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The National League Debates

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana

Bruce Holloway, winner of ‘Best Publication’ at the 2012 New Zealand Football Media Awards for the superb Waikato Chronicles (follow the link for my review of it), has been at it again! This time with a captivating 276 page chronology of the twists and turns our domestic game has taken as it has grappled with the age-old conundrum of how, or if, football in this country should be adorned with a national league.

Like the Waikato Chronicles, I found this a real page turner. And not only that, I learned a huge amount about the history of our game from binge reading it over the past couple of nights. It was actually a bit embarrassing to discover how much I have been living in ignorance about… Things like (but by no means limited to) the ins and outs of the amalgamation of Waikato United and Melville, the collapse of Mt Maunganui, the angst around the formation of Canterbury United (that I hadn’t appreciated pre-dates the ASB Premiership), the disappearance of Mount Wellington from the fabric of our elite levels, the litigious history around Nelson’s inclusion and exclusion at various times, not to mention all the many, many machinations of just how we got to where we are today with our franchise based summer national league.

And oh my goodness – Alpherville!! This was something akin to “Hello, I am the son of a Nigerian prince and I require all your bank details and pin numbers to transfer a billion dollars into your bank account, please hurry or my father will be executed and turn into a giraffe and fly away to Give Me All Your Money Now Land…”.

I must digress to summarise this story (forgive me if you’ve heard it before) – A mysterious company, registered to an address in Kilbirnie of all places, offered, via anonymous fax to New Zealand Football, to plough $17.5 million into a national league… Instead of moving it to the trash folder our esteemed leaders of the day seem to have wasted a good year or so negotiating with this shadowy entity, before the man behind it was deported on charges related to child pornography and falsifying a passport. This came at the expense of spending that precious time working towards getting a real and desperately needed living breathing sponsor to replace Smokefree at the end of the tobacco gravy train… You couldn’t make this stuff up.

But the major take-home from this work is the realisation of how easily we forget that the last decade of the ASB Premiership has been such a relatively stable one for our game with very few changes in the grand scheme of things. By contrast, one of the real eye openers for me in what Bruce has put together is coming to the understanding that all through the ‘90s and early 2000s the national league was something that the powers that be simply couldn’t bring themselves to leave alone for five minutes. We lurched from 4 points for a win and penalty shootouts at the end of every draw, to play off systems nobody seemed to want, to superclub formats, back to a national league, only to revert to seperate North and South Island leagues with playoffs for the winners and losers alike and back to a national league again. In between times clubs were excluded and included in various forms, in various leagues, from one season to the next, with shifting criteria and little or no transparency.

The problem seemed to partly stem from the revolving door of new people coming into roles such as Chairmen and CEOs of New Zealand Football who held the views that their ideas were the only way things could move forward. How very corporate it all was. How many of us have had their lives thrown into upheaval by this sort of thing in the workplace? The insatiable need of those in positions of power to leave their mark, whatever the consequences might be for other people, without any empathy or interest in genuinely listening to alternative points of view.

It seems to me that there were two major victims in all this. The fans – the ones the powers that be seemed to be endlessly trying to attract but whose teams were there one minute and gone the next… And the administrators and volunteers – trying to run their clubs at a time when, often literally from one week to the next, you had no idea what the future held.

Fans like history and tradition. Things take time to take off – decades in fact. No world class sporting competition anywhere in the world, that you or I know and love, reached its full potential inside a decade. Yet we appeared to be lightning fast to judge the success or failure of these various different attempts at leagues in bafflingly short timeframes, before the game’s institutions had established themselves in any way let alone built up any history or gravitas whatsoever.

Then there was the endless parochialism that made me constantly sigh reading through the chronology. ‘My club has to be included because wah, wah, wah!’ ‘My region has to be included because wah, wah, wah!’ ‘They got in but we didn’t get in wah, wah, wah!’ ‘Now you’ve let them in, what about us wah, wah, wah!’

