Today's a great day in history, make no mistake.
By the date, it's the day on which Liverpool FC won the European Cup twice, of course - against Borussia Moencengladbach in Rome in 1977, and again three years ago, in the greatest final of them all, as AC Milan succumbed to “The Miracle of Istanbul”.
It's also the birthday of two worthy servants of both of today's combatants in days gone by, Maia Jackman and Margot Bowker.
Not that they would have had any relevance to me had events not transpired as they did one sunny Sunday morning twenty-one years ago this very day ...
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
With the English football season over, I had time aplenty to kill prior to heading to Eden Park to watch Marist murder Ponsonby (as usual!)
This was back in the days when rugby was entertaining, and Auckland scored tries for fun while toying with opponents for whom it was a privilege just to be on the same pitch as St. John Kirwan, Grant Fox, Michael Jones et al … Godfathers, that was some team, make no mistake!
So was another one I came across quite by chance that gloriously sunny autumn Sunday morning, May 24, 1987.
With it being too nice a day to waste inside the house, I looked through the weekend's sports schedules in the Herald to see if there was anything of note taking place, and the soccer fixtures listed a game at Pollard Park at 11am between Eden and South Auckland Rangers.
A quick check in Soccer Express showed that it was a top-of-the-table clash, so, having never seen a women's soccer match before, this seemed to be the perfect one to watch given the league standings, and if it proved to be not much chop then I could very easily carry on walking down Dominion Road to Eden Park without any worries.
My parents were a bit bemused, to put it mildly. “Women's soccer?” I remember them saying in unison when I told them of my plans for the day. “Didn't even know they played the game”, said Dad, amongst other reservations they voiced.
Nor did I, to be honest, prior to going to this match. But I soon discovered they could play, brilliantly in the case of one player in particular, whose name I found out upon asking around.
I watched the entire match, and was fair buzzing afterwards. I couldn't get home from Eden Park quick enough to fire off a letter to Soccer Express, outlining how impressed I was by the quality of football on show as Eden won 6-0, and in particular, the performance of one Michele Cox …
She really does have a lot to answer for, doesn't she?
I continued my trips to Pollard Park throughout that season, one in which Eden set records which are unlikely to ever be broken. Eighteen wins from as many league games, scoring 171 goals (including a 2-0 win by default) while conceding just one - and as young Terry McCahill will doubtless verify, given she was a junior member of that Eden squad, they were absolutely filthy about that solitary concession!
The regular starting line-up was one heck of a team, chock-full of New Zealand legends. The forward line alone was a frightening prospect for any defender. Donna Baker's speed, the sublime skills of Monique Van de Elzen, goalscoring machine Wendy Sharpe, the outrageously talented Debbie “Koko” Pullen and the artistry and all-round brilliance of Michele Cox … no wonder they scored goals for fun!
Behind them lurked Lyn Pedruco - still the best header of a ball I've seen in NZ football - and a defensive quartet which was the ideal blend of steel, subtlety, tenacity and toughness - Maylene Featherstone, Barbara Cox, Viv Robertson and Audrey Rigby. If you managed to find a way past them, you still had to beat Leslie King, the best NZ goalkeeper ever … that's why they only conceded one goal!
How would the cream of today's players go against them? I reckon they'd stand half a chance, considering the bulk of that legendary side is now aged forty and beyond!
When they were in their collective prime in 1987, however, nobody could hold a candle to them, and watching their outstanding exploits provided me with the best possible introduction to the skill, quality and potential of the women's game, as well as some of the finest players in New Zealand's history.
THE “A TEAM”
In the score of seasons since, I've witnessed well over a thousand women's football matches at club, provincial and international level, and any number of talented female footballers and teams doing their level best to reach the aforementioned daunting standards.
The 1999 “A Team” squad has been the best provincial combination I've seen. In winning all eight games they played at that year's National Tournament in Christchurch, they scored 67 goals and conceded one, with that coming inside the last ninety seconds of their triumph in the final against Wairarapa.
