An absolutely memorable afternoon at the legendary Eden Park gave Socceroos fans the opportunity to see the brightest and most exciting talents that Australia has to offer. With the visiting fans hosted by the Wellington Phoenix supporters, the occasion was destined to be one of the all-time classic away days. And it lived up to its billing.
Having a couple of nights in Auckland in between the two games gave the football tourists a chance to catch up with family and see some of the sights, and it was a refreshed band of active fans that made the journey to the Morningside Tavern in Bro Town territory for a meet arranged with the All Whites. The weather was spectacular, hot sunshine and a light wind the ideal recipe for midday beers, bao buns and free-flowing conversation with our near neighbours. It was almost a shame to leave the beer garden, but the thinning out of the crowd suggested we should get a move on.
The walk was about fifteen minutes, and we had been told to go through Gate A to get the flags through and sign the relevant paperwork. Hugo went through no problem, sharing a bit of banter with the security guard. Lee was stopped and had to give up the pole from his flag. Far out – honestly, this never goes smoothly. When we finally got around to our bay on the opposite side of the stadium, it was clear that our away bay had been converted into another home bay and there were families and other fans clad in black and white who were nothing to do with Australia or the Socceroos. We found a spot with the least people and thankfully other Socceroos shirts and scarves joined us. So, in an away bay with the home fans. What could go wrong?
It was hot. There was a pause to remember the Queen, unfortunately so many people were out of earshot of the field that there was a large murmur as we stopped to reflect. The Australian national anthem was belted out, and the Kiwi anthem was well received, now that we know the catchy melody a little better. The first chant from us Aussies was nothing short of painful. We are Australian was sung so out of tune that it was barely recognisable, but we were back in tune when the next chants went up, and we seemed loud from our small corner of Eden Park.
The Kiwi fans were quiet, save for a bunch of clowns in All Blacks and EPL gear who were trying their best to dish out the banter. We were serenaded with “You wish you were us” and “What do we think of Australians?” – so nothing to suggest that these were actual football fans.
When the game kicked off, there was high expectation in our bay – the imposing Thomas Deng in defence, livewire Marco Tilio on the left, Riley McGree in the pivot midfield role with Mitch Duke up front. An exciting line up and the last realistic chance to shine for some of the players looking to break through prior to the World Cup. When Nathantiel Atkinson slipped and let in his man, we had to rely on the quick reflexes of Andrew Redmayne to snuff out the chance for Chris Wood. Wood was off for a moment to receive treatment for what looked like a knock to the ribs and the star NZ player eventually had to make way later in the half to the dismay of the home fans.
An awful throw-in from the Kiwis then let Australia in. Duke advanced on goal and looked odds-on to score, but elected to square for the unmarked Tilio for the tap-in. Just as we were leaping in the air, the ball was somehow bundled wide, and we were left scratching our heads, watching the horror show on the big screen replay to confirm just how bad the miss was. One of those moments that could define an international career even. Tilio had a chance to make amends moments later, latching on to a pass to scurry into the area, but Tim Payne burned him for pace and any suggestion of a penalty was waved away.
After avoiding possibly the longest queue I have ever seen for drinks at any stadium anywhere (it was like the queue to see the queen), and finding a stall on a different level thanks to the insider knowledge of a steward, the second half was underway. There were no changes from memory, and Tilio had the first chance, sending Ollie Sail across his goal to beat away a fine shot from distance. The away bay was by now in full voice, and the bright start to the half had us excited. When McGree chased down a hopeful ball into the corner, the ball was worked back and a delightful cross saw Duke rise and power in a devastating header to give the Socceroos the lead. Oh how we celebrated.
The sight of Jason Cummings coming on and then the excitement machine Garang Kuol gave the game a different look. Cummings was excellent. Winston Reid was subbed, marking the end of an illustrious career and received huge applause. Kuol chased down a clearance and had no right to keep the ball in, but he did, and romped away towards goal. He square the ball to the unmarked McGree, who had joined the counter attack, but his shot was well saved. The rebound was fired toward goal, cleared, McGree then hit the bar, Sail was all at sea, but the referee had already pointed to the spot for a handball. God, this was exciting. We were by now in raptures. The banter from the Kiwis was being given straight back. Cummings’ penalty was true and the Socceroos were home and dry.
The final whistle was greeted with a massive roar from our small pocket of Aussies. We went straight down to the front, and the players filed across to give out hugs, selfies and high fives. A handful of New Zealand players also did the circuit of the stadium, Chris Wood was by far and away the most popular. It was a wrench to leave the stadium, but it was clear that the fan interaction was over, and we had a date back at the Morningside Tavern to continue the party.
We bumped into a full kit Newcastle fan, complete with Chris Wood signature, on route. Wood really is a big thing here and it was great to see another young fan of the Geordies so far from St James’ Park. Back at the Morningside, there was more beer and laughter, and some classic football dancing music, a great atmosphere to conclude a fabulous day out as the sun went down.
Danny Doolans was the final stop for the night, down by the harbour, and there was not a hint of Covid in a moving mass of bodies as the band pumped out a great repertoire and had the whole pub singing. Ollie Sail may or may not have been there, standing a head above the rest of the crowd, and we made tracks around 2.30am, leaving the rest of public holiday weekend Auckland in full swing. What a blast this was.
What did we learn from today? From a football perspective, we now know that we have weapons at our disposal – I hark back to England’s Mexico 86 tournament when they finally let Peter Beardsley out of the bag and that rescued their tournament. Garang Kuol and Jason Cummings are our jokers, we just hope they’re played at the right time. Cam Devlin was a welcome sight on the field and Harrison Delbridge looked classy. From a fan viewpoint, we learned once again that visiting fans are treated like second class citizens. At one point today, the group of Kiwi ‘fans’ were giving us a rendition of some sweary number, and the stewards came up to us, albeit apologetically, and asked us not to swear. The New Zealand fans around us were sticking up for us! In retrospect, being in a mixed bay was kinda fun.
From a personal perspective, this was as good an away day as you could have. The generosity shown by the Phoenix fans in hosting us and showing us a good time in Auckland was so welcome – above and beyond – and to Steve and the crew, we are so thankful. So what’s the next game? With the Matildas clashing with the Sydney derby, the next national team game is France at the Al Janoub stadium in Al Wakrah. That’s coming up soon. Far out!