Grigor Griffin is a diehard Melville United fan with a long memory. He previews this year’s Chatham Cup final between his club and Christchurch United …
Chatham Cup finals are like buses — you go 16 years without getting one and then two pop along in a space of just four years (or a mere three seasons if you allow for COVID).
Okay, so the bus thing might not quite work as a cup final simile — it’s not easy writing these previews, you know — but then that in itself is arguably metaphorical for a competition that also doesn’t quite work.
Not when you consider we have to play the final against Christchurch United at 4-bloody-pm on a Sunday at a venue which is these days essentially a rugby and baseball white elephant, geographically sited further north than any premier regional league club.
Honestly, would anyone even bat an eyelid if bizarro Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown — a man who shouts at clouds — were to shut the place down?
In summary, North Harbour Stadium is not a day out at Wembley. Imagine trying to get there and back from Christchurch for less than $1000 a head, even if you could make same-day flights work.
So this could yet give us the smallest cup final attendance of all time, with tumbleweed blowing through the ugly concrete concourse. Rather than a day of pride, it could easily become a day of incongruity and trivial statistical footnotes.
But worse than that, much worse than having now played two finals at this grossly unloved venue for two losses, where in both instances we have led at half-time, is the fact that many of us Melville fans have still yet to properly slay the ghosts of 2019.
Main photo: Melville supporters at the 2019 Chatham Cup semi-final against Bay Olympic. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.
I’d argue we haven’t been fully through the grieving process and its stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance following our painful 3-2 loss to Napier City Rovers in 2019.
Whereas in 2003 Melville had always been underdogs with their rag-tag bunch, in 2019 you kind of fancied them to win.
We’d had a half-decent team at the end of 2019, with Welshman Craig Pritchard at the top of his game, and possibly the best in the northern league at the time. Indeed, creative midfielder Pritchard had easily been Melville’s best import since Mike Thompson in 2011.
Alongside him was Marc Who, a 30-goals-a-season kind of guy somehow compensating for also being a 30-bottles-of-vodka-a-season kind of guy, while the likes of Federico Marquez, Josh Davies, Luke Searle, Flynn O’Brien, Liam Hayes, Mark Jones, Max Tommy, skipper Aaron Scott, and Liam Steffert and Logan Wisnewski all had their moments.
In our previous eight matches, we’d only lost once, and that was in the game before the final when everyone was being rested and 50-something Neil Mouncher was playing in goal.
And we were also well on our way in the final when everything suddenly turned to custard against Napier.
Marquez had put us ahead in the 12th minute with one of the great cup final goals and were leading 1-0 when Mark Jones got sent off by referee Antony Riley for a second bookable in the 65th minute.
From being relatively comfortable, it became an absolute uphill struggle. Napier potted two goals to go ahead, before in the 86th minute, Scott brought Melville back from the brink with a left-footer about 7m out from a Hayes free kick.
But Napier wrapped it up two minutes later with a match-winning volley for 3-2.
It was all a blur. There no time to unpack everything before the final whistle. There was no emotional bargaining, nor acceptance. Life lacked meaning. Denial became a tool to stagger the grief.
It became a case of “let’s get out of this god-forsaken place, forget it even happened”. There was no cathartic sharing of common suffering and loss.
The only escape was to turn our attention to Melville 6-a-side and another bloody golf tournament.
It didn’t help that off the pitch, the essential Melville chemistry had already frayed with the coaching staff.
Well in advance of the final both coaches — Sam Wilkinson and Michael Mayne — had given notice of their immediate departure afterwards, having already lined up other coaching gigs.
The cup final was their swansong, and from a club perspective, it was a messy, no-handshake departure with no succession plans in place — though as fate would have it, an older, wiser, more reflective Sam was back at the helm in April 2020 to begin yet another tortured journey.
It’s been a funny old time since then. There have been a few “if only” moments and at least a reconnection and mental readjustment of sorts in making the national league last year — and making a good fist of it as well.
