Napier City Rovers coach Bill Robertson talks about the club’s 50th-anniversary celebrations and their upcoming Central League campaign. Video / Neil Reid
A group of ageing local football heroes are still unleashing magic on their much-loved home ground decades after they hung up their boots. Neil Reid spent time with Napier City Rovers’ star-studded Grey Squad.
Malcolm Wilson has done just about everything he can for Napier City Rovers – including modelling in swimwear in the 1970s.
But the 73-year-old – along with fellow former first-team local legends Terry Parkin and Roy Stanger, and a couple of other committed club members who are part of the club’s Grey Squad - reckons his latest role is one of his most rewarding.
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Every Tuesday and Thursday the retired veterans of life can be found at the club’s Bluewater Stadium voluntarily doing everything from painting, building and putting up sponsors’ billboards, and cleaning the seats in the main grandstand so punters have seats free of bird droppings.
The Grey Squad members - who range in age from late 60s to mid 70s - not only give their time for the club, but much of the resources they use to spruce up the grounds and clubrooms comes out of money they raise by doing manual work around Hawke’s Bay.
“We are all retired so it gives us something to do . . . and we have a good laugh,” Wilson said.
“And the work needs doing; if it wasn’t for a group like us things would be falling apart pretty rapidly. But we are hoping there is another generation who comes in behind us. I am one of the younger ones and I’m 73.”
Terry Parkin, aged 68, is the junior member of Grey Squad, and also has the most playing experience for Napier City Rovers out of the group; the football club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
He played 227 league games for the side, overtaking the club’s previous record held by 73-year-old Grey Squad team-mate Stanger.
Parkin was a foundation member of the volunteer squad. Their first job was arranging the myriad men’s and women’s team photos that are proudly hung around the clubrooms.
“We would have people come to the clubrooms who had played for us but they couldn’t find a photo of themselves,” Parkin said.
“What we do is about giving back to the club what they have done for us over the years as a player. We have all sorts of different skills we can offer the club.”
Napier City Rovers and the Grey Squad mean the world to Stanger.
Like his great mate Wilson – who is four days younger than him – he answered a newspaper advert posted in an English publication in the mid-1970s looking for football talent keen to play in New Zealand.
Stanger went on to become the highest-capped Napier City Rovers player for a time, coached the team to its first Chatham Cup win in 1985 and is now a proud member of the club’s board.
And in the 1980s, while working as a blocklayer, he was one of the tradies hired to build Rovers’ clubrooms - which are now decked out with memorabilia, including match-worn international jerseys donated by former Scotland goalkeeper and ex-Rover Jonathan Gould.
Stanger’s “love” for the club meant his Tuesdays and Thursdays on deck with Grey Squad were one of the highlights of his week.
“It is just brilliant,” he said of the tight-knit crew.
“When we first started, someone [in Napier] wanted some apple trees cut down, so we did that and earned a bit of money for the club. We earned about $3000 and said, ‘Instead of just giving it to the club, we will keep it so if anything needs doing, we have the money’.”
Jobs done to earn money to pay for supplies for remedial work around Bluewater Stadium have included painting and “knocking houses down”.
Their hard graft helped fund tiling for the men’s and women’s toilets at the ground.
Arguably the most intensive job Grey Squad has overseen was the stripping of old paint and rust from iron handrails that stretch around the playing pitch, and then the multiple coats of paint that followed.
“We used angle grinders to take off every piece off paint so it could be repainted,” Stanger said.
“It took us months. We said to the guys who are in their 30s playing in the Masters team, ‘It is your job next time, because when it needs doing again, we won’t be around’.”
The names of Stanger, Wilson and Parkin are those of legends at Napier City Rovers.
Stanger – now a life member at the club - came to New Zealand with his wife in 1973 after seeing an advert in a monthly football magazine seeking a “soccer tradesman needed in New Zealand”.
They initially thought they might come here for two years. Fifty years have now passed since their arrival and Napier is home.
“We just fell in love with the club, they’re great people and they looked after me when I first came here,” he said.
“I made great friends. And there are guys [in the Grey Squad] that I have known for about 50 years.”
Wilson’s arrival in New Zealand and to Napier City Rovers is identical; albeit two years after his great mate Stanger’s.
He went on to play about 150 first-team games then later served the club with stints coaching the first team and the reserves. He has also been its secretary and club captain.
