» Best of The Range – The National League (2004 to now)

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 3: 2004 to now – Bruce Holloway

Ahead of planned major national league revamp for next summer, in the last of three articles Bruce Holloway summarises the evolution of the competition since 2004.

In October 2004, the current New Zealand Football Championship (NZFC) summer national league was introduced, ending an era of great structural upheaval. After the U-turns, about-faces and revisions of the decade preceding, the NZFC gave a relatively settled structure for almost a decade.

There were 11 applications for the league, with East Auckland, Team Bay of Plenty and Porirua’s Ole Madrids missing out.

In 2005-06 Napier City Rovers followed the pattern of most other national league entrants and rebranded as “Hawke’s Bay United”, forming an amalgamated franchise with other local clubs. And Otago United became Southern United in 2013-14, with the name change designed to better reflect its geographic area covering Southland, Otago and South Canterbury.

Until the mid-2013 decision not to renew YoungHeart Manawatu’s licence (and replace them with a national U-20 squad) tinkering was largely confined to such things as the name of the competition, play-off structures and the number of rounds played.

After four seasons of being contested over a three-round, 21-match league system, in 2008 the New Zealand Football Championship was reduced – under pressure of costs from many franchises – to a two-round, 14-match competition.

This left it open to criticism of lacking critical mass for a flagship league, and not being substantial enough in terms of matches to entice players to concentrate on summer competition alone. But the cut from 21 matches (three rounds) to 14 matches (two rounds) was also welcomed in many quarters. Waikato FC and Team Wellington had barely survived funding crises at the time.

Similarly, the play-offs were modified at various times. They morphed from being  a three-team affair (under which the winner of the league received a bye and hosting rights for the grand final, with second and third placed teams playing off in a one-game preliminary final) to a five team playoff  in 2005-06, before then again reverting to a three-team playoff for the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.

YoungHeart Manawatu had been on shaky ground years earlier when it initially failed to gain an extension to its licence beyond 2007, on account of off-field matters, but was later reinstated after meeting governance and financial requirements.

The Wanderers SC team of aspiring national U20 players were added to the mix in a bid to assist international youth player development, and were a two-season wonder, with the Phoenix Reserves thrown into the mix in 2014-15.

If including an age group team in the national league was ground-breaking, arguably even more controversial was the decision to include a reserve team for 2014-15 in the form of Wellington Phoenix. They were included ahead of bids from South Auckland’s Auckland United, Nelson Marlborough Falcons and YoungHeart Manawatu.

Some wags suggested Phoenix Reserves – who had been largely unimpressive in the earlier one-off Challenge Series – should first be invited to win the Central League before being thrust into the national league, but they won seven of their 16 matches in their debut season.

Meanwhile the Waikato Bay of Plenty Football Federation took over Waikato FC’s licence at the end of the 2012-13 season and rebranded as WaiBOP United.

Another key change came in eligibility regulations, with the requirement for 50 per cent of match day squads to come from players eligible to play for the All Whites (or nine of the 16-man squad in the case of the grand final). This replaced previous clauses allowing up to four “guest players”.

And now we have the latest alteration to the national league, with the ten teams to contest the 2016/17 and 2017/18 ASB Premiership set to be announced on December 16 (after the copy deadline of this issue). Eight teams were vying for the two vacant spots and by the time you read this you’ll know who the successful applicants are.

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 3, 2015/16, of The Range.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *