With a world famous name to live up to, Team Wellington’s Niko Kirwan is out to create a legacy of his own with the round ball, rather than the oval one that made his father – former All Blacks legend Sir John Kirwan – a household name across the globe.
“There is always going to be pressure when you have a famous dad,” Kirwan said.
“However, playing football is very different to playing rugby, so the pressure is not that bad. I just have to keep my focus on the game and not what is happening around me.”
In Kirwan’s debut season with Team Wellington he helped the side win the New Zealand Premiership title for the second year in-a-row while also battling all the way through to the final of the 2017 OFC Champions League.
Although many of his teammates are no strangers to the region’s premier club competition, the former Central Premier League player has found it a big step up.
“Both the New Zealand Premiership and the OFC Champions League have a good standard of football with good players and teams,” he said.
“The transition was always going to be challenging and pre-season and the first games were difficult, but I was able to adapt to the standard of football with constant training, good feedback from the coaches and personal commitment.
“I feel I have adapted to the standard but there is still a lot of aspects of my game I have to improve.”
Kirwan’s contribution to the team throughout the domestic season has ticked all the boxes for Team Wellington coach Jose Figueira, earning the 21-year-old appearances in nearly every Champions League match.
“I have been delighted with the development and progression of Niko this season. He is a fantastic player to work with and has a tremendous hunger and drive to learn and improve every day,” Figueira said.
“As a person Niko is very level headed and extremely focused. Despite his relatively young age he has taken his first season of football at this level in his stride,” he added.
“While he is still developing his understanding of the game from a tactical perspective, his enthusiasm and willingness to improve his overall game has seen him become an important member of this team.”
Kirwan’s first taste of the regional competition was no simple task. Team Wellington was drawn in Group C – hosted by New Caledonian club Hienghene Sport – and had to play three gruelling fixtures in demanding conditions.
“The biggest challenge for me was definitely playing in Koné. Adapting to the heat of the country, having a few physical problems and coming up against such quality players was a difficult task for me,” he said.
Kirwan’s Italian-influenced style of play gave Team Wellington a unique edge throughout the competition but the midfielder was tested by the unfamiliar style of play executed by their Oceania opponents.
“It was an unreal experience visiting New Caledonia for the first time and playing against those teams,” he said
“All four teams have had athletic and strong players that press and run constantly for the entire game. It was hard for us to overcome them.
“We had to be smart in the way we played and impose our passing game. We were good at doing this but we will need to go the extra mile if we want to take the trophy home.”
Their success in Koné saw Team Wellington host the first ever OFC Champions League match in New Zealand’s capital, and Kirwan was overjoyed to secure their place in the final with the second semi-final at their home ground of David Farrington Park.
“It was definitely a proud moment for me, playing and winning in front of my family and friends was a feeling I am always going to treasure,” he said.
“Playing at David Farrington Park always brings the best out of us. It is really hard for visitor teams to come and play us at home.”
Team Wellington will get another chance to use their home advantage in the second leg of their upcoming final against fellow New Zealand Premiership team Auckland City FC, but after mixed results between the teams in the domestic league, Kirwan isn’t being complacent.
“Auckland City are a great team with quality players. The premiership victory is in the past now and we are looking forward to the OFC finals,” he said.
“We have to work hard and play well in order to overcome them in the finals. We are all excited to test ourselves against them once again.”
Team Wellington will play the eight-time OFC Champions League winners at Kiwitea Street in Auckland on 30 April before the second leg of the final kicks off at David Farrington Park on 7 May.
“I am happy that we have to play home and away as it gives the opportunity for both teams to play in front of their own fans.
“Two games will show who the best team is and who deserves to be on the international stage.”