Imagine signing for a club, playing six matches for them but never visiting their home ground. Well that’s exactly what Sean Latimer did earlier this year. The 25-year-old forward was playing in New Zealand’s regional leagues when he received a call to play for the champions of the Cooks Islands, Tupapa Maraerenga.
“I got a phone call from a coach I know called Sam Wilkinson saying ‘how would you feel about playing in the OFC Champions League for a team called Tupapa Maraerenga?’
“My first reaction was like ‘Yeah for sure’ but not really knowing what it was all about and how I would go about it.
“He mentioned I would have to be on a plane to American Samoa in 6 days!”
The move to New Zealand came after a four year spell playing and studying in America. The forward had played for Portsmouth, Aldershot Town and Torquay United back home but he then followed that up with two years at Bryant & Stratton College in New York, finishing his spell in the States with two years at the University of Northwestern Ohio.
It was after his spell across the Atlantic when he would then move even further from home.
“An old coach of mine called Paul Harkness, gave me the opportunity to come to New Zealand when he put me in contact with a team called Fencibles United.
“I settled in right away. The lads were very welcoming and the family I started living with did everything they could to help me settle in and get used to living the other side of the world.”
Fencibles United play in Northern League Division Two, the the fourth tier of New Zealand football and it did not take long for Latimer to notice a difference in the style of football played in his new home.
“The standard is a big difference from back home in the UK,” he says. “It’s a lot softer here and referees are a lot more strict.
“You also have some unreal players playing in an average league, which is a shame as there is not much action here for professional football for some of the better players.”
In the 2017 season with Fencibles, Latimer guided his side to the Division 2 title, securing them promotion to the third-tier. It was then the opportunity to play continental football came about.
The OFC Champions League is the premier tournament in Oceania football, with the winner earning a spot at the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup, usually held in the UAE. Only one side outside of New Zealand has ever won the competition since 2007.
Nevertheless, Latimer would join Tupapa Maraerenga in the qualifying rounds of the 2018 tournament. Alongside them in their group, were teams from Samoa, Tonga and American Samoa, with the latter hosting all the qualifying matches. All the matches from each group are played in one location so it would mean the former Ohio student would never have to visit the Cook Islands, the home of his new side.
“I travelled back and fourth for the qualifying and the group stages with a couple of other New Zealand players.
“We would go to these island for around two weeks and play three games with double sessions in between games with recovery sessions.
“The facilities were not the best as the weather was so hot the grass would be dead where we would train but the game fields were unreal, like carpet.”
The former Aldershot Town man had a flying start to his career with the Cook Islands side, scoring five goals in three matches as Tupapa cruised to the top of their qualifying group and earning entry to the main tournament, which was set to start a month later in Vanuatu.
The next stage proved to be significantly harder for Latimer and his teammates as they took on teams from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
“I think we had a really good team,” says Latimer. “Having not trained much with my new teammates we connected well and it lead to lots of goals being scored and I was thankful enough to get five of them in the qualifiers.
“The group stages were a lot better with a lot of international players from the other islands. That is where we met our match and losing three out of three against some very good opposition and myself only scoring two goals.”
Despite his side exiting the competition, which would go on to be won by Team Wellington, in the group stages, Latimer would still go on to finish as the tournament’s joint-second top scorer with seven goals in six games. He also provided four assists and it was an experience cherished by the forward.
“In the qualifiers, we got a few hundred come and watch from the local area in American Samoa, which was cool to see all the local people coming together to watch.
“When we made the group stages we were playing in a stadium where we got a lot more fans, around a good few thousand per game, especially when we played the club from the host nation.”
After his experience in American Samoa and Vanuatu, Latimer has since returned to the New Zealand regional leagues, helping guide North Shore United to the title in Division One and subsequently earn promotion to the Premier Division for next season, not that the forward may be around to help them mount another title challenge.
“Having not lived at home in eight years now, the future for me is to go home and plan out my next more whether it’s in England or another country.”
Having played in countries in the South Pacific others can only dream of visiting, late alone play football in, Latimer can be more than happy with what his eight years away from home have earned him so far. At the age of 25 though, there could still be a lot more exploring left for the forward to do.