These were the good old days of footie in Auckland. As kids surge on to our sports fields in record numbers, John Landrigan eyes the grim state of play - and a political storm about to hit the local elections as a result.

Decades-old images of our greatest sportsmen tell part of the story: men in black, coated head-to-toe in mud, scoring tries in the lakes of Eden or Carlaw Park.

The modern professional - Ryan Nelsen, Dan Carter, Manu Vatuvei - wouldn't lace their designer boots in that weather, or risk their insurance policy on such a field. Television would not tolerate viewers voting with their remotes after the umpteenth knock-on or waterlogged footballs stopping dead before the goal.

But the only thing stopping many of Auckland's parks turning back into muddy broth is hundreds of games being postponed throughout the winter. Kids, especially, are kept off school and club grounds to save fields for senior matches. A few weeks ago, 12-year-old Cameron Wong told us he'd never once practised on his Ellerslie soccer club's home ground.


This is happening when we're encouraged to "push play", inspired by the All Whites' success and our need to tackle like Richie McCaw. Incessant demand is not only putting the squeeze on practise and game time, but in the region's ability to find coaches, volunteers, referees, safe parking, adequate and inviting clubrooms.

Figures tell a tale of increasing need and of facilities failing to keep up.

Paul Cropp, CEO of the United Soccer 1 Federation covering Northland, Waitakere, Rodney and North Shore clubs, says it's inevitable leagues will be capped and players turned away unless more fields are found.

"Auckland kids," he says, "want to kick a soccer ball. We're contemplating midgets starting at 7.30am and extending the season into the summer months to ensure all get to play."

Not just kids: there are more age-grade, women's and social teams.

Auckland-wide, soccer clubs are growing roughly 10 per cent a year. To Mr Cropp, that means another 1000 players or 20 more teams.

The sodden grounds struggled to cater for less than a million residents in 1996. They are now expected to cope with 1.4 million and service close to 2 million within 20 years.

In Auckland City, parks manager Mark Bowater admits sports fields around the


compressed inner city suburbs continue to be maxed out.

Using a complicated ratio that measures grounds to players to muddy shorts divided by the length of sprigs, he estimates Auckland fields have an excess of 147 hours playing time each week. But they're a whopping 466 hours a week short for training. The shortfall is expected to rise to 1230 hours a week for winter sports in fewer than six years.

The outcome is poor for sport but also for our parks and it's running volunteers into the ground.

Practise grounds, says Mr Cropp, are "absolutely thrashed" as clubs with 1000 members use them to train. By season's end they are "bareboned and down to the sandy base".

Clubs also face traffic management and safety problems as children, boots draped over shoulders, dash across busy roads around the parks.

Dealing with the issues are, for all clubs we spoke to, the same few people stepping up and volunteering their time.

Coaches, says John Herdman, NZ Football's director of football development, are as frustrated by poor facilities as players - and just as likely to walk away.

"They have limited time with their teams. They are reduced to practising one night a week on a postage stamp. Coaches want to see their teams win but are frustrated," he says. "You need more time to fall in love with football and the community around football.

"Good clubrooms play their part also. You need a social environment to ensure players stay on and volunteer or coach."

Expecting more growth after the World Cup run, NZ Football invested in a free course for entry-level coaches. The numbers taking the course grew in Auckland Football's catchment alone by 619 places to 739 new coaches.

The issue is teetering on a tipping-point and about to go political.

Mr Herdman emphasises good facilities will help retain volunteers throughout sport. "You're not going to change the climate," he says. "You need to change the surface."

His concerns are echoed across Auckland and deemed important enough for those at a grassroots level to muster for October's local body elections.

In what could be the first of its kind for sport, North Harbour Sports Council is adopting the tactics used by advocacy groups like Grey Power: numbers means influence.

The sports council was formed so sporting organisations would have one voice to advocate collective concerns, issues, and interests to its city council.

It falls under North Harbour Sport Trust and is rallying its 80,000 members, from 19 sports, to get behind sport-friendly candidates - those recognising the problems and with a plan to fix them.

Riki Burgess, its sport capability manager, says the priority is to improve facilities. He is issuing political pamphlets and organising mayoral candidate forums to address members.

On August 16, more than 200 sports representatives from the North Harbour region have been invited to hear mayoral candidates outline their positions on the value of sport and policies to support this under the new Auckland Council structure.

He is also rallying roughly 500,000 sports-minded people aligned to the Manukau, Waitakere and Auckland sports trusts to further influence this election.

"Sport is close to people's hearts. It is of huge value to the community, not only to those playing but for the economy.

"Sport is one of those campaign issues which could be the tipping-point for one candidate over another. This is a sector candidates need to take seriously."

Mirroring the problem with local government, provision of sports traverses seven local authorities, regional council, four regional sports trusts, numerous associations and federations, their national bodies, thousands of clubs and their volunteers, players, coaches and followers.

