» Best of The Range – The National League (1970 to 1990)

To fill our days until the re-start of the 2015/16 ASB Premiership we’re revisiting some of the best material from this season’s issues of The Range, our match day magazine.

The National League, Part 1: 1970 to 1990 – Bruce Holloway

A national league has been in existence in New Zealand for 45 years, and ahead of a major league revamp in the coming seasons, in the first of three articles Bruce Holloway summarises the first 20-odd years of the league structure.

When the New Zealand Football Association introduced the inaugural national league in 1970 it was a ground-breaking club competition across all codes in New Zealand.

This novelty value assisted as the eight original entries of Blockhouse Bay (champs), Eastern Suburbs, Christchurch United, Mt Wellington, Stop Out, Gisborne City, Hungaria and Western Suburbs drew 64,000 paying fans at an average of attendance 1140 per game.

The league was confidently increased to 10 teams a season later. Hungaria forfeited their place to form an entry with Miramar Rangers, to be known as Wellington City, while Mt Albert Ponsonby and Dunedin Suburbs were promoted to form a 10-team league.

A year later Caversham and New Brighton entered and Mt Albert Ponsonby was renamed as Auckland City.

The early 70s was the golden era, and the advent of the league prevented greater player losses to Australia’s Philips League. The league’s all-time highest attendance was in 1971, when 10,000 packed Newmarket Park to see Eastern Suburbs draw 2-2 with Mt Wellington to clinch the title.

The national league was increased to 12 teams in 1977 and then, more optimistically, to 14 in 1987.

Here in the Waikato, Hamilton AFC lost a desperately tight playoff series to Wellington Diamond United at the end of 1972, but finally made the cut in 1977, when they fielded an exceptionally entertaining team – featuring Keith Nelson, Alf Stamp, and John McDermid.

But in an era where a quarter of the teams (3 out of 12) got relegated each season Hamilton dropped out at the end of 1978, were back in in 1980, 1981 and 1982, but then fell off the map until the late withdrawal of Dunedin City allowed the composite entry from Hamilton and Claudelands Rovers of Waikato United to emerge to considerable effect from 1988 to 1996.

In 1987, in an effort to combat concentration of teams in the major centres, automatic promotion and relegation was scrapped and an invitation-only entry introduced, together with specific entry requirements. These included a minimum number of covered seats, a charge gate and walk-on changing facilities.

Elsewhere controversy reigned. In 1986 Auckland side University, despite finishing mid-table, were dumped and replaced by the league’s first composite outfit Hutt Valley United, in 1987. Mount Maunganui and Napier City joined them in boosting the league size to 14.

Clubs were required to meet entry criteria and had five years to meet the new regulations or risk being excluded.

These requirements put extra financial pressure on clubs, and the demise of Dunedin City — at the end of 1987 — and the expulsion of Nelson in 1988 and last-minute rescue of Gisborne City in 1989 sparked the first calls for a scrapping of the league and replacement with a regional competition.

Nelson United, who finished 13th, were relegated because their ground didn’t meet the required standards.

In 1989, following the report of a taskforce, the NZFA reaffirmed its commitment to the club-based national league, passing a resolution saying the council “… remains committed to a national club-based league and the continued upgrading of this competition”.

By 1990 24 different clubs had been relegated from the national league, including all foundation clubs except Christchurch United and Mt Wellington – and 10 out of 14 existing clubs were reputed to have financial problems, with diminished spectator support.

Key figures were lobbying for a shorter, more viable competition, though for every team that wanted out, 5-6 still wanted in. But change was on the way…

Part 2 follows tomorrow.

Bruce Holloway is author of The National League Debates: A potted chronology of the twists, turns and conflicting ideas in New Zealand football since 1990 a 276-page manuscript which examines the challenges of finding a sustainable format for our flagship competition. Available from: www.nationalleaguedebates.weebly.com 

This article appeared in Issue 1, 2015/16, of The Range.

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