Gimme a break!

One thing the ASB Premiership has done is spared us from all this tiresome bickering for a time it seems. Or has it? Is this just a perception due to football not being reported or even cared about as much or as passionately as it used to be? And, related to that, has the ASB Premniership’s vanilla flavour become its ultimate downfall?

Because we know that as we speak, New Zealand Football is preparing to roll the clock back and return us to a club based national league. What will it be this time? Summer or winter? Conferences or full round robins? One round or home and away? Invitation only or promotion and relegation? Selection based on playing strength? Or facilities? Or money in the bank? Playoffs or traditional winner take all? How many teams? We’ve tried it all before.

My first big plea is that they start with this question – what’s most important?

Attracting fans? Developing players? Keeping costs down? Attracting sponsorship? Getting TV coverage – don’t laugh that was actually a true objective once quaint as it may seem!!

Get that answer right first and we just might get somewhere because the solution will be very different depending on what the problem is we are trying to solve. I really hope, instead of just consulting on the sort of league people want, New Zealand Football are first finding out what the most desirable goals of a national league should be.

But even before they do that, the best place of all to start should be for anyone and everyone who is part of the decision making process on this to stop what they are doing right now and read Bruce’s chronology before they touch anything else!!

If anyone asks my opinion, my only real preference from a fan’s perspective at this stage is for summer football to remain. Otherwise what the hell am I going to write about for six months of the year??? Seriously though, a return to winter would be a major backward step in my view.

Apart from that, for those passionate proponents of a return to a club based national league, of which there are many, I’ll leave you with this quote:

“By its very nature, the national league attacks the onion of a soccer club, removing layer after layer of club life until it gets down to the little sliver of ambition and commitment at the core. Similarly, the bedrock of addicted national league diehards must drill their ambitions like an oil well, down and sideways, through the muck and thickness until they strike a club layer solid enough to allow them to eke out another year. Then, when the season begins, the motivations of dedicated club officials are thrown on the pinball machine of the league and bounced around on crazy administration, prima-donna players, dodgy refereeing and bare-faced luck.”

– Bruce Holloway, Sitter! fanzine, May 1997.

Perhaps the ultimate moral of the story is this: Be careful what you wish for.

[Get your copy of The National League Debates in PDF format for $12 at www.nationalleaguedebates.weebly.com or via cordwainerbull@gmail.com. Hard copies can be ordered for $45. Disclaimer: I received a complimentary PDF copy for review purposes.]

Categories: NZ Men's National League

Tagged as:

Enzo Giordani

A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/

3 replies

  1. Great article Enzo, and who better than Bruce to cut through the debris of our failed national league formats? Can I buy a copy Bruce?

    It did get me to thinking. Do we actually need a national league! What is the purpose?

    After all there is no real interest from fans, most of whom go the beach during the summer or do other summer type things. They don’t flock to watch national league games. The various changes over the years have restricted a development of a national league culture.

    Why not simply have an end of year tournament between the 6 (or 9) top club sides at a set venue. Hype it up and make it a ‘big thing’, but one that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

    (Please forgive me if this has been raised before by more astute minds than mine, cos I guess it has).

    Kind regards

    Rod

    >

    1. Hi Rod!

      That question – what is the purpose – is key I think.

      If the purpose is to develop players then a national league is needed to provide that pathway to higher levels and I would have thought harder flatter summer surfaces would be more conducive to possession based football?

      And surely we are more likely to be getting people along competing with beaches and bbqs than we are when the weather is miserable…. I thought some of those WaiBOP United crowds in Cambridge were pretty darn good this season just gone.

      You can order your copy by e-mailing Bruce on cordwainerbull@gmail.com 🙂

  2. I know that the club I follow will not be tempted to go into a National League…the reason, part of the treason for the formation of this club was the cost of playing in such a league… a shame as it might mean we lose some top players, but I believe the club admin people have the right goals in mind

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