Los Boyos: Greg Draper – New Saints, New Zealand and New Goals

Listening to BBC’s World Football phone-in has become a Saturday morning ritual for me. I have yet never stayed up until the early hours of Saturday morning to listen to it, but my podcast usually downloads into my ITunes by my waking hours on a Saturday morning – if you have never listened to it, I highly recommend it. One of the things, that makes the World Football phone-in so brilliant is the expertise and brilliant talk of the BBC’s South American pundit and reporter, Tim Vickery, who also has an excellent weekly blog on the BBC website’s sport pages. When Tim stated through the speakers of my laptop that the British public should make a great effort to check out the Brazil team that will be playing in the Olympic games I took notice; with Old Trafford just a 30 minute walk away from my house, I had already purchased tickets for Brazils’ clash with Belarus at the famous stadium by the time Tim had finished his spiel about the new young and exciting Brazil team that was arising. For the £20 I had spent to watch Brazil (sorry Belarus, I’m just not that interested in your U23 team) my ticket is also valid for the game that directly precedes it: Egypt v New Zealand.

Egypt v New Zealand – the prospect of this game doesn’t exactly get my pulse racing, especially considering I’m going to be watching the most famous footballing nation take to the pitch in the game before, but as an open-minded football fan, I sure I’ll find something to entertain me in the game. I looked through their possible squads for reasons to look forward to this fixture. First of all, there was Egypt’s likely inclusion of former Wigan striker Amir Zaki as one of their three over 23 players. Zaki was a player that had performed brilliantly at times in his debut Premier League season, but was also equally ‘enigmatic’; he should be worth a watch. To the New Zealand players, where next to names such as Ryan Nelson, Winston Reid and Chris Wood I spotted a name that rung a number of bells in my head, but who was Greg Draper? After some thought, it came to me: he was that striker that had been scoring for fun for the New Saints in the Welsh Premier League. I was not even aware that he was from New Zealand, but after a quick ‘Google’, I discovered that this was the very same Draper.

Greg Draper wearing the number 9 for the All Whites (the nickname given to the New Zealand national team)

Draper was not actually born in New Zealand, but in England’s west country in Somerset. Draper moved to New Zealand as a youngster and chose to play the national  sport of his home nation rather than follow most Kiwis into playing the country’s national sport, Rugby Union. Draper’s youth career began at Ferrymead  Bays, a semi-professional team in Christchurch, before moving to Canterbury United for the 2006-07 season. Canterbury had been a founder member of the New Zealand Football Championship, a league which is run on a similar regional franchise-style system to the US’ Major League Soccer (MLS). In his first and only season for the Canterbury, Draper featured 14 times scoring 4 times, helping the team to secure a 4th place finish in the league. Draper’s career would carry on in New Zealand as he moved to Wellington Phoenix and eventually to Team Wellington. Whilst at Wellington Phoenix, Draper was even fortune enough to line up opposite David Beckham, although the 18-year old Draper would only play in the last 5 minutes of the friendly game against LA Galaxy.

In the middle of his travels around New Zealand, Draper also fitted in 20 games at Melbourne Knights in Australia’s A-league in the 2009 campaign.

By now Draper had pinned his national identity to New Zealand and had featured for their youth teams at U-17, U-20 and U-23 level. One of the highlights of Draper’s career so far was his call up to New Zealand squad for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Draper was called up to the Alll Whites squad along with players such as Blackburn’s Ryan Nelson, Celtic’s Chris Killen and the much travelled defensive midfielder Simon Elliot. New Zealand were drawn in the same group as the hosts China and a talented young Belgium squad with the likes of Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele. The other group spot would be taken by a star-studded Brazilian team; Draper would find himself up against a long list of talent: Ronaldinho, Robinho, Thiago Silva, Diego, Lucas, Marcelo, Anderson, Pato amongst others. New Zealand would scrape a 1-1 draw against the ten men of China, although Draper would not come off the bench. In the second fixture of their group, New Zealand found themselves up against a Brazilian team desperate to achieve the gold medal that was missing from the nation’s already overloaded trophy cabinet.  By half time Brazil were 2-0 up thanks to goals from Anderson and Pato. An 18 year old Draper was to make his bow after the interval in what was a dream moment for the youngster. Brazil would go on to win 5-0 with Ronaldinho delivering a showboating masterclass and scoring twice. Despite the result, it was a great experience for Draper unsurprisngly claiming years later that Ronaldinho is the best player he has ever played against. Draper impressed enough to earn himself a ten minute cameo in the final group match in a 1-0 loss to the Belgians.

