By Grigor Griffin
With Melville now back in national league ranks for the first time in 24 years, it’s perhaps a fitting time to take a deep dive down Memory Lane, back to the days of the 1997-98 National Soccer League, as it was then called.
It was a spring full of hope and promise at the start, but ultimately a summer of parched disappointment and cynicism by the end of March. Dickens would have described it as the best of times, the worst of times.
Melville were coming off a debut 1996-97 summer season in which they had finished seventh in a 10-team league and failed to win a single home game, despite having what seemed a useful and experienced squad.
Rugby Park had been used for the 1996-97 season but it proved to be a graveyard for Melville and they never won a match there. And given it was costing $1,000 a match to play at Rugby Park – quite a bit of money in those days – Melville eventually talked Soccer New Zealand in allowing their final two matches to go ahead at Gower Park, even though it didn’t meet the lofty league criteria of the era.
So it was almost a relief for Melville to be running their 1997-98 campaign out of Porritt Stadium (apart from the home game against Napier which was played at Gower, through having been unable to secure Porritt for the weekend of January 11) where Waikato United had also played in 1996, after the Rugby Park nightmare.
Playing at Porritt — otherwise known as Waikato’s athletics headquarters during the summer months — did have its challenges though. At a practical level, the goals had to be put in and taken out after every match and rubber mats placed over the running track edges near the corners every matchday, while stored gear had to be carted to and from Gower Park. It was not really home.
And in terms of making a buck from the bar, it was super tricky. It was one thing to invite everyone across town to Gower Park afterwards, but when Wanderers were happy to open their own bar at Porritt, few would bother (though to be fair to Wanderers, they were otherwise very supportive of Melville’s summer campaign — more-so than I can recall Melville personnel ever supporting Wanderers’ summer efforts).
Steve Williams was in his eighth season as club coach, assisted by Graeme Nobilo, with Sean Crowe as goalkeeping coach and Paul Marflitt as manager. Major sponsors were Stripe & Moulding Company, a Grey St vehicle signage company, and the team was known as SMC Melville United.
Sigi Kerbers had taken over as chairman of Melville’s summer league national league management committee (and also set a milestone of sorts when he also made one appearance as sub for Melville while chairman).
Cathy Stantiall was secretary, Gene Herder was treasurer and the rump of the committee comprised Phil Wheatley, Steve Owens, Brenda Holloway and Vicki Stringer. Neville Fletcher was clubs’ liaison, while Grant Stantiall was editor of a 24-page glossy black-and-white programme. (Incidentally, in the programme there were over 50 dollar-a-goal sponsors listed, with some pledging up for $5 per goal in a season where Melville found the net 46 times in 20 matches.)
On paper Melville had a more than useful squad with eight players in the 28-34 age group and four former All Whites in Brian Hayes, Paul Nixon, Declan Edge and Mark Cossey. Other prominent players were Neil Mouncher (and later in the season, Craig Farmer), Darren Fellowes (top scorer with 18 goals from 15 appearances), Matt Williams, Andy Irvine, Rod Cooper, Hoani Edwards, Nobby (Andrew) Stiles, Stu Watene, Tony Valentine and Aaron Kingi (who had been named in the NZ U23 team).
Mid-season an interesting addition was Steve McLoughlin, a laid-back but eye-catching English striker who drifted up from New Plymouth (he was not averse to hitch-hiking) and he scored five goals from his seven starts and two sub appearances.
Edge at this stage of his career was trying to reinvent himself as a sweeper (with limited success), while Nixon managed three goals but was not quite the force he had been in his youth. Elsewhere Liverpudlian Steve Rigby was an import who had his moments, while nearly a decade on from having made his Melville debut, club stalwart Stu Timings even made three starts at the end of the season.
The summer league kicked off on November 1 – and without a commercial backer. Earlier, Nelson Suburbs had successfully taken high court action to force their inclusion in the league, after having initially been left out, which made it an 11-team league. And these 11 teams all had to pay $30,000 to take part, with the entry fees not covering travelling expenses. Unlike the previous summer, there was no money for advertising or television coverage.
The league had come through a period where tobacco company Winfield’s sponsorship had been supplanted by Smokefree sponsorship under government legislation, but this had now run its term, and six years after it had been known a replacement sponsor would be required, none had been found.
So with the cock-ups, court cases and political bumbling, we’d never had a start to a national league season quite like it. As a competition, it was teetering on the edge, and in retrospect it was no surprise that it duly became the last summer league for seven years.
