NZL 1 SVK 1: Les Ferdinand’s helicopter man

MATT Hockin works as part of the backroom team at Blackburn Rovers. He’s pretty versatile – his skills as a player liaison officer (helping new signings to settle in) and as a technical analyst (using computer technology to pick up on tactical points) have made him invaluable to Sam Allardyce down the years.

Hockin is part of the New Zealand set-up in South Africa – having only discovered he was going to the World Cup a couple of weeks in advance.

His adventure began when he got a phone call from Blackburn defender Ryan Nelsen last month. Nelsen asked if he fancied going out to the World Cup. Hockin said yes, thinking he might just be popping out for a game or two during the tournament.

“No,” Nelsen told him. “You need to come out to Austria right away, because we’re doing two weeks of altitude training and we want you here as soon as possible.”

Slightly stunned, but relishing the opportunity, Hockin packed his bags, left his family behind and headed for Austria.

It’s another bizarre tale in the career of Hockin, a former estate agent. During his days as player liaison manager at Bolton, he was given the job of finding somewhere in Lancashire for Les Ferdinand to land his helicopter.

Ferdinand, who had just joined Wanderers from Leicester, was using his chopper to commute up from London. Speaking to the Guardian about this in 2004, Hockin said: “I found a local airfield where he can land, refuel and store his helicopter during this season. Les was very happy.”

I’m indebted to Ian Dennis for alerting me to Hockin’s story, which he brought up during the latter stages of Radio Five Live’s commentary on a ponderous game in Rustenburg.

The fact that Dennis pulled it out of his bag of exhaustive research in the first place was a sign of just how poor the game was – at least until Winston Reid’s dramatic, thrilling stoppage-time equaliser gave New Zealand their first ever point at the World Cup finals.

Hockin may have provided the strangest English connection, but it wasn’t the only one. Practically every member of New Zealand’s squad seems to have spent some time at an English lower-division club – from goalkeeper Mark Paston’s brief stints at Bradford and Walsall to Rory Fallon’s lengthy career in England to Macclesfield-born, New Zealand-raised Tommy Smith’s emergence at Ipswich.

If you support a Football League club, you will probably have encountered at least a couple of New Zealand’s players turning out for or against your club at some point over the last five or six years. If you supported Wolves in the 1980s, you will also have encountered their manager Ricki Herbert, who had a stint at Molineux when the team were falling through the divisions and the ground was falling down.

Their career history gives them an air of underdogs. So even against a Slovakia team making their debut, it was hard not to want New Zealand to do well. They held out until half-time – an atrocious opening 45 minutes – but when Robert Vittek headed Slovakia in front five minutes after the break in Rustenburg, it looked as if Herbert and Co would be disappointed.

But a terrific late header from FC Midtjylland centre-back Reid – a former Denmark Under-21 international, and one of the New Zealanders who has never played for an English club – changed all that.

Hockin will probably still be free to return home after New Zealand’s final group game against Paraguay a week on Thursday. But his decision to make the journey has paid off already.

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