Whatever the outcome of this year’s ISPS Handa Chatham Cup final, New Zealand football fans are likely to be in for a treat as Sunday’s encounter will feature some of the best young players in the country, who are all in the habit of playing in an open, attractive manner.
The two finalists, Birkenhead United and Western Suburbs, have both carved out a reputation for bringing out the best in young talent and the fruits of that investment will be on display to the wider public at QBE Stadium in Auckland.
“There’s going to be two young teams full of predominantly New Zealand players and it should be an exciting game,” Suburbs coach Declan Edge says.
“At Wests, we try to play an entertaining, fast-paced game and I know Paul [Hobson, Birkenhead United coach] will try to do the same. So it should be interesting for the public to have a look at predominantly young New Zealand players and see what New Zealand football is all about.”
Western Suburbs have a batch of youth internationals in their ranks while Birkenhead have picked up a range of national titles at U-17 and U-19 level in recent years.
Many of the players who were involved in those age-group successes have now graduated to the first team but Birkenhead do still possess a sprinkling of cup-winning experience with captain Sam Burfoot, Christian Gray, Emmanuel Darkwa and goalkeeper Damian Hirst all survivors from the side that won the club a maiden Chatham Cup title in 2016.
Just making a second final in three years is an achievement in itself and it’s already more than Hobson was expecting from his youthful team this season.
“Getting this far with such a young team is a bonus and we’ve had some really tough games where we’ve had to really fight – it’s not been an easy passage,” Hobson says.
“Last time we had an older team and we really expected to win that final, I’m not saying we don’t expect to win this one but we know it’s going to be a really tough game. I’ve just been saying to the boys to show everybody what they’ve got. We’re not really putting any pressure on the boys – we just want them to go out, have fun and hopefully we can get the result.”
That relaxed approach has been the basis of Birkenhead’s success this season, which has brought both a berth in the cup final and fourth place in the Lotto NRFL Premier League.
“With having a younger team, the main aim was to stay up in the league and we’ve just looked at the Chatham Cup as a bit of a bonus so it’s been remarkable how well we’ve done. We’re happy we’ve got this far and are going to really enjoy the day. We want to take it all in and hopefully we’ll put on a really good performance and make everyone proud of us.”
Western Suburbs recently missed out on a piece of silverware in being pipped to the Central League title by Napier City Rovers but Edge shares Hobson’s philosophy of focusing on player development over results.
“We’re in the business of helping these players to improve and get better at getting better. So winning leagues and cups are like nice little bonuses but it’s certainly not the focus of what we do,” says the former All White.
“Winning the league and going to a cup final are great moments and we’ll cherish the day. We’re going into a big house at QBE Stadium, it’s on TV and hopefully we’re going to play in front of a big crowd. But we don’t want to get caught up with the event too much. We’ve kept everything the same and are preparing as we would for any other game.”
In a remarkable tale of perseverance, Edge will be able to select former New Zealand U-23 international Adam Thomas, who is one of the few elder statesmen in the squad at just 26 and has recently returned from a nightmare six-year layoff due to injury.
“What I say to people about Adam Thomas is that I parked a Rolls Royce in the garage six years ago and now I’ve just lifted up the door of the garage and the Rolls Royce has rolled out. And a Rolls Royce is always a Rolls Royce, it doesn’t suddenly become a tractor. I’m over the moon for him and thrilled that I’m able to pick him,” Edge says.
He and Hobson are good friends and often talk about football with each other so there are likely to be few surprises in their respective game plans on Sunday. The mutual respect between the pair is high and both are expecting to face a top-class opponent.
“I’ve got a fair idea of what Paul’s been trying to bring in at Birkenhead in relation to developing young New Zealand players and giving them opportunities. Paul and Birkenhead are serial winners – they win trophies so we’re wary and cautious of them,” Edge says.
As the local side and a tight-knit, community-based club, ‘Birko’ are likely to have the backing of a large contingent of vociferous supporters, as seen in 2016 when the red-and-white army flooded QBE Stadium in their thousands.
“We’re a community club and get great support, a lot of our players coach the kids so there’s that bond,” Hobson says. “We’ll get good support, there’s no doubt about that and it makes a huge difference.”