The Waikato Chronicles
There was a time when match programmes played an important role in New Zealand football well beyond presenting fans with the bread and butter of league draws, points tables and player shirt numbers.
In the pre-internet era, when there was neither the on-line community, nor the cyberspace forums or social media to disseminate football opinions like there is today, sentiments expressed in programme columns had a viral power all of their own.
The programme column inhabited a twilight zone, somewhere between the gospel-like orthodoxy of the mainstream media, and the unstructured informality of clubroom banter. Programmes were an important medium in their own right for communicating ideas and points of view about the game, and could frame a debate for a specialist audience every bit as effectively as a newspaper splash.
But today the match programme itself is an endangered species - let alone a feisty column within.
For example, the Wellington Phoenix didn’t bother with a programme in 2011-12. And even with those programmes which continue to prosper, the content tends to be dreadfully sanitised and drained of life.
These days, for those with opinions to share, website forums and Facebook pages offer largely unfettered freedom for anybody to have their say about anything. (This is not necessarily a good thing, of course, given the disconcerting tendency for those with the least to add value-wise, often having the “loudest” voices out there in cyberspace.)
Against that evolving backdrop, this is an anthology of my columns from Waikato United, Waikato FC and Melville United football programmes — and the odd stray article produced for other fringe publications related to Waikato football, such as fanzines — between 1991 and 2011. Also thrown in are a couple of website blogs - the programme columns of the future.
The columns largely dwell on behind-the-scenes football issues, such as the battle for spectator support and the bedrock challenges to keep the game in good health here for the next generation – along with whimsical observations about things such as player idiosyncrasies and fan experiences on the road. By contrast, there is little forensic examination of more technical football matters, or how the game is actually produced, and hardly any run-of-play post-mortems.
That of course means these columns get nowhere near telling the full story of Waikato football during this 21-year period. However they do give an insight into at least some of the issues of the day, or the madcap thoughts that helped pass the football time for one fan at the very least.
The period canvassed here covers Waikato United’s struggles to stay afloat in the old winter national league, the Superclub Championship era, the rise of the summer league, the eventual unravelling of Waikato United, the ongoing development of my present club, Melville United, and the birth of Waikato FC as a national league entity.
I wrote my first programme columns for Waikato United in 1989, but until 1991 they were not of a standard worth regurgitating. By that point I was also covering football for the Waikato Times, firstly as a freelancer and then as a staff member, and it was a beat I worked continually to February 1997, and then at least occasionally, up until 2005.
At various other times in Waikato football I was secretary and chairman of Waikato Unicol, a board member of Waikato United, an executive member of the Waikato Football Association, president of Melville United, and a fanzine editor.
I was also a football parent and even a second XI sort of player. But my fundamental relationship to the game was always as a fan, and it was this fandom which was primarily the motive force for writing regular programme columns.
Pinpointing the exact chemistry of whatever it is that makes one a football fan is an uncertain business. It’s further complicated by the fact that while football has long ingrained itself into the national culture in most other parts of the world, here in New Zealand we are pretty much at the final frontier. We are a lost corner of the world, where it has only been relatively recently that the whole notion of football fandom has really gained traction through the worthy efforts of Wellington Phoenix’s Yellow Fever brigade.
Anyway, far beyond my brief as a sports reporter, I would bash out my most passionate, partisan or irreverent thoughts in programmes columns.
In the early years these columns were often penned under the pseudonyms Cordwainer Bull, or Angus Hereford.
It was no great secret that I was the author, but some decades ago when I was a relatively junior jobbing sports reporter, a former editor advised me it created serious conflict in the minds of readers when they saw my name attached to strong or contentious personal opinions in other media, when my day job was to provide far more objective coverage.
Thus was born the identity of Cordwainer Bull, leaning slightly on “The Bulls” nickname and imagery of Waikato United from 1991 onwards. A cordwainer is a cobbler - and cobblers and bull seemed to naturally go together. It was a nice coincidence that one of my favourite science fiction authors, Harlan Ellison, had a sardonic habit of sometimes writing under the name Cordwainer Bird, when it was a piece he had little appetite for.
Angus Hereford was a similar persona duly dreamed up as a counterpoint to Cordwainer Bull - to provide an “alternate” alternate view if you like - and generally “his” columns had a harder, more demanding tone.
It must be noted that columns written for the Melville United winter progamme, Melville Magic, after 2004 were done so while I was chairman of the club. While this didn’t stop analysis of the issues of the day, it did temper my approach a lot more than the era when I was more or less only accountable to myself as a sideline “expert”.
Some of these columns have aged better than others. Some are overly shrill, strident and verbose. Some are half-baked and silly. Some ideas or themes were shamelessly stolen from other spheres of life or literature, or cunningly adapted. In fact anything which wasn’t nailed to the floor was considered fair game if it helped labour a football point.
The bottom line is I took programme columns seriously. Too seriously sometimes. They were never just a space filler for me. A column was a respected opportunity to educate, agitate or entertain. Some columns were even award winners, part of portfolios which gained me a couple of NZ Soccer Media Writer of the Year gongs in 1998 and 2001, and runner-up in 1996 and 1997.
Others, of course, were complete rubbish. But there you go. That’s football programme columns for you.
Bruce Holloway, December 2011.
A full copy of The Waikato Chronicles is available, emailed in PDF format, for $10 from this email address