Reunions are a funny thing

All Hail the Old Guys. An observation from Trevor Rowse, former Swift (1962-3-4)

Reunions are funny things. Sometimes they are a great success and others…

The Swifts’ reunion could have been like that for some of the older players, coming into a club brimming with newcomers, and some out-of-town stars too. But there was no evidence of that, even if the old-timers were very thin on the ground, and on their heads as well in some cases.

The main thing to celebrate is the survival of a club which has been through hard times for many years. The hard times came from things that modern players probably cannot understand, but here’s trying.

Rural New Zealand has been rugby heartland for ever, but there are big dents in that these days with soccer on television so often, parental support for a skill-based game, better transport and public acceptance of alternative sports. Soccer is even played in the Hokianga these days.

Switch back 40 years and beyond. Schools were run by headmasters steeped in rugby. Rural schools had parents who knew nothing else. Anyone trying to bring in a sport apart from rugby or cricket faced huge odds, and sometimes the banning of their sport.

There was a battle to find towns to play as the further south you went the more rugby ruled. The mining towns of Huntly and Rotowaro provided some tough opponents, many from the mining towns of the UK, men with two sharp elbows on each arm and the means to use them regularly.

So running the Swifts was a precarious business, relying on imports taking jobs at one of the dairy factories, or someone doing share-milking on the way to buying a farm, or an odd teacher who knew the game. Anyone from the UK was welcomed and then there was the boost of Dutch settlers.

Friday night was hard for the secretary/coach/organiser/captain. Not everyone had a telephone and a missing player meant a search of the district for someone not playing rugby, who could cope with a soccer match because sometimes there were only 12 players on the books, total. Soccer times were hard, and then there was transport. A truck with canvas canopy was the best arrangement.

The sharemilkers had to be back in time and the dairy factory fellows had shifts to re-organise. Then the roads did not make travel easy, with so many curves in a slow truck. The games were early and the departure was almost immediate.

So the club’s survival through these days was a triumph for those stalwarts who just kept on going. They needed the recognition, like the three who sat up near the front, enjoying the sight of a club with a reserve team, juniors, women and fans. Norm Simpson, Ken Dobson and Graham Oates were the representatives of times gone by. May the old days never return.

* * *

Barry Simonsen deserved his special mention, being someone who never let the club spirit falter, someone who carried the flag for the sport.

But only those who saw him at his best, forty years ago, can appreciate how talented he was. In a soccer area he would have been a natural for the national league. In Matamata he was just amazing. How did he get so good without the role models, without the serious competition? It was always a puzzle to me and, on my return to Auckland, I became the Sunday News soccer reporter for the Northern League and then the National League. Barry was good enough to play for any team, perhaps even New Zealand with the right exposure. Never underestimate that man, and his contribution for ever.

Dwayne Barlow and soon-to-be wife Jean Thornton are outstanding in their service to the club, with assistance with the top team, as secretary, website and promoters. Other clubs would pay dearly for such services.

What a great game to celebrate the jubilee! At the start it seemed that it was just going to be a few minutes before Waikato opened the scoring, but then the Swifts settled and scored. What a thrill for all, but then it seemed that the spirit and the fitness would evaporate and the score would mount.

It is a tribute to the whole team that the 2-0 final score was rarely challenged by a team which is due to compete in the national league. (Actually there were more young players than first team men). What showed were fine Waikato skills and combination, but woeful penetration and little support for the strikers.

And how about a man who was sent off for violent conduct returning to score the clinching goal? Even those on the field thought that Jason had been ejected but it was to stem a nose bleed. In another sort of game there would have been no return, even if he was provoked.

Great to see Andy Birchenough again. He was a stand-out player when with Napier City Rovers in the national league and he still works almost the whole field, in style. Player-coach Duncan Lowry, who says he is not the coach, just one of the guides, is also a stalwart. Everyone just kept on playing for the team.

An amazing game, a great night and a brilliant Matamata spring day to cap it all off, plus fine skills by the women and the juniors. Soccer looks to be in great shape and I am glad that I took the time to attend. Some reunions are a waste of time and money, but this was worth it.

I was honoured to be guest speaker at the 50th and I hope to see you at the 100th, if I can get my wheelchair motorised.