Waikato hoping to have a ball at Phoenix trial
St Paul's Collegiate footballer Waikato Ball will be training in the familiar yellow and black next week, but not for St Paul's.
The Hamilton 17-year-old attacker is heading to the capital for a week-long trial with the Wellington Phoenix, in the hope he can secure a spot in Ernie Merrick's greater squad.
College coach Michael Groom has teed up the opportunity for Ball to show off his skills to the Phoenix coaches, and has much belief in the youngster's ability.
"I've coached a lot of players, but he would have to be the most naturally gifted player I have ever coached," Groom said.
"I've coached Chris Wood at St Paul's, coached him since he was 9, and Marco Rojas came to my Samba-style classes for five years and still does when he's back here, and I'd say Waikato stacks up alongside those guys for sure.
"That's what I've told the crew down at the Phoenix. I think Waikato is the real deal. I'd be surprised if they didn't see what I see in the first five minutes he's there."
Groom said Ball is in the mould of the game's greats like Lionel Messi and Neymar, in that he can play in any position in the attacking third. "He makes things look so easy. He has the best natural skills I have ever seen, so I'd say it's a gift. His left foot is like a magic wand."
Ball said he was "stoked" to hear of his trial with the Phoenix, and plans to give it all he's got in trying to impress Merrick and the Phoenix.
He said he will start off by focusing on the basics, but plans to unleash some of his flair as the week progresses.
"I'm just going to do my thing," he said.
"I think I'll be training with the full squad, so that will be exciting. It's a bit of a surprise to be honest."
Until Groom set up the trial, Ball's immediate focus was on trialling for the Waikato-Bay of Plenty under-19 side.
He's sure to make that team after strong showings for St Paul's and for club side Claudelands Rovers, playing just behind the strikers.
Ball started playing football as a 6-year-old, following in the footsteps of his elder brother and father.
He started with hometown Te Awamutu and also played junior football for Cambridge, before making the move to Claudelands and his college football at St Paul's.
His mother, Theressa, said the family is thrilled about the trial, and that the whole family play, or have played, football.
"Waikato's older brother was actually better, but he didn't want it," she said. "He played for St Paul's alongside Chris Wood, but he didn't want to take it any further.
"But we're very proud of Waikato. We're not getting our hopes up too much, but we're very excited about the trial, and we have to thank Michael for setting it up." Ball's name gets as much attention as his skill on the field, and his mother said the name came about in an interesting manner.
It started when her brother was injured working on powerlines, and they had to visit him in hospital.
"I was eight months pregnant and we didn't have a name yet," she said.
"My brother calls out to a boy in the hospital, and his name was Waikato, and my husband was like: ‘That's it! That's his name, Waikato'. I didn't want it, but there you go.
"Now we like to say his name is Waikato, named after the region, not the beer."
Speaking of the region, there's history in Waikato youngsters heading to the Phoenix and making a name for themselves.
Marco Rojas made the move from Waikato in 2009, on the back of a Yellow Fever supporters scholarship.
He's since gone on to play for the Melbourne Victory in the A League, and now plays for VfB Stuttgart in the German Bundesliga.
Tauranga's Tyler Boyd had a breakthrough season with the Phoenix last year, having been signed on the back of strong performances for Melville United and Waikato FC.
Meanwhile, All Whites Chris Wood and Ryan Thomas have impressed while playing in Waikato, and now play in Europe for Leicester City and PEC Zwolle respectively.
Groom is confident this Phoenix trial will be just the beginning for Ball.
"The Phoenix have showed over the past few years that they're tapped into the local talent, so I'd be surprised if Waikato didn't get a chance."
The Dominion Post