Napier City Rovers are on a mission to get back onto the national stage. Neil Reid talks to the man guiding one of the country's traditional footballing powerhouses as they again eye the big time
Napier City Rovers are out to end a near 18-year absence from the highest level of domestic football.
The proud club – which will celebrate its 50th birthday next year – has not featured as a standalone side in the National League since 2005.
Instead, Hawke's Bay United were the region's representative in the league.
But in the latest league structure, the Rovers – who are multiple winners of both the former New Zealand National Soccer League and the knockout Chatham Cup – have the chance to return to the national stage.
Standing in front of them is securing a top-four finish in the ongoing Central League; something which would see them line up against the qualifying teams from both the Northern League and Southern League.
After 12 of 18 rounds, Napier City Rovers sit in fourth spot.
"Qualifying for the national stage would be a huge achievement for the club to get back to the national league and one of the top 10 teams in the country," coach Bill Robertson told the Herald.
"Obviously the club has a very proud history; a history of success. If we could achieve that for Napier City Rovers this year then that would be a huge achievement.
"The club obviously has a big profile and I think there is an expectation that Napier City Rovers is going to be successful. To put Napier City Rovers back on the map would be great."
If successful, the club would be the only side in the 10-team National League not based in a major city. The other qualifiers for the league look set to come solely from Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch.
"For us as a provincial club with a much smaller population, funding available to us, and a player resource, for us to achieve that would be incredible."
Robertson played more than 150 times for Napier City Rovers.
During his coaching tenure – which included a stint as player-coach – the club won its fifth Chatham Cup title in 2019, as well as securing the Central League crown in 2015 and 2018.
But if they are to make it into the 2022 National League, Rovers will have to do it the hard way; in the process clocking up among the most kilometres on the road of any team in all three regional leagues.
Eight of the 10 teams in the Central League are Wellington based.
That calls for return bus trips of 620km for away games in the capital city, including enduring the bus drive every game day.
"It certainly isn't easy and I fully commend the players' commitment and attitude to be able to do that and still perform," Robertson said.
"We have to get on a bus to Wellington, play on the same day we have travelled ... that is not easy to do."
Robertson said the playing and coaching staff would never use the travel factor as an excuse, but also said it "put into context" the success they had, which include the duo of Central League titles and the Chatham Cup victory in the past seven seasons.
Conquering both their on-field and off-field challenges was also a testament to the commitment of the players who proudly donned the Napier City Rovers shirt every weekend.
"Players receive some expenses for playing, but it is not enough to live on. All our players pretty much have jobs as well or they are still at school," Robertson said.
"We have to balance the schedule with other demands and family commitments and usually have the players in three times a week, and then there is the game on the weekend."
As well as aiming for a return to the National League, the club is also targeting a strong run in the Chatham Cup; the knockout competition which dates back to 1923.
With five cup triumphs, Napier City Rovers are third equal on the list of most-successful clubs in the competition.
On Sunday they face Wellington Olympic – leaders of the Central League - in fourth-round action at Napier's Bluewater Stadium.
Robertson described Sunday's rivals as "probably one of the strongest sides in the country at the moment".
"A cup run is important for the club," he said. "We managed to win the Chatham Cup in 2019 and that was a great achievement. It would be great if we could go on another run and do well in the cup."
Robertston arrived in New Zealand in 2007, first signing with Canterbury United.
Aged 23, he had been playing semi-professional football for non-league English team Rossendale United FC.
After two years with Canterbury United, he relocated to Hawke's Bay after being signed by then Napier City Rovers coach Jonathan Gould – a former English Premier League and Scottish Premiership goalkeeper who was a member of Scotland's 1998 World Cup finals squad.
"I came here [to Napier], really enjoyed my time and then was playing for Hawke's Bay United and Napier City Rovers," he said.
"Football brought me across, I enjoyed the lifestyle here, really enjoyed the country and decided to stay."
The sport is also Robertson's full-time job.
As well as being Napier City Rovers' head coach, he is also involved in a raft of training and coaching programmes aimed at helping develop footballing youth in the Hawke's Bay.
At club level, that means coaching the senior team as well as taking charge of the club's under-7s Sharks team.
Away from the Rovers he also helps with coaching at both Napier Boys' High School and also St John's College in Hastings.
"I am pretty settled in Hawke's Bay with my wife Kristy and two kids," Robertson said. "The lifestyle here is good in terms of raising a young family so I am pretty happy here.
"In terms of football goals, I have been [head coach] at Napier City Rovers since 2014 and we have achieved some great things over the years – Central League titles and winning the Chatham Cup.
"So continuing to contribute to football for Napier City Rovers, but also in the region ... trying to develop some young players and give back to football in this region is probably what my goal is."