Former Hibs goalkeeper Andy McNeil has fallen in love with football again having moved to the other side of the world to join a club which is only four months old.
Admitting he’d become disillusioned with the state of the game in Scotland, the 26-year-old gambled in travelling more than 11,000 miles to New Zealand to become one of the most-experienced players at WaiBop, who are newcomers to the ASB Premiership.
And, although football is very much in the shadow of other sports such as rugby, basketball, hockey and also cricket, McNeil’s enthusiasm for his new way of life is clearly evident as he spoke exclusively to the Evening News from Hamilton in the North Island’s Bay of Plenty.
Having turned down an offer to remain with Livingston, McNeil attracted the attention of other Scottish clubs and further afield in the north of England, the United States and Iceland.
But, he revealed, it was a former Hearts employee who helped secure his surprise adventure down under. The former Leith Academy pupil said: “I’d got to know Paul Greig, a community coach with Hearts, when I was with Raith Rovers and we’d often train at Heriot-Watt’s indoor facilities at Riccarton.
“He was from Kirkcaldy and went to school with Lewis Stevenson. We got chatting and over a period of months we got to know each other. He moved to New Zealand a couple of years ago to work in football development in Wellington so I asked him if there were any opportunities, if he could point me in any direction.
“There was a new franchise in Hamilton – the previous club Waikato had fallen through – and the local football association had taken up the licence. The team’s name, WaiBop, stands for Waikato Bay of Plenty to represent the region. The head coach Peter Smith is Scottish – he’s from Dundee – and he’d heard of me, which helped.
“It was a bit of a chance thing. I’d been to Malta after I was released by Hibs, but that was a nightmare, terrible and I came back quickly. I spoke to people who’d played elsewhere and had bad experiences, but I felt comfortable speaking to Paul and Peter, the vibes were good while it would be fair to say I’d become rather disillusioned with football in Scotland.”
A life-long Hibs fan, McNeil, who began his career with Southampton before living the dream of playing for the Easter Road club where he won the CIS Insurance Cup in 2007, admitted the magic had gone for him as he stood at the crossroads, ever-tightening finances within Scottish football leading to dwindling wages, reduced squads and the prospect of only short-term contracts offering little chance to give him the opportunity to again catch the eye of a top-flight club.
He said: “It was a fantastic opportunity for me to play for Hibs, but, at the moment, I have to ask if there is anything magical about playing football in Scotland at the moment. To me there’s no fun about it, people seem to go for a moan, expecting it to be terrible and to vent some anger.
“You aren’t exactly living the dream playing in front of 500 people. The hardest thing is knowing you are busting a gut and, while football has always been a fragile career, it’s all about one-year, six-month contracts, part-time football while Scottish Premiership sides are cutting back, players are being signed from Conference sides in England.”
Although WaiBop are, to all intents and purposes, an amateur side, McNeil combines playing with coaching teenage goalkeepers under New Zealand football’s Federation Training Centres while, he revealed, given his background, there are extra expectations thrust on him by his team-mates. The former Scotland Under-21 star said: “I’m enjoying working with the 12 to 16-year-olds, it’s allowing me to use my coaching badges and that’s something I’d like to do in the longer term.
“Having come from a professional background in Europe, although I am a relatively young goalkeeper, people look to me if things are not going right during a game to help sort it out. When you go into any dressing-room you find there is a group of players who set the tone, the standards, the rules for the players to abide by. Now there’s only two or three older than me and people are looking for us for that leadership, they speak to us and we speak to the manager.”
Never one for two weeks in Magaluf “getting smashed out of my head,” McNeil, who preferred holidays in places such as Berlin, Prague and Reykjavik, has thrown himself wholeheartedly not only into his new club but the New Zealand way of life.
He said: “It’s not Celtic Park, but there is a festival atmosphere. There’s the sunshine – it’s been mid-20s this week and as we speak at 10.30pm it’s still 16°C – it’s more sociable, there’s a meal with the opposition after games, marquees, beer tents, all sorts of things you don’t get back in Scotland.
“There’s a real passion despite the fact football falls way behind the likes of rugby and cricket. We don’t get the same media attention even although all our games are televised. Open up a paper in Scotland and it’s football, football, football then a bit of rugby and golf, here it’s rugby, rugby, rugby, cricket, hockey and women’s netball, not even a match preview, only a report on the game.
“But things are slowly changing, football is the highest participation sport for children and hopefully that will translate to more adults playing the game. It’s great to be at a club in it’s infancy, people are talking of football expanding here, in Scotland it’s shrinking.
“My girlfriend Sarah came out a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been working. However, we’ve got a couple of weeks off – for the first time in goodness knows how many years I won’t be training on Christmas Day – so we’ll do some of the touristy bits.
“I love Scotland, I love the Highlands, but here it is completely different, an amazing country with all those different plants and animals. People are really relaxed and friendly, taking us to see places so by the time my parents come out next Friday we’ll have a few ideas of where to take them – and the fact they also drive on the left will be a great help.”
As to how long he might stay in New Zealand, McNeil said: “The manager has a three-year plan, I see this as a chance to develop as a player and a person, a terrific new opportunity, exciting to be in at the start of something new and we’ll see what we can achieve.”