The small Welsh town of Bala, located within the edges of the stunning Snowdonia National Park, is a beautiful, scenic spot with a population of 2,000. Nestled amongst rolling green hills and scattered forests as far as the eye can see lies the modest yet soulful ground of Maes Tegid, home to Welsh Premier League side Bala Town.
“It was an incredible experience playing at the Club World Cup,” said Irving, who left Bala for Auckland in 2013 before returning in 2015. “Playing the host club, with 40,000 screaming fans in the stadium, it was completely different to what I’d ever experienced before.”
Spirit of 2014
While regulars at the Club World Cup – and making their eighth appearance at this year’s tournament, Auckland have often struggled to get past the opening play-off game. But in 2014 they were the main protagonist in one of the tournament’s greatest stories: when only extra time stood in the way of the New Zealand minnows meeting Spanish giants Real Madrid in the competition’s final.
After overcoming host club Moghreb Tetouan and then defeating African kings ES Setif in the quarter-finals, Auckland took 2014 Copa Libertadores winners San Lorenzo to extra time in the semi-finals. Though they missed out on a dream finale with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid, the Navy Blues valiantly claimed bronze by defeating CONCACAF Champions League winners Cruz Azul on penalties in the match for third place.
“We thought we were world-beaters and felt we could take on anyone at that time. Every team we played, we matched them and took them all the way,” said Irving, who hails from Liverpool. “We were delighted that we got that far and finished third as nobody expected us to do so, but most of the lads were disappointed that we didn’t reach the final.
“When watching San Lorenzo take on Real Madrid, we were there and felt we could have been on that pitch, that it could have been us playing in that final. But it was a massive deal for us to come third and when we got back to New Zealand, there was a big parade for the club and everybody was over the moon for us.”
Irving himself played a key role in Auckland’s incredible 2014 journey, scoring the only goal of the game from a corner against CAF Champions League winners ES Setif to fire his side into the semi-final.
“We were working on crossing and finishing sessions in training leading up to the game and I’d been scoring quite a few goals,” the Englishman revealed. “The assistant coach said: ‘Give John a go and let him go up for one corner and see what happens.’ The first corner came in the second half [against ES Setif] and I managed to score! After that, I was going up for every corner.”
While he cites the team’s incredible synergy as one of the reasons behind Auckland’s 2014 success, Irving maintains the defining factor was the meticulous preparation of Spanish manager Ramon Tribulietx and his backroom staff, who left nothing to chance in Morocco.
“We were extremely well prepared going into the tournament,” Irving said. “The manager had a gameplan and we worked very hard on it. Ramon studied every game and had everything down to a T. When it came to matchday, we were well drilled and knew what to do.
“And on a one-to-one basis too, he always took time out to make sure you were doing okay, not just in football terms but in your personal life as well.”
Sights on Japan
While over 18,000 kilometres separates Bala and Auckland, Irving still keeps in contact with his former team-mates through email and social media and will certainly be tuning in on 8 December to watch his former team – including his former room-mate and captain Angel Berlanga – take on the champions of Japan in the tournament’s opening game.
“I watched the match last year when Auckland played Sanfrecce Hiroshima and they were unlucky. But I know they’ll be ready to go again,” said Irving. “They went out and won the OFC Champions League once more and I’m sure Ramon will have them ready to bounce back.
“The club is family-run and everybody talks about it being like a family, everyone is close and gets along very well. It’s a very happy place to be.”