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Gisborne Thistle's under-19 football team relishing the challenge

FOOTBALL.

Gisborne Thistle's under-19 team will come up against some of the best age-group football teams in the country this weekend.

They are competing in the Napier City Rovers Under-19 National Tournament at Park Island, Napier.

In the past two years, Thistle have taken part in a “satellite draw” of teams new to the competition or not as strong as those in the “main draw”.

Last year Thistle made the satellite competition quarterfinals, where they were eliminated by a Napier City Rovers team.

This year, coach Garrett Blair hopes the Gisborne side can do even better, against stronger opposition.

With about 30 teams from 28 clubs taking part, the competition is split into groups to determine which teams go through to the quarterfinals.

Normally more teams take part but Covid alert levels have kept Auckland and Hamilton clubs away, and a few Wellington teams have pulled out, too.

That has prompted organisers to do away with the main draw/satellite draw divide. All teams will play in the same division, which will mean tougher games for clubs like Thistle, but also the opportunity for players to test themselves against better opposition.

Games are 25 minutes each way, and Thistle have a 17-strong squad.

Tomorrow, Thistle play Island Bay, of Wellington, at 10am, Wairarapa United at 1pm and Tawa, of Wellington, at 4pm. The Tawa game will be livestreamed on the Cellosport Youtube Channel.

On Sunday, Thistle play Napier Marist at 10am and Northland at 1pm.

“If we make the quarterfinals, we'll play a third game on Sunday,” Blair said.

“The semifinals and final will be played on Monday. We're staying on for them, regardless of whether we're playing . . . they'll be great games.”

Among the clubs represented are Napier City Rovers, Christchurch United, Cashmere Technical, Miramar Rangers, Wellington Olympic, Tauranga City, Waterside Karori and Claudelands Rovers — all teams with a league or cup history at national level.

Thistle have two guest players — 17-year-old New Plymouth Boys' High School centreback/holding midfielder Jack Flood, and 15-year-old Napier Boys' High School winger/striker Kayleb McKenzie.

Blair said he had put out feelers for suitable guest players, and New Plymouth Boys' High coach Mick Curry recommended Flood.

Jimmy Calder, coach of Napier side Port Hill, recommended McKenzie, who had shown promise with Port Hill.

Gisborne Thistle first-team centreback Ryan Anderson will captain the Thistle side in the tournament, and fellow first-teamer, striker Jimmy Somerton, will be vice-captain.

Goalkeepers are Tom Talbot and Kaelle Straatman. Sixteen-year-old Straatman was in the Western Suburbs set-up this season but has played for Thistle, transferring clubs for trips home to Gisborne. He has been in Gisborne for the past month, so has been present for about half of the team's preparation for this tournament.

Other squad members are Travis White (midfield/striker), Alex Davies (midfield), Andre Riley (rightback), Leo Maisey (midfield/striker), Oli Davies (winger/striker), Oska Smith (winger/striker), Cory Thomson (midfield), Levi Julies (striker), Oli Gillies (centreback), Adam Situ (leftback/winger) and Brad Hill (centreback/rightback).

Assisting head coach Blair will be Mark Baple, Fletcher Stewart-Hill and Mitchell Stewart-Hill.

Before Thistle's foray into the under-19 tournament in 2019, Gisborne was represented in 1994 by a Len Cudd-coached Gisborne City side that included the fathers of two of the current Thistle team.

Nic Somerton (father of Jimmy) and Matt Smith (father of Oska) were among a golden group of young footballers Cudd coached through the schoolboy grades.

“It was a great weekend,” Somerton said yesterday. “We stayed at Len's sister Catherine's place and had a great time as a team.

“Len had just finished coaching us through the grades as a rep team, and he got us back together for a last hurrah as a group.

“We won our first game 8-0 and ended up winning two or three and losing two or three. Tim Cook would know; he remembers the details.”

Somerton is going to watch his son's team this weekend. Smith is unable to make it but said he would try to get there on Monday if they made the semifinals.

Both Somerton and Smith are still playing senior football, as are some of their teammates from 1994. Those they could recall were Jimmy Cudd, Tim Cook, Laurie Holmes, Kane Stirton, Jim Cairns and Mark Moore. The goalkeeper was “either Ross Nicholson or Huatahi Wilson”. Clarification of or additions to this list would be appreciated.

Skipper: Thistle under-19 captain Ryan Anderson (right) in Chatham Cup action for the first team against Havelock North Wanderers. Picture by Paul Rickard