The winter is over. Spring burst forth and with it comes the first tiny shoots of the new National League season, or the ISPS Handa Premiership as it will be known for the second year in a row. This week we were gifted the fixture list which will take us from mid-October through to the end of March, a two round, eighteen fixture race by two clubs and eight franchises.
Last season there were three points between 1st and 2nd, but eight points between 4th and 5th. That’s actually less competitive than the 2016/17 edition, which saw a dead heat on points between 1st and 2nd and only six points separating 1st from 5th. So, this year you’ve got to hope we get a repeat of that tightly contested league where teams still have something to play for past the turn of the year.
Each team comes into the new season with questions surrounding them, so we’ll go through them in the league finishing order from last season.
1st – Auckland City F.C
Having finally gotten their mitts back on the NZFC trophy, only to see the OFC Champions League slip from their grasp, Ramon Tribulietx faces a fascinating challenge. You see, last season ACFC scored 41 goals. 16 came from Emiliano Tade. 8 from Ryan De Vries. 7 from Callum McCowatt. Who have all since departed overseas. Leaving City with a 31 goal gap to make up.
Wikipedia currently lists Kris Bright as their only forward, their website doesn’t even have him on it. Will Tribulietx be hoping his extensive overseas contacts can bring in a couple of goal machines, or will they be looking a little more locally. Someone’s got to score the goals.
2nd – Team Wellington
The reigning OFC Champions League winners (and, perspective here, the last time a non-ACFC team won it, the All Whites had only played at one World Cup finals) will have their eyes firmly fixed on their date with destiny against Al-Ain on December 12th. It will be interesting to see how Jose Figueira’s team handles the pre-CWC fixture list – getting injured is a no-no, but then again falling behind in the league and risking a playoff flameout away from home is equally risky.
However, there’s a certain amount of Kiwi satisfaction in potentia if Justin Gulley, Jack-Henry Sinclair, and others rejected by Rudan’s Revolution, end up snagging pro contracts after December.
3rd – Canterbury United
Willy? Won’t he? Gerdsen’s always seemingly under-covered and under-appreciated Dragons made the playoffs handily last year, and have yo-yo’d in and out of post-season contention in the last few seasons. The effect the new league structure in the South Island will have on the playing squad, who will have had a good long rest before the season starts, may be important. As important as Cashmere Technical, studded with red and black players throughout, winning everything they competed in but the Chatham Cup this year? We’ll see.
One person we might not see is Aaron Clapham, who withdrew from last years squad following the welcoming of a new little Clapham into the world. That’s a shame as his 117 appearances and 61 goals (from midfield, no less) place him right up their in domestic players who were obviously too good for the league, but couldn’t find the professional deal their talents deserved. Still only 31 though.
4th – Eastern Suburbs feat Western Suburbs
“The OLÉ @ Eastern Suburbs Academy is a critical part of our strategic plan to provide the strongest pathway in New Zealand football” says Chris Ruffell, presumably by transplanting nine of Western Suburbs’ starting line-up into your team and adding Tim Payne and Derek Tieku to it.
Seriously though, Declan Edge has got the track record that means he should be somewhere in the NZFC mix – and if it’s by taking on a technical directors role and advising Danny Hay, then so be it. You’ve got to feel a bit stink for local players though. With ACFC being a relatively closed shop of late, Suburbs’s Kiwi first approach gave them a vague hope of making the top level. Yes, yes – it’s still going to be one of the most heavily All Whites eligible squads in the competition, but will they be singing ole, ole ole ole at the end of the season?
It’s also another venue change for Suburbs. Madills Farm is a cricket pitch, Ngahue Reserve is still a legal quagmire and apparently NZ Football requested that they no longer play games at Bill McKinlay due to the condition of the astro-turf. So, welcome Riverhills in Pakuranga as the newest NZFC venue – although it’ll need a lot of work in the next eight weeks.
5th – Southern United
Wait, Southern United came fifth? Sure they were eight points off the playoffs, but SOUTHERN UNITED CAME FIFTH. The Paul O’Reilly project started to pay off last season, even as Eric Molloy upped sticks for Champions League glory. There’s definitely something going on down South in terms of football development. Some will say it’s just good coaches in the right place at the right time, others will say it’s well overdue credit.
Sadly we won’t be seeing much of the South on TV, as their one live televised game is an away fixture. Definitely worth the $25,000 dollars, that is.
They’re doing something right though, and while playoffs aren’t entirely out of the question focusing on winning The Best Of The Rest League™ of six teams which usually emerges in the mid-summer wouldn’t be a terrible achievement. Nice kits too.
