By Jack Sharp
A new-look club-based Men’s National League gets underway this weekend bringing together the best-performing teams from the country’s three winter regional leagues.
It means a return to national league status for clubs like Christchurch United (after a 30-year absence) and Melville United (back after a 24-year hiatus).
As the football community get used to the revised format, here’s our pre-season briefing to help explain how it works.
Main photo: Napier City Rovers … have four past national league titles.
All teams play their nine rivals once, either home or away.
The two teams ranked first and second after nine rounds will meet in a grand final on Sunday December 4 (venue to be decided).
The competition comprises the top four sides in the Northern League, the two best-performing Southern League clubs and three from the Central League, plus the Wellington Phoenix reserves.
Introducing the teams
The Navy Blues are targeting a four-trophy year, having already won the OFC Champions League, the Northern League and Chatham Cup.
The side has lost only once in 2022, in 33 competitive games, and that was a 2-0 defeat to Auckland United in early September.
Player to watch: Captain Cam Howieson pulls the strings in midfield and controls the pace of the game. His performances on home soil have been good enough to get him into the All Whites squad.
Formed through the merger of Onehunga Sports and Three Kings United, this club has outstanding facilities, ambition and a solid coaching programme led by head coach (and former Auckland City coach) José Figueira.
United finished the Northern League season as the in-form team, winning their last six, including their 2-0 win against champions Auckland City. It’s been more than nine hours since the side last conceded a goal, and they’ll be anxious to keep that record intact for as long as possible.
Player to watch: Defender Kurtis Mogg (21) joined United just before the June transfer deadline, after his release from the Wellington Phoenix.
Led by experienced coach Paul Hobson, Birkenhead have a justified reputation for bringing through local talent — in fact, only one of their current squad is not eligible for New Zealand selection. Though they’ve had recent Chatham Cup success (2016, 2018), national league success has so far eluded the club.
When striker Alex Greive left last year — for a professional career in Scotland — some wondered where the goals would come from. But Cameron MacKenzie has led the scoring this year, well supported by the likes of Alex Connor-McClean and Dane Schnell.
Player to watch: Captain Sam Burfoot is super competitive (to the extent it can wind up opposing players) but he leads by example, and is a bundle of energy.
Won the 2021 Chatham Cup this year (after it was delayed over summer due to COVID restrictions) and Southern League; runners-up in this year’s Southern League, losing the title by goal difference.
The quirks of the season schedule mean Cashmere have to play all four Northern League clubs away, adding long-distance travel to the challenges of meeting strong teams on their own turf.
Player to watch: striker Kian Donkers who shared the Golden Boot by scoring nine goals for New Zealand at the recent OFC U-19 Championship in Tahiti.
United’s return to national league status after a 30-year break is one of the great comeback stories of recent times.
READ MORE: Christchurch United seek back-to-back wins thirty years apart >>>>
They won this year’s Southern League on goal difference, to give the club chance to add to their six past national league titles and six Chatham Cup wins.
Coached by former English pro and Wellington Phoenix striker Paul Ifill, the club has prospered since the 2017 merger with the Canterbury Football Academy, founded by current club president Slava Meyn.
Player to watch: All Whites defender Noah Billingsley returned from the United States to sign for United on transfer deadline day in June.
Hamilton club Melville are relishing their return to national league status after a 24-year hiatus.
The club qualified for the competition at the expense of their cross-town rivals, Hamilton Wanderers, who they pipped for fourth place.
The nine games (and a tenth if they can make the final) will be the swansong for popular coach Sam Wilkinson who steps down in December, having said he needs a break and has been running on empty.
Player to watch: Captain Aaron Scott is the beating heart of Melville, with more than 300 first-team appearances. He’s got good previous national league experience with the WaiBOP United franchise.
Rangers won last year’s next-best-thing-to-a-national-league competition, the South Central Series Championship, so called because of the absence of lockdown-disrupted northern clubs.
They’ve been runners-up (to Wellington Olympic) for successive seasons in the Central League. The club twice won a previous iteration of the national league (2002, 2003) and have won the Chatham Cup four times.
Player to watch: Look no further — striker Hamish Watson took the Central League Golden Boot with 20 goals. He has a talismanic effect on Rangers; when he’s on fire, anything’s possible.
Napier City Rovers
It’s always difficult to find national success when outside the main centres but Napier teams have certainly punched above their weight, historically.
Rovers have four prior national league titles (1989, 1993, 1998, 2000), as well as five Chatham Cup victories.
They have not won the Central League for five seasons but they’ve done enough to qualify for this year’s national competition, finishing fourth behind Olympic, Miramar Rangers and Welington Phoenix.
Player to watch: Goalkeeper Oscar Mason is just back from Tahiti where he shared the gloves with Joe Knowles and Henry Gray in New Zealand’s OFC U-19 Championship win in which the team went nine hours and six games without conceding a goal.
Having won back-to-back Central League titles, Olympic go into the national league with a bit to prove.
One advantage is that they played Auckland City at Kiwitea Street in a Chatham Cup semi-final, excellent grounding for figuring out how to upset the Navy Blues at home in Saturday’s opening game.
Player to watch: Striker Gianni Bouzoukis scored 16 of Olympic’s 71 goals this season, and if he can hit form quickly, he’ll be a handful.
Some in the football community questioned why the Phoenix reserves were ensured an automatic spot in the competition but they put that to bed by finishing third in the Central League, which would have been the qualifying cut-off anyway.
This side is all about development and winning a national league is not so important as bringing young players through who are capable of A-League futures with the Phoenix.
And there’s plenty of them. This side is packed with New Zealand players from the OFC U-19 Championship, including the national captain Finn Surman, Sebastian Barton-Ginger, Charlie Beale, Fin Conchie, Isaac Hughes, Noah Karunaratne, Lukas Kelly-Heald, Marco Lorenz, Jackson Manuel, Dan McKay and Adam Supyk.
Player to watch: Any of the above — they are the future.
More about the Men’s National League
READ MORE: Readers’ poll: who do you think will win >>>>>
READ MORE: The New Zealand U-19 players to watch in the league >>>>
READ MORE: Melville return to National League after 24-year hiatus >>>>
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