[Eastern Suburbs asked me to contribute a regular match day programme column for the duration of their first season back in the national league football fray. My brief was to be “slightly controversial or provocative”. Half joking, I told them they could call the series ‘Enzo’s Rant’ and to my surprise they agreed! I will publish each one here the week after it has appeared in print. Here’s episode 6.]
Once upon a time there was a group of mates that worked together in a provincial railway yard. One day they decided to blow off some steam on weekends by forming their own football team. They played in a modest little paddock in front of a smattering of spectators lining the seatless sidelines – mostly family and friends – and despite losing games in their first few seasons by scores like 6-0 and 7-2, to other clubs’ reserve teams, they weren’t discouraged.
The year was 1878. The club was Newton Heath. And today they are the most recognised global brand in world football.
If you could step into a time machine and go back to ‘North Road’ to watch a game of football, how different would the spectator experience be from places like Oratia, Ngaruawahia, Ellerslie or Waitakere City in 2016? If your answer is “not much”, my next question is “is that a good or a bad thing?”
There are three ways to look at it. One is to say shame on us for still being stuck in the football dark ages. Another is to say that if Manchester United can grow into what it is today from such humble beginnings, so too can Oratia, Ngaruawahia, Ellerslie and Waitakere City. But my preference is to say that looking towards what English football is in 2016, as the holy grail of football league development, is absolutely not what we should be doing.
And a lot of people in England agree. From ordinary fans right on up to former superstars of the game like Paul Scholes, who summed things up rather nicely in his recently published autobiography:
“I probably do enjoy watching Salford more. I don’t know if it’s as much that I don’t like the hassle of going to the game, getting in, sitting in traffic. Going to Salford, I park up behind the goal and get out of my car. But I genuinely get more enjoyment from watching even my son’s team, Royter Town. …I went to watch him once, it was 5-4. It’s just entertainment. …It’s all about money and sponsorship in England these days rather than football, rather than entertainment.”
New Zealand’s flagship competition, The Stirling Sports Premiership, seemed to be looking in the wrong direction last season. We had games taken away from brilliant boutique football grounds like Kiwitea Street and Cambridge’s John Kerkhof Park in favour of televised games at North Harbour Stadium and Waikato Stadium where a few hundred fans rattled around in venues built for 20,000 people. The spectator experience was not great and you can’t grow the game like that.
Instead of aspiring to be more like top English divisions where the players are millionaire mercenaries and fans are nothing more than cash cows, we should be learning from the explosion in popularity of ‘lower league’ football in Europe and trying to capitalise more on what we already are.
We should be building on the wonderful advantages we have such as the sense of romance that comes from intimate and quirky little football grounds in interesting settings. Places where it’s easy to get to, cheap (or free) to attend, there’s a bit of nice scenery, you can hang out with your mates and just watch a few goals get knocked in. Football in its purest form. I don’t think we do that enough.
A bit of clever marketing and a few more innovations like the craft beer and interesting food options that a few clubs are already experimenting with might work wonders as well!
Ok, they probably didn’t have creature comforts like those at North Road, Newton Heath, in 1878…
One of the beauties of going back to basics is it’s not only trendy, it’s also cost effective in a country where resources are scarce in the beautiful game. The real romance of the game has always been that the only thing you absolutely need is a ball.
That, and the odd win for the Waikato team every now and again…
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.