being a football fan is tracking players through their careers and being able to lord it over other lesser anoraks by saying “I knew about them long before you!” I have a long way to go before I can match the likes of Jeremy Ruane on this front, but I am looking forward to reaching those heady heights one day.
The ultimate will probably be when Anna Leat has retired and her kids are making age-group teams!
In the meantime, I can’t wait until the game tomorrow morning – and FORZA FERNIES!
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.