The best part of any match at Kiwitea Street in Sandringham, Auckland, is the five minutes after the referee blows the final whistle, before the volunteers come down from the clubrooms and start taking down the goals.
That’s when the kids in replica shirts – Barcelona, Chelsea, Auckland City FC – swarm the pitch, hell bent on experiencing the thrill of booting the ball into the back of the net, a proper net, taut and square like the ones on TV. The players stand around with their socks down, quaffing electrolyte drinks and talking to friends and family who‘ve come to see them – at least one person always seems to be holding a brand new baby. The sun is getting low by this stage, and as you file out along the narrow walkways on either side of the pitch you pause for a moment to take it all in, and realise this is what going to the football is all about.
It’s a feeling you can’t get from watching on TV. Just being there, supporting your team, even if they’re kind of hopeless at the moment. Shouting at the ref a little bit. All of it is good for the soul, and more of us should do it this summer. Here’s how.
Step 1: Find your team
The old saying ‘support your local team’ is really the only option. The ISPS Handa Premiership, formerly known as the ASB Premiership, is a 10-team national league spread from Auckland (three clubs to choose from) to Dunedin which runs from November until the end of March. The seven-team National Women’s League is also worth getting along to while it’s still on (it winds up mid December). No glory hunting, simply find your nearest team and commit to them wholeheartedly, even if it looks like they might be absolute rubbish. Make it official by following them on Facebook or Twitter – most clubs run pretty good social media these days.
Step 2: Identify your rival
If the team you’ve chosen to support is Auckland City FC, your traditional rival is Waitakere United (though more recently it has also been Team Wellington). If you’re supporting any other team in the league, then you hate Auckland City FC by default. These are mild rivalries by international football standards, but having a team you despise above all others is still a vital part of the experience.
Step 3: Go to a game
It’s not just a game of top-level football, it’s a whole matchday experience. At Kiwitea Street, for example, this includes access to legendary steak sandwiches from the cafeteria, half-time entertainment (usually a bloke singing Cold Chisel covers) and the company of Bucket Man, Auckland City’s number one fan who watches every game over the fence while banging on a bucket, and sometimes lets off fireworks at the start of the second half. Every ground has its own unique features, and whatever the price of admission (the maximum you’ll pay is $15), it’s always a bargain.
Step 4: Find your new favourite player
Not necessarily the best player, but the one that does the coolest moves, tries the hardest or seems the most emotionally volatile. My favourite player, without question, was Costa Rican striker Luis Corrales, who started out with Team Wellington before defecting to Auckland City for a couple of glorious seasons. Very short and extremely short-tempered, he scored just about as many screamers as he got red cards. Heroes like Luis Corrales are everywhere in the Premiership once you start looking.
Step 5: Figure out who is actually, properly good
Every team has at least one player who ‘could definitely play at a higher level’. Your job as a supporter is to identify that player, then keep going on about it until it happens. There are plenty of high-profile success stories: Burnley’s Chris Wood and PSV’s Ryan Thomas both started out playing for Waikato, and in 2013 the Wellington Phoenix signed Albert Riera from Auckland City after he bossed them in a pre-season friendly. By the end of that season he was starting for the A-League All Stars against Juventus, marking Italian legend Andrea Pirlo.
Step 6: Go to another game
Don’t just go to one game. Go to every game. Even if it’s a bit rainy and you have to take your umbrella.
Step 7: Watch it on TV
Unlike rugby or cricket, football is a sport that’s infinitely better when experienced live at the ground – that’s why this is the final step. Get out there, support your local team, experience the beautiful, unpredictable ISPS Handa Premiership first-hand. When you get to the stage where you find yourself engrossed in a scrappy away game broadcast live on Sky Sport? That’s when you know you’ve become a true supporter.