From Ngaruawahia High School to Anfield, Villa Park and Turf Moor, junior coach Tarena Ranui enjoyed the football odyssey of a lifetime late last year.

The Waikato-based Ranui is one of thousands of unsung heroes of New Zealand sport, putting in countless hours behind the scenes to enable kids to participate in, and perhaps develop a lifetime passion for their chosen code.

It's all voluntary, and done for love, and contributes so much to the fabric of this country.

But Ranui received wonderful recognition — and an incredible reward — last year when she was named New Zealand Football's junior coach of the year.


The competition came with a once in lifetime a unique prize.

There was a trip to England to watch Chris Wood and Burnley play West Ham, as well as a detour to Dublin to take in the All Whites versus Ireland match, with a chance to meet Wood and Winston Reid at a New Zealand training session.

Ranui decided to take husband Harold and son Carlos (13), and they extended the trip at their own expense to see some more matches.

"We knew we would never get to do something like this again so we wanted to make the most of it," said Ranui.

Waikato football identity Roger Wilkinson helped them secure passes to see Crystal Palace host Leicester, while they purchased other tickets through club websites.

They were fortunate enough to see Liverpool twice, once against Aston Villa (away) and once in the Champions League as the Merseyside club hosted Belgian side Genk.

"Each stadium was really different," said Ranui. "But with the songs, the chants and everything, it was a big shared experience for those communities."

Ranui loved the "old school feel" of Palace's Selhurst park, complete with the 1970's style turnstile ("you could feel it in the bones of the place") and seeing the "absolute top guns" wearing the Liverpool crest was a thrill.


But the lasting memory was the day at Turf Moor, as well as meeting Wood and Reid in person ahead of the Ireland match in Dublin.

"That was probably the highlight of that trip, to see Chris Wood score," said Ranui. "The first one was disallowed but the second one stuck and it was just amazing to see this Hamilton boy do what he is doing on that stage.

"And [Chris and Winston] are great people, incredibly humble and friendly. They are world class athletes and so their willingness to spend time with us was pretty cool."

Ranui was selected from a total of 690 junior coaches around the country who entered the competition.

Each of the seven NZF federations selected their top five, before a winner was chosen from each area.

From the final seven Ranui's entry stood out, for her contribution to grass roots football in a corner of the Waikato.

Ranui coaches at Hamilton-based Northern United, where she first took up the clipboard after her eldest daughter started playing there four years ago.

She also looks after her son's futsal team at Horotui school.

"There is a lot of Māori kids in the area and there's no rite of passage into football," said Ranui, who is a P.E., wellbeing and health teacher at Ngaruawahia High School. "But they can learn to love the sport."

Ranui also takes a Melville United girls academy under-14 team, and has received plaudits for her work with ninth and 10th grade footballers, who now play a brand of skilful, structured and passing football.

Ranui didn't know she had been nominated initially, and it was only when she started messages from the NZF website that she realised she was progressing through each round.

"They called to tell me I had won right on break time," said Ranui. "That was a pretty amazing feeling."

Ranui said her husband, who has a rugby background, was blown away by the passion and tribalism of football in England, while her son was dazzled by myriad experiences on the trip.

"It really inspired him ... especially meeting someone like Chris [Wood], from his home town," said Ranui. "Think big, live a large life and you never know."