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Tauranga City AFC striker Jonty Bidois (Photo: Nav’s Photography; Other photos: Mathew Nash)
Tauranga City AFC striker Jonty Bidois (Photo: Nav’s Photography; Other photos: Mathew Nash)

SportsMarch 29, 2024

Tauranga City are top of the table. What’s stopping them from staying there?

Tauranga City AFC striker Jonty Bidois (Photo: Nav’s Photography; Other photos: Mathew Nash)
Tauranga City AFC striker Jonty Bidois (Photo: Nav’s Photography; Other photos: Mathew Nash)

The newly-promoted Northern League club is on a mission to return to the National League for the first time in two decades. Plenty about domestic football in New Zealand has changed in that time – but the sense that this amateur competition is not an entirely level playing field remains.

Links Avenue football ground sits nestled in a corridor of contradiction: Tauranga Airport and a perpetually gridlocked arterial road to one side, lush calm beaches where surfers roll in on cruisy waves to the other. This is the home of Tauranga City AFC, who last weekend hosted the highest level of men’s football in the northern region for the first time since 2016.

Following promotion last year, the Light Blues are back in the Northern League – from which the top four teams come the end of the season qualify for the National League, the zenith of domestic football in New Zealand. 

Their opponents last Saturday, Melville United, were last season’s beaten Chatham Cup finalists and have permanent bragging rights over Tauranga, having inflicted upon them their worst-ever defeat, a 10-0 chastening in 2017.

But just as Air New Zealand flight NZ5136 bound for Auckland shook the bleachers at 3.25 pm on Saturday, Tauranga’s season also took flight: Joby Reid opened the scoring in the 26th minute, before striker Jonty Bidois netted a hat-trick to secure a 4-0 win.

Neither player was born the last time Tauranga City played National League football in 2003. Now, their goals have put the club momentarily top of the league in pursuit of a return. 


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Tauranga City enjoyed their nadir at the turn of the century, with consecutive Northern Premier League titles (1999, 2000) and a Chatham Cup final appearance in 2002. Back-to-back promotions in 2015 and 2016 returned City to the highest league in the region – but those successes only highlighted shortcomings with the club’s model.

Talented players left for greener pastures, and with no conveyor belt to replace them, City flirted with oblivion before a shift to a more structured approach under director of football Barry Gardiner and chairman Brendon McHugh.

“A big thing when I came into the club was to start an academy,” says Gardiner, a Scotsman who first moved to New Zealand to play National League in Otago back in 2008.

“Getting promoted [last year] was a success but I have worked with some of these boys since they were 12. Success is also about giving them opportunities. Maybe they get recognised in national teams or move overseas. Whatever they want to do in football we’re trying to provide the platform.” 

Gardiner and his team began initiating that change back in 2017, and with it also came a culture shift. What happens in the clubhouse, stays in the clubhouse, but it would be fair to say the team used to embody the “social” elements of the game more than they do today.

“There is certainly the case nowadays for a bit less socialising and not so much focus on rehydrating in maybe not the right way,” says Ron Boyle, who has been at the club since 1967 and acted as president for 20 years, with a wink.

Tom Pamment has also been a part of both cultures. The experienced shot stopper turned goalkeeping coach’s affiliation with the club stretches back to 2006. “There’s a lot more structure behind it now,” he says. 

“It was previously very much a sort of family-run club with a core group of really committed people that did everything. They all did fantastically well with it and kept it going now everything’s sort of turned a little bit more professional.”

Tauranga City AFC lifer Ron Boyle (Photo: Courtesy SunLive / Supplied)

It’s a word that comes up a lot in discussions around New Zealand club football: professional. The structure has shifted from one which personified an amateur ethos to something more akin to the UK’s semi-professional system. Yet Tauranga, like every other team in the nation bar the Wellington Phoenix (and their soon-to-be A League rivals Auckland FC) maintains amateur status.

New Zealand Football (NZF) governs the beautiful game in Aotearoa, and their rules are clear: clubs are not permitted to sign players as professionals. But there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s been there quite a while. 

