Crunch Time For The Dragons

Sadly, there will be no repeat of 2014’s giant killing run when Auckland City finished third in the World Club Championship. Instead the Kiwi team will be leaving Japan after being beaten by Kashima Antlers in the quarter final play off of this year’s event.

The fact that the World Club Championship now encompasses the winners of each confederation’s equivalent of the Champion League may be derided by some of the bigger nations in Europe but for teams from countries like New Zealand the expanded format provides not only a chance to play against some of the best in the world but also a much needed cash boost. Now that Auckland City have been eliminated they will turn their attentions to the domestic league and qualifying for next season’s Oceania Champions league.

However, whilst they must still be considered favourites, it may not be as straightforward for Ramon Tribulietx’s men. Last year’s winners, Team Wellington, will no doubt be in the mix as will Waitakere United and probably this season’s surprise package, new comers Eastern Suburbs. Add Auckland City to these three and it is hard to see how any of the other teams are going to break into the top four and the end of season play-offs.

Which leads me to Canterbury United.

Early on I nailed my colours to the Tasman United mas but I want to the South Island punching at and above its wait in the Stirling Sports Premiership and that means, for this season at least, getting behind the Dragons. Yet despite a good start to the season, their season may be almost over before Santa arrives to hand out the present. After losing back-to-back to Hamilton and Waitakere they only just managed to salvage a draw against Hawke’s Bay and now face two daunting fixtures against Team Wellington and the top of the table, Eastern Suburbs.

Last year Canterbury pushed Auckland City all the way in the semi-final and this season should have been the one where they pushed on but, as so often happens in football, there is a touch of second season syndrome affecting the team, most notably one of last season’s stand out performers Andre de Jong. As Claudio Ranieri is finding out at Leicester football coaches today are true students of the game and if a team is successful they will always be thinking of ways to nullify their opponent’s and I am afraid to see Willy Gerdsen’s team simply haven’t progressed from last season.

But more importantly the players haven’t delivered this season, especially in attack. These days it is the managers who always seem to be the first to be blamed even though nine times out of ten it is the players who are failing to perform on the pitch. Canterbury United need to get their attacking players firing again and playing for each otherwise I may as well just throw myself completely behind Tasman and their bid to win the South Island mini league.

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The Manchester United of New Zealand

The news that Auckland City have put their name in the frame, however tentatively, as a candidate for an A-League licence in any future A-League expansion should be greeted with enthusiasm by the New Zealand football public, the Wellington Phoenix and the rest of the Stirling Sports Premiership.

Despite the initial shock of losing the premier team in the Stirling Sports Premiership, fellow teams and administrators should look upon Auckland City trying to take the next step up as an opportunity for their teams to capitalise on and become the next Auckland City.

Few football fans in New Zealand will have been unaware of Auckland City’s recent performances at the World Club Championship but if they do move to the A-League, just like the Phoenix, they will be ineligible to represent New Zealand in the Oceanic Champions League. This means that the likes of Waitakere United, Team Wellington and Canterbury United have a chance to reach the pinnacle of the world club game and would be able to benefit from the exposure and financial rewards this would offer. And for those football fans living on the South Island hopefully one of the Uniteds, Canterbury, Southern or Tasman can benefit by challenging to be one of the dominant teams in the Stirling Sports Premiership and provide the South Island the exposure its dedicated footballing community deserves.

As for the Wellington Phoenix, having another New Zealand team in the A-League will provide a domestic rivalry of the type that drives any great club. Where would Celtic be without Rangers and what about the passion when Manchester United play Liverpool, not to mention Real Madrid and Barcelona’s rivalry which transcends football.

In addition, if Auckland were to get one of the two rumoured expansion places, it would be a sign the A-League has mellowed in its views about having a team from their Trans-Tasman cousins. The issues around the Phoenix’s licence renewal have been well documented and as fans we all need to buy into the culture and the club to prove to the Australians we deserve to be in the A-League but how much easier would that be if we had the incentive of trying to get the better of our Auckland cousins.

However, the A-League’s prevarications around the Phoenix’s licence renewal last year are one of the reasons why I fear Auckland City will be down the list when it comes to preferred expansion options, put simply the Australian’s are focused on the Australian game. Whilst this may be reasonable I hope the A-League decision makers can look beyond their own shores and realise Auckland is the fifth biggest city in Australasia and as such has a potentially massive fan base.

It may seem strange I am advocating a team that didn’t even win its domestic title last year but they are the biggest team in the league and their promotion would be a massive boost for the game in New Zealand, from the increased exposure to the doubling of opportunities for young players, to potentially more All White Internationals being able to earn a living in the country that they represent. So for now I’ll cross my fingers, hope the Phoenix’s recent good form continues and of course hope anyone but Auckland City win the Stirling Sports Premiership.

They may be the brightest hope for the future of the game in this country but they are still the Manchester United of New Zealand.

 

The Stirling Sports Premiership

On Sunday the 2016-2017 edition of the NZ football championship kicked off with a match between the only two teams ever to win the tournament, Auckland City and Waitakere United. You may think, and even some footballer supporters in New Zealand share this view, so what, it’s not the Premiership or La Liga? But even though the standard of football may be no better than some non-league matches if you are a football supporter in New Zealand this is a competition that you need to support.

Why? With the proliferation of football on our TV screens today for many football fans, one more competition is simply one too many but the better supported our domestic league becomes the greater the chance that young people are drawn into the game and it is these young people who are the lifeblood of the game in New Zealand.

With a lot of the games on Sky there is a chance for Kiwi youngsters to watch a level of football that is closer to the game they play with their friends on a Saturday and it shows the more talented of them a pathway to continue playing football as they grow older. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, and will no doubt mention again, football is in most aspects a numbers game and it is no surprise the big footballing nations have, in general, large populations. But what each of these nations also have is a pyramid of football leagues below those which we watch on TV.

We have that pyramid here in New Zealand but because our football culture, including sadly the media, is focused on Europe and South America it largely gets ignored. If you were a visitor to this country you would be forgiven for believing that we only have one football team representing the whole nation, the Wellington Phoenix (and they only exist because the Aussies have yet to find a compelling argument for getting rid of their trans-Tasman interlopers).

For New Zealand football to succeed it needs the Phoenix to do well in the A-league and for the Phoenix to succeed they need a healthy New Zealand football championship to not only as a breeding ground for future Phoenix players but also to help in generating interest in the game here in New Zealand. So if you are a fan of football take an interest in this year’s Football Championship. If you haven’t already pick a team and if you can, get down to some of the matches and if you have Sky make sure you tune in to your team’s matches. But most importantly try and keep abreast of what is going on in the league.

I say try because for a national league the coverage by the major news sites is atrocious! I can understand the argument that domestic football isn’t as popular as international football or rugby here in New Zealand but if you go to the New Zealand Herald’s football section their domestic section is still branded the ASB Premiership, which is last year’s name! This in a nutshell is the problem facing the domestic game here in New Zealand and the only way to fix it is to make sure we all become involved. So at the weekend, when the Stirling Sports Premiership kicks off in earnest, if you are a football fan take an interest in what is going on.