By Rachel Lilburn
The largest — and arguably the most successful — junior football tournament in Australasia has never been marketed, promoted or advertised.
It’s an invitational tournament, grown through word of mouth, that sees close to 2,000 junior and youth footballers across 130 teams spend three days playing football in Taupo.
It all started with a phone call in 2004.
A boys Grade 11 team from Auckland were headed to Taupo as an end-of-season trip, but they wanted to play some more football.
They called John McCartney — then Junior President of Taupo AFC — to see if he could put some games together.
Several local clubs were interested, and that first year saw eight grade 11 teams — from Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Taupo — enjoy a day of football.
The following year, the word spread and 20 teams across grades 10 and 11 arrived.
By 2008, more than 50 teams were involved, and in 2009 the tournament moved to a two-day format to accommodate still more teams, more grades, and more games. Girls-only grades were requested, and introduced.
By 2016, the tournament reached its full capacity of 130 teams across 10 grades, and waitlists were introduced.
It was also in 2016 that the tournament was officially named the “McCartney Invitational Tournament” (although McCartney himself wasn’t consulted in the naming), and the tournament got a logo and its own Facebook page.
McCartney, who went on to be President of Taupo AFC for 17 years, continues to run the tournament on a completely voluntary basis.
In June 2023, McCartney’s service to the sport, and to the Taupo club, was recognised with a Life Membership of WaiBOP Football.
Planning begins in about March each year, when teams who participated the previous year are contacted and asked for an expression of interest.
From there, any additional spaces (often only in Grade 9 boys and U-10 girls) are made available via the website and Facebook page.
With close to 6,000 supporters and spectators expected each year, teams are advised to book tents and marquees through McCartney, who organises the set-up which starts a week before the tournament.
Volunteers from Taupo AFC help run this huge event, which now serves to raise some club funds for operating expenses during the year.
In 2019, the tournament successfully expanded to three days, and clubs were restricted to a single team per grade, to allow as many clubs as possible to participate.
COVID lockdowns in 2020 caused some nervous moments and sleepless nights, with Auckland coming out of lockdown two days before the tournament.
Ultimately, the tournament went ahead successfully.
The following year, with the country going through another lockdown, the tournament was cancelled, to the enormous disappointment of all.
The 18th annual tournament will go ahead in October 2023.
It will be held in the last weekend of the spring school holidays — Friday 6, Saturday 7 and Sunday October 8.
The boys/mixed grades start at Grade 9 through to Grade 15, with girls-only divisions of U10, U12 and U14. All games, across all grades, are 30 mins long, with 24 pitches each seeing around 15 games a day.
So why is this tournament so successful?
McCartney puts it down to a couple of things — the location plays a part, but he thinks the reputation is the main reason for its success. Clubs, players, and families enjoy it and want to come back.
McCartney says it’s a fun and inclusive competition, with the intention of giving teams a chance to play some different teams and clubs they may not meet in their regular season.
While it certainly provides some competitive football for players, the goal (pun intended) is to provide an enjoyable experience.
While each grade has a winner and runner-up, these are decided on points in a round-robin competition rather than any playoffs.
This means the draw is set at the start of the tournament and doesn’t change, which is helpful with 130 teams, parents, managers, coaches and support! It also means teams all get the same number of games.
A great location also helps. Taupo is an excellent central location for North Island teams.
Crown Park, home of Taupo AFC, is used to capacity, along with the adjacent Tauhara College. Having a venue where 24 pitches can be set up in one location — meaning clubs, teams and families are all in one place — makes logistics easier.
Taupo’s free-draining volcanic soil means the pitches are usually in pretty good condition, even at the end of a winter season, and don’t get bogged down with rain.
Tournament rules are kept fairly simple, following NZ Football and the local Federation rules, though there are a few small differences in playing format that sometimes catch teams out.
Grade 10 boys play 9v9 on a larger pitch, and Grade 12 boys play 11v11. This, McCartney says, is both historical and logistical, based on the pitches available and the number of teams in each division.
While it’s a change for all teams from what they’ve played all year, it’s an introduction to the format they will play the following year.
While parents and supporters can get vocal, behaviour on the whole is usually really good, and kept to the spirit of enjoyment of the game.
Over the years, there have been a couple of teams who have been unpleasant to others — McCartney says they were simply not invited back the following year.
The 2023 tournament gets underway on Friday October 6.
How to find out more
Rachel Lilburn is Taupo-based and a keen follower of her son’s progress as a junior player. Her feature articles for Friends of Football have included a profile of New Zealand U-17 men’s captain Dylan Gardiner, a World Cup for over-40s and a guideline to sideline behaviour.