But all that was overlooked as Melville made a brilliant start to the season with a stunning 3-2 away win over a highly fancied North Shore United.
Shore’s squad, coached by Shane Rufer, featured Oceania player of the decade (and a year later player of the century) Wynton Rufer, Rory Fallon, Billy Harris, Jason Batty, Harry Ngata, Noah Hickey, Lee Norfolk, Raf de Gregorio, Gareth Rowe, Dean Dodds, and Jimmy Cudd. They pretty much had more All Whites than non-All Whites. The media and pundits had all written Melville off. Shore were hotter-than-hot favourites.
But as it turned out, this opening game of the summer was more about Melville. Indeed, it was arguably the pinnacle of the club’s achievement across their two national league seasons.
The match kicked off at 4pm on a Sunday in front of about 2000 fans at Allen Hill Stadium and Shore passed the ball around quite aristocratically – that is, until Fellowes seized on a stray pass out of defence and strolled through to put Melville 1-0 up after 22 minutes.
At the other end, Mouncher was in the form of his life in goal and that allowed Melville to hold an unexpected half-time lead.
But when Shore scored two early in the second half it looked like the party was over. However when Nixon – who like many of his team mates was into his 30s — came on shortly after for the injured Irvine, the match swung once again.
The former All White deliver a quality cross from the right, and the unmarked Stiles easily headed home against his old club.
Ninety seconds later, Nixon was at it again. A short corner routine saw Cossey whip in a cross which Fellowes flicked goalwards. It was parried by keeper Simon Eady, but Nixon was there was a flowery diving header which proved to be the winner. Fellowes, Nixon and Cossey was possibly the best Waikato national league attacking combination since Nelson and Stamp in 1977.
Meanwhile, Mouncher was simply brilliant. After he saved one header from Wynton Rufer, Auckland football writer Jeremy Ruane — who was also editor of “Parklife”, a combined match programme for Auckland’s four national league clubs — even managed to draw comparisons with England legend Gordon Banks:
“Mouncher made some stunning saves, none more so than a 77th-minute effort to deny Wynton Rufer which had people gasping ‘Gordon Banks’ within seconds of his producing it, so similar was this denial to the former England number one’s thwarting of Pele’s header in the 1970 World Cup Finals clash of England and Brazil.”
Melville fans, by contrast, typically compared Mouncher — with veins regularly almost popping on his neck -— more to a kind of pathologically angry Billy the Fish.
But Ruane continued: “A low cross found Rufer in space about twelve yards out, and he hit a volley on the turn which seemed destined to hit the back of a gaping net. Indeed, the retired All White was beginning to turn away to celebrate when he checked himself to witness the sight of the diving Mouncher, who had flung himself across his goal from beside his left-hand upright, somehow stretching out to paw the ball to safety from under the shadows of the crossbar, about a foot off the ground. In a word, unbelievable!”
Mouncher had also denied Rufer with a point-blank save five minutes earlier and the compilation of his quality work prompted Ruane to suggest he would be right in the frame for the next All Whites squad, having just gained his New Zealand citizenship. (Mind you, Ruane also called him “a Geordie” to balance the ledger.) And with Mark Paston being in such horrific form at the time, it did not seem an unreasonable take.
Though it still kind of rankled to Melville fans. Here was Mouncher being praised as possibly the country’s best goalkeeper. But not because he had been his club’s player of the year for the previous two seasons and was consistently reliable — but because he’s had one good game in front of an Auckland crowd, which was pretty much the selection criteria at the time.
With Melville leading and about 5-6 minutes to go, with nothing better to do, I began trolling the huge crowd of home fans with the loud repeat chant of: “Bring On Wynton Rufer!”
It inevitably drew the desired idiot responses, with Shore fans pointing out their star signing had been on since the start, which opened them up for the kicker: “Oh, sorry, somehow never noticed him.”
And with two minutes to go, my pal Stantiall pulled the bugle out of his backpack and reprised a tradition from Waikato United’s 1995 and 1996 seasons by playing The Last Post — a signature move whenever the Bulls were leading at that stage of a game.
Meanwhile, Irvine, who had gone off with a groin injury, was on the sideline feistily raging at referee Derek Rugg that time was up, in his thick Scottish brogue.
The Melville lineup v Shore was: Neil Mouncher; Tony Valentine, Nobby Stiles, Declan Edge, Aaron Kingi, Rod Cooper, Hoani Edwards, Matt Williams, Andy Irvine (Paul Nixon, 55′), Mark Cossey, Darren Fellowes (Steve Rigby, 83′).
