Something happened at half time during last Sunday’s televised Gridlock Derby between Eastern Suburbs and Auckland City. And I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I can’t tell whether or not it’s a good thing.
Last Sunday’s game was played at Riverhills. That makes it two ‘home’ grounds that Suburbs have played at so far this season, four in total if you include Bill McKinlay Park and William Green Domain. Their winter home of Madills Farm becomes a cricket pitch over the summer, essentially rendering a National League team homeless. They did manage to squeeze one game in there though.
They’re not the only ones on the move this season. Waitakere United will be down at Papakura’s McLennan Park and, along with Hamilton Wanderers, be hosting a game at Centre Park in Mangere. I might be biased (Note: I am entirely biased, but Centre Park is way ahead of the track encircled Trust Arena, miles ahead of McLennan Park and light years ahead of the Riverhills venue.)
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the National League is fourteen years old now, or about half the age of the English Premier League. In that time, three teams have won the league. Three.
Given that in total there have been thirteen teams who’ve competed in that time (R.I.P YoungHeart Manawatu, Wanderers S.C & WaiBOP United) and only two teams that aren’t Auckland City, Team Wellington or Waitakere United have appeared in a final in that time (Canterbury United 05/06, 09/10 & Hawkes Bay United 14/15) ending up at the right end of the table come the seasons end is incredibly difficult.
Now, Eastern Suburbs had a good couple of seasons. They missed out on the playoffs in 2016/17 after conceding an injury time winner against Auckland City. Last season they made the playoffs and got dispatched 4 – 0 by City in their semi-final. Their focus has been having matchday squads that are as Kiwi as possible, with their branding about #PlayerDevelopment being as inescapable as those feather flags that line pitchside at their games.
But they want success. They want to be in the OFC Champions League. It’s what all the clubs want. Hell, it’s what most Northern League clubs want given half the chance. One of the big concerns though, about the promotion/relegation format for the National League, is the power of the Auckland and Wellington clubs in relation to the rest of us. What’s to stop the National League turning into 7 Auckland clubs, 2 Wellington clubs and a Christchurch side after a few years of pro/rel?
And on Sunday afternoon, an omerta was broken over Eastern Suburbs’ approach to the 2018/19 season. Here it is.
We all know what’s going on, but it seems gauche to actually talk about it. The partnership between Ole Academy and Eastern Suburbs means this season Danny Hay’s Eastern Suburbs team consists of most of Declan Edge’s Western Suburbs team, with the man himself on board as a Technical Advisor. Tim Payne, Andre De Jong and Kingsley Sinclair were the three Eastern Suburbs players who slotted into the gaps in Western Suburbs’ 2018 Chatham Cup Final starting lineup left by Nati Hailemariam, Adam Thomas and Matt Garbett.
It’s certainly an innovative approach, and one that has produced good on-field results for them so far. And they’re far from the first National League side to heavily recruit from one winter club. But at the same time, Eastern Suburbs aren’t supposed to be like the National League franchise team, they’re meant to be a club-based team. Here’s a quote about them;
“What we’ve had in the past is a sort of Premier League that has been out on a limb. What we need to see is all the kids coming through the Whole of Football plan, all the volunteers, all the referees, the coaches and the pinnacle teams all connected so they can aspire to play but also to get community rivalry, tribalism and banter going.”
Andy Martin (Retired, hurt) occasionally got some things right you know. And here he was talking about why Eastern Suburbs were in the league. They had a huge youth and junior setup, and the plan was that Suburbs utilised their grassroots to create players, supporters and a bit of the famed ‘Rivalism’ that he spoke of so eloquently.
Ok, enough Andy Martin praise. It could be said in counter to the above, that Eastern Suburbs still plan to do all of that stuff. It’s just that their current player base doesn’t have enough National League quality to provide a competitive first team. Danny Hay’s work at Sacred Heart means he’s got a lot of young lads in and around the team, but they’re just not ready to start just yet.
So, instead of expensively (amateur league, folks) recruiting (amateur league, folks) players from the NRFL and abroad (amateur league, folks) they’ve decided it’s easier just to wholesale ship in a talented Western Suburbs team to fill the first team until the kids are ready, and match them with the few players they have in Payne, Sinclair and De Jong who are up to the standard.
Like I said at the start, I can’t tell if Eastern Suburbs have done something brilliant and innovative which ensures the league has another team which can genuinely challenge the current duopoly of Team Wellington and Auckland City, or whether they’ve essentially handed their National League license to Western Suburbs for this season (and perhaps going forwards) until they’re ready to fulfil the expectations of their place in the league.
Either way, it ensures that some of the more talented young Kiwis who’ve not had the chance to play National League football get a crack at it, which I guess is part of the Whole of Football plan. Whether or not that comes at a cost of the established player pathway, and the interest of the families whose kids turn out in Suburbs’ youth teams, is another thing altogether.
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.