Sunday, June 4, 2017

My Alternative South Island League Proposal

Apparently the time has once again come for the idea of a South Island Football League to be considered. This is something that gets raised every few years and then seems to disappear.

The last South Island Football League was held back in 1999. It consisted of the top six clubs from the previous season’s Southern League Premier Division (Dunedin Technical, Christchurch Technical, Southland United, Northern Hearts, Woolston WMC and Caversham), plus Nelson Suburbs and Marlborough United, both of whom represented regions that were previously part of the Central League.

The league lasted just one season. The following season, a national league was reintroduced for which the top three South Island teams qualified to enter.

According to the September 2015 New Zealand Football National Competitions Review,

While the cold, hard facts may support that conclusion, it should be noted that Marlborough finished last with just one point, and their entry into the league was somewhat artificial, having never before played at such a high level, while Northern Hearts finished seventh, with just two narrow wins against Marlborough and a late season home draw against Southland to their name. Although these two teams were undoubtedly not strong enough to play in this competition, in all likelihood there were better quality teams from Christchurch and Dunedin playing in the lower ranked Federation-based competitions. Certainly many of the Canterbury clubs which might have been considered were ignored because they had chosen not to play in the previous season’s Southern League.

On other occasions, prior to the reorganization of domestic football into seven federations, there have been Southern League competitions consisting of the best clubs from Canterbury, South Canterbury, North Otago, Otago, Central Otago and Southland. Originally, from 1968-71 there were two such divisions. In 1972 the second division was split into North and South divisions.

In 1974, as the result of the oil shock, there was no region-wide league and instead the clubs were split into Division 1 North (Canterbury 7 teams and South Canterbury 1) and Division 1 South (Otago 6 and Southland 4). But at the end of the season the top two from each division met in a six-round mini-league to determine which club would attempt to win promotion to the National League.

The next five years saw a return to a fully regional Southern League, initially with five clubs from each zone. By the end of 1979, as the result of promotion/relegation, there were only three southern zone clubs remaining, and one of them, North End United, finished last, at which point the Canterbury-based clubs decided that they could have a strong league of their own without having to fork out for two trips to Dunedin every season. As a result, from 1980, the league was once again divided into Division 1 North and Division 1 South. This structure stayed in place for seven seasons, with an end of season play-off between the winners of each zone to determine the overall champion.

But in 1987 the zones were once again unified, with eight clubs competing (Canterbury 4, South Canterbury 1, North Otago 1, Otago 2). The combined league stayed in place for five more seasons with ten teams competing each season, though promotion and relegation resulted in northern clubs outnumbering southern clubs 7-3 by the end of this period.

Everything changed in 1993, when the national league was scrapped and the new Superclub competition was formed. At the end of this regionally based competition the top two Southern zone clubs joined the top three Northern and top three Central clubs in an eight-team national competition. For the four seasons this was in place, there were always at least seven Canterbury clubs in the ten-team Southern Superclub competition. Interest wasn’t always particularly high though. I clearly remember a Burnside versus Dunedin Technical final round match at a rainy English Park, which was attended by just two spectators, neither of whom paid. Across town there were two massive matches involving clubs in with a chance of finishing second and qualifying for the national Superclub.

When a new National League began in 1997, a ten-team Southern League was reconstituted, but such was the dissatisfaction of the Canterbury clubs that just two of them decided to enter the following season’s competition, resulting in just seven teams in the league.

That brings us back to where we started, with a South Island league in 1999 that lasted just one season before the age-old cost-benefit analysis informally undertaken by Canterbury clubs resulted in separate Mainland and FootbalLSouth leagues for the past eighteen seasons.

In 2005 there were discussions about possibly reforming a South Island League and various discussions were held, but nothing came of it. In 2015, Mainland Football CEO Julian Bowden once again raised the idea and it once again petered out. Now we are hearing more rumblings.

History shows us that whether the chosen format is a fully regional competition or two federation-based competitions, after a few seasons people start to think the other format’s grass is greener.

Potentially a fully regional competition would result in higher quality, more competitive matches, fewer easy victories and better players who would therefore find it easier to step up to the next level (i.e. whatever the top level domestic league is).

