Every footballer's career is a journey but few could point to one as diverse as John Irving, who arrived at Auckland City from Everton via Bala and Ngaruawahia.
Irving is a tough, quick defender who helped Auckland City to the minor premiership of the ASB Premiership and tomorrow take on cross-town rivals Waitakere United in the first leg of their semifinal. It's a big game, by New Zealand standards, but not the sort of derby Irving might have dreamed of being involved in when he was growing up in Liverpool.
The 24-year-old was on the books of English Premier League outfit Everton from the age of five until 20 and was even on the bench for the first team a handful of times in pre-season games. When his last contract expired, however, his football career took a dispiriting downward spiral.
He spent four years at Bala Town, in the Welsh Premier League and even scored the goal to help them to first round qualifying of the Europa League, but he became disillusioned. On the recommendation of former Everton teammate Steven Morrison, who now plays for Canterbury United, he ventured to Ngaruawahia.
"I thought if I got released from Everton there would be someone [willing to sign me] because I had been at a Premiership club for near enough my whole life,'' he said. ``I had been trained by some of the best coaches in the country but no one was willing to take a risk and give me a go.
"I got a letter in the post from Bala Town asking if I was interested in going down for a trial. That was a last resort just so I could play while people were trying to get me back into the Football League but nothing came up. It was a massive blow. I wasn't happy where I was playing in Wales and wanted a change, to go in a different direction.''
Ngaruawahia was certainly that. After only a couple of games in the Northern League Division One, the offers from ASB Premiership clubs started flowing in. The one from Auckland City enticed the most, largely because it was a chance for Irving to try to secure a professional contract somewhere by playing in the Club World Cup.
Once again, the phone was silent. Irving has been recommended to the Phoenix but he hasn't heard anything from New Zealand's only professional outfit and the fact he would be an import complicates the picture.
"I'm not really fussed where I go,'' he said. "I just want to get to the highest standard I can before my time runs out.''
For now, he's focused on helping Auckland win a first ASB Premiership title since 2008/09. They comfortably won the minor premiership, finishing seven points ahead of Team Wellington, and have a full-strength side to choose from tomorrow.
Their only defeat all season was a 1-0 loss to Waitakere but it was with a weakened side.
"If we keep our momentum going, I don't think there's any team in the league that can stop us,'' Irving said.
Hawkes Bay will host Wellington on Sunday in the first leg of the other semifinal.
ASB Premiership semifinals 1st leg
Waitakere Utd v Auckland City, Fred Taylor Park, 2pm
Hawkes Bay Utd v Team Wellington, Napier, 2pm