After a semi-successful spell at Team Wellington, it looked like Draper was looking for a return to the nation where he was born. In August 2010, Draper was signed by Basingstoke FC who were playing in the Conference South, the 6th tier of English football. The Basingstoke manager at the time, Frank Gray, was very excited about the impact Draper could have as the club seeked to achieve promotion from the league. Gray, a former Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Sunderland player and younger brother of Leeds legend Eddie Gray, had only managed in non-league and much was expected of him at Basingstoke.

Draper made his debut for Basingstoke in a Tuesday night league fixture against St. Albans. Despite making a hash of two very good chances during the game, Gray was very impressed with Draper’s performance and he was confident that the Kiwi would be an excellent addition to his side:

“Greg Draper came in and did well. He is a good player who holds the ball up and can see people. When we get him fully fit he will be a big asset.”

The Basingstoke Gazzette described how Draper showed some ‘nice touches and troubled the home defence with his footwork and buildup play.’

Basingstoke would have an average season in 2010/11 finishing in 13th place, but individually, Draper would have an impressive debut season at the club, improving as the season went on. In 28 games, Draper would find the net 15 times with his best performance coming in a February league game against Dover Athletic. Draper had found the net in the two games leading up to the Dover game, and he would continue his good form by scoring a 15 minute hatrick against Dover. Draper felt that after half a season in England, frequently playing two games a week, that his fitness had improved dramatically and this perhaps help explain why his form improved after the festive period. Gray lauded the frontman:

“Greg is the best natural finisher at the club and you saw that today as he scored three goals from three chances. He has always had the ability but it took him time to adjust to football in this country and he has had a few injuries. This is the first time he has been really fit in a while and he is showing what he is capable of.”

Draper celebrating a goal for the New Saints

Draper’s good season was noticed by several clubs and he was linked with a move away from Basingstoke in the 2011 summer transfer window. Draper had always stated he was an ambitious player and that Basingstoke was hopefully a stepping stone to bigger things. Many may not see a move to the Welsh Premier League as a step up, but an opportunity to play European football would prove alluring to the Kiwi. June 2011 would see Draper make his way across the English/Welsh border as he moved from Basingstoke to Oswestry club, New Saints. Draper was hoping that playing in Europe for the New Saints would at least get him some more attention as he claimed:

“I came because of the chance to play in Europe. This is a great club to be at and to have the opportunity to play in Europe made my decision very easy.”

The New Saints are the second most successful team since the formation of the Welsh Premier League with three of their titles coming under their former guise as Total Network Solutions (TNS);  Jeff Stelling’s famous, “They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight!” line was coined following their 2006 title win. The New Saints’ success had brought them several opportunities in European competition over the years. New Saints had finished the 2010/11 season in second place which earned them the right to compete in the Europa League, although they would have to begin their European campaign in early July in the first qualifying stages of the competition, where Draper would make his debut for the club. New Saints would be drawn against League of Ireland team Cliftonville with the first leg at New Saints’ Park Hall ground ending in a 1-1 draw. Draper did not feature in the first leg, but he did get to make his debut in the second leg victory (TNS won 2-1 on aggregate) back in Ireland. Draper made a good impression on his debut, despite missing two good chances.