But it needs a cup win to replace what was lost in 2019 and disavow that mental baggage altogether.
Fast-forward to 2023
This year it is 29-year-old Jarrod Young at the helm — and even if his squad is largely kids, he has the distinction of being a coach younger than two of his players. Young team, young coach — coach Young.
But more than issues of chronological age, this will be the Aaron Scott cup final.
Main photo: Aaron Scott … could this be his grand farewell?
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This is a good time to acknowledge once again Aaron’s unparalleled commitment to Melville.
He made his first team debut in 2003, but as a student chose to play for Hamilton Boys’ High in the Chatham Cup.
As luck would have it, that turned out to be the year Melville made the final without him. Ha, he also had one season off in 2009 and that turned out to be the season that Melville won the Northern Premier League.
But Aaron represents the very best of Melville, a veteran of 370 major appearances for the club and five Player of the Year awards.
And if that is not enough to impress, there is his 174 further New Zealand Football Championship/ASB Premiership/National League matches for Waikato FC (52), Waitakere (80), WaiBOP United (26), Team Wellington (2) and Hamilton Wanderers (16).
Oh, plus the following:
- FIFA World Club Championship 1 (Waitakere);
- Oceania Champions League 34 (Waitakere 29, Wellington 5);
- NZ Under 23/Olympic qualifiers and warm-up games 12;
- 2008 Beijing Olympic Games 3;
- All Whites 11 (2009 to 2013, 7 in starting side, 4 on as substitute, 5 caps plus 8 as substitute not used);
- New Zealand A 2.
But what stands out most with his service to Melville is not so much his longevity, or the fact his career spans three decades of club life, or even the honours he has accrued in such a brilliant career, but the fact he has conducted himself in a manner that has been beyond reproach.
Whether he has had to deal with crazed opponents, nutcase teammates, supercilious referees or over-zealous coaches, Aaron has taken it all in his stride.
At club level, Aaron transcended stardom, and become an almost totemic figure for Melville. He’s been our Mr Reliable, our Peter Perfect.
In fact, you could also define him by the things he DOESN’T do. He doesn’t bitch when things go tits up. Doesn’t expect others to clean up after him. Doesn’t get drunk and climb on the clubroom’s roof. Doesn’t trade on his status.
Mind you, he still has his foibles. His awful club prizegiving dress-ups are near legendary, while his singing is, at best, an acquired taste. However, those are minor quibbles. In almost every other regard, Aaron Scott is our enduring Poster Boy.
It should also not be overlooked that the 2023 cup final might be the last appearance for Liam Hayes before an overseas jaunt. And if Hayes is off, that will leave as much of a hole as Aaron’s departure.
Hayes, once the enfant-terrible of Gower, has carved a special niche at Melville. If you printed out his bookings end to end since his debut in 2014, the paper trail would run the length of Gower Park.
But he has also become a very important character. He’s the life and soul of the place with his passion, his grumpiness, his excesses, his swearing, his lack of judgement. He’s unofficially become our “emotional captain”, if you will.
The bad cop to Scott’s good cop.
Indeed, it came as a shock to hear one of the grandkids, in playing back-yard football the other week, wanted to be not Messi nor Ronaldo — but Hayesy.
I know. Mortifying, but that’s what attitude can do.
Hayes and Scott aside, if Melville are to win this final, we essentially need it to become the Jerson final.
Jerson Lagos (21) is the Melville player with X factor. Jerson doing Jerson things in the top third is Melville’s most likely path to victory.
Meanwhile, Melville’s record against cup final opponents Christchurch United is solid. We beat them 4-0 in the quarter-finals in 2019 and then 5-2 in last year’s national league in the only meetings in the modern era.
However, there tends to be a “northern conceit” in football, where fans automatically discount the merit of anything that is occurring south of Taupo.
And the reality is Christchurch United have won the Southern League with quite a margin of daylight in chasing their seventh cup win.
They will be the favourites and Melville the under-unicorns.
Grigor Griffin is a diehard Melville United follower with a long memory.