These are wonderful times in kiwi football as the last few months have served up a plethora of exciting transfers, a Women’s World Cup that reached new levels of cultural relevance, a kiwi U20 team that took on the world with full confidence and quality… even the All Whites booked another game for later in the year (although they did lose their coach, oh well). Playing a sneakily massive role in so much of this has been the local ISPS Handa Premiership. As the league struggles through financial difficulties and organisational strife there are plenty of people on the ground level doing incredible things and the quality of players coming through the Premmy these days is unprecedented. It all blossoms out from there.
But a few months out from the start of the 2019-20 season we’re looking at a Premiership which has completely changed it’s whole dynamic. Coaching alterations and player movement and a few other cheeky power shifts mean that we’re coming into a new era. Youth movements are suddenly the done thing and young kiwi footy players are emboldened by the examples set by blokes like Sarpreet Singh and Callum McCowatt. Even the Wellington Phoenix are showing scouting intent in the Premmy beyond their own club again under Ufuk Talay. It’s a seriously bonkers time because this enormous optimism about player pathways is combined with a thick and expansive fog of confusion ahead of the new season.
The main thing to catch up on is that all these bloody coaches are leaving. Of the ten teams last season, only four have retained their same coach. The esteemed Ramon Tribulietx is the major departure as he’s wrapped up his time at Auckland City after a decade of glamor and entertainment. Weirdly it sounds like it was a financial decision by the club rather than Ramon just wanting to head on back to Spain, which he seems to have done anyway. In ten years as the manager of ACFC he won three Premierships, seven minor Premierships, and seven OFC Champions Leagues, also therefore taking City to the Club World Cup on those seven occasions and most famously finishing third in 2014.
To say that Ramon’s departure is the end of an era is putting it lightly. His influence has been the dominant force upon this entire league for the last decade and without him you have to think that there’s a bit of a power vacuum that opens up at the top there. But then what have Team Wellington done? They’ve gone and lost their manager too. Jose Figueira was the obvious replacement for Ramon at ACFC, having been the next most successful gaffer over the last few years and also having twice bossed their youth team in the past. As soon as he stepped down from Team Welly you wondered if this was what was happened and sure enough he was announced at the start of July. Brilliant for ACFC as they not only get the best available candidate for the gig but they also weaken a major rival at the same time.
It’s still a while yet until those squad announcements, which always change the perspective. But Auckland City have actually done kinda well at retaining fellas compared to a few other teams and there’s always the chance that a few Team Welly lads follow Jose up north too. Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi has signed with the Wellington Phoenix and Dan Morgan and Micah Lea’alafa have left for South Africa, plus they’ll need to do better with their import strikers next time because that was a bit of a damning weakness in the end being unable to replace Emiliano Tade… but it looks for now as though they’ll retain the bulk of their core players and with some supreme talent coming through the youth ranks (and Figueira never one to ignore the young folk) ACFC should remain the team to beat… for now at least.
Team Wellington have kept it in house for their next coach, promoting Scott Hales to the main job and it’s that’s always cool to see those pathways providing the answer. Team Welly won’t have a Champions League campaign to entice people back and having lost a large chunk of their team during the last season it’ll be interesting to see how many they’re able to coax back (Gulley, Watson, Hilliar, etc.). But any gaps they need filled they’ve got the ideal well to dip now into because it was announced just this week that the TeeDubs have a ‘memorandum of understanding’ in place with Olé Football Academy for the upcoming season. Guts to Eastern Suburbs but really it’s better this way, the two amateur forces in Wellywood combining their talents.
Part of this deal is that Ben Sippola (OFA Technical Director) will join Team Welly as an assistant coach alongside Jamie Dunning (ex-HBU assistant). This takes us back to a few years ago when Olé were heavily involved with the Team Wellington youth squad. That might be closer to what we see this season compared to the prominence the Olé lads had in Danny Hay’s Eastern Suburbs team since, well… they’ve all gone now. Callum McCowatt is with the Phoenix. Nando Pijnaker, Dom Woolridge, Owen Parker-Price, and Harry Edge are all with Declan Edge at FC Torslanda as part of that combo deal thingamajig. Eli Just and Dalton Wilkins are at Helsingor in Denmark. Not sure about the keeper Andy Withers but pretty sure he’s left too and Team Welly already have Scott Basalaj anyway. There are some outstanding prospects who’ll kit out for Team Wellington as part of the next wave of Olé lads but they’ll be even younger than the last lot so just a matter of who’s ready. Either way it’s a promising arrangement that consolidates the great work being done by a lot of people within the Wellington football scene. TW are also the third Premmy club in three years that Olé have linked with (ACFC in 17-18, Suburbs last time).
