» Best of The Range – The National League (1993 to 2003)

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 2: 1993 to 2003 – 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 second of three articles Bruce Holloway summarises national league structures in the period from 1993-2003.

The years from 1993-2003 were a time of exceptional ferment in national league politics.

Against a backdrop of rising costs and dwindling gate receipts, the NZFA opted for a more cost-effective and regionalised competition from 1993-95. It scrapped the conventional national league and instituted the Superclub Championship, comprised of a round of north, south and central regional championships from which the top eight teams contested a one-round national championship, followed by a top-four playoff and grand final.

Its architects argued we could no longer afford the current luxury of a two-round, 14 team national league in a tight sponsorship market, and that view certainly had credence in the Waikato, which went without a major sponsor in 1992, despite finishing runner-up in the league and the Chatham Cup.

The first two superclub seasons were sponsored by Winfield and the final season by government agency Smokefree. It offered over $100,000 in prizemoney from Winfield, with $10,000 for first, $7000 second, $5000 third in regional rounds. Nationally there was  $30,000 for first, $15,000 second, and $5000 third and fourth. But the Superclub was widely disparaged by leading players and coaches, who saw a 30-team competition as unnecessarily diluting the football product.

The Smokefree Environment Act had prohibited tobacco sponsorship and advertising and only offered substitute funding until 1995. Further, the Superclub Championship had not improved the image of football, nor standards.

And so the drums were soon beating for a summer league, which was finally introduced in January 1996, then again in 1996-97, and 1997-98 as a 10-team (11 teams in 97-98) competition after a mad scramble for admission.

Criteria included clubs having  “a wide membership base…involved in all levels of junior and senior soccer,” which put a bullet in the aspirations of 9-year-old Waikato United which was focused on the national league rather than trying to be all things to all people. So while Waikato was accepted into the first summer season, amalgamation was required (with Melville AFC to form Melville United) to continue to contest the national league.

A bizarre feature of the first season of summer league was four points for a win, and if there was a draw, a penalty shootout was contrived where an extra point was at stake. The summer league was introduced to much fanfare. Waikato United even hired a 3-piece jazz band to serenade punters into Porritt Stadium for their opening Friday night match against Central United.

But by early 1998, when the national league was stumbling along under a cloud of mounting debt and diminishing profile, sentiments had swung full circle and the general view was the summer league hadn’t worked. The 1997-98 summer league lost $130,000 alone.

In 1999 the New Zealand Club Championship was introduced as a stop-gap, as North and South Island leagues from which the two winners contested a final (Central beat Dunedin Tech 3-1). It ended up costing as much as a normal national league.

In March 2000 the 10-team Ansett National Club Championship (NCC) kicked off, two years after the summer national league was mothballed. A bonus point was introduced for scoring more than three goals, which had teams winning and dropping places – or drawing and jumping spots. Just as controversial were new top-four playoffs.

In 2001 National League sponsor Qantas New Zealand went into receivership, prompting the postponement of three matches. It was then rebranded as the Southern Trust National League. Miramar Rangers finished the league eight points clear – but were denied their first league title after crashing 3-2 in the grand final.

In 2003 East Auckland, an affiliation of University-Mt Wellington and northern premier clubs Fencibles United, Ellerslie and Eastern Suburbs to contest the league occurred. But before the 2003 league had even kicked off newspapers were reporting it was to be canned in 15 months time in favour of a return to summer football…

Part 3 appears 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 2, 2015/16, of The Range.

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