Soccer: Maycenvale dangle Phoenix carrot

By Anendra Singh

When Ritchie Howard had just turned 4, there was something different, if not peculiar, about him.

If you ask his Merseyside family and close relatives they'll probably tell you it was downright blasphemous that the lad had dared to utter the "E" word not long after he blew out the candles a shade after his soccer-loving father, Peter Howard, handed him his pressie.

"Dad gave me a Liverpool football kit and I apparently said I wanted a blue one," the 42-year-old Cru Bar Maycenvale United soccer coach says with a grin.

You see, the entire family and extended clan from Formby are staunch Liverpool supporters and the then young Ritchie's preference for blue was always going to make him a black sheep considering that colour represents the unmistakable allegiance to the other Merseysiders, Everton.

The matches between the two Liverpool Premier League sides is the longest-running, top-flight derby in England, its origins going back at that level to every season since 1962-63.

Needless to say, the senior Howard was disappointed and relatives tried to talk a pint-sized Howard out of his preference but to no avail.

"They say in Merseyside, 'You don't become red or blue, you're born one', so dad understands you're one or the other," Howard explains, adding the family went to Anfield, the home of the Merseysiders, where he always sat next to his family at the "Kop" end of the field where the red supporters traditionally sit although it wasn't unusual for fans in the yesteryear to sit next to the blues.

For the record Howard has never copped any abuse from Liverpool fans at Anfield but he was a victim of a stabbing incident at Loftus Rd, the home of Queen's Park Rangers as a 14-year-old.

"I was going after the game from South Africa Rd to the city tube. I walked past a couple of policemen on horses when someone stabbed me," the painting instructor explains, thinking the person had punched him but one of his mates soon spotted blood oozing from the base of his lower back, landing him in hospital for a day.

In sharing his background, the senior level two coach from Central Hawke's Bay is hoping players in Hawke's Bay will show some passion in donning a Maycenvale shirt in the eight-team Pacific Premiership League this winter.

The Hastings club is in dire straits after its flagship Central League team, under coach Dion Adams, were relegated last season from the top winter league which the Grant Hastings-coached Bluewater Napier City Rovers won.

The black-and-orange side, comprising predominantly players from Wellington, Manawatu, Waikato and the Solomon Islands, understandably have no intentions of returning to a club that no longer competes at the elite level.

But Vale took another blow in the guts when its premiership side, who Howard coached and predominantly embodied talented youth players who stepped up to the Central League level if called on, also lost 95 per cent of their players.

"A lot of them are going to university so we're not getting in their way because it's a happening thing for them," says Howard, who will only have the services of goalkeeper Lucain MacDonald and possibly Jared Bloor of last winter's two Central League squad members. The new-look club committee has decided not to field a team in this season's revived eight-team Federation League which has teams from predominantly Central Football's Western Premiership embracing Manawatu, Wanganui, Taranaki and Taradale (Napier) from the Eastern region.

"It's a huge change. Having lost so many players after the relegation the club has had to take stock."

Fundamentally, the protagonists at the club see it as a rebirth of sorts in a bid to nurture home-grown players to improve the standard of the Bay league.

"The committee decided instead of huffing and puffing in the Fed League again, a period of consolidation was required," explains Howard.

With the blessing of club president Graeme Hill the committee is forging ties with the Wellington Phoenix franchise in the A-League to motivate youngsters into gravitating to the Hastings club.

"Graeme's negotiating on the back of Bissy's development team," he says of Bay-born midfielder Tom Biss who has made giant strides under the Jonathan Gould-coached development side as well as making his debut with aplomb for the Ricki Herbert-coached A-League side this season.

Howard sees the connection with Phoenix as somewhat ironic considering the A-League franchise team is also trying to resurrect themselves from the ashes of a season to forget.

"For the next three years the committee and I will select two players who will go for a week-long training session with the development team," says Howard who believes it should appeal to the youngsters considering no other club offers that incentive here.

"That's huge - 19 to 24-year-old lads will come to the club and if they have a good season and prove they are determined, dedicated and committed then there's a big reward waiting for them."

In his fourth premiership season, he believes the young talent have a better chance to be spotted in the Nix environment than relying on a scout or two to single them out at some national tournament amid hundreds of others.

The Vale committee is chairman Rob Hay, secretary Beverley Camp, club captain Roy Camp, Hill, Howard, John Dent (finance), Cam Symon and Blair Husband.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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