By Coen Lammers
Christchurch United players are set to write a new chapter in the club’s illustrious history, when they line up for the club’s first National League match in 30 years, on Saturday against Birkenhead United.
Exactly three decades ago, in September 1992, Christchurch United played their last national league match against Papatoetoe, before the league was mothballed by the New Zealand Football Association.
Main photo: Flashback from thirty years ago … Julyan Falloon takes on the Papatoetoe defence in their last national league match. Falloon was the club’s top scorer with 17 season goals. Photo: Nick Tolerton.
Christchurch United qualified for this year’s national league by winning the Southern League, along with runners-up Cashmere Technical, to face the top four teams from the Northern and Central leagues.
Christchurch United are one of the most successful clubs in New Zealand football history, winning six national league titles and six Chatham Cup, including two doubles in 1975 and 1991 before the club experienced a sharp decline in fortunes.
Until this year’s successful campaign, United have only won a Canterbury Premier title in 1998, before two decades of bouncing between the Mainland Premier League and second-tier Championship.
In 2017, the club merged with Canterbury Football Academy, founded by current club president Slava Meyn, to embark on a campaign to bring United back to the highest levels.
Two years later, former club icon Danny Halligan led his old club back to the Mainland Premier League and last season narrowly missed out on national league qualification on the final day of the Southern League.
This season, however, United would not be denied, qualifying for the league with games to spare and winning the Southern League with a dramatic final day 10-0 win over Mosgiel.
Coach Paul Ifill is pleased the club is back at the highest level, but also intrigued to see how his squad will fare against the highly rated teams from the North Island.
“We know that those teams will be a huge step up, especially against a club like Auckland City who have just won the OFC Champions League, so it will be interesting to see how the team will respond to that challenge,” says Ifill.
To illustrate how long the wait has been, most players in the current United squad were not even born when the club last played in the national league.
In the final game in 1992, Christchurch United were coached by Martin Stewart and the squad included many of the legendary team that won the double only a year earlier. Several of this golden generation were at the end of their careers, while some of the young guns, like Danny Halligan moved overseas or were snapped up by other clubs.
The final 2-0 victory against Papatoetoe at the old QEII Stadium was watched by only a few die-hard fans as United finished a forgettable season in eighth place, only one year after dominating the league.
The few supporters who were in the stands that day had no idea they were in fact witnessing football history, as nobody had an inkling that the NZFA would pull the plug on the league a few months later due to the unsustainable costs of running a national competition.
Despite losing some players, the 1992 squad still included several All Whites like flying winger Michael McGarry, who is still considered one of the greatest footballers to come out of the South Island.
President Slava Meyn says getting back in the national league is the first step towards his ambition of again becoming the best club in the country.
“Winning the first title in 24 years is a massive step for us and will hopefully inspire everyone in the club to keep working hard,” says Meyn.
“Paul and his team have done an amazing job this year but I also don’t want to forget all the great coaches, like Danny Halligan, former players, administrators and other supporters, who have helped the club grow each year.
“Winning the Southern League is a major step, but we are all very aware that the gap with the North Island clubs has been substantial and we hope to close that gap as soon as possible and hope to be competitive in this year’s national league,” says Meyn.
“These are very exciting times to be part of Christchurch United.”
The Christchurch United documentary
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Round 1 of the 2022 Men’s National League
Games to be played on Saturday October 1, 2022
Cashmere Technical v Miramar Rangers
English Park, Christchurch, 1pm
Napier City Rovers v Wellington Phoenix
Bluewater Stadium, Napier, 2pm
Wellington Olympic v Auckland City
Endeavour Park, Whitby, Wellington, 3pm
Games to be played on Sunday October 2, 2022
Birkenhead United v Christchurch United
Shepherds Park, Birkenhead, 1pm
Auckland United v Melville United
Keith Hay Park, Mt Roskill, 3pm
Canterbury-based Coen Lammers is a long-time football fan, writer and professional communicator.
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