All Whites coach Danny Hay has blasted the culture in New Zealand men's domestic club football, claiming teams have placed winning ahead of player development and lacked the courage to select talented youngsters.
New Zealand Football yesterday announced an overhaul of the country's national leagues to prioritise youth development and sustainability.
From 2021, the ISPS Handa Men's Premiership will disband, replaced by three regional club-based conferences (Northern, Central and Southern) with four teams from the northern conference, three from the central and two from the southern, plus Wellington Phoenix's development side progressing to a national championship phase at the end of the season.
"The focus was wrong," said Hay, who along with other key NZF staff was consulted on the change.
"Despite us working with amateur players in an amateur league at amateur clubs, the focus was all about winning. There just weren't the opportunities being afforded to younger players.
"We should be focused on developing our players to get them to a level where they can kick on to bigger and better things. Hopefully for those really talented ones, that's professional and international football."
From next year, clubs must include at least two under-20 players in their starting sides with four required in match-day squads from 2022. The number of allowed foreigners per club drops to four, plus one from an OFC member country.
"Because there's a lot of pressure on coaches to win, from boards and chairmen particularly, they're too scared to give young players opportunities," Hay said.
"I don't think winning and playing young players are mutually exclusive. If you give young players opportunities, they're more than capable of stepping up but unfortunately we've seen a lack of courage with not many people being really willing to give these young players chances."
The economic sustainability of the current National League model has also been a catalyst for change, with Tasman United and Southern United unable to field teams in this summer's competition for financial reasons. That has left Canterbury United as the sole South Island representative, a scenario Hay finds unacceptable.
"Historically (the South Island) used to produce a number of world class players, including Ryan Nelsen, arguably our greatest ever All White."
"There's one team from the South Island at the moment and there was the potential for there being no sides next year. That's really alarming if we haven't got a pathway for our young players down there. Now we have, and this move is going to be hugely beneficial for that region."
Hay also refuted claims the new structure will dilute the quality of the competition, with players spread among 30 clubs instead of just eight.
"I look at the top Northern (winter) League and how strong that is and I'd argue most of the teams in that league would be capable of being in the current National League," Hay said.
"The franchise system was set up a number of years ago, was good in theory and was initially well-received. But if I look at my 13-year-old son for instance, how does he play for one of those franchise sides? What's his pathway? There isn't one that's visible to him as a young player.
"It's a bold move from New Zealand Football and shows a lot of courage. People who are invested in the game, in player development and in player pathways and opportunities are going to love this. They one-hundred percent support it. They know the game has been crying out for this.
"The people that matter can see a club-based league spread throughout the entire country is going to be good in the long term for our players."