6th – Tasman United
It’s another new start for Tasman United this season. With Davor Tavich departing, having done a bloody good job in avoiding the wooden spoon in 2017 and taking them to sixth the following season, it’s the turn of former WeeNix coach Andy Hedge. They’ve got a fancy upgraded ground as well, with Trafalgar Park getting a polish and shine to it – not that you’ll see it on TV, there’ll be no live Tasman home games this season. There’s also a fashion switch, with their stylish Joma kits being replaced by a deal with Ultra Football – so, Nike then. Keep an eye out for that later this month.
Paul Ifill has finally, possibly, hung up his boots which leaves the Nelson side twelve goals worse off already. If they want to aim higher in the table and threaten the playoffs, they’ll need to make that up and also try and tighten up at the back. They scored more goals than any other team outside of the top 4 in 2017/18, but conceded more than all but the bottom two sides.
Alex Ridsdale is back after a brief spell further south as well as Matt Todd-Smith. There’s a bit of excitement around some ex-Met Police players from the UK. Also credit to whoever signs players based on their names; Chester Gaskin and Bertie Fish are outstandingly monikered footballers.
7. Hawke’s Bay United
Will Brett Angell ever get the 20% more he’s so often heard shouting for from the touchline? New Zealand football’s answer to Sam Allardyce has worked magic at Hawkes Bay United, cobbling together what seems like an entirely new team every year and then swaggering, blustering and straight out bollocking their way through the season. Obviously last season didn’t meet up to previous forays into winning the title, the first time they hadn’t made the playoffs in five season.
Paul Ifill is re-joining him as coach though, a few years after first turning out in the black and white stripes. Is it me or is Ifill managing to get a really decent and varied coaching education through his journeys in the NZFC? Clever bugger. With him apparently are coming some Wellington based players, which has ruffled a few feathers in local club football.
And it may be farewell to Bill Robertson, who left Team Wellington a champion to return North only to find himself on the out after an ever-present season captaining the side. Bit rough that.
8. Waitakere United
If you ask football folk in Auckland about the Westies, the first thing they’ll talk about is money. Waitakere have reportedly been struggling to make ends meet over the last few seasons. Players and staff have allegedly been repeatedly paid late, with cashflow problems emulating the stop start nature of the team’s performance on the pitch. There’s been a lot of chatter recently about a potential takeover of the franchise from (looks at ITBOTN lawyers) someone involved in a central Auckland football club who has an awful lot of money. Whether or not the current ownership of Waitakere is willing to let do is another question.
It’s a shame to see the club in such a state to be honest. Waitakere United were the first NZFC team to score a goal at a Club World Cup. Their ongoing battle with Auckland City over eight years gave the league some edge, a derby with some real venom to it. The coaching staff and players are doing their best, but it just seems like Waitakere need switching off, leaving for ten minutes, and switching back on again. By someone else.
They’re also playing a couple of games at McClennan Park this season. National League in South Auckland? No, not like that.
The WeeNix have actually started producing first team players in Sarpreet Singh and Liberato Gianpaolo Cacace (the most satisfying name in NZ Football to pronounce). Also, Mark Rudan quite likes Ryan Lowry as a defender. None of this is good news for the WeeNix, mind you, who have lost their best midfielder and defender/midfielder/named player, and are losing one of their most experienced defenders to the first team.
It’s curious having the WeeNix in the league because while it’d be nice if they managed to win a few more games than they do, you’re looking at the side for its individual talents and their potential to break into the first team.
William Ebbinge (off to Harvard, clever bugger) Calvin Harris and Ben Waine appear to crop up quite regularly in this discussion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Keegan Smith spent a fair amount of his remaining teenage years in nets for the juniors.
10. Hamilton Wanderers
Win more than one game. Easy. Ricki Herbert’s first year at Wanderers wasn’t good, was it? Six points, down from thirteen the season before. Quietly now, the new boys in the NZFC haven’t managed to surpass any of the WaiBOP United points totals from their time in the league. A brief chat with Rod de Lisle at the NZ Football Awards highlighted that they’d been playing an effective Northern League side in the competition last season, and that this year’s squad would be a lot more competitive.
It does seem a bit odd that Wanderers may be the place aspiring Lotto NRFL players end up at as they try to play at the highest level in domestic football, especially considering there’s three NZFC teams in Auckland. For Hamilton though, the only way is up. Literally, based on last season’s results. Getting ahead of the WeeNix would be a start, mixing it with the big boys maybe a step too far.
There’s one fixture being played at Centre Park. Perhaps the Manukau United faithful may see some familiar faces in Hamilton blue? Who knows.
Categories: NZ Men's National League
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.