It’s about this time of year that I usually do my Northern League pre-season interview. Unfortunately I haven’t done it this year. Sorry.
My excuses basically boil down to three things – I haven’t got my proverbial together, I have been too busy with other commitments and I’ve decided to put a bit of extra effort into this post instead…
Earlier this week I learned that Norwest United have withdrawn from NRFL Women’s Premier. It’s the second year in a row that we have lost a club from that particular division less than a month before the season starts and with pre-season well underway. It’s also worth noting that rumour has it at least one and possibly two clubs are set to drop out of the Conference.
We have also seen a huge churn of players moving from one club to another year after year creating a large degree of instability as clubs go from powerhouses of the game one season to an empty shell the next.
This has led me to attempt to ask the football community a question that I’ve been asking myself for a few years: Is this a problem and if so can we fix it somehow?
But before we get into that, I had a lengthy phone conversation with Norwest United president John Widdows to get his perspective on the issues that led to the decision his club has taken. He very kindly agreed for our conversation to be on the record.
He talked about coach Chris Acott’s six year journey with a lot of the squad, being a good young group of players with promising futures in the game but also for many of whom travel out to Huapai for training has become a real drag. Of last year’s squad seven or eight have cited wanting to be closer to home as reasons for leaving. This had a flow on effect for four or five others who felt that without the other seven or eight they were likely to get beaten every week and this was not sounding like a lot of fun so they have moved on as well.
John told me they could have persevered in the NRFL with 14 and 15 year olds complimenting the small group of experienced hands who have elected to stay but the club wanted to do the right thing by the players and the league by dropping down to the conference. Getting smashed by six goals plus every week is no fun at all and may have led to some players quitting for good.
When I put the question out there on Twitter after hearing the Norwest news: “What can we do to to fix this?” – there was a totally legitimate view articulately by Tony Gillon that there is no problem here really. To paraphrase, essentially it’s just natural selection. Well run clubs thrive and poorly run clubs disappear. “Steel sharpens steel”. Why should players be forced to stay in an environment that isn’t working for them?
However I’m not convinced that the clubs that have dropped out or been relegated due to mass player defections are poorly run and letting players suffer under mediocre coaching. Norwest is a well-run club with one of the best coaches around. And our very own Cordwainer Bull put it well when he said:
“Steel is fine, but a competitive league is also a key component of development. And massive player movement (for a host of reasons) may be conspiring against the greater good.”
To get another perspective I asked a senior federation official who spoke on the condition of anonymity and said:
“Reserves and FFDP are killing the league as is youth in my opinion. The league is not a senior women’s league. It’s a youth league. Players are getting burnt out too young and/or they’re that bored of the pressure and commitment that they drop out at the age of 19/20 because they’ve played in the league for so long.”
John also talked about the coaching merry go round even though it isn’t what directly led to the demise of his club at the top regional level. “Players do follow coaches around”. But more significantly he raised another theme that I have heard a bit about recently in relation to the men’s game as well – the problem of clubs stockpiling players:
“Clubs get a huge stockpile of players and coaches aren’t up front. They don’t tell players if they are in the mix for first team football or not. Then players find out right before the start of the season that they won’t be playing so they end up in reserves or lower when they could be playing NRFL at a smaller club.”
I myself can only really speak from a fan’s perspective. And as a fan I want to see a competitive women’s league with players who are ambitious to win it and a range of stable clubs with interesting histories that are all capable of lifting the trophy at the end of the season.
So how might we get there? The Central League seem to have tackled this issue by creating a six team W-League that plays on Saturdays for three rounds and has no promotion or relegation at least for now. Would that work or would it just bore the players, facing the same old clubs over and over again?
The anonymous federation official I talked to has a slightly different and possibly more ambitious vision:
“If there was a proper league structure including an NRFL Division 1 with no reserves in either division it would combat swapping of clubs. But both leagues have to be two round six or eight team leagues integrated with National Women’s League.”
I thought there were a nice little range of responses to the Twitter question I mentioned earlier from the other side of the fence to Tony Gillon. From Monsieur Bull:
“We need to develop good club members as much as good players… folk who have a sense of belonging and will stick around and strive to make their club better rather than seek to find better elsewhere.”
From Emma Evans, Capital Football’s National Women’s League coach and Women’s Development Officer:
“Educate players, coaches and clubs on the importance of long term planning and long term player development. Better systems, investment and support need to be in place for the sustainability of girls/womens club football across NZ. There are many short term fixes, but it is a long term plan that is needed to prevent this from happening so frequently to clubs in NZ.”
Stuff’s football guru Andrew Voerman had a simpler suggestion:
“Get rid of reserves.”
While Women’s Conference player Daphne Lawless offered up:
“Restrict the number of teams one club can enter?”
And ITBOTN’s Ella Reilly went for the realist’s approach:
“TBH you just need a larger player pool across the board.”
What other options are there? It would be great to get a discussion going in the comments below.
In the meantime, whatever we do, the good news from Norwest is that they are not a complete write-off. John Widdows thinks they will be competitive in the Conference and fighting hard to come back to the Northern League stronger than ever before in twelve months’ time. If that’s the case I will be very happy to have my local team back! As of right now the closest thing we have to a West Auckland team is Western Springs.
That has to change if nothing else.
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.