Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Door opens for new teams in ASB Premiership

Auckland City and Waitakere United may soon face competition from a third team in the city. Photo / Shane Wenzlick
Auckland City and Waitakere United may soon face competition from a third team in the city. Photo / Shane Wenzlick

Two new franchises could be invited to join an expanded ASB Premiership competition - and one is likely to be from Auckland, challenging the long-standing duopoly of Waitakere United and Auckland City.

New Zealand Football invited formal bids earlier this year and has received five applications from around the country, including at least two from Auckland.

After eight seasons with the same eight teams, the national body has recognised the need for change.

"After an extensive review, we have concluded that the competition is not broken and a lot of things are working well," says NZF CEO Grant McKavanagh. "However, we have perceived there is a need to freshen it up and take it to the next level."

It is the first time in five years that NZF has invited tenders from prospective new franchises, though after the last round, the league ultimately retained the status quo.

Applicants this time have included Nelson, a South Auckland group, Three Kings United, Wairarapa and a fifth bid - believed to also be from Auckland.

"There were a lot of people interested in applying," said McKavanagh, "and we received some very strong bids, which is heartening".

The South Auckland bid is headed by Noel Robinson, who was NZF CEO for five years in the 1990s. Robinson declined to detail who was behind the bid, saying he headed "a group of individuals with strong associations to football in the area".

The prospective new club would be based at Centre Park in Mangere, the newly developed facility that recently hosted the Football Ferns and China and has staged Oceania qualifying tournaments. Unlike some other grounds in the country, it seems a perfect fit for the NZFC - capable of generating a good atmosphere with a compact crowd.

"Last time we bid [five years ago], it was with the vision of a facility," says Robinson. "Now that facility is in place, which puts us on much stronger ground."

Robinson talks of establishing academies at local clubs, saying that it would provide pathways and opportunities that don't exist in the region. He is confident the operating budget of approximately $300,000 could be found from sponsorship and other sources and is also bullish about possible crowd figures.

THE SOUTH Auckland bid has budgeted for crowds for between 1500 and 2500, an ambitious target that would bring in a significant source of revenue.

However, there are grounds for optimism. The South Auckland bid has a significant ethnic presence, specifically from the Fijian community and O-League matches in New Zealand involving Fijian teams have previously drawn large crowds, while ethnic tournaments can also be extremely well supported.

The region continues to produce plenty of young talent (Blackburn's Tim Payne and New Zealand under-17 hat-trick hero Stephen Carmichael are recent examples of local products) but such players tend to move across town at a young age.

"There is room for more teams in the ASB Premiership," says Waitakere United chairman Rex Dawkins. "It shouldn't be a closed shop. A 14-game season is not long enough at the moment, so 16 or 18 matches a year would certainly be welcome. However, we have to make sure the playing strength across the country is there."

This is a valid concern, as in most seasons of the ASB Premiership there have been two tiers, with the Auckland clubs dominating and others such as Team Wellington, Canterbury and Manawatu having their moments in the sun with a marked gap to the rest. There is a school of thought that eight teams is the right number but NZF needs to make sure it has the right eight teams. As it stands, all existing clubs have guaranteed licences until the end of the 2012-2013 season but these will be up for renewal beyond that season.

Robinson has been told by NZF that they are "very interested in talking" though they won't be invited to join for the upcoming season, with the 2013-14 season the nearest possible window.

"We were impressed with the [South Auckland] bid," says McKavanagh. "They have a great stadium, would bring an ethnic flavour to the league and passionate crowds."

Robinson remains positive that they can prevail.

"I'm the kind of person that doesn't tend to take no for an answer," says Robinson. "I'll keep on knocking until they let me in."

The front-runner appears to be the Nelson bid, with ongoing discussions taking place with the bid team which is headed by mayor Aldo Miccio.

Nelson has long been a strong football region and was a consistent National League presence for 15 years from the 1970s.

Interest remains high, with a one-off ASB Premiership match between Canterbury United and Team Wellington in January last year attracting a crowd of 2500 to Nelson's Trafalgar Park, the highest of that season.

NZF is due to hold a board meeting this week, after which the next steps in any expansion plans will to be announced.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 23 Oct 2014 15:35:36 Processing Time: 392ms