Football Opinion Piece - Asking the tough questions?

Sometimes for the betterment of a particular community we all need to look at the big picture and ask ourselves some tough questions. Today I would like to pose the question of where football is headed in Taranaki. It has always been a bone of contention as to how to best serve football in this province with many different methods attempted over the years. Taranaki is quite unique in that is has 10 to 12 clubs that are capable of playing in a competitive premier league, not many other regions of our size could claim that. This is something to be proud of and celebrated within Taranaki but is this recognised outside of Taranaki or even acknowledged? The answer is no, regionally and nationally we are as isolated as can be with little respect for any of our competitions or achievements.

I also ask you how many players are playing in our National League that started their football career in Taranaki? Without knowing every single player and their background I would hazard a guess that the number is 1 or 2. How is that acceptable or even possible for a proud footballing region like ours and are we content with that? Are these two things important to us? To me they are and I will explain why.

I am a retired player that played a few years in a higher league and I understand what is required to do so on and off the field. I must also admit that I wasn’t a one club man and moved around a few times to follow the highest level of competition and professionalism that I desired to improve my game. The club I grew up with didn’t have the same ambitions as me and thus I needed to move on but this doesn’t lessen my love for my boyhood club, nor did it lessen the respect the club had for me. Would you keep working in a supermarket if you had the chance to work at google? Loyalty is important but for me I couldn’t let it hold me back and there my journey started.

My journey has ended on the field but football runs in my blood and my winter weekends are still spent enjoying the beautiful game. Over the past 15 years I thoroughly enjoyed watching Team Taranaki as they brought back that feeling of pride watching our local players competing with the big boys from the Manawatu, Hawkes Bay and Wellington. Recently we also were able to watch New Plymouth Rangers competing in a higher league with senior men’s football and Moturoa and New Plymouth Girls High School in the women’s equivalent. These were all a step up from the local leagues and where good players are made which is why I ask you again, do you think this is important and does it matter to you?

Football in New Zealand is growing fast in participation numbers across both young boys and girls. People are turning to football as an alternative to rugby because it is fast, fun, provides excellent fitness and is far less dangerous. All these players need somewhere to go and we have a collective responsibility as a footballing community to ensure that these players enjoy a lifelong connection to football. These players will all have different reasons for playing sport and they will take different pathways. Some will go down the social route, but some will have ambitions to play the highest level they can and we have to do everything we can to allow that to happen, at the bare minimum this has to be a possibility. I have seen too many good players leave high school where they were playing the in the Prem league only to sit on the bench for one of the big clubs for the next season and ultimately lose their ambition and passion. This is where I start telling you this is important, this should matter to you if you care about the development of our game and the next generation of players that will lead our clubs and our region back to where it deserves to be. So what is the solution?

The composite Team Taranaki concept attempted to bring the regions clubs together to provide a pathway for our younger players. The idea was great and they certainly had some success however they were always vulnerable with a lack of infrastructure to support them. They also didn’t have the resources to invest into youth development or offer any real pathway into their squad for other young players within the clubs. Thus they folded in 2017 and we go back to square one.

Clubs were handed the responsibility back and in 2018, with three clubs involved in the higher leagues and now we only have one left with New Plymouth Rangers clinging onto survival in the Federation League. Meanwhile the other regions in our federation are strengthening and the overall quality of the league is improving whilst Taranaki is stagnant. If Rangers were to pull the pin it would be a long road back for any club in Taranaki, they say you never know what you had until it is gone. Lets not find that out the hard way.

Club rivalry is fierce in Taranaki and I am not proposing that we lose that aspect of our game. What we need to do is put aside our rivalries and focus on the bigger picture. We should and could have three teams playing the men’s Federation League and certainly two in the women’s league. This should be a minimum. We need to expose more players to that level of competition which would only improve the standard in our own backyard.

You only need to look as far as Napier to see what is possible. Napier has a smaller population than New Plymouth and the GDP per capita in the Hawkes Bay is almost half that of Taranaki. Like us they don’t have a University to provide a constant supply of younger players, they also have to tolerate a lot of travel to play competitive football. So then how do they manage to sustain a National League Franchise team, a strong Central League team and the two frontrunners in the Central Federation League? This is a question that not only Taranaki should be asking but also Manawatu who are possibly better suited on paper to offer those opportunities.

So as we review the season just gone and look to the next season with a fresh perspective we have to encourage the last club standing, New Plymouth Rangers, to continue offering this pathway and throw our support behind them. Time will tell as to whether this is the solution but it is the only light on the horizon and without support it might fade away into the distance. We owe it to our young players starting out on their journey to ensure that light doesn’t fade out.

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