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Footballers making a big impact

Six former Wairarapa United players are making a big impact in the resurgence of Christchurch United.

Under the coaching of Wellington Phoenix and Wairarapa legend Paul Ifill, the Christchurch club are on the verge of doing the double of winning the Southern League and the Chatham Cup.

Ifill is joined by former Wairarapa players and graduates of his Rathkeale College-based football academy – goalkeeper Scott Morris and defenders Riley Grover and Luca Molnar. The experienced midfield duo Matt Tod-Smith and Cameron Lindsay complete the contingent.

Christchurch United were one of the powerhouses in the early days of the original national league, winning the title on six occasions from 1973 to 1991, as well as the Chatham Cup, but had been in decline until a merger with the Christchurch Football Academy, which had been created by Russian businessman Vyacheslav Meyn,

Ifill was appointed head coach in 2022, with the other players following to study at university or pursue other job opportunities.

Christchurch United went on to win the Southern League title on the final day in unbelievable fashion, having needed to beat Dunedin club Mosgiel by eight goals, a feat they achieved by winning 10–0.

The 2023 championship run was more straightforward, and the club wrapped up the title in even more bizarre circumstances, trouncing Green Island of Dunedin 15–3, a game described by Ifill as the craziest game he’d ever coached.

“It was so strange, after 25 minutes, we were 7–0 up, and I said, what the hell is going on here I think we had eight shots,” Ifill said.

“It was nothing on their keeper; he hadn’t chucked any in, but our finishing was absolutely on point, and that’s something we do practice, and we’ve improved on as the season has gone we weren’t very clinical at the start of the season although we created a lot of chances.”

Christchurch continued their scoring blitz, beating FC Twenty11 in a midweek game, with 43-year-old Ifill coming out of retirement to net the fifth goal in added time.

The focus now turns to the Chatham Cup and the final against Melville United of Hamilton at North Harbour Stadium.

Although the Chatham Cup is a long way from the giddy heights of taking on the might of Manchester United for Millwall in the 2004 FA Cup final [won 3-0 by United], Ifill is relishing the prospect of reaching the final of NZ Football’s most prized trophy, made even more special with it being the 100th edition of the knockout competition.

“These cup competitions come around once a year, and to get to the latter stages of any tournament like this is so difficult, and if you’re feeling pressure, that’s a privilege so the players understand where they’re at and are really looking forward to it.

“We talked about winning the Chatham Cup. You’ve got to get the luck of the draw, but we’ve just improved as the season’s gone, and the boys have worked hard – we train three days a week where some only train twice a week, and I think that’s made the difference.”

Ifill puts the resurgence of Christchurch United down to a strong academy and a good bunch of senior players who look after the juniors coming through. He said it also helps that there are the former Wairarapa United players to call on.

“Riley Grover and Scott Morris, I’ve coached them for eight or nine years, and I know exactly what they bring, and someone like Matt Tod-Smith, he’s the captain, and he did a fantastic job, and it helps me as a coach having players that I know.

“They’ve blended in really well, and that helps with the culture and with the environment.”

A big future always looked on the cards for Morris, and that promise was recognised with his inclusion in the New Zealand under-23 team playing in the Oceania Olympic qualifying series in Auckland. Ifill also believes Grover can go all the way.

“Riley has always been looked at as undersized, and I don’t think people take enough time to look at how he really plays. He’s a fantastic footballer, and he’s played a lot of games for someone so young. He played a number of games as a 15-year-old for Wairarapa, and he’s done a brilliant job for me.

“I think he’ll be a late developer in terms of what they see, and it wouldn’t surprise if he goes on to play for New Zealand.

There hasn’t been such good luck for Molnar, who has struggled with compartment syndrome in his shins for much of the season, limiting his playing time.

Ifill still has connections with Wairarapa United through his oldest daughter Romy, who played for the Capital Women’s Division One side. Romy will leave the club to attend university, while wife Elle and youngest daughter Bethany are likely to relocate to Christchurch later this year.

Chris Cogdale
Chris Cogdale
Chris “Coggie” Cogdale has extensive knowledge of sport in Wairarapa having covered it for more than 30 years, including radio for 28 years. He has been the sports guru at the Wairarapa Times-Age since 2019.

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