“And clubs, not so obsessed as nowadays with home and away concepts, sometimes complained if they weren’t chosen often enough for headquarters!”
– Don Service on Blandford Park, 2002
The report of the New Zealand Football National Competitions Review might be a couple of months’ old now but the food for thought it provided hasn’t stopped percolating, in my mind at least. It articulated a bold vision for our national men’s league – the ASB Premiership – including big stadiums, televised games, more teams, more rounds and a mix of clubs and franchises. Some of it will only happen over the next few years if certain conditions are met and some of these changes have already begun to be made. Sky is beaming this summer’s competition into homes up and down the country and selected games are being played in 20,000 plus seat stadia. But this brave new world we are already embracing hasn’t been met with universal acclaim.
John Palethorpe succinctly encapsulated one legitimate school of thought last week when he wrote:
“…going to a match where the people who do attend are spread out across a vast expanse of seating is bloody rubbish… Putting a crowd of hundreds into a stadium designed for thousands won’t produce that buzz that gets first time attendees telling their friends about the game and coming back.”
I couldn’t agree more and it does seem kind of weird that Auckland City and Waitakere United are playing home games at North Harbour Stadium and Mt Smart this season – far away from their natural support bases. But when put into the historical context of the above Don Service quote, this represents a shift in thinking from the days when everyone wanted their games at Newmarket Park and its predecessor!
So what’s that about? What did people love about going to Newmarket Park that they don’t love about modern, and dare I say more comfortable equivalents? One thing that’s clear is they liked the decision being made for them about what the match of the round was and they liked the value of going to two games at ‘headquarters’ on a Saturday with the main event and a curtain raiser on offer. That could be recreated anywhere if people thought it was worthwhile and perhaps that’s what NZF is moving towards.
But while good football grounds need some fundamental things such as a smooth and well drained surface, floodlights, seats – some of them covered – a good pie stand, and maybe even a half decent latte stall, what makes a good ground great is simply this – atmosphere. North Harbour Stadium, Mt Smart, the Cake Tin and Waikato Stadium are concrete jungles and they present a face of the future that is increasingly tired and stale before we even set out.
The Competitions Review report sees the game as aspiring to be something we may or may not ever become. What I think has been overlooked is the opportunity to capitalise on what we already are. ‘Lower league football’ has become super trendy in Europe. People are flocking to it as an alternative to the hardnosed, unfriendly, corporate, soulless multimillion dollar global product that top flight football has evolved into. Why would we want to be more like some of the things people overseas are turning their backs on in droves?
Part of the draw of lower league football overseas is a sense of romance that comes from intimate and quirky little football grounds in interesting settings. Is it just me or is that New Zealand club football in a nutshell? We are extremely fortunate in that we have so many idyllic football grounds. Where else in the world can you watch a football game on top of an extinct volcano, like you can at Onehunga Mangere? Where else can you watch it somewhere like Stanmore Bay or Fencibles or Papakura? There is rustic charm, at the very least, to be found in every setting in the NRFL. The only things missing are a little bit more in the way of creature comforts and some clever marketing.
More well set up boutique grounds are where it should be at. We need more Centre Parks, Allen Hill Stadiums and Kiwitea Streets with their quaint, if a little frail in some cases, covered stands. We also need to make use of something a little bit bigger that still has a sense of intimacy – like Bill McKinlay Park. As well as investing in the surfaces, we should be investing in the spectator experience. Programmes that people want to read and interesting food and drink options like Centre Park has with its Fijian Indian fare would be real crowd pleasers just as they currently are where they already exist.
It might seem unambitious, to think smaller, but smaller can be better. Not to mention more realistic. And here’s the beauty part – we don’t need a Competitions Review or even a national body to make ourselves all hip and trendy! One obvious lesson from the lower league football phenomenon is that neither the level nor the quality of football is what’s important. An alternative vision can and should be both grassroots led and fan centric – because isn’t that who our game should be by and for?
Categories: NZ Men's National League
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.