As teams prepare for the preliminary round in this year’s Chatham Cup, chances are that no club has faced a bigger challenge than Gisborne Thistle in taking part in the 100th year of football’s oldest cup competition.
On ANZAC Day, a party of 18 players and coaching staff will board an Air New Zealand domestic flight to Auckland, where they’ll play Papakura City at McLennan Park.
The cup tie will complete a weekend in which the Thistle team also travels (on Saturday) by Kiwi Air for a Lotto Central Federation League match against Napier City Rovers.
“We’re probably doing more air travel this season than many National League clubs,” says Thistle’s team manager Mark Baple.
Main photo: Gisborne Thistle … they started 2023 by winning the Geoff Logan Memorial Tournament in pre-season.
The club faces three months of air travel to all their games because February’s Cyclone Gabrielle damaged the main highway between Gisborne and Napier, forcing its closure for several months.
“That meant we either had to take a 10-hour road trip via Taupo to get to places like Palmerston North, or find other options,” Baple says.
“In the end, we agreed with Central Football that we’d play all our games away from home till round 12 at the start of July.”
Baple said Thistle understood that clubs in the same federation competition would not want to face round trips of up to 20 hours by road, with overnight stays, so the club decided to commit to a gruelling itinerary that involves air travel.
“We looked at our options with Central Football, who were very supportive, and we considered playing games in Wellington, or on neutral grounds in places like Taupo.
“The only thing we considered not an option was pulling out of the competition. We decided we just had to find a way to go ahead with our season.”
Baple, who doubles as the club treasurer and first team goalkeeper coach, said Thistle’s philosophy was to find ways to enable young players to compete at the highest possible level, and the club was the only one locally to play outside of its own region.
By July 1, when they plan to host Taradale for their first home game of the season at their Childers Road ground, the Thistle team will have racked up away trips to Taradale (2), Napier (2) and Palmerston North (4).
Paying for the hefty travel costs has been a challenge for Thistle and Baple, who puts together the club’s funding applications.
But he says local businesses have rallied round, including Kiwi Air, whose fleet is more used to carrying out low-level aerial surveying work.
“When we headed to the Hawkes Bay for our first game of the season, they even gave a lift to a referee who was needed for a game there,” he said. Kiwi Air have also been helping fly local children to schools in the Hawkes Bay.
Club sponsor AHL Ltd (Aotearoa Labour Hire), and its founder Izzy Whitley, had been supportive and the club was seeking grants to offset the costs of what Baple calls “one of our most challenging seasons ever”.
The club was determined to enter the Chatham Cup and instead of taking part in the Central/Capital regional draw, Thistle was given permission to enter the Northern section.
“We were hoping for a home draw, of course, and instead, we got a trip to Auckland to play Papakura,” Baple says.
Driving there would have required a 12-hour round trip with an overnight stay in Auckland.
Instead, they’ll fly into Mangere Airport, kick off at 1pm … and hope the game doesn’t go to extra time and penalties.
“We have to fly out by 6pm so we should be OK,” Baple says.
Whatever the outcome on ANZAC Day, Thistle know this season will help define what the club stands for.
“Never give in. Always figure out how to play your football.”
Coach Garrett Blair has been working with the first team squad since January, preparing them for what’s already turning out to be a special year.
They drew their opener 1-1 against Taradale; now comes two games in four days, as far apart as Napier and Auckland.
“The challenge has required all of us to pull together. Our committee has been great, the coaching staff and players have a point to prove and we’re working hard to find the money to pay for it,” Baple says.
The Chatham Cup presents an opportunity for Thistle, with Baple saying: “Getting a win on Tuesday will be for the whole of our region which has suffered lots of devastation from the cyclone.”
Thistle fans will be able to watch a live-stream of the cup tie, provided by the club’s sponsor Rangai Media.
And when this season’s all over?
Baple says planning is underway already for Thistle’s 100th Year celebrations next year.
He’d love to hear from former players, supporters and members who want to participate.
Email [email protected].
2023 Chatham Cup
READ MORE: Preliminary draw available for 100th year of Chatham Cup >>>>
Game to be played on Tuesday April 25, 2023
Papakura City v Gisborne Thistle
McLennan Park, Papakura, 1pm