By Wayne Ruscoe
Strange times at Wembley Park, Whanganui. What should be a cause for unity, and indeed, celebration, is being overshadowed by bullying, coercion and staggering incompetence.
Whanganui is unique in the Kiwi football family. There are four well supported clubs, all of whom share the same park, the same practice facilities and the same ethos of providing quality football at a reasonable price at all levels of the game.
This is why Whanganui has been seen by NZ Football as the perfect place to trial a hub concept. The clubs have been asked to take a blank page, work out what they want out of the game, identify common ground around fundraising and administration, and find ways to engage other stakeholders. NZ Football has promised a significant amount of seed funding if the clubs can come up with a formula that grows the game in the city.
Everything should be sweetness and light. The clubs have agreed on the way forward, a draft plan has been produced by an external consultant and other stakeholders such as the local schools, the council and Sport Whanganui are on board.
So what’s the problem?
The regional organisation has been syphoning cash out of the town for decades and providing little in return. Whanganui seems to be Central Football’s emergency ATM and now that their influence is on the wane, panic seems to have set in. The clubs are still happy to have them as a stakeholder in the hub, and to pay negotiated affiliation fees, but in the meantime, Central Football seem hell bent on extracting every last drop of cash from the clubs, even if it destroys the game in the town.
Wembley Park is huge. It’s former railways land, with eight full size pitches and numerous smaller youth and kid sized fields. Every Saturday morning, the Park is chocka with hundreds of kids learning the game at the award winning First Kicks program, which is conceived, paid for and run by local volunteers. Every Saturday arvo, the grounds hum with youth and senior players. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
The ground is owned by the local council and entrusted to Sport Whanganui. In turn, Sport Whanganui lease the fields to the clubs. The substantial above ground facilities (lights, changing rooms, grandstand etc.) are owned by a trust which is made up of the four clubs and a representative of the informal ‘rebel’ league, who broke away from Central Football control many years ago. One of the aims of the hub project is to bring the rebel league back into the fold. They play social footy, have kept their costs and subs to a minimum and provide excellent value for money. But they’re not returning until real autonomy is in place.
Wembley Park is a superb place to play the game. I’ve played footy all over NZ and there is nothing like it. Well maintained, well drained and well laid out. It’s a tribute to the many, many volunteers who have slogged away for decades to build it up. Any NZ Masters players reading this will know what I mean. Every second year, the Masters Games come to Whanganui and the tournament runs like clockwork. Round here, football is always the winner on the day.
However, a shadow hangs over Wembley Park. The current issues threatening to cripple the game revolve around goalposts, referees and phantom invoices.
The last piece of above ground kit not owned by the football trust are the goalposts on the senior fields. Given their age and state of disrepair, they aren’t worth much, but currently, they belong to Central Football. CF promised to gift them to the trust a year ago, a promise re-iterated prior to Xmas. But it simply hasn’t happened.
Instead, the four clubs have been billed for goalpost maintenance that we know hasn’t happened. We know exactly what work has been done on the posts, because it’s us that do it. And we don’t charge a cent for the hours the volunteers put in. Why would we? But still, the bills for the non-existent work CF claim has been done are hanging over our heads.
In addition, a charge for referees’ sheds has turned up out the blue. This is doubly infuriating because it’s an ‘in competition’ cost, not something to be billed separately. But worse, there aren’t many refs left anyway. Central Football burnt off all our experienced men and women in black a couple of years ago. That’s another awful story, perhaps for another time. We make do with the few refs that are left, bolstered by the use of subs, coaches, managers or whoever else is around with a reasonable grasp of the laws of the game.
Central Football are trying to bully the clubs into paying the phantom invoices. They’ve placed a transfer ban on three of the clubs (one club accidently paid the bills before they realised they were phony) and told the largest club they will not be able to field teams in the regional leagues. They refuse to explain or justify the invoices and have made it clear that they expect us to pay up or they will punish individual players by refusing their right to move to the clubs of their choosing.
So far, the clubs are standing firm. With only five weeks to go till the start of the season, we have no men’s or women’s local league scheduled and, as mentioned, the travelling teams of one club are currently banned.
The board of Central Football have met in the last few days and discussed the crisis they have engineered. We’re told to expect a response tomorrow. Nobody on Whanganui is expecting common sense to break out at CF HQ. But we live in hope.
If Central Football continue down the track of fleecing the Whanganui clubs, there will be a plan B put in place. But that will probably mean an end to the potentially exciting hub project. We’ve heard strong rumours that the NZ Football funding for the project will not happen unless we appease Central Football.
That would be a shame, but either way, football in Whanganui is never going to be the same.
We, the players, the administrators, the consumers, are going to wrench back control of football in the town; that much is clear. What we don’t know is whether the future involves the body that is supposed to be growing the game in our region. If they’re actually a road block to progress, what is the point of them?
[Wayne Ruscoe is President of the Whanganui Marist Football Club, current champions of the Whanganui Local League. He can be found at Wembley every Saturday, pointing and shouting from the side lines in Big Sam style coach mode and occasionally seagulling up front when the Marist Bhoys are already well in the lead.]
Categories: Other NZ Federation Leagues
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.