It is fair to say that football is not New Zealand’s sport of choice. Indeed, if you happen to hear the word being bandied about at all in a Kiwi pub or workplace, it’s more than likely being used in reference to that other game – you know, the one that New Zealand tends to be just a little bit good at.
It’s not, therefore, the most accommodating country for a football-mad Englishman to reside in. From the requirement to crawl out of bed in the middle of the night if you want to catch any live Premier League action to the absence of any professional team in its most populous city Auckland, football in NZ can be a lonely desert of an obsession for those that dare to follow it.
If, then, the opportunity arises to watch a real live game with proper players who actually get paid to get their boots muddy every weekend, it’s not one you turn down in a hurry.
The game in question was an Australian A-League fixture pitting home side Wellington Phoenix (NZ’s only professional club) vs Newcastle Jets of New South Wales. If the latter name is ringing any bells, it’s probably because you read in some deep-buried summer news article about the club’s marquee signing of the Leicester-born behemoth that is Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey.
As an England fan, I’ve always had my fair share of misgivings about Heskey, even if he does have one of the finest middle names in football. How many times have St George’s flags sunk in quiet despair at the announcement of Heskey’s name on an England team sheet? How long did the nation suffer the ignominy of having to watch us field a striker so hapless at that murky business of scoring goals?
And yet, for all the poverty of his goal scoring record for both his country and all three of the Premier League clubs he represented after leaving Liverpool in 2004, it was always difficult to dislike Heskey either as man or player. On the pitch, he was a brutally effective ball-winning colossus who seemed to bring out the best in his more technically gifted strike partners. Michael Owen loved to play alongside him; even Wayne Rooney became more productive in his shadow. And off the field, he has always come across as shy, honest, humble even – basically, everything that John Terry isn’t.
So when a weekend trip to Wellington happened to coincide with Heskey and team’s visit to the Westpac Stadium, how could I refuse a look in?
There was inevitably something rather surreal about the experience of watching a football match in blistering sunshine as the English game struggles through another bitter winter on the other side of the world. And being accustomed to heaving grounds and ticket touts, it felt a bit wrong to be able to waltz up to a queue-free ticket office only fifteen minutes before kick-off and join a crowd of little more than six thousand in a stadium built for six times that number.
Nevertheless, I was happy to be sitting watching a live football game for the first time in what felt like an eternity, even if the standard of play was comparable to third division or fourth division back home. And that I got to witness that rarest of spectacles – an Emile Heskey goal to draw the game level after the Phoenix took an early lead through Louis Fenton – certainly provided some extra spice.
That Heskey stood out as his team’s best player – despite putting in what was, in many ways, a typical performance of missed chances and balls knocked down to no one in particular – was a fair indication of this league’s quality. But we shouldn’t be churlish about an emerging football market that is very much on the up. With Italian World Cup winner Alessandro Del Piero drawing in the crowds over in Sydney and Heskey providing plenty of interest for the Antipodes’ hefty British ex-pat population at least, the A-League is improving with every season.
For New Zealand’s sole representative club, things look a little grimmer. On the morning of the game, an impassioned article appeared in Wellington’s Dominion Post beseeching the locals to turn out and support the Phoenix at Sunday’s game. Attendances have not been stellar in recent months, averaging little over 7,000, and there has even been the suggestion of the team having to abandon the Westpac for a much smaller ground in the suburb of Newton that seats only a 1,000 and has no floodlights or car park. By any club’s standards, such a move would be a huge blow.
An upturn in fortunes on the pitch would certainly help matters. Despite their best efforts, the Phoenix were unable to find another goal after Heskey’s downward header – his only real chance in a game where he often looked exasperated at the poor final balls lofted in his general direction by his team mates – brought the game level, leaving them rock bottom of the ten team table after 18 games.
Hope continues to be placed in Paul Ifill, the Phoenix’s own marquee signing of 3 years ago and former winger with Crystal Palace and Sheffield United. Still only 33, Ifill has enjoyed prolific form in front of goal during his stint with the club, notching up 30 strikes in 80 games. And he was lively against the Jets, creating chances from out wide and getting into threatening positions in the box on a number of occasions. The real signs of promise, though, came from 18 year old Tyler Boyd, a home-grown left winger who showed enough pace and trickery down the left to suggest he could be a Phoenix star of the future – unless, as is always the worry for clubs such as this, someone bigger comes in to poach him.
While the Phoenix supporters left the ground no doubt disgruntled by their team’s latest failure to win, I walked out into the early evening sunshine a happy man. Whatever the quality of the game, nothing beats the thrill of live football and in a country where 90% of sports conversations revolve around the dreaded All Blacks, you have to be grateful for small mercies.
Written by Jonny Barker