Cometh the hour, cometh the second-string keeper, with a str' />

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Mark Paston was all set to be best known as the All Whites' saviour against Bahrain.

Cometh the hour, cometh the second-string keeper, with a string of saves against Bahrain in Manama and Wellington, which sent the All Whites to South Africa.

The standard team line was that those qualifiers were the most important games of their lives. But an afternoon in Nelspruit, a match against World Cup holders Italy, has changed that.

Paston flung himself, literally, into the nation's sporting heart once again with another breathtaking performance in Monday's historic, drawn Group-F match.

The next day, at the team's headquarters at the Serengeti golf estate, the man who kept Italy at bay says: "I've had a lot more bad times than good, so it's very important to enjoy the good times."

Which is what the 1.95m, 33-year-old is doing three days out from the final group match against Paraguay, where the All Whites will try to fulfil the impossible dream and progress to the knockout stages.

Paston has become a fabulous story of New Zealand sport, a broken career fixed on the biggest stage.

He initially deflects talk about his best saves against Italy, instead recalling one that almost sent the All Whites crashing. Riccardo Montolivo's first-half shot, which would have given Italy a lead, looked like missing the right-hand post, before arcing at the last moment, smashing on the inside of the post and then flying safely across goal.

That beautiful strike is largely forgotten in the shock of New Zealand's brave fight for a draw. Paston remembers it, though, and also that Ryan Nelsen almost got the slightest of touches that would have easily nudged the ball into the net.

"I could have dived, but wouldn't have got anywhere near it," says Paston. "That's one I remember - I watched it on to my post."

Apart from that, though, he dived and parried brilliantly. After a lifetime of soccer disappointment, he knows the fine line between success and failure, and has every right to enjoy this moment of the former.

A Hawkes Bay product, whose mother, Christine, is well known in dressage circles, and whose father, John, was an often absent sea captain, Paston is also a non-identical twin to Andrew.

Until the age of 14 he was a centreback, and at a representative training session became a budding goalkeeper after impressing in a penalty shootout competition when a back-up keeper was needed.

"Sick of" another rearrangement of the national league, an overseas sojourn almost led to an early curtailment of his career. After a year off, working for a recruitment agency in London, Paston limped his way through stints with Bradford, Walsall and St Johnstone, enduring operations on a shoulder and two groin injuries in those three years.

"I felt like giving the game away, then up popped destiny," says Paston, who has a degree in computer science. "I struggled in the UK, it was difficult, I was topping up the CV, looking at other things, when the [New Zealand] Knights popped up."

From the failed Knights, he went to the Phoenix and resumed a see-saw battle with Glen Moss - who has had the inside running with Ricki Herbert - for the goalkeeper's jersey in the national side.

Injuries and that duel have limited Paston to 20-odd internationals since 1997.

Now here he is, with his career on a giant upswing in a buoyant All Whites side.

Paston - who is married to Amie (they have a young son, Jack) - says: "Most of the guys in this team haven't had it handed to them on a plate.

"That has given the side extra steel. We don't take anything for granted."

He fondly recalls a couple of saves against Italy, including one when his view was obscured and another, a full-length dive.

He has become part of a brilliant defensive wall, with the redoubtable Nelsen in front of him, and the young guns Winston Reid and Tommy Smith to the sides.

"Paraguay are a massive challenge, but my attitude has always been: let's go out and give it a crack."