Given they combined the best players of both the Three Kings and Lynn-Avon squads of the time, it's little wonder they achieved such an enviable record. Back in those days, matches lasted just eighty minutes, and teams would play twice a day. On
day one Auckland steamrollered Northland 6-0 and South Canterbury 15-0 - this a National Tournament record scoreline.
It didn't last long, because the very next day the “A Team” absolutely annihilated Canterbury B 24-0 - and they missed just as many! The hugely talented Amanda “Jabba” Crawford bagged nine that day, “MJ” scored four, while young “Coxy” netted five and had a hand in a staggering thirteen more!
Incredibly, that wasn't their best performance. They reserved that for the first half of a clash with Hawkes Bay on an absolute postage stamp of a pitch which sloped upwards in one corner!
The “A Team”, with nine NZ internationals and two US Olympic Development Training Programme graduates in Amy Goaziou and Jennifer Kelley in their ranks, administered a forty-minute footballing lesson, scoring five goals en route to a 6-0 win. A crackerjack team, that one, make no mistake!
The advent of the National Women's League in 2002 has, of course, seen changes aplenty to the provincial game, but Auckland's dominance has remained constant - just as well, given the immense talent pool based in New Zealand's footballing capital. (And don't let any Wellington Phoenix fan try to argue to the contrary on that score!)
With the “A Team” though, it's not enough simply to win matches. It's about how you go about winning them - emphasising that “X factor” which sets Auckland's women's footballers apart from their Kiwi peers.
The standards set by past “A Team” combinations are such that the minimum expectation of their successors in blue-and-white is to win in style - to punctuate each performance with an exclamation mark which leaves folk in no doubt as to Auckland's superiority. The 2005 NWL Grand Final was a classic display in this regard, as was the 5-1 drubbing of Capital in round-robin action a year later.
THE WRITE SIDE OF THE EQUATION
It continues to be an absolute pleasure watching some of the best women's footballers in the country in action, a pleasure I've greatly enjoyed over the past two decades and more, to the point where, come the end of each season, I'm wishing it was the first Sunday in April again barely a week later!
Even more challenging, from a personal perspective, has been attempting to do justice to these on-field exploits by way of the written word each Sunday night, and during the week on occasions.
Since April 21, 1991, when I first started writing up reports on the matches I witnessed for publishing in the likes of Soccer Express, Inside Soccer, the Central Leader and, most commonly nowadays, on the internet, many a Sunday night has rolled into Monday morning as my attempts to transcribe my notes into meaningful sentences which accurately depict deeds done have proceeded.
However long it takes is inconsequential, for mine. You should never impose restraints on creativity - instead, give it its head and allow it to flourish, rather than attempt to contain it within the confines of a modish straitjacket, like so many of the stories one reads these days which are lacking both in substance and detail due to the confines of, for example, word limitations and political correctness.
Sadly, such restraints on creativity are evident on NZ football fields, particularly in the men's game. So much so, in fact, that they highlight, for me, a subtle but key difference between the respective approaches to the code by each gender - the women play to win, while the chaps' prime objective is not to lose.
Suffice to say, you see a far greater degree of technical quality in the women's game, far more scoring opportunities, and by and large a better all-round spectacle because the footballing aspects of the game are encouraged, not stifled.
Because of this, it's far easier to watch and write up a women's game, even though it can take a wee bit longer to compile, compared with a men's match, due to so many more events of note having taken place during the ninety minutes.
STARS ON SUNDAYS
Those responsible for those events have been among the most talented players to kick a football in this country's history. The vast majority of them have sported the silver fern with pride at some stage of their careers, and/or represented the “A Team” with distinction.
There are far too many names who have caught my eye over the years to mention in this personal reflection on twenty-one years in women's football, but it would be totally inappropriate not to recognise sixteen of the game's most exciting and attack-minded talents, whose significant on-field contributions over a number of years have, for mine, done much to make New Zealand women's football the greatly attractive spectacle that it is …
Michele Cox - Simply the best! The most complete midfielder I've seen in NZ football, who is proving to be just as influential off the park.
