Napier City Rovers’ 2023 football season might be done and dusted – but coach Bill Robertson is not yet ready to take a break.
Saturday’s 3-3 round nine National League draw against Auckland United brought the end to a roller-coaster nine-month ride for the squad.
In between, the side’s pre-season was halted by Cyclone Gabrielle, a new fan favourite who appeared in the guise of former Manchester City academy player Deri Corfe, the side was near unbeatable on the road in Wellington during the Central League – where they ultimately finished in third spot - and, after qualifying for the National League, they finished in ninth place.
While his players begin a well-earned break, Robertson is preparing to undertake a review of the season with his coaching set-up, a review which will cover what worked and what didn’t.
But he said it was clear the squad was “a bit stretched” when injuries and suspensions kicked in during the National League, saying Napier City Rovers would look to add some new recruits to those from 2023 they retained.
“We didn’t quite have a big enough squad to manage the nine months of football, especially when we started to pick up a lot of injuries towards the end of the season,” Robertson said.
“And some of those injuries were really significant ones.
“Some of those bigger squads in the National League were able to just roll out another player who was experienced and played nationally before when they had injuries or suspensions.
“Whereas we then obviously had to dip into our reserve team and use a lot of young players. That is great for them, and a fantastic opportunity for young local players again to play at the highest level. But it is also a huge step up.”
A trio of red cards further reduced Napier City Rovers’ ranks in the National League due to suspension.
The side also lost the services of Canadian import Stefan Karajovanovic – a standout in the Central League - for the National League after he had to return home for university studies.
The Auckland United result away from home was another case of what could have been for Napier City Rovers in the National League.
They were leading 3-2 against their opponents – and had been the dominant team for much of the match - four minutes into added time when a free kick into their penalty area took a deflection off 17-year-old Napier City Rovers substitute Tom Speers, beating his goalkeeper Oscar Mason to level the score.
Before Dre Vollenhoven’s free kick, Robertson’s team had looked set for a deserved win and three competition points.
They previously lost both National League clashes to southern clubs Christchurch United and Cashmere Technical – a match where they conceded three late goals in a crazy four minutes - after being in seemingly winnable positions.
The team was also unlucky not to get any points in their tight home losses to Manurewa AFC and Fifa Club World Cup-bound Auckland City FC.
Wellington Olympic and Eastern Suburbs are the two teams who truly outplayed Napier City Rovers during their nine-game campaign.
“I think we’ve given a really good account of ourselves this season,” Robertson said.
“We’ve been competitive, in most games. There are probably only a couple of games that we were well beaten in. We were a few points short of where I would have to have been in the National League, but we were very competitive.”
This year was the second in succession that Napier City Rovers had not only qualified for the National League but have also been the only side from a provincial base to make the domestic top-tier competition.
“We’re the only regional team in the country to make the National League and there’s a reason for that,” Robertson said.
“It’s not easy.
“We’re really proud of how we’ve performed over these two years. And one of the goals next year is to continue to qualify for the National League so we can keep that level of football in Hawke’s Bay.”
Napier City Rovers were led strongly all season by captain Jim Hoyle, who signed off 2023 by scoring what for a while looked like it would be the winning goal against Auckland United last Saturday.
Hoyle’s leadership abilities came through strongly when his side lost several regular starters for crunch matches, including in the 1-0 National League win over Wellington Phoenix Reserves on October 14.
Robertson said he had been impressed with the character – both on and off the field – shown by his squad throughout the season.
Given Rovers’ geographical location, the club faced travel demands far above those faced by its North Island rivals. Travel demands had never been used as an excuse.
“I fully commend the players’ attitudes and commitment,” Robertson said.
“Throughout the season they’re the ones that have achieved good things for the club, like the National League qualification and then representing the club on the national stage.”
Napier City Rovers are set to return to pre-season training in early February.
While there might be some new faces showing up, one thing that won’t change next season is the policy Robertson introduced this year to travel to Wellington on the eve of Central League clashes in the capital.
Previously the side travelled there and back on match day; a move which saw them leaving Napier around 6am for a five-hour bus ride, before playing, and then the lengthy return bus trip.
The side’s Central League away form was impressive this season; including during a prolonged run of must-win games in Wellington during their ultimately successful path to National League qualification.
“We looked at that as a professionalism preparation, high-performance kind of model,” Robertson said.
“Our results away from home were really good this year, better than in 2021 and 2022. I think the players noticed the difference in the way we could prepare on match day.”
Neil Reid is a Napier-based senior reporter who covers general news, features and sport. He joined the Herald in 2014 and has 30 years of newsroom experience.