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Guest Post – National league goes full circle in the Waikato

Hamilton logo

By Cordwainer Bull

New Zealand Football have opted for a mixed bag with their expansion teams in the ASB Premiership, backing one traditional club in Eastern Suburbs, and a hybrid “regional entity” in Tasman United (Nelson) to commence battle next summer.

So that’s perhaps a sign of pragmatism defeating ideology, insofar as we are seeing solutions endemic to particular regions: clubs are the way to go in Auckland and joint entries are the fashion in the South Island.

But here in the Waikato, where Wanderers Sports Club has just inherited the licence previously held by WaiBOP United, we’re perhaps less certain on what makes the best recipe, because the manner in which our national league entity is structured has now gone full circle.

Though Wanderers’ inclusion was arguably the most straight forward of decisions related to the league’s expansion to 10 teams – in that it required simply transferring the league licence from the district federation, which had been trading as WaiBOP United since early 2013 – in a provincial sense it was also a big turning point.

Wanderers’ acceptance will mark the first time in 34 years that a traditional Waikato club – a stand-alone entity already pre-occupied with the distractions of junior, youth, women’s, recreational men and a northern league team – is due to have a pop at top level since Hamilton AFC bowed out of the national league for the final time at the end of the 1982 season.

All the other Waikato-based national league entries have been artificial constructs of one type or another. (Even Melville United, which contested the national league from 1996-98, ran its summer campaigns at arms-length, contriving a curious amalgam of all-comers for its summer administration base to overcome the inherent difficulties of a single-club set-up.)

Indeed, Waikato football history shows a resourceful approach to meeting the national league dictates of the day since Hamilton AFC shied away from the challenge in late 1984. Hamilton won the northern league that year, but the after much soul-searching decided it simply couldn’t afford a return for a third crack at national league. It concluded that contesting the national league was not financially sustainable.

So when the next opportunity arose for a Waikato entry – at very short notice at the start of the 1988 season – the burden was shared from a broader base.

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A brand new composite club of Waikato United took shape. Waikato United was a joint project of “feeder clubs” Hamilton and Claudelands Rovers (who the previous year had “leased” their northern premier league berth to the privately run original Waikato FC, which won the league, but was NOT accepted into the national league).

Waikato United filled a vacancy created by the late withdrawal of Dunedin City, and was initially constituted with a board comprised of three directors from Hamilton, three from Rovers, and three “independents” (though Rovers had effectively relinquished formal involvement in Waikato United by the start of 1990, and for practical purposes in running Muir Park a formal amalgamation with what remained of Hamilton was completed in 1992).

On the pitch The Bulls, moulded by Waikato’s Mr Football, Roger Wilkinson, charged along, winning the Chatham Cup in their first year and finishing 4th, 3rd, 2nd from 1990-1992, and were also beaten finalists in the 1995 national Superclub Championship.

Waikato United may well have endured, but they were increasingly squeezed on the financial front at Muir Park, and the final nail in the coffin came in early 1996, when Soccer New Zealand insisted that to be in the national league, clubs must also field a northern league premier or first division team in the winter.

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Merging with near neighbours and 1995 northern premier league champions Melville AFC to form Melville United, fixed that. But because it was then perceived to be a “new” entry, rival bids were also considered from clubs which were not in the inaugural 10-team summer competition: Papatoetoe and Mount Wellington from the northern region, Western Suburbs and Manawatu from the central and Christchurch United and Rangers from the southern zone.

However the new Melville United held sway, with Soccer New Zealand chief executive of the day, Bill MacGowan of the view this would address his concern that Waikato’s problems stemmed from “a small club base”. (I’d argue at the time that Waikato’s problems were primarily personnel-based rather than structurally-based.)

While the formation of Melville United was seen as a remedy, it did also dilute the strength of Waikato United’s sole national league focus – something which was, rather ironically, to later become a key constitutional requirement for entry to the New Zealand Football Championship in 2004.

However even Melville United wasn’t operating as a club in the conventional sense. Melville’s summer league committee included Peter Cooper (Claudelands Rovers), Peter Martens (Cambridge), Gene Herder (Wanderers), Neville Fletcher (Wanderers), and Bryan Gilmour (referee). Melville’s summer entity ticked the necessary boxes required by MacGowan, but was, in effect, still a composite beast in drag.

It allowed Melville to fly the flag for two seasons before then being relegated from the one-season North Island League in 1999.

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When New Zealand Soccer (note the name change) in 2004 decided to re-launch a summer league after an absence of five years, and had flip-flopped back to a requirement for single team entities, after much navel-gazing Waikato FC (quite distinct from the original Waikato FC of 1987) was then launched as “an entreprenurial bid” at the prime urgings of football activist Grant Stantiall.

Waikato FC was nominally independent of any existing club, if only because of a general perception that Waikato club administrators were a pretty burnt-out bunch anyway, after looking after their existing patches.

Natural Gas Corporation business development manager Clive Morgan came on board, and he became the club’s inaugural chairman. Hamilton City Councillor Roger Hennebry (a former Claudelands player who once had a trial with Hull City) and HCC’s regulatory services manager Graeme Fleming (a former top Hamilton player in the 1980s) joined Stantiall and Cambridge businessman Keith Ward (who was also club manager) on the board.

As a franchised entity Waikato was answerable to nobody but New Zealand Soccer, had a minimal asset base, and a membership of just 19 founders. It somehow lurched through good seasons and bad, significant changes of personnel with nobody lasting the distance at administrative level, enduring feast then famine on the financial front, and bouncing around five main home venues between 2004 and 2012.

