Waitakere United
© FIFA.com

Waitakere United may be short on years, but the club has already achieved a considerable amount in its short existence - most conspicuously, winning the OFC O-League and consequently achieving a place at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007.

Founded in 2004 to form part of the newly-established New Zealand Football Championship, an air of expectation immediately surrounded the club. This feeling strengthened when they finished the inaugural championship's regular season as runners-up, but after making light work of Waikato FC to reach the Grand Final, they narrowly lost a five-goal contest to a formidable Auckland City side, who had quickly emerged as their rivals' nemesis.

The loss proved a teaser to further disappointment for Waitakere. Indeed, they ended the ensuing season down in sixth position out of eight, with 11 defeats from 21 matches.

Rather than dwell on their failure to bring instant silverware to the city, though, head coach Steve Cain chose to accentuate the plusses. A crop of the players at his disposal were, he trusted, good enough to mix it with the country's - and potentially the continent's - elite, their talents simply needed complimenting. Therefore, one-time New Zealand international goalkeeper Michael Utting arrived in West Auckland, along with his former All Whites team-mates Allan Pearce and Rupesh Puna, gifted Solomon Islands striker Commins Menapi and the Brazilian Pedro Santos, whose unpredictable skills were summoned to unlock NZFC defences.

Perhaps equally as important to Waitakere's progression, however, was the decision of the club's power figures to reshuffle coaching duties. Cain, who had previously overseen all footballing activity at the club, was relinquished of his lesser assignments to focus exclusively on the senior squad. The move paid dividends.

With the tactician assuming a more hands-on role, United streaked to the front of the 2006/07 NZFC regular season, form which was rewarded by a huge stroke of fortune. Indeed, when Vanuatu's Port Vila Sharks withdrew from the 2007 O-League, the Oceania Football Confederation announced that they would be replaced by an additional outfit from New Zealand, specifically the side who ended the first of three phases of the NZFC's regular season atop of the standings.

This added a huge slice of significance to the top-of-the-table clash between YoungHeart Manawatu and Waitakere United, and it was Cain's charges who emerged victorious from an enduring encounter, a Menapi goal on the hour sinking his former employers. Thereafter, Waitakere overcame Hawkes Bay and Otago United to bank a spot alongside rivals Auckland City in Group A of the 2007 O-League.

"This is just unbelievable," enthused Cain at the time, "the chance for these players and the prize that is up for grabs. It is not something that was even on the horizon as recently as a month ago, but we are determined to win it. We must do our utmost to go a step further and qualify for the FIFA world finals - imagine what that would do for the game in our region!"

Waitakere's attentions then returned to the NZFC, and for the first time, the club finished the regular season in pole position to qualify directly for the Grand Final. In a repeat of the 2004/05 showpiece, they were confronted by Auckland City, who duplicated their 3-2 triumph of two years previous to claim a third successive crown.

The road to Japan
If Waitakere United sneaked into the O-League through the back door, then they exited the tournament on the red carpet following a triumphant campaign. After playing out two entertaining 2-2 draws with Auckland City, United pipped their compatriots for a place in the final by virtue of their superior goal difference in the three-team pool, which was achieved courtesy of 6-1 and 3-0 wins over AS Mont-Dore of New Caledonia.

There they faced Group B winners and Fijian champions Ba, who edged the first of their two encounters 2-1 on home soil on 21 April. Although the visitors felt aggrieved not to have returned to New Zealand on level terms, coach Cain was not despondent: "We head home with just the one goal deficit and a vital away goal," he said.

It was a goal that would prove crucial. In the return leg eights days later, a Pearce header, coupled with some inspired goalkeeping from Utting, earned Waitakere a 1-0 victory, the O-League title and a coveted place in the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007.

Key players
Imposing, intelligent and assured in possession, Danny Hay is very much Waitakere's look-to man. Now 32, the All Whites captain has a wealth of experience under his belt, including appearances in the English Premiership and the prestigious UEFA Champions League for Leeds United. From his central defensive berth, Hay is renowned for his impelling leadership and expert reading of the game, and can also lend his weight to the cause when attacking or defending set pieces.

At the front end of the United formation, Commins Menapi is an incessant menace to opposing defences, his energy, ball skills and killer instinct in front of goal a regular source of victories.

At the reins
Having acted as New Zealand national team assistant and been at the Papua New Guinea controls, Steve Cain is now relishing the day-to-day rigours of club football. Having overseen Waitakere United's rapid progression over the last couple of seasons, the forward-thinking Englishman is now looking ahead to pitting his wits against some of the sport's top coaches in Japan.