“Me wife and me were in a pub in Manchester, Georgie Best owned it, and she saw an advert to come and play football in sunny New Zealand,” he said.
“I answered the advert in 1974 but it took so long to get out here. I got married on the Friday, so I could play football in England on the Saturday, and then we came out here on the Tuesday. We’re still on the honeymoon,” he laughed.
He says Napier City Rovers “really changed my life”.
“I love the club,” he said.
The achievement he was most proud of was coaching Napier City Rovers alongside Wilson to 1985 Chatham Cup victory; the club’s first major title and the first of its five Chatham Cup wins.
When they finally made it back from a bus trip back from Auckland the day after the final, 1000 people were waiting at the clubrooms to welcome them. Then followed a mayoral reception and a “few beers”.
Added Wilson of the victory: “We had brand new kit all laid out for the boys, and they enjoyed that. It was a good game, I still have the video of it. But after the game it was all a bit of a blur.”
During his tenure as coach, Stanger also made two of the most famous player signings in Napier City Rovers history.
In 1987 he signed English fullback Gary Locke, who played more than 300 games for Chelsea and 84 for Crystal Palace.
“Neil Palmer was my manager in 1987-88 and we said, ‘Look we need someone’,” Stanger recalled.
“We thought we would look at the English transfer list. There was Gary Locke and we said, ‘Wonder what he was doing, let’s talk to him’. Neil did most of the talking and he said he would come out.”
The largely amateur status of New Zealand football at the time meant Locke had to get a fulltime job for the first time in his life when he arrived, finding work at an appliance store.
Another notable signing was Scotsman Gary Parker.
He went on to become one of the club’s top goal-scorers, including an amazing 37 goals during the 1986 Central League campaign.
“Jock was tremendous. He came out here and knew no one, but everyone just got on with him,” Stanger said.
“The record shows with all the goals he scored. We would just say, ‘Give it to Jock, he will score all the time’. He was brilliant.”
Parker’s sporting career took a massive change when he returned to Scotland and switched codes to rugby, playing for Scotland A against the All Blacks in 1993; going on to score his side’s only try against the men in black.
In another sporting switch, he played American football for the Scottish Claymores in the NFL Europe competition. He later went on to coach the Scotland women’s rugby team.
“I think he might have talked his way into it,” Stanger laughed of his mate’s gridiron career. “He was that sort of guy.”
Stanger also endured shattering lows with the club.
A week after the 1985 Chatham Cup win, the club was relegated from the National League.
Then in 1988 came the toughest blow for him personally. Despite finishing fourth in the National League – at the time the Napier City Rovers’ highest placing – he was told the club no longer wanted him as coach.
“It was one of those things; it was my turn to go. I did hold a grudge for about 24 hours,” he smiled.
“At the end of the season in 1988 they said I had four weeks to go, we won’t employ you next year. They won the league the following year.”
Parkin – whose appearance record was later overtaken by Harry Clarke and then Martin Akers – was one of the key Rovers players in the 1985 Chatham Cup win.
While that was the greatest triumph of his lengthy playing career, another highlight was being part of Rovers team who hammered Gisborne City 5-0 in a National League game in 1982. The Gisborne team had four members of the All Whites’ squad that had played at that year’s World Cup in Spain.
Once Parkin hung up his boots, he would regularly watch first-team games in the wooden stand opposite Bluewater Stadium’s main grandstand and chime in with comic comments.
Parkin smiles when talking about his time on and off the field with the club.
“It is coming up to 50 years this year and you look at the photos [you realise the legacy] and there are still older players from 1973 who still come to the games,” he said.
“What it means is the pride in the club and the pride of wearing the shirt.”
Wilson said the club’s upcoming 50th celebrations over Easter Weekend made him realise “how long you have been out here for”.
One thing he will never forget was his and his team-mates trio of forays into modelling to raise funds for the club.
“There was an outfitter in Napier and he wanted us to model some of his gear,” Wilson recalled.
“I remember we did it at the Meanee Pub once, we also did it at the Tamatea Motor Inn. It was pretty good.
“Then we did a big one at Wrightson’s wool store and [singer] Rob Guest was the main act.”
Parkin joked that when trays of Champagne were offered around the rookie models, the football players launched in while Guest stayed on non-alcoholic drinks.