Dunedin’s long-awaited “Home of Football” finally started to take shape earlier this month, with soil being turned at Logan Park. The project, which is expected to be completed prior to the start of the 2019 winter football season, will see two full-sized all-weather artificial football pitches in the centre of what is already the city’s sporting hub, with the University Cricket Oval and Forsyth Barr Stadium both only a Jaap Stam penalty kick away.
It’s impossible to overstate how much of a difference this facility will surely make for football in Dunedin, given the incontestably awful standard of pitches across the city, which is caused by a combination of factors including the extreme winter weather, poor council maintenance, and the general lack of decent grounds meaning the better ones simply get overused.
I know that there is a slowly-growing backlash against some artificial fields in some parts of the world, but provided the Logan Park turfs are properly maintained then they will provide something the city’s footballers have been crying out for. Clubs will be able to train on a proper surface during the week which will relieve the over-worked fields, the bulk of top division matches could be played on a pristine surface through winter, and this will, in turn, have a big flow-on effect down the senior grades who will also have opportunities to play on the turfs each season.
It could also be home to our Southern United national league teams from next season onwards, with initial facilities including lights and a grandstand.
Along with what is expected to be top-class surfaces and facilities on offer, more than anything it would simply be a home. Remarkably, Southern United has used seven different “home” grounds over the past two national league seasons – the men’s Premiership side alone has used five of these, while the National Women’s (NWL) and Youth (NYL) League teams have played at venues across Dunedin.
I decided to have a go at ranking all seven of these home venues from the last two years. To be fair, it’s a rather loose ranking system, and it’s simply my biased opinion – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts (particularly from any members of visiting teams!).
7/ Peter Johnstone Park, Mosgiel (Last 2 seasons: 4 x Premiership, 1 x NWL, 3 x NYL matches)
Things were looking promising for Southern United heading into the 2016/17 national league season – with the Football South federation taking the reins over the administration of the teams, and the Men’s, Women’s, and Youth teams all sharing the same Southern United name and uniform. Excitement and anticipation abounded. Only one thing was missing – a proper home ground.
The desperation to find an appropriate ground for the summer saw the three national league teams play most of their home matches that season at the unlikeliest of venues – Peter Johnstone Park in Mosgiel, home of the Taieri Rugby Football Club. The thought of having to travel “over the hill” to another town, to a rugby club of all places, felt like it could have disastrous consequences.
To be fair, the venue turned out a lot better than I expected. The playing surface pulled up surprisingly well – for a rugby field, at least. It was still well below what should be considered national league standard though. The clubroom facilities and kitchen were pretty good, and, umm, there were plenty of car parks. It was convenient for visiting teams with it being so close to the airport. There were even (limited) spots inside the clubrooms where you could watch the matches unfold. This was handy, as there was absolutely no cover from the elements pitchside, with a couple of matches played in torrential downpours. It was hard for Dunedinites to get enthused to travel to the game if the weather wasn’t great.
Unsurprisingly, crowd numbers were pretty dire – although a special mention has to go to the locals who banded together “Paul O’Reilly’s Army” (above photo) to create some genuine atmosphere towards the end of the Premiership season.
6/ Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill (2 x Premiership)
This ranking may be a little harsh, given the playing surface and facilities were actually very good compared to some of the other venues on this list. But the reality is that travelling south to Invercargill by bus just wasn’t practical – it was almost a 4-hour trip each way by the time you stopped for coffee and toilet breaks. It seemed bizarre that visiting teams Auckland City and Team Wellington could simply pop onto a plane and arrive in less time than the home team. It’s a shame as it was good to get around the region.
5/ Tahuna Park, South Dunedin (4 x NWL, 5 x NYL)
All I can say is that visiting teams should really appreciate that our national league competitions are played in summer. Even then, many visitors to Tahuna Park have frozen their proverbials off as the wind rips in from the Pacific Ocean barely 100 metres away. The playing surface occasionally scrubs up okay, but is generally a befuddling combination of ankle-high vegetation interspersed with brown patches barren of grass entirely. It actually has a decent grandstand, but the other facilities are incredibly basic. Tahuna Park has been the primary home of the NWL and NYL teams, however the senior men have been spared given the ground’s facilities just aren’t up to scratch.
4/ Forrester Park, North East Valley (1 x NWL)
Forrester Park has hosted just the one national league match, and it’s probably unlikely to get many more. It was a last-minute saviour for the round one NWL fixture between Southern United and Central last month after Tahuna Park was deemed unfit for play. Perched up at the upper reaches of North East Valley, it actually ended up being a spectacular venue for the match, with stunning sunshine meaning the large crowd could lie back on the steep embankment and watch an entertaining match of football.
But it could have been horrible – the field is tiny and of a pretty poor standard; the ball often gets kicked down the other bank meaning an Everest-like traverse to recover the ball; no cover from the extreme elements; incredibly limited facilities (changing rooms smaller than most bathrooms); and to top it all off, it’s a bit of a pain to get to. Maybe best to quit while we’re ahead. [Edit: Forrester Park has another chance to prove itself this Saturday, hosting a National Youth League match against Auckland City!]
3/ Sunnyvale Park, Green Island (7 x Premiership, 1 x NWL)
Sunnyvale was the main home ground for the men’s Premiership team last season, and they’ve got another four matches scheduled there this season. Like Peter Johnstone Park the year before, it seemed a bit of a left-field choice, a long way from the city centre, but again everyone involved did a really good job of making the best of the situation. It wasn’t always plain sailing – initial games were shifted as the playing surface took a long time to get ready, and matches had to be juggled around the cricket club which shared the facilities over summer.
Although there was no proper grandstand on offer, the venue still had a nice family-friendly atmosphere, and the new lounge & bar is simply awesome – bonus points for being able to have a good coffee or beer and watch from the crowded viewing deck. The NWL team played there last weekend and the playing surface was better than ever, so if the weather remains good it should be a popular venue this summer.
2/ Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin (4 x Premiership, 1 x NWL)
The scale of the venue undeniably stands out on this list. The stunning stadium provides outstanding facilities, and of course the huge bonus of playing under the roof. There’s something a bit eerie though in playing in front of what would normally be considered a good crowd in the cavernous cauldron. And while the playing surface is considered excellent for rugby, it’s often far from ideal for football. It’s also really expensive to use. Maybe in 2030, when rugby has finally been eradicated from the planet and tens of thousands religiously flock to real football matches in New Zealand, it will make sense to get all of our national league matches played here.
1/ Caledonian, Dunedin (1 x Premiership)
The men’s Premiership team played one match here last summer, and have two matches scheduled this summer including this Sunday’s match against Auckland City. I’ve got a real soft spot for the “new” Caledonian. Some of my favourite football memories from the last couple of decades are from here, with some classic national league and cup matches played at the ground in years gone by. And it’s a massive improvement over the “old” Caledonian for those that can remember it (okay, I can, just). A perfectly sized grandstand, good general facilities for players and fans alike, and a playing surface which is often pretty decent (admittedly, often it’s not…).
What’s not ideal is that, as the home of Dunedin athletics, it’s surrounded by a running track and long jump pit that makes long throw-ins practically impossible and sideline sliding tackles a scary proposition. Sitting in the grandstand is always bloody cold or, if not, then you’ll be staring straight into the damn sun. Thinking about it now, the fact I’ve got this ground on the top of my list probably says a lot about the overall quality of our grounds…
Bring on the Logan Park turfs!