John Banks might have floated the idea of a 2020 Olympics bid but the first regional mayor's focus might be on real local, and perhaps more realistic, needs. Mr Burgess has no doubt the new council, as financier and provider, will have massive influence on sport in the region.

It's not like there aren't any solutions.

The only rugby club not affected by cancellations is College Rifles. The Remuera club raised $2 million and received $750,000 from Auckland City Council to install two synthetic fields in 2009. Lacrosse, soccer and touch players now practise beside rugby teams.

So the old sporting adage, "conditions are the winner", need not apply, according to TigerTurf, the country's synthetic field advocates.

Summer soccer, longer rugby seasons and touch mean that grass doesn't have enough time to recover for the traditional winter season. But TigerTurf is more commonly adopted in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, North America, and Australia than in the land of the long white and, often saturated, cloud.

The initial cost is large: up to $1 million for each field. But that, says sales manager (and former All White) Ron Armstrong, is offset by clubs like College Rifles charging other codes to hire the pitch. Also, the sand and rubber surface requires less grooming.

Paul Cropp has seen the benefits at North Harbour Stadium, the first synthetic soccer field in the country. It's already maxed out, and he wants to see a sports hub of three to four grass fields combined with one synthetic pitch.

He is desperate to see fields developed between North Harbour and Rodney before more housing: "Some families have children playing for the same club but their home grounds are at different fields."

Mr Bowater insists Sparc's model is helping his council acquire (or at least looking to acquire) new fields and supply training lights and synthetic turf at the best locations. He points to a planned $2.7 million development at Michaels Ave Reserve, including an artificial pitch.

But this has been a long time coming. This is where young Cameron Wong plays but has never practised his soccer.

Until political will can be found, the grassroots frustration remains.

Wilson Hawes was closing the Fencibles United soccer grounds in Pakuranga because they were too puggy and wet when

The Aucklander

spoke with him. If grounds were kept open, they would be condemned for the rest of the season.

"A patch of rain and it turns to mud and then ruts. In one game recently, an opposition player broke his leg. He stepped into a hole."

The chairman of the 1700-member soccer club agrees sports facilities are the one of the most important issues facing the new regional council.

"Following the success of New Zealand in the Football World Cup, we are experiencing a boom and struggling to meet our members' needs. The grounds we have are inadequate, and in some cases dangerous, for our members to play or train on."

Fencibles do not have enough lit, adequately drained fields to cater for training after school and work. "We use neighbouring hockey pitches for practise. We had to cap numbers because we do not have facilities. We've lost senior players because of poor facilities."

Councils might say they have created more reserves, but Mr Hawes says they're passive parks: socially engineered for beauty not substance. People, he says, can have quality walks with music playing in their ears but can't find a park to play footy.

Whistling Dixie

Rugby has not been a winner in all this. Kili Tabakau, the club rugby facilitator for Auckland Rugby, is the go-to guy for cancellations for schools and clubs across the region.

Mirroring 2009 national figures, Auckland Rugby is growing about 5 per cent a year. This is expected to leap after the Rugby World Cup next year.

But on the weekend of June 26, roughly 400 rugby games were postponed or cancelled across Auckland. That does not include the teams shuffled to other parks at the last minute, sighs Mr Tabakau.

Referees education officer Greg Watson says there are 22,000 players in Auckland and only 200 active refs. From illness, injury, family and work commitments they lose up to 60 whistlers a week. "We could really do with another 100 referees, and even then we wouldn't fill all the spots needed."

If there's a boom in players after the Cup, refereeing ranks will increase also. He hopes.


There are smiles around netball circles. Based on their experience, Netball Auckland chief Dianne Lasenby says: if you build the facilities, players, coaches and volunteers will come.

Membership in Auckland City has increased at club, secondary school, intermediate and the junior or "Future Ferns" levels by 22 per cent since 2006.

The largest increases are in the Future Fern Years 1-6 group.

Auckland Netball Centre in the new Stonefields suburb is home to 19,162 members: 14,725 play. The rest are a growing number of volunteers, coaches and referees. Many are drawn because of the facilities.

Auckland City Council contributed $ 8.9 million, or half of the centre's $17.8 million price tag.

The centre has just completed rubberising 18 of its 29 outdoor asphalt courts. Twelve more will be rubberised over the following summer.

According to ACC figures, the new surface reduces injuries by 41 per cent and is expected to keep players in the game until in their 50s. That means more volunteers and player-coaches.

There is now a 60 per cent drop-off in players leaving the sport after finishing secondary school.

Netball Auckland is able to run more social leagues and competitions on different nights, away from the traditional Saturday game time. It is drawing membership from beyond traditional boundaries.

Auckland Netball plans to build 48 more outdoor and eight more indoor courts.