Clapham's off to the Cup

BY TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 11/05/2010
Aaron Clapham
LAWRENCE SMITH/The Press
DELIGHTED: Canterbury footballer Aaron Clapham calls from Auckland to his parents in Christchurch after hearing he was in the All Whites World Cup squad.
Aaron Clapham
Aaron Clapham

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All Whites bolter Aaron Clapham did "a silent fist pump" when he was taken into a lift at the team's hotel and told he was going to the World Cup in South Africa.

Team manager Phil Warbrick drew the Canterbury United star aside to tell him of his selection about 90 minutes before New Zealand Football chairman Frank van Hattum's public announcement at 1pm yesterday in Auckland.

Other All Whites aspirants were milling around, so Warbrick led Clapham into the lift to tell him of his selection.

"There were a few of the other guys around. It was a bit confidential, so I had to be quiet, but I gave it the old silent fist pump behind everyone's back," Clapham said.

Last November, when the All Whites were playing Bahrain in Wellington in the sudden-death World Cup playoff, Clapham, 23, was at Canterbury United team-mate Ben Harris' house "with 10 or 11 others, having a few quiet drinks and cheering the team on, like the rest of New Zealand, not imagining I would be here now".

"Then to be in camp with the team, then to finally be in the squad – it's absolutely unbelievable," he said. "It hasn't really settled in. It's so exciting. Every day since I was a little kid I hoped and dreamt this would happen."

In February, the Louisville, Kentucky, university graduate's career was at a crossroads. He was earning rave New Zealand Football Championship (NZFC) reviews, but Dandenong Thunder, his Melbourne club, were pressuring him to return for the start of the Victorian state league season. With the Melbourne Heart about to join the A-League and scouting for players, Clapham was sorely tempted.

But wiser counsel prevailed.

Clapham, who joins Denmark-based Winston Reid as the only uncapped World Cup All White, comes from a respected Canterbury football family.

Sister Sara, 25, is a former Football Fern international, mother Angie represented Canterbury, playing alongside Sara, and father Ray coached the Canterbury women's team.

He turned to them for advice. He also asked Canterbury coach Keith Braithwaite and former youth-grade mentor Korouch Monsef their opinion.

But there were some sleepless nights before he decided to stay with Canterbury for the rest of the NZFC campaign.

Clapham is adamant he would not have made the All Whites had he returned to Melbourne.

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"Once you're out of sight, you're out of mind. The decision to stay was a big one. I was really close to going either way. I'm really happy I decided to stay. It's worked out really well."

Clapham was invited to train with All Whites coach Ricki Herbert's Wellington Phoenix. He drove former wooden spooners Canterbury to the NZFC grand final and was a runaway winner of the NZFC player of the year award.

Twelve days ago he joined the All Whites training camp as the only uncapped player.

"I thought I had a decent chance [after] being called into the camp. Obviously Ricki wanted to see what I could do at a higher level and I thought I performed quite well throughout the camp."

He was the outstanding player in the shadow All Whites' 2-0 win over the NZFC All Stars on Sunday and felt his performance "didn't hurt" his chances.

But there were still nervous moments before Warbrick put him out of his misery yesterday.

Clapham insists he is not going to South Africa to make up the numbers. "Obviously it's a 23-man squad, but no-one's going just for a holiday. Everyone's going to be pushing for a spot. I'm no different."

Ray Clapham said he was "relieved" and "overwhelmed" after a sleepless night.

"It was more relief for Aaron because I know how much this means to him," he said. "I'm just really pleased for him and so proud, obviously."

Angie Clapham said she had doubts about her son's selection until last week.

"On Friday, when he was named player of the year for the national league, I thought he must be in," she said.

"I just had that gut feeling, but before then I was thinking `maybe, maybe not'."

The Claphams were unsure if they would travel to South Africa.

"Work's probably going to be a hiccup and it's not the cheapest place to go," Ray Clapham said. "I would certainly love to because it's every parent's dream to see their children succeed."

Clapham is the third Canterbury player, and the fifth from the South Island, in the All Whites squad.

He will join fellow Cantabrians Ryan Nelsen and Ben Sigmund on the plane to South Africa.

Nelson's Jeremy Brockie and Otago's Andy Boyens are the other Mainlanders.

Clapham's callup was hailed last night by his Canterbury United clubmates.

"It's my 53rd birthday and it's the best birthday present I could get," said Canterbury coach Keith Braithwaite. "Everybody in Canterbury football is delighted for him".

- The Press

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