The Wellington Phoenix managed to get a club record crowd when they last played in Auckland. Is the A-League missing out on a massive potential market?
“Stand up if you love the Kingz, stand up if you love the Kingz…” rung out around Mt Smart Stadium for the very last time on Sunday 29 February 2004, when Football Kingz FC won 4-3 against the Brisbane Strikers – but finished bottom of the table once again.
Shortly thereafter the Auckland-based Kingz, New Zealand’s first professional football club, went bust along with the Australian National Soccer League it played in, after the league experienced severe financial difficulties and a loss of fan interest.
From the Kingz’ ashes rose the New Zealand Knights FC, a restructured Auckland franchise which lasted just two seasons in the newly formed A-League before its licence was stripped in 2007. Soon after the Wellington Phoenix formed. Despite facing many difficulties in its 11-year existence, the Phoenix remains New Zealand’s sole professional football club.
And it’s not going anywhere, according to Phoenix chairman Rob Morrison who says the club will remain in the A-League, despite its current licence being set to expire at the end of next season.
Considering Football Federation Australia is set to expand the A-League to 12 clubs by 2021, with more licences expected to be offered in the seasons that follow, is it time for Auckland to make a return to the A-League?
New Zealand’s most successful football club, Auckland City FC, has in the past expressed interest in joining the A-League. And with nine OFC Champions League trophies and a Club World Cup bronze medal, they appear to be the most feasible NZ candidate.
The club has gone quiet on the issue recently, however, and there appears to be no talk of a bid elsewhere. So with this in mind, is a second NZ A-League club really the best way to grow football in New Zealand?
Richard McIlroy, staunch Auckland City FC fan and founder of the Bloc 5 Kingz supporters’ group, does not think so.
“The A-League is an average football league. People think that because the players get paid to play, it’s on the telly, it’s played in flash stadiums et cetera, that it is better than it is. It’s all a bit emperor’s new clothes.”
McIlroy thinks Auckland City FC, an amateur status club, is already up to professional standard in terms of football played and results achieved. But he admits the club needs its players in a full-time environment to reach its potential as a club – and that the A-League is the only way of doing this in the foreseeable future.
So is a second NZ A-League side really feasible? “Not very,” says McIlroy. “If some of New Zealand’s richest men are struggling to keep the Phoenix afloat, then you’d need some pretty brave, stupid or cashed up people to want to take on a second team.”
Then there’s the stadium question. It was an issue for the Kingz and the Knights, and could once more hold Auckland back from football success, says McIlroy. “The reality is that the actual supporters base is dictated by the location and accessibility of that stadium.
“Other obstacles include opposition from within Australia – there’s already considerable hostility towards the current New Zealand side from Australian supporters and pundits.
“It would also need the OK from Football Federation Australia (FFA) and the Asian Football Confederation – the latter could prove difficult – and FIFA as well,” says McIlroy.
Despite the failings of the past and the current obstacles, Wellington Phoenix chairman Rob Morrison recently told The Sydney Morning Herald that he backs an Auckland A-League bid.
“The largest population base in Australasia without a licence is Auckland,” he said. “It’s been tried before, failed – but failure in the past is not necessarily indicative of what can be achieved in the future.
“I certainly think that’s well worthwhile, looking at Auckland as a possible base for an A-League franchise.”
The Phoenix’s recent match against Melbourne Victory, in front of a record Eden Park crowd of 23,648 fans, certainly suggests there is a hunger for professional football in Auckland.
A twice-yearly derby between the Wellington Phoenix and Auckland in the A-League is a prospect that would surely make any Kiwi football fan’s mouth water, and perhaps also the FFA’s.
Just imagine the stands full of black and gold and navy blue at Westpac Stadium on a summer evening, the roar of the crowd circling the stands, signalling a new era in New Zealand football.
Perhaps this dream will one day become a reality.
In the meantime, Kiwi football fans can look to what we have right now: The Wellington Phoenix battling for a playoff finals position; New Zealand’s ISPS Handa Premiership finals; Auckland City and Team Wellington’s OFC Champions League campaigns.
Of course, Richard McIlroy will be watching Auckland City from the Kiwitea Street stands, chanting and singing with other supporters. And, he says, more football fans should be attending these games alongside him.
“It’s always good to get out and support live football,” he says. “Remember: football is not a TV programme.
“The only constant is the supporters. The supporters are the club.”
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