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March 4, 2011 | by  | in Online Only |
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7th Inning Stretch – On the ASB Premiership

The ASB Premiership is in its last few weeks, and I expect most people have no idea who is going to be contesting the finals.

For the record, Auckland, Waitakere and Wellington are in, and the final spot is up for grabs between everyone else (except Manawatu, who have this year redefined ‘dreadful’).
But in an 18-month period where football has exploded into life in this country, it’s hard to say whether the domestic trophy has taken strides forward or backward.

Not too long ago, about 2,000 fans turned out to support Canterbury in soccer’s return to Nelson. The same weekend, an Auckland derby attracted about 1,000 supporters. The teams are regularly playing football against a ‘professional’ outfit in the Phoenix reserves. Aaron Clapham and Sean Lovemore got the nod from Ricki Herbert to turn out for the Phoenix, and ex-Waikato player Marco Rojas will have attracted the attention of some very flashy names across Europe. And with a hefty cheque from ASB (and FIFA) in the bank, there seems to be plenty of reasons for the Premiership to smile.

But on the flipside, the top and bottom of the league seem to be light years apart. Our top clubs aren’t stepping up on the regional stage and for the first time in a fair while, New Zealand had no representative at the Club World Cup. Struggling clubs are playing in front of empty grounds, and – perhaps of most concern – there is a notable lack of public interest in the league.

So where does the Premiership go?

Everywhere you look, somebody will throw around a restructuring suggestion, but they don’t seem to be the solution. Promotion and relegation works well in Europe, but in New Zealand, there is simply nobody else feasible to step in. Expansion, too, would only be embarrassing.

But the success of Canterbury’s Nelson trip gives me plenty of hope for the next five years of the competition. Take the Premiership to centres previously deprived of top flight football, and the public shows up. Give Gisborne and New Plymouth a go next year. Manawatu hosting a match in Taranaki couldn’t possibly result in a smaller crowd than that they have achieved in Palmerston North, could it?

When (not if) Rojas moves abroad, he will become the first player to clearly follow the road from grassroots football to a big pay check. Part of the promise of the Phoenix was to provide a pathway from the Premiership to the professional world. With luck, many will follow him. So the quality of the league is in no way disappointing, but for some reason, the fans don’t seem interested.

So while the attention of the everyday football fan in New Zealand is likely to be firmly set on the All Whites, and the Phoenix, I encourage every supporter in the country to get out and support the Premiership. Get to know your local team _ for anyone outside of Palmerston North this can be very satisfying. Who knows how many of the next crop of All Whites will have come straight from our backyard, and who might be lining up for the Phoenix in the next few years?

And Team Wellington is doing okay, too.

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