It was heady, joyous stuff, and gave amazing hope for the summer ahead, especially when Melville followed it up with a 2-1 home win –— their first ever home national league victory — over Canterbury Woolston (goals from Fellowes and Cooper) to be top equal on the table with Miramar Rangers.
For context, pre-season Evening Post journalist Steve Rendle — one of the leading media voices of the era — had predicted Melville would finish 10th.
Sadly, Melville were soon brought down to earth by some ho-hum showings and ultimately finished seventh out of 11.
Melville’s spectator attendances were down markedly on the 1996-97 season (and it only rained at one game). Melville had the cheapest entry in the league at $5 (and $2 for a programme).
There was one curious interlude when Melville had a bye early in the season and used the weekend to play the New Zealand Secondary Schools team, coached by Kevin Fallon. Melville were too good in sweeping to a 5-0 win, even after gifting Mouncher to the schoolboys along the way to make more of a game of it.
As the long hot summer continued, attendances at training dwindled — to the point that Mouncher angrily threw in the towel, saying if others couldn’t be bothered, then neither could he.
Williams pulled in Tauranga-based Farmer in goal for nine matches, and he generally gave a creditable account of himself (including saving a penalty from Health McCormack v Mt Wellington), though Williams did later induce Mouncher back by offering him $200 a game.
There were four losses on the trot in January, and at half-time in one of them, the frustration levels reached the point that coach Williams even chinned his centreback Stiles at half-time in a changing shed dust-up.
Edge in turn announced he couldn’t play for a coach who beat his players up and withdrew. (He later returned, though Williams never started him again – though did persist with Stiles.)
As February continued, it became harder and harder to keep the squad together, with players eyeing up winter options, working on the increasingly obvious premise there was not going to be another summer league in 1998-99.
On March 7, Melville were away to Team Otago, the same weekend as the Cambridge pre-season tournament. The list of players who were asked to travel to Dunedin, agreed, and then rang back 20 minutes later to say, sorry, they couldn’t make it, would have been huge.
It reached a nadir on March 21 when Hoani Edwards — to general derision — skipped the 5-1 away loss to Napier so he could play a pre-season friendly for Oratia United.
Manager Graeme Nobilo, who had played for Hamilton AFC back in the mid-80s, came on as sub for Melville’s away match against Miramar.
Then on Saturday March 28 the winter northern league season kicked off with Melville United’s national league midfielder Cooper and striker Fellowes playing for Wanderers, though at least Melville still beat Hutt City 4-2 at home the following day.
It prompted coach Williams to advocate for a return to a winter national league.
“To have the two leagues overlap is ridiculous,” he said, arguing a winter competition “would keep players interested, draw those wanting to play at the highest level, generate competition for places and provide games for players who would otherwise be sitting on the sideline”.
How the season ended
Going into the final couple of weeks, Melville were bottom of the table. They’d gone from top to bottom in five and half months.
But with just one point separating the bottom five clubs, a 5-2 home win over Nelson — despite McLoughlin being sent off — and then the 4-2 win over Hutt got them back up to the relative respectability of seventh.
Looking back, a lot of the Melville squad were coming to the end of their useful existence at top domestic level by 1998. Matt Williams, who was later named supporters’ player of the year after having returned from living in Australia, was perhaps the only player to enhance his reputation apart from Mouncher.
Nevertheless, you suspect that if this lot were playing in the northern premier league in 2022, they would still have waltzed into the top four, no problem at all.
As a post-script (and foreword for what is essentially a whole different chapter) in 1999 Melville competed in the North Island League – where the winner played the South Island winner for the New Zealand Championship – and were relegated. It was the first relegation in the club’s history.
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Round 1 of the 2022 Men’s National League
Games to be played on Saturday October 1, 2022
Cashmere Technical v Miramar Rangers
English Park, Christchurch, 1pm
Napier City Rovers v Wellington Phoenix
Bluewater Stadium, Napier, 2pm
Wellington Olympic v Auckland City
Endeavour Park, Whitby, Wellington, 3pm
Games to be played on Sunday October 2, 2022
Birkenhead United v Christchurch United
Shepherds Park, Birkenhead, 1pm
Auckland United v Melville United
Keith Hay Park, Mt Roskill, 3pm
Grigor Griffin is a diehard Melville United follower with a long memory.