As for Eastern Suburbs, you can add Tim Payne (Wellington Phoenix) and Andre De Jong (AmaZula – South Africa) to the list of departures. And let’s not forget that Danny Hay himself has thrown his hat into the mix for the All Whites job. Poor ol’ Kelvin Kalua might be walking into an empty changing room when the first training session rolls around. But don’t be too upset for Eastern Suburbs because they have the one thing which always keeps you there or thereabouts: money. Plus there’s a great selection of up and comers from their own academy to choose from (with a very young Northern League side) so they’re not about to abandon their approach of promoting kiwi players any time soon. And remember that whoever they sign is going to be playing Champions League too so that’s a hefty bargaining tool right there. But yeah, we will be looking at an almost completely new squad which is crazy for the defending champions – can’t wait to write the Where Are They Now feature of their 2019 Premiership winning squad in a few years’ time.
Meanwhile the other semi-finalists from last season, Canterbury United, have gotten rid of coach Willy Gerdsen despite him making the semis in three of his four seasons there. But once again this was a cost-cutting measure as Mainland Footy also ditched their long-serving football development manager with the plan being to combine those two roles into a single Director of Football position. Haven’t heard anything new on that one in the month and a half since so presumably the search is still ongoing. But that leaves all four semi-finalists in a significant state of upheaval coming into the next campaign. The Dragons as much as anyone because considering the resources that the other SFers had it could be argued they were the most overachieving team of the last couple seasons and a coaching change could be a delicate nudge to their equilibrium.
Outside the top few, Tasman United have done the same thing as Canterbury United… obviously, since Mainland Football and all that. Which means no more Andy Hedge for them and Jess Ibrom has been hired as the Director of Football for that lot. After sitting in the bottom three for basically the entire way last season it’s not massively surprising that they didn’t offer Hedge another year but his old Welly Nix links did help with bringing in a few players and player retention always seems to be an issue for Tasman United. At least they’ve got a headstart on things with a Director of Footy in place now.
Hawke’s Bay United parted ways with their gaffer too. Dumping Brett Angell was always going to be a little dramatic but was probably due as the great success he had with this team in making three semi-finals in a row has well and truly evaporated over the last two campaigns and there never seemed to be a great vibe going on there last time. A terrible defence combined with inconsistent player availability and a change was probably necessary. Angell was offered the chance to reapply for the job but he chose not to. He’s been replaced by a tandem, a coaching duo, co-coaches: Bill Robertson and Chris Greatholder. In other words the current coaches of Havelock North and Napier City Rovers.
In a slice of delightful symmetry, Greatholder was the coach of HBU before he lost the gig to Angell and now he replaces him in turn, while Robertson was Greatholder’s captain back in the day before he left to win a couple titles with Team Wellington, then returned to HBU but was cut by Angell in a very controversial move after only one year back (considering what happened to their defence without him that move looks disastrous in hindsight). Robertson then played half a season with Waitakere before re-joining Team Welly. Now he’s co-coaching The Bay. Obviously great for HBU to get a couple local favourites on board and with their club connections you’d hope they’d be able to bring in the best of the Napier/Hastings-based players too. In this case the upheaval feels largely positive.
Less so for Waitakere United whose last couple years have been a mess and now they’ve lost the one fella who seemed to holding anything together, with Chris Milicich’s coaching job still being advertised. By the end of the 2018-19 season they basically only had their young players left. Maybe they can dangle the carrot and get Jake Butler back, if that ship hasn’t already sailed, but that playing roster is in a weird place and they don’t have a coach and it’s pretty widely whispered that they don’t have any money and the whole thing is pretty worrisome to be honest.
The Wellington Phoenix reserves are always in flux because each year brings a new crop of players through. They’ve lost guys to the first team lately, they’ve lost guys to overseas clubs, they’ve lost guys to USA universities… same old, same old for the WeeNix. They do this every year and at least they’ve kept a hold of their head coach. As have Hamilton Wanderers but Ricki Herbert will have been holding his breath for an entire week while Tommy Semmy trialled with the Welly Nix. You always want the best for your players and this league is all about pathways… but Semmy has single-handedly carried this team on many occasions and they’d have been pretty buggered without him. But he wasn’t signed by the Nix so the Tron Wands survive that hurdle towards retaining him. And then there’s Southern United. All the way down the bottom of the country but yet again writing the book on humble stability as Paul O’Reilly will return for his fourth season in charge of that crew. Quietly out there laying foundations across the region and achieving success on the pitch within their means. Plenty that a few of these other clubs could learn from their example.
Anyway that’s about where we’re at here. Player announcements (plus a couple more coaches) should follow soon and that’s when we really get hyped up. The Premiership kicks off at the beginning of November. And, hey, times may be strange right now but chaos is where this league thrives.
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