By Morgan Jarvis
Dunedin’s Caversham AFC have just completed a pretty incredible season. No-one would have been too surprised to see them win the Football South Premier League again in 2016; they had after all won the title 13 times since the league’s present format began in 2000. This season, however, saw the club achieve something quite unique – not dropping a single point all season and winning all 18 matches in the league.
It seems remarkable, but according to Jeremy Ruane’s excellent archive at www.ultimatenzsoccer.com, this “perfect season” doesn’t appear to have been achieved before by a top division men’s team in the country in more than 50 years of football. A few sides have gone unbeaten in a season, but all previously have had at least one drawn game as the smallest of blots on their record. (Coincidentally, the “perfect season” feat has been achieved a few times by Premier Women’s teams, including the impressive Three Kings United side this very season).
I recently caught up with Tim Horner, the coach of the title winning Caversham side, to hear his thoughts on his side’s achievement and have a chat about the current standard of football in Dunedin. Tim’s coached the side for the last four years, after standing out for a number of years as a classy centre back for Caversham and Southern United. Even as coach he hasn’t been able to keep himself off the pitch, making a few appearances in the defensive line when injuries struck, and not looking at all out of place amongst a team with plenty of talent and energy across the park.
Tim’s composed and calm manner off the pitch is in stark contrast to the competitive intensity he displays on it – a quality that probably isn’t prevalent enough in the deep south, where confidence and competitiveness are sometimes confused for arrogance or even just being “too hard out”. That competitiveness is obvious throughout the Caversham side, and is no doubt a major factor in their success on the park.
Tim and his side had high expectations right from the start of the season. “Look, we would have been disappointed with anything other than winning the title”, Tim said, and considering their recent history in the league, you couldn’t disagree. “But winning every league match had never really entered our thoughts. It wasn’t really until we were knocked out of the Chatham Cup, and already had the league wrapped up, that it became a good motivator to give us something to play for. But even then it was really just a case of ‘let’s just win the next one’ each week”.
Although there were some big wins along the way, there were also plenty of matches that weren’t so clear cut. Their matches against their biggest rival in recent years, Dunedin Technical, were always tense affairs. Mosgiel have a raft of talented attackers but are still perhaps a year or two away from genuinely competing for the title. Roslyn Wakari, historically one of the better sides in town, have had to settle for the middle of the table the last few seasons, but always lift when they’re up against one of the top sides. Northern, University, and Green Island are all a notch below these clubs, but are each competitive on their day and often give talented youngsters a springboard opportunity to play at the top local level.
Perhaps the gutsiest win that Caversham achieved was the one that clinched the league title with a few weeks remaining. Playing against Northern, one of the lesser fancied sides in the league, Caversham played the poorest they did all season and could have even gone behind a couple of times. A single scrappy goal and some desperate defending kept out a gutsy opposition and was enough for a 1-0 win and the joy of lifting the trophy.
As well as winning every match in the local league, Caversham also beat Mainland Premier League champions Cashmere Technical in the post-season South Island Championship to determine the best side in the South Island. The convincing 2-0 victory capped off the season perfectly for Caversham who had lost to the same strong Christchurch side on the previous couple of occasions.
“That win in Christchurch proved to the boys that we really had gone to another level this season”, Tim said. “Cashmere are an excellent side but we took it to them and really deserved the win”.
Caversham’s only loss in 24 matches in 2016 was a Chatham Cup quarter final to Waitakere City, who went within a whisker of winning the cup themselves with a heart-breaking extra-time loss in the final to Birkenhead United. Although Caversham lost 3-1 to the eventual finalists, they were more than competitive; “Waitakere fully deserved their win, but we had our chances after taking the lead and were genuinely gutted to lose. We didn’t feel out of place. They just took advantage of some key moments and punished us like the good sides can”.
Having completed such a dominant season locally, plenty of naysayers were quick to put it down purely to a weakened standard of local football compared to years gone by. Of course, it’s impossible to properly try and compare different eras, and it also seems a little disingenuous to purely attribute Caversham’s success to a lower quality of football in the region (seriously, have you ever heard a similar argument to cut-down the All Blacks record-breaking recent record?).
Tim hopes the South Island Championship victory will make a few people stand up and take notice of his side’s achievements. “It’s a tough one, ultimately we’d love to be playing against sides like Cashmere on a regular basis. A South Island league would be the dream result, but of course, it’s tough to make it work in terms of travel and costs. Even a top 4 play-off played over a couple of weekends would be an improvement and would be do-able”.
The one thing that really stood out on their visit to Christchurch was the standard of the facilities. The artificial turf at English Park was something that Tim couldn’t help but be envious of. “The boys couldn’t believe it, it’s amazing what playing on a surface like that does, it just lifts everyone, all of a sudden you can actually take a touch and knock a pass without fear of it stopping in the mud”.
That might sound like a bit of an exaggeration to anyone that doesn’t have to survive a deep-south winter. You would need only look at Caversham’s home ground Tonga Park, however, to see that it’s not. The field is often a horrid bog, impacted by the fact its South Dunedin locale is barely above sea level, and the lack of general maintenance and infrastructure in the city doesn’t help either. Only last year, the entire field was submerged in horrendous flooding (a great image of the field entirely underwater is available here via the Otago Daily Times.
Tonga Park isn’t really any worse than the majority of other grounds in town either. Unfortunately, Dunedin probably isn’t going to have any stellar facilities like English Park in a hurry. Along with the generally poor standard of facilities in the Football South Premier League, it’s also a shame that the league only currently features teams based in Dunedin. In previous years, there’s been competitive sides from Queenstown, Invercargill, and Oamaru in the league. Getting these teams competing in the league again would surely spark a bit more interest in the league, particularly with the fun that ensues from the occasional bus trip, and it would aid the legitimacy of it being a true Southern Premier League. As with the concept of the South Island league, however, it seems more difficult than ever to make a travelling league feasible with many clubs struggling to make ends meet as it is.
In the meantime, Caversham will be back next season to do what they’re good at – win football games. Tim is confident that the majority of his successful Caversham side will return next year, although talented young striker Lewis Jackson has moved north to Wellington, following in the footsteps of his brother Tom. The lads have clearly become a tight-knit bunch. “We’ve been fortunate that the core of our side has been together for at least three seasons, that’s been a huge factor in what we’ve achieved and it isn’t something that happens often in Dunedin football”, reflecting on the fact that incoming students often only tend to spend a couple of years in the city before moving on.
I was surprised to learn that Tim’s planning on stepping down as senior coach; although he looks right at home in the role, he “never entered coaching with much of a plan, it sort of happened by accident” when he was forced to taper off his playing time in recent years as he struggled with hip and knee injuries. Instead of walking away from the team though, he seems genuinely enthusiastic about spending more time out on the paddock himself, marshalling the defence as often as his legs allow it. That’s news which probably won’t be met with joy from opposing strikers charged with having to try and unlock a defence which only conceded six goals in the league in 2016.
Although Tim wouldn’t admit it, perhaps there’s also an element of struggling to top what’s been an incredible season for the side. How exactly do you improve on the “perfect season”?
[Morgan Jarvis is a football fan & writer based in Dunedin, who’s been a regular contributor to the Otago Daily Times newspaper and other local football publications. You can find him on twitter via @zealmanNZ]
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.