It’s 2027 and the Hyundai A-League and the Holden NZ Premiership are about to kick off for another exciting season of summer football. A springlike Saturday evening at Auckland’s Vector Stadium on the waterfront sees the ‘26/’27 champions Auckland City take on their Waikato rivals Hamilton F.C, as the curtain-raiser for Wellington Phoenix’s away game at their younger Auckland rivals.
Both competitions have seen a large spike in interest in Auckland, thanks to the introduction of Auckland United to the A-League and the re-organisation of the domestic league.
In the last twenty-teens it became apparent that the game had a grassroots following, but lacked the top level participation. In Auckland, the spectre of the Kingz and the Knights loomed large whenever launching an A League franchise was proposed.
In the end, New Zealand Football took the initiative. By introducing extra teams to the then ISPS Handa Premiership, the competition had grown – but it was clear that the competition still wasn’t reaching a lot of New Zealand football supporters.
The problem was, they decided, geographical. The worry that Auckland would have too many teams in the competition didn’t really hold up after Auckland City, Eastern Suburbs and Waitakere United were all located within a narrow isthmus band of the city. Moving Waitakere United up to the QBE for the 2015/16 season was disastrous, and introducing the East Auckland side only increased the congestion of teams.
Something had to be done. At the re-licensing of the NZFC, it was announced that potential franchise clubs would need to clearly define their geographical catchment and present a plan for engagement of both winter clubs and supporters within that area. The immediate result was carnage as Suburbs and City attempted to claim each others’ territory.
However, in the end Auckland found itself with four clubs in the new 12 team league. South Auckland Wanderers, Auckland City FC, Waitakere Wests and North Shore United. They joined Hamilton F.C, Hawkes Bay United, Manawatu United, Team Wellington, Wellington Phoenix Jnrs, Tasman United, Canterbury Dragons, and South Alpine Rangers.
There were problems and boy were there complaints, some of them not entirely unjustified. Canterbury and South Alpine Rangers were still relatively isolated from the rest of the league. A 12 team league meant a guaranteed 11 home games, but the introduction of an extra team in Auckland and the resurrection of football in Manawatu also encouraged local away trips.
The game grew, in part due to the screening of Sunday afternoon NZFC and A-League games on Free To Air Prime. It also grew around the NZFC clubs, but also in their counterparts in the Winter Leagues as NZF poured money into youth programmes. The 2017 OFC decision of limiting squads to 4 overseas players + 1 Oceania player was replicated by New Zealand Football, forcing clubs to choose wisely over imports and placing more focus on their player development and scouting within New Zealand.
What emerged was a tri-partite system with the regional Winter Leagues becoming a hive of player development, the NZFC providing an established semi-pro platform and access to the OFC Champions League, and the two A-League clubs giving a domestic professional pathway.
Certainly All Whites coach Ramon Tribulietx found himself able to call upon a wider depth of talent at home in their four-yearly World Cup campaigns – even if those players who caught the eye, and contracts of Auckland and Wellington’s A-League sides were inevitably whisked off to Europe with the lure of bigger, brighter and better recompensed things.
A longer term trend also emerged, harking back to New Zealand’s famous qualification in 2010, as the players from that squad developed into a generation of new coaches in the NZFC and beyond.
As the Ivan Vicelich coached Auckland City take on a Hamilton F.C side featuring a 35 year old Chris Wood, before Andrew Durante’s Wellington Phoenix tussle with Jose Figueira’s Auckland United, things certainly are looking up for football in the land of the long white cloud.