In Celebration of Kiwi Cup Final Day, Doing It For The Grassroots

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When the All Whites played the Solomon Islands last week they were hours away from being able to boast the first squad in New Zealand Football history made entirely out of professional players. Then Anthony Hudson called up Moses Dyer unannounced and that milestone will have to wait for the next international window (unless Dyer or Clayton Lewis or some new semi-pro joker gets a phone call, of course, in which case you can push it back even further).

Both the All Whites and Football Ferns are selecting from an unprecedented pool of talent these days and with that comes with certain implications. Aotearoa has only one professional team – the Wellington Phoenix. If you’re a promising female footballer then you don’t even have that option. That means two things: first is that you probably can’t make a living out of the game in NZ and second is that you also can’t play and train at the required standard to keep up with where you need to be. The consequence of that is simple. If you want to represent Aotearoa at football, then you have to leave Aotearoa.

That’s just the way things are, it’s not a good thing or a bad thing. But that’s also why having both the men’s and women’s national cup finals on telly is such a cool thing. These aren’t professional teams, they aren’t even Premiership teams – they’re proper clubs that you can walk down the road and register for if you wanted (granted, it’ll take a few tekkers to crack these first teams). They’re grassroots, man. They’re run largely by volunteers and half their fans are fans because they’re related to someone.

It’s an aspect of the football fan experience that we don’t really get in New Zealand. You might be a West Ham fan because of Winston Reid but chances are the only time you ever saw the Hammers play anywhere close to where you live was on that preseason tour a few years back, which is hardly the FA Cup final. Getting up in the middle of the night to watch every week, stocking up the piggy bank to make the pilgrimage to the UK… those are some serious commitments. Anyone who dismisses international fans’ passion is a moron.

But, like, imagine having that geographical connection too. Imagine being able to say: ‘I’ve played against that guy’ or ‘I saw this lot play at the park down the road that time’. If you’re a hardcore footy fan/player in Auckland (since all four teams ended up hailing from the big AK) then you probably had a couple of those stories to spill as New Zealand club football’s two most iconic competitions came to their dramatic conclusion. Glenfield Rovers vs Eastern Suburbs in the women’s and Central United vs Onehunga Sports in the men’s.

The Women’s Knockout Cup – seriously, that’s the best name we can come up with!? – was a ferociously entertaining match. It was also a bit of a weird one. Glenfield thoroughly dominated most of it and yet it ended 5-4 with both teams snatching the lead at different times and the crossbars at both ends left with a fair few bruises. Suburbs were coming off a devastating end to their league season as they blew a 2-0 lead to draw with Forrest Hill Milford, thus gifting the title to Three Kings. Glenfield, meanwhile, playing in their fifth straight KOC final, finished third on the league table.

Glenfield were missing a couple key players. Young goalie Anna Leat was called up to the Football Ferns for their USA Tour while Katie Rood left a month or two ago to trial and eventually sign with Juventus in Italy. Undeniably the first ever Glenfield Rovers to Juventus transfer in the history of the known universe. But Glenfield have been top notch at this stuff for years now and they can always just bring striker Steph Skilton back to lead the line now that she’s graduated from Syracuse over in the States. Skilton has two caps for the Ferns and scored a hatty against Thailand for NZ-A last December.

Nah, Suburbs were way more affected by Aimee Phillips having to grab a plane to the States for Ferns duty. She’s their best forward and without her they didn’t quite have the emergency depth to compete with what G-Field had… although that’s not to say they weren’t also stacked. Jacqui Hand was also in that NZ-A squad in December (as was Kate Loye of Glenfield, who has played in the Cup final before with Claudelands Rovers, being from Hamilton and all). Meanwhile when the inaugural Football Ferns Development Programme squad was announced, it also included Grace Jale alongside those other reps. Not to mention the young players on show ready to emerge into that status soon enough.

Actually, that was kind of a problem too. The national secondary schools tournaments were held earlier in the week and several players – from both teams – were involved (St Kents beating MAGS 6-5 on spotties in the women’s final, btw). Obviously a national team selection and a secondary school tournament would have no effect on the men’s cup final but the state of the women’s stuff in NZ means that’s all some unfortunate timing. Ideally in a few years that becomes less of an issue but, yeah… luckily/sadly local kiwi footballers are sorta used to this at the current moment.

Glenfield’s captain is one of those high schoolers – 17 years old and captaining her team in the KO Cup final on national telly. Claudia Bunge was at the secondary schools tourney with Rangitoto College and is in the NZ U20 side and as inexperienced as she may appear, you wouldn’t know it from watching her play. Jeez, she’s a tidy footballer. A cool and collected centre back, who formed a great partnership at the back with Tessa Berger.

Add in the hold-up play of Skilton up front and the classy midfield distribution of Kate Loye and G-Field certainly settled quicker – as you’d expect from the team more used to the occasion. And yet, against the run of play, it was Suburbs who took the lead. Hayley Bindon isn’t usually the starting keeper for Glenfield and she probably had a game she’d rather forget. It began with a cheap concession leading to a clattering tackle which cost Rovers a penalty. Up stepped Jacqui Hand and Suburbs were up 1-0.

