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Flamboyant football in farm paddocks?

A good workman never blames his tools, right? Maybe, but back in the 60’s and 70’s every mis-hit shot or pass in the football match had the player muttering about the crappy pitch, broken stud in the boot or worn-out ball. The tools got the blame every time.

Pre-match at a football match is a time of keen expectation. Who is playing? What colour shirt has the goalie elected to wear? Can I fit a beer in before kick-off?  But when most fans are checking out team lists and the warm-up routine of their favourite players, I like to have a decent dekko at the pitch. Is it a verdant shade of green? Is it billiard-table flat and mowed a good length and a nice pattern?

Younger players and fans wouldn’t really take much notice. You millennials ( ok, those playing at a decent level), take a billiard-table surface for granted. A bit like you do your mum making your bed and doing your washing. Our home ground at Porritt has the fine flat consistency of a bright green Axminster carpet. The FIFA-sponsored pitch is tended carefully by the council and any stray weed is dealt to like a death-row criminal. The marked lines are as laser-straight and white as Tom Cruise’s teeth.

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“Kids, pitches weren’t always this good y’know.”

Hey whipper-snappers, it wasn’t always like this. Certainly not during my long football career (‘career’ being an overstatement and ‘long’ being an understatement ). When we played, pitches were pretty rubbish, generally.

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A 1970’s pitch? Nope. Too much grass

Back then wasn’t just the playing surface. Comparing modern boots and footballs with what we had, is like comparing an iPhone X with the rotary-dial telephone that served our household as primary communication device. But pitches especially, were bad and on occasion, shockingly so. One of the reasons our generation didn’t have a kit-bag of tricks to delve into. Trying a round-the-world turn or a Ronaldo flick in a mud-bath would have been as effective as the after-market mufflers teenagers put on their cars. Basically, flamboyant football was banned.

I once played a Waikato cup final for Unicol at Otorohanga on what was basically a paspalum and weed-strewn muddied farm paddock. It didn’t help that the match ball was a floaty, over-inflated, misshapen leather antique. But at the time it didn’t matter too much. Our team laboured up and down the pitch, slipping and sliding, mis-kicking the out-of-spherical ball and won the game 4-1.

And we’d all played on worse. As nippers, the grounds in the South Waikato sometime had more acreage of mud than grass, although the actual grassy bits could often be longer than our centre-forwards 70’s mullet. A daunting proposition for short legs.

I once turned up at an away game at Mangakino High and immediately my granddad’s stories of the Battle of the Somme sprang to mind. It was early, about 8.30am. There were massive holes everywhere that could have been only been created by a pre-match artillery barrage and the bits that weren’t holes were just thick mud. To compete the no-mans-land scenario, gas-like fog lay over the fields in wisps so dense that we couldn’t see the goalposts at either end. If an Oberjäger leading a gruppe of German troops had materialised out of the mist we probably wouldn’t have blinked an eye.

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“If an Oberjäger leading a gruppe of German troops had materialised out of the mist we probably wouldn’t have blinked an eye.”

in a variety of regional leagues as a teenager there was always a Lotto-like quality about the away game venues. In each small Waikato town we visited it was with bated breath that we surveyed the playing arenas on arrival. Often it was apparent that cattle or sheep had been recently herded from the ground as the plethora of droppings attested. Being a bit canny I always elected to play as winger or wide defender, out wide there could sometimes be a semblance of a decent track to scamper up and down. Centre midfielders and forwards didn’t usually get such luxury and goalies didn’t have a hope. They generally had to stand in a Somme-like shell hole puddle between the sticks, miserably hoping they wouldn’t have too many low shots to dive upon.

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My memory of the Mangakino High School football pitch.

I’ve also previously mentioned a pitch at Kawerau, on an old council dump site, where both teams had to walk the length of the pitch pre-match, in a wide line like police search teams, looking for hazards. These consisted of dangerous pieces of metal, stones, old cars or whatever may have worked its way to the surface. Tetanus injections were prescribed for anyone who cut themselves falling on the ground during the course of the game. True story.

Of course after a lifetime diet of crappy ones, the occasional surprise of a good pitch was as pleasant getting a bike for Christmas. My first game at Kiwitea Street in the ‘90’s was nirvana. My comrades in my shit team, like me, all swore they would have been world-beaters if they’d had the benefit of playing on good pitches like this one. The opposition players wondered why we were all frolicking and rolling about on the grass, like kids, on arrival. Sheer luxury to play on,  it was. During the game I even managed to hit a sweet half volley into the net, such was the true bounce of the pristine surface.

These days, good is more common than bad. New technology and FIFA funding have played their part in ensuring the modern player doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of getting dirt on their pristine bright blue boots or Persil white shorts. And the move to flashy plastic-turf surfaces have helped here too, although some purists may still have an issue with them.  But, ok, I hear you say, we do still have some bad surfaces. Yes I may have gilded the lily a bit. I’m sure some grounds in small Waikato towns still maintain a farm-paddock feel. And even in big cities there are dodgy surfaces.

Why? Higher player numbers, wet winters and low caretaker budgets are factors. So, although primary pitches at clubs are generally good, the secondary ones are not always. Especially the pitches that double up as training ones. Bu they can lead to good stories.

A game in the not-to-distant past, at Wanderers, is still talked-about. With some issues on pitch number one, we were allowed, with some badgering of the officials, to play Central, the league leaders, on the dreaded Number Four pitch. The Aucklanders were obviously very discombobulated by such tactics. It was the equivalent of being sent to play in Siberia and they contrived to lose 1-0. They sulked and were straight on the bus and home to Auckland without attending the post-match function.

However to us oldies it was water off the proverbial ducks back. We had to put up with a ‘number four’ type surface for our whole lives.

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Porritt in the 1970’s, 5 minutes before kickoff, according to an unnamed source.

But relax Central, you won’t find many top-level games being played on number 4 nowadays. It wouldn’t be allowed. So players, spare a kindly word or thought today for the grounds-guys, our pitch markers and back room boys. They give you the fine canvas to paint a masterpiece on. If you mis-hit the ball it won’t be their fault. Don’t grumble about your tools, we won’t believe you.

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How to prepare a Waikato pitch for Auckland teams (insert evil laugh here).

Rod de Lisle

Categories: Other Football Topics

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.

2 replies

  1. Good read. Agree the piece about secondary school pitches – irony is that at some fairly prominent schools nothing been done to football fields in last 30 years. Hamilton Boys High classic example. By contrast I always found the fields in South Waikato – Tokoroa of reasonable standard

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