Monique Van de Elzen - Brilliant player. All class with silky skills, a magic left foot, and the scourge of many a fullback. Retired far too soon.
Maia Jackman - A true warrior & champion. Terrific competitor who simply doesn't know when she's beaten, and regularly plays through the pain barrier for the cause.
Hayley Moorwood - Within ten minutes of first seeing her play in
2000, I said to those alongside me, “At long last, I've finally found the natural successor to Michele Cox”. 'Nuff said!
Debbie Pullen - Attacking dynamo, whose wonderful close control, speed of thought and movement, made her a defender's nightmare. Unstoppable at times.
Donna Baker - Frighteningly fast, and sometimes too quick even for herself. A one-woman attacking tour de force who scored and set up goals almost at will.
Wendy Sharpe and Pernille Andersen - Two players from different eras who were far and away the best around at doing what they did with great frequency - scoring goals.
Amanda Crawford - As both a maker and taker of goals, she had few peers. A terrific talent, whose non-stop energy-charged running left many an opponent gasping.
Priscilla Duncan - Not the most prolific of goalscoring midfielders by any means, but she sets 'em up with her eyes closed! A midfield powerhouse who can single-handedly dominate a game with her velvet touch and tigerish tackling.
Kirsty Yallop - An old head on young shoulders. It's been a real treat watching this precocious talent develop as both a player and a person since her debut season in 2001.
Zoe Thompson - A fine sight to behold when in full flight. Has immense potential to be even better still, but needs to be more clinical in front of goal, despite her ability to score under pressure.
Rebecca Sowden - Has developed into an all-round midfield general, whose game has greatly benefited from a spell in the USA. One of the best passers of a ball in the game.
Marlies Oostdam - Boasts perhaps the most cultured left foot in the game today. As adept in defence as midfield, she's a sound leader who boasts an impressive strike rate.
Amber Hearn - Came on in leaps and bounds after “Jabba”'s retirement, and we all look forward to her return to those levels after the setbacks she suffered abroad. A centre-forward in the classic mould, it's great to see her back home.
Maria Wilkie - Phenomenally fast, and an under-rated talent whose strike rate for a flank player was very good. Sadly, she lacked the self-belief in her own ability to realise her full potential.
MY SECOND FAVOURITE TEAM
I've ploughed a fair amount of “filfy lucre” into the economy over the years to ensure the girls enjoy a modicum of coverage (I wish it was more) for all the efforts and sacrifices they make to play the game they love. I've always regarded those outlays as an investment in the girls' potential and desire to be the best they can be, potential which, as we know, is immense.
They've also been beneficial from my perspective, in terms of taking me to places both at home and abroad to which I very much doubt I would otherwise have gone.
Following around the team which is second only to LFC in my admiration has seen my passport adorned by stamps from West Island, Japan and, of course, China last year. Not forgetting Samoa in 2006, of course, and the U20s' Oceania triumph.
Indeed, between March 1996 and October 2006, I missed just six out of the thirty Football Ferns internationals played in that time. The only reason for my absence from both the four-match Champions Tour of Germany and the USA in 1998, and the two-match Celebration Tour of the USA in 2004, was financial - I'd have been there with bells on otherwise!
In the last eighteen months, a combination of financial constraints and a number of tours materialising at fairly short notice have seen me absent from far more Football Ferns' internationals and FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Finals than I would personally prefer to be the case. (Needless to say, I want to be at every single one!!)
But being at the FIFA Women's World Cup Finals was something special, make no mistake. Those experiences and memories are not the sort of thing you forget in a hurry, that's for sure.
Naturally enough, I'd dearly love to repeat the dose in August this year, covering the Football Ferns' fortunes on www.sportswebsoccer.com live from Qinhuangdao and Shenyang while celebrating 21 years in women's soccer. The necessary media accreditation is sorted - it's now “just” a case of securing the finances to ensure I can make a further investment in potential which, sooner or later, will be realised.
So if you've got a spare grand or five … yes please!