By 2012 “independent and entreprenurial” had worn pretty thin. The board comprised the chairs of Ngaruawahia, Melville and Wanderers and two other overburdened club-based administrators, with Wanderers chairman Brendon Coker at the helm, trying to keep this shell of a club afloat with borderline finances.

One desperate survival proposition (originally advanced by myself, blush) was to lobby for a “$2 a head” levy of all players within the federation’s catchment area, perhaps reduceable to $1 head at the fringes. This would be incorporated into existing registration levies, and at least give the national league entity a starting base for the annual grind of coping with a $160,000-plus budget.

While clubs such as Wanderers and Ngaruawahia United backed the levy plan, and others indicated they would support it if it was universally implemented, the federation declined a request to convene a special general meeting to advance it – and the political threshold for Waikato FC doing so without executive support was simply too high.

Waikato FC, at the financial crossroads, argued there was a “greater good” for the game in the Waikato having a presence in the ASB Premiership. It was a “shop window” for the wider region, displaying the top talent that has come through its pathways on the national stage.

But its licence re-application was also in danger of failing after a drop-off in terms of administrators, volunteer helpers, and matchday gate receipts.

“Utilising the game’s existing superstructure (the federation) is the best means of invoking a broad financial base for Waikato FC’s operations,” the club argued in a media release. “The game’s finances are already collectivised through the federation for all sorts of other worthy purposes, such as player development and facility development.”

But the WaiBOP board took the view that Waikato FC lacked the administrative credibility for them to give backing to such a proposal, and it can’t have helped that Waikato had not won a home match for almost two years.

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And so after a public meeting in November, in early 2013 agreement was reached between the parties that the Waikato-Bay of Plenty federation would apply for national league licence renewal and take over operations.

The move from Waikato to WaiBop was in keeping with trends in other provinces. Otago and Canterbury, in order to find the most effective model to sustain the national league, had much earlier moved from single-club entries to region-wide entries, while Napier City Rovers had reinvented itself as a distinct Hawke’s Bay United.

After WaiBop United secured the transfer of its licence from Waikato FC, it issued a media release on April 10, 2013 which said:

“The regional focus of the franchise will ensure an elite provincial team that is representative of Waikato and Bay of Plenty. Equal opportunities for players and coaches signifies the start of a new era for football in our region.”

So, if you accept that was the start of a new era, you must equally accept this is now the end of it. And the end of equal opportunities, and a regional focus.

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WaiBOP spun the hand-over to Wanderers in this fashion:

“The Federation’s main objective in supporting WaiBOP United has been to maintain a local presence in the top domestic league in New Zealand. This was to ensure an adequate pathway for players and coaches, encouraging them to stay in the region. The club-base of Hamilton Wanderers is seen as a way to maintain this pathway in a more sustainable manner.”

But it is tortured logic at best to suggest a national league presence is more sustainable WITHOUT the backstop of the federation loans/grants. That would appear to deny the preceding history. It certainly denies the financial reality of being able to socialise losses across a far broader base.

And yet, in one sense, under the Wanderers banner there will be more sustainability in terms of grassroots personnel.

Our national league entity has missed the buzz of club people since parting with the Cambridge crew who had done such an incredible job at John Kerkhof Park for the previous two summers. Football is a club game the world over, and the essence of “club” is all about belonging.

If there has been an element lacking in the WaiBOP era it is perhaps a dearth of passion on the administrative wing. Everything has been done, and done more professionally than the Waikato FC era. But it’s been done more on a “chore” basis.

They’ve made little secret that they would rather be fixated on their “core” federation business. While they’ve been populated by good people, there was never a “Mr Football” as the proactive voice of national league. You never got a sense of “the vision thing”.

Wanderers have some solid and longstanding characters in their club, but face huge challenges in hosting matches, on the outside pitch at Porrritt Stadium and at Waikato Stadium.

They got off to a bad start with the announcement of their inclusion in the league when a New Zealand Football media release hailed them as “Hamilton’s oldest club”.

This immediately drew the hackles of NZ Football’s own honorary historian, Barry Smith:

“It concerns me that Hamilton Wanderers promote themselves as Hamilton’s oldest club, formed in 1913,” Smith wrote. “The original Hamilton Wanderers club merged with the Technical Old Boys club in 1964 to form Hamilton AFC.

“A year later the Waikato Football Association received an application for affiliation from a new club wishing to use the name Hamilton Wanderers. After hearing a report from Hamilton AFC in regards to their position with this name, it was moved that the new club be accepted as Wanderers AFC…

“Thus the club admitted to the ASB Premiership for 2016-17 is a club formed in 1965, not 1913. The club’s official title is Wanderers Sports Club not Hamilton Wanderers…. It may be appropriate to also enquire as to whether the claim of Wanderers to a lineage dating back to 1913 was a factor in the decision to give the club its two year ASB Premiership licence.”

But those quibbles aside, Wanderers deserve the same goodwill, backing and matchday support as was extended by the general public (in good times, at least) to Hamilton, Waikato United, Melville United, Waikato FC and WaiBOP United before them. No doubt in bad times they will also suffer the same lack of support.

At the very least, they will bring fresh enthusiasm to the table.

Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Daring Greatly” speech, from an era when the real Hamilton Wanderers were first lacing up their boots, comes to mind:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

[Cordwainer Bull is a former match programme columnist for Waikato United, Melville United and Waikato FC. His hobbies include appearing in the background on TV, collecting tea bag covers, and taphophilia. His favourite player was Quinn Neely-Gallagher.

He recommends fans read The National League Debates, available via www.nationalleaguedebates.weebly.com]

Categories: NZ Men's National League

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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/

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