Similar to his arrival at Basingstoke, Draper made a stuttering start at his new club, but after his initial teething process, he found his feet in the Welsh Premier League and was soon a regular on the scoresheet. By the end of hsi first season at the Welsh club, Draper had scored 22 goals from 27 starts, helping the club secure the Welsh Premier League title and a place in the 2012/13 Champions League qualifying stages. The New Saints went on to earn themselves a double, by securing the Welsh Cup in a 2-0 victory over Newi Cefn Druids; once again, Draper found himself an integral part of the success having scored a (fortunate) header to put New Saints in the lead after Newi Druids’ goalkeeper Chris Mullock let the ball slide through his hands.

Draper had helped deliver a domestic league and cup double to the New Saints, but his biggest achievement and biggest disappointment of the season would come with his efforts for New Zealand. Although the British public have not exactly entered a frenzy in regards to Olympic football (apart from the furore surrounding the exclusion of a certain David Beckham from Team GB) every other nation seems to be treating the competition in a serious manner; New Zealand have been no different and they were desperate to qualify for the 2012 tournament, especially after the great experience they had had in Beijing four years before.

The 7-team London 2012 Olympics qualfiying for the Oceania region was played throughout mid-March with New Zealand scraping a 1-0 victory against Papua New Guniea and then thrashing Tonga 10-0 in their two group games; Draper started in both games and scored one in the demolition of Tonga. Draper had even been given the honour of captaining the team in the Tonga fixture in place of Adam McGeorge who wasstarted on the bench. Draper’s contribution would prove much more meaningful in the semi-final stage as he was once again given the All Whites’ captain armband as they sunk Vanuatu 3-2, Draper scoring the decisive goal to ensure New Zealand reached the final;the final would decide if they or Fiji would go to the 2012 games or not. The final was a tough, hard fought encounter, but once again Draper proved the decisive figure, scoring a 17th minute penalty to ensure qualification to London 2012 with a 1-0 victory. There is little fanfare surrounding Team GB in this country, but the All Whites celebrated their qualification like a nation’s team would usually celebrate qualification to any major tournament.

Draper celebrates scoring the decisive penalty in New Zealand’s 1-0 win over Fiki to qualfiy for London 2012

Draper had scored 3 goals, 2 of them crucial match winning goals, in qualfication and had even filled in as captain on two occasions- Draper’s contribution to New Zealand’s qualfiication had perhaps been more decisive than any of the other players, so he looked to have secured his place in the team’s Olympics squad, just as he had done 4 years ago in Beijing. While the press lamented the harsh exclusion of Olympics ambassador and all-round football superman David Beckham from Stuart Pearce’s Team GB squad, there was to be a harsher decision from the New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert in his 2012 selection. Herbert’s striker selection read as:

7-Kosta BARBAROUSES (Alania Vladikavkaz, RUS)
9-Shane SMELTZ* (Perth Glory, AUS)
10-Chris WOOD (West Bromwich Albion, ENG)
11-Marco ROJAS (Melbourne Victory, AUS)
16-Dakota LUCAS (Sunshine Coast, AUS)

There was no room for Greg Draper (New Saints, WAL). Draper had gone from being the nation’s hero and from the moment he described as the ‘highlight of his life’ to being shunned by his national team. I was particularly disappointed as I was banking on Draper to be my player to support during the New Zealand v Egypt game at Old Trafford.

Draper took the rejection on the chin and continued to score freely for New Saints. One missed opportunity led to another opportunity gained, as New Saints’ title win had secured them a place in the Champions League qualifying stages; his absence from the All Whites squad meant that Draper could participate in the July fixtures against Helsingborgs. As I write this, New Saints have just delivered a highly impressive performance against Swedish champions Helsingborgs, drawing 0-0, but dominating the game in the process, with ex-Swansea striker Chris Jones hitting the post. I’m sure that the New Saints will deliver another galliant effort out in Sweden, but it is going to be difficult for the Welsh club to defeat a team featuring some Swdish internationals on their own turf. If New Saints can secure such a heroic victory, I’m sure much of Draper’s Olympic disappointments would disintegrate very quickly. Draper is clearly still highly ambitious and I’m sure that Draper’s goalscoring exploits in the Welsh Premier League will not have gone unnoticed by clubs playing in the English football pyramid.

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