This was a game full of goals. Glenfield made some things happen down their left wing, Kylie Jens really getting forward from fullback, and Skilton missed a couple good chances to get on the scoresheet. Cracked the bar twice, she did. Soon enough it was Jens’ ball from the left that was poked in by Georgia Brown for the leveller. That was about when Glenfield really started dominating only to fall back behind as Kate Seatter smashed a shot from distance which Bindon was able to get a good hand to but she couldn’t tip it over the bar… instead tipping it into the bar and it dropped down off her back and into the goal. Just a horrible moment there.

Having said that, it took maybe a minute before the game was level again. Hannah McKay-Wright whipped one from range on the right and Corina Brown’s falling save also hit the framework and fell softly for Dayna Stevens to equalise. One hell of a first half there and the second was nearly as good. Tessa Berger put Rovers in front 3-2 only for Hannah Pilley to pull it back level again in a hurry. Another error from Bindon but it looked pretty much like Bunge had hacked the ball away before it crossed the line, only for the goal to be given anyway.

Stevens and Brown then both scored to put Glennie up two but, just as it looked like they’d run away with it, Pilley scored another one with 13 minutes left and there were some nervy times that followed. But in the end, on the big field, on the big occasion, with everything else going on, it was a stretch too far to get that last equaliser and to be honest Glenfield had earned the victory anyway. Kate Loye was very deservingly awarded the Maia Jackman medal and fans at home and at North Harbour Stadium had themselves about an hour to regather their wits before the Chatham Cup kicked off.  

Which, by the way, was every bit as thrilling to watch as the Women’s Knockout Cup (honestly, come on – just call it the Abby Erceg Special and be done with it!). Central United, the perennial Chatham Cup powerhouse, against Onehunga Sports in their first ever final. But Oney aren’t coming outta nowhere here. No way, they won the Northern Premiership by a dozen points over Birkenhead (last year’s Chatham Cup winners), conceding only 13 goals and losing only twice in their 22 games.

Central United were a few rungs back on the ladder but they are most definitely a different beast in the Chatham Cup. They’ve won the competition five times and this was their ninth final. Central, if you aren’t a Jaffa local, also happen to play their home games at Kiwitea Street, a ground they now share over the summer with Auckland City. And when Central make the Chatham Cup final, this is what happens…

Takuya Iwata, Marko Dordevic, Angel Berlanga, both of the Drake Brothers, Emiliano Tade, Albert Riera, Alfie Rogers… all Auckland City features from last season. A few others in there have that NZ Prem experience too – Nic Zambrano, Mario Ilic, etc. Onehunga’s XI was not short a few exciting folks either, particular Sean Lovemore. Remember when he played for the Nix briefly? Haha, and Harshae Raniga too – remember when he played for the All Whites briefly!?! Not quite measuring up to what Central had in their ridiculously strong team, however. Onehunga Sports may be the league champs but they weren’t cup final favourites.

Watching Tade and friends wreak havoc from the start only confirmed that. Goddamn, that guy has some serious skill – it’s a grassroots kiwi football delicacy to be able to witness some team’s South American/European import tear it up against blokes you might have even gone to school with. But Onehunga’s defensive record during the season was no fluke. They know how to take care of business and while it wasn’t always pretty they held fairly tight until Nic Zambrano comprehensively buried Ignacio Machuca’s cross twenty minutes in for the lead. Even more important is that Onehunga held firm tight after that setback too.

And with Sean Lovemore up front they had a great outlet to hit on the break. Would’ve been handy if he’d had more support at times although he was still performing a very valuable task in keeping that Central defence honest. Mario Ilic was getting all sorts of time on the ball in holding midfield for Central but that deep Onehunga defence wasn’t allowing him too many attacking options with it and a few wild long balls really kept that on display.

Onehunga Sports still never looked much like scoring… right up until they did. Having withheld plenty at the other end, suddenly Lovemore was able to squeeze through, linking with Andrew Milne, and his shot was also able to squeeze through (and over) the onrushing keeper Danyon Drake. 1-1.

And that, amigos, was about when this game got real. Legs tiring, subs frantically warming up… it was end to bloody end as each team pressed for the winner. Central were the next to score thanks to Seamus Ryder on the cut-back but Tom Boss levelled up again using that old ‘play to the whistle’ logic. Milne had gone down and the ball looked to be going out. Take your pick what to complain about but Boss was the only one who kept hustling and his narrow finish made it 2-2.

The some Emiliano Tade magic. Ducking and weaving in the box and then lobbing one sumptuously to the far post for Ryder to nod into the gentle embrace of the net. Except if you thought that was the winner then you don’t know Tom Boss. That lad won this tournament with Birkenhead last season and his sliced finish on the rebound meant that - stunningly - this game was all tied up again.

When the hail started pummelling down with five minutes left and the scores stuck at 3-3, well, mate, that was just the icing on the grassroots football cake. Emphasis on the ice, obvs.

It was flippin’ breathless stuff so bugger the extra time play by play. This sucker went all the way to penalties. And, you know, considering this is some amateur club stuff in New Zealand, watching spottie after spottie guided perfectly into the goal – some forced and some finessed – really makes you wonder how more talented players like, oh let’s say every English player who’s ever been to a World Cup, manage to scoop ‘em over the bar or scuff them at the keeper and all that. Pressure can only do so much.

Naturally then after eleven consecutive goals it was the most pedigreed player on the park, Albert Riera, who finally missed one and Onehunga Sports – who trailed three times and never led – became the 2017 Chatham Cup champions. Against the odds. Against the pull of history.

Football, aye? What a sport.

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