“Some of the money that has been spread around at the moment is eye-watering,” says McHugh, Tauranga City’s chairman. “I have heard of players who, with all due respect, would not make our first team, and clubs are offering them money and promises of being in their first team.”

City have had opportunities to do the same, with phone calls and emails from players looking to marry the beachside lifestyle with paid football at New Zealand’s highest level. All, they say, were turned away. 

NZF is clear on this. Clubs in New Zealand cannot pay their players more for their footballing activity than the expenses they effectively incur. That would make them professional players, which is not allowed. 

“All of the clubs in the National League have to agree to the terms of the competition on entry,” said NZF when asked about breaches of this policy. “If we are made aware of any clubs who are reported to be breaking these terms we have an investigative process we follow and have the power to penalise clubs if required as well as restrict players from participating if they are professional.”

Tauranga City’s Links Ave grandstand (Photo: Mathew Nash)

Yet, clubs finding ways to circumnavigate these rules is almost an accepted reality in New Zealand’s football circles. In 2022, Stuff investigated such claims involving two of the nation’s biggest National League clubs, Auckland City and Christchurch United. 

Neither has been found to have broken any rules, but the idea domestic football in Aotearoa has ever been amateur in practice as well as name is laughable to many involved in the sport.

“I think if somebody at New Zealand Football said that, then they had to speak with a long tongue and a big cheek,” says one Tauranga City patron.

Strong words, and words with credence given the patron in question is John Adshead, who led the All Whites to their first-ever Fifa World Cup in 1982. 

“I tried to sign players from the National League when I was with the New Zealand Knights [the last Auckland-based A League club, which folded in 2007] and we couldn’t afford them as a professional club. One of the players said, ‘My wife would kill me’.   

“That was a while ago but I don’t think too much has changed. I love the game but one thing I do know is this: football is not amateur in New Zealand, especially for the bigger clubs.”

For Tauranga and other clubs of similar size and location, the impact of not reinforcing this rule would be massive, especially when it comes to retaining players. Throw in university studies and it’s no wonder previous seasons have seen an annual exodus of talent up State Highway 2 or over the Kaimai Ranges.

Inside the Tauranga City clubrooms (Photo: Mathew Nash)

NZF could argue the amateur system has been of benefit to clubs like Tauranga – being unable to chuck money at imports left no choice but to go all-in on its youth system. In some ways, Tauranga’s team comprised almost entirely of young local players is NZF’s amateur model dream come to life.

“Having a strong and sustainable domestic competition that also provides opportunities for young talent to develop is the priority for NZF and the National League delivers this,” reads a NZF statement.

McHugh doesn’t want a change in the model. He is happy for football in New Zealand to remain amateur. He just wants Tauranga, and similar clubs, to no longer feel like they are playing on an uneven field.  

“What we would want is for some of these clubs to be audited,” he says, only half-joking.

“I would like New Zealand Football to stand behind what they say. It’s very obvious it’s happening, everyone knows it’s happening, and they must know it’s happening.”

In a statement, NZF said that “no credible complaints have been received by NZF in the past 3 years in the NLS.”

Tauranga City has, for now at least, found a workable solution to the “shamateurism” suspicions that linger around New Zealand football. The result is a spot at the top of New Zealand’s football pyramid, but not even the most ardent fans believe that will still be the case come the end of the season. Boyle, the long-serving former president who has been with the club from its inception, took a picture of the league table this weekend as a permanent memento.

Easter Weekend will be a true test for Tauranga, with tough fixtures against the well-resourced Auckland United and Auckland City on Friday and Monday (the United match is streaming live on FIFA+ as the featured match of the round).

For club captain Campbell Higgins, it’s a chance to see how they stack up against the very best. 

“Most people I have spoken to in and around the football scene seem to think our goal is to survive,” he says. “But I think we can aim higher than that. We have seen other clubs promoted who have battled for the top four spots [newly-promoted Manurewa AFC successfully qualified for the National League last year], so I would love to be among that top half come the end of the season.” 

If successful, Tauranga City will be at once a middle finger to New Zealand football’s current framework, and at the same time a beacon of justification for the status quo. A corridor of contradiction indeed. 

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