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Will Gillingham: Defender’s journey from national champion in New Zealand to beaches of California… to Cove Rangers

The 24-year-old Auckland-raised centre-back has signed a two-year full-time deal with Cove as he attempts to further his footballing career in Scotland.

Will Gillingham at Cove Rangers' Balmoral Stadium. Image: Cove Rangers.
Will Gillingham at Cove Rangers' Balmoral Stadium. Image: Cove Rangers.

Will Gillingham is likely to feel the nip of the notoriously chilly Balmoral Stadium more than his Cove Rangers team-mates next season – after five years playing his football in California.

The club confirmed they have signed the 24-year-old centre-back on Tuesday, with the 6 ft 4in stopper penning a two-year deal to become the latest full-time capture following Cove’s relegation from the Championship.

Gillingham will move into a flat in Aberdeen next week in time for pre-season starting as Paul Hartley prepares his squad for League One.

NZ national high-school title success led to Santa Barbara soccer scholarship

Born near London and raised in New Zealand, Gillingham is currently stopping over in Glasgow with St Mirren striker Alex Greive.

The four-cap Kiwi international and Cove new boy are pals from their school days in Auckland.

Growing up with a “pretty natural” passion for football – due to his UK roots – Gillingham captained his Sacred Heart College high-school side, which also featured Buddies star Greive – to two New Zealand national titles, in 2014 and 2016.

St Mirren’s Alex Greive, right, in action against Aberdeen. Image: SNS.

Those successes helped land Gillingham the “unbelievable opportunity” to go to university in the United States.

He said: “I’d say we were the best high school team in the country, and I was playing for a really good club academy as well.

“I got to the end of high school and my old high school coach, Danny Hay – who went on to coach the All Whites (the New Zealand men’s national team) for a while – he knew someone who helped get kids from Australia and New Zealand scholarships over in the US.

“They made me a highlight reel, sent that off to a bunch of different universities in the US, and a few made offers.”

Former New Zealand national team boss Danny Hay. Image: Shutterstock.

Gillingham moved to Santa Barbara, California, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in 2017, combining a sociology degree with playing “really high-level” football for the NCAA Division 1 University of California Santa Barbara Gauchos.

He said: “It’s one of the nicest places in the world. It’s remarkable and I loved it so much.

“That’s why I stayed there so long – a beautiful climate, 22 degrees every day, zero humidity, (and) you’re on the beach.”

In the penultimate summer of his studies, in 2021, centre-half Gillingham played a handful of games at semi-professional level for fourth-tier, USL League Two side South Georgia Tormenta FC 2.

Then, after his final year of university, offers of professional deals in the second-tier USL Championship and third-tier USL League One rolled in – with Gillingham choosing USL 1’s Central Valley Fuego due to their location in Fresno, just four hours north of Santa Barbara in California.

He added: “I played a season there, which was really interesting for me.

“It was crazy different though, in terms of climate. Fresno is right in the middle of California, not on the coast, and temperatures three months of the year are 40 degrees-plus.

“We’d be kicking off games at 7pm and that would still be the temperature. It was a crazy environment to try to play in.

“But I met a lot of really good people, learned a lot and I’m really happy I did it.”

Gillingham’s coach at Central Valley Fuego was Martin Vasquez, who served as Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant with both German giants Bayern Munich and the US national team.

“He’s a super interesting guy,” Gillingham said. “Obviously he knows a lot – he played at a high level himself, playing in the Mexican league and the MLS.

“He’s been coaching at Bayern Munich and places like that, so he knew what he was doing and training sessions were class.”

Martin Vasquez, left, and Jurgen Klinsmann on the Bayern Munich bench in 2009. Image: Shutterstock.

Training Martindale’s Livingston before Cove opportunity came along

Following the conclusion of the 2022 season, Gillingham decided to further his football career in the UK.

His sights were initially fixed on England, but he ended up training north of the border, with Premiership Livingston.

He said: “I got to the UK maybe four months ago, and originally I was going to go in with some National League teams down south, but then I had the opportunity to go in with Livingston.

“I did alright on a week’s trial, but I couldn’t sign because the window had closed.

“They wanted to see more of me, so I stayed on for about two months and then a few weeks before the end of the season they told me I wasn’t going to get a contract, at least right away.

“So for the last three weeks I’ve just been training by myself, and then the Cove opportunity came up.”

Gillingham thinks positive words from players and coaches at Livi may have helped pave the way for his move to the Granite City.

He described Lions gaffer David Martindale as “an excellent, excellent manager and just a really good guy to talk to”.

The people at Cove have made similar impression on Gillingham, who added: “I haven’t met many people at the club, but the ones I have have all been class and really welcoming.

Cove Rangers’ new signing Will Gillingham. Image: Cove Rangers.

“It seems like a really, really well-run club.

“I love the stadium.”

Looking ahead to the new season, and which qualities he thinks he can use to help Cove get promoted back to the Championship at the first time of asking, the centre-back said: “Intensity. As a centre-back, I think you have to drive a lot of intensity.

“And leadership, because you can see the whole game.

“And a lot of communication, and also controlling the pace of the game.

“I’ve been around the world playing football, so I’ve got some good stories and experience, even though I’m only 24 years old.”

Cove Rangers manager Paul Hartley will be trying to steer them back to the Championship. Image: SNS.