But on the downside, there is the additional cost burden, and the likelihood that within five years the number of teams would be heavily biased toward the Mainland Football federation. We already know this has always happened in the past, and I suspect it would be even more of a factor now, because while the Otago clubs have remained pretty much as they always were, in Canterbury there have been numerous mergers (Rangers and New Brighton formed Coastal Spirit; Shamrock and Riccarton formed Avon United which then joined with Burnside to form FC Twenty11; Woolston WMC and Christchurch Technical formed Woolston Tech, which then joined with Cashmere Wanderers to form Cashmere Tech; Kaiapoi Town and Rangiora formed Waimak United; University of Canterbury and Lincoln College formed Universities of Canterbury) and even Nelson United, Nelson City and Metro joined to form FC Nelson.

Another possible negative would be that after eight or so games, mid-table teams might not have anything to play for. Imagine you’ve won two, drawn three and lost three. You won’t be relegated. You won’t challenge for the title. The risk is you’ll drop some of your better players to the reserves for an important game rather than subject them to a trip to Nelson or Invercargill that you know will probably result in defeat anyway.

An ideal league would encompass the following five qualities:

1.      A High Standard of Play

This is a very subjective measure, and therefore difficult to quantify.  It concerns the standard of football.  It is especially difficult to measure this when one considers the adage that football is as much art as science.  Short of having a skilled panel of observers rating each match for quality and entertainment, or a team of statisticians noting each successful and unsuccessful pass, shot, trap, save etc., and then producing some sort of ranking formula, we are left with our gut feelings when rating a game or even an entire season.

One other way of analysing the quality of the league structure is to look at Strength of Schedule.  If a ranking from 1 (the best team) to 16 (the worst team) were awarded to each of the sixteen clubs currently represented in the Mainland League or Canterbury League, one could calculate the average difficulty of each team’s opponents.

2.      Competitive Matches

Ideally we want the teams to be relatively even in terms of ability.  One way to determine this is to look at the winning margins in games.  The lower the average winning margin, the more even teams are in terms of ability.  In particular, the number of wins by five or more goals should ideally be a very small percentage of the total results. Wins by seven or more would ideally be non-existent.

3.      Meaningful Games

Ideally one team will not dominate the league, pulling away to a huge lead over the remaining teams.  By the same token, one team should not lose every game. Every team should have something to play for as late in the season as possible. This is the main reason why end of season play-offs were added to the English league.

In general, the lower the points spread, the more meaningful each game is.  Teams with no chance of either winning the league or being relegated can settle into a ‘mid-table mediocrity’ in which their performances drop.  This further reduces the quality of the league and the players and can have carryover affects because players finding themselves in this situation can start to lack ‘big match intensity’.

This same problem was prevalent in England for many years, exacerbated by the large numbers of teams in each division (ranging from 20-24).  One simple change resulted in many more teams having something to play for throughout the season, namely, the introduction of promotion play-offs.  With this change, instead of only three or four teams winning promotion, suddenly six or seven teams either won promotion or entered the play-offs for a promotion place. It also meant that very late in the season even mid-table teams knew that if they could string together a few wins they might just have a shot at promotion.

4.      Variety of Opponents

It is little use having a league that meets all the above criteria if it only has two teams.  Clearly there need to be enough teams that the same teams do not keep playing each other over and over.  Most leagues seem to provide for two clashes between teams each season (home and away).  The Scottish Premier League requires four clashes per season, leading to many critics claiming that the league is becoming stale. Both teams in the Isles of Scilly League play twenty league matches, plus the Charity Shield and two cup competions.

Competing Factors

The same two competing factors have plagued the Southern League since its inception in 1968.

On the one hand, the existence of a single, regional league is seen as the only way to keep playing standards high and help bridge the gap between regional and national football, while also possibly helping southern-based players make the leap to international football.

On the other hand, the costs of competing in such a league are high and clubs are concerned about what they perceive to be high costs of travel, especially if that travel also requires overnight stays.

Willingness to Travel

Perhaps surprisingly, the less out-of-town travel is involved, the more likely the Canterbury clubs seem to be to want to set up their own league.  A league containing five clubs from outside Canterbury seems to be deemed more worthwhile than a league consisting of eight Canterbury and two Otago clubs, for example.

In general it is the Canterbury clubs that ‘complain’ the most about travel.  Clubs from Nelson, Marlborough, Mid Canterbury, South Canterbury, North Otago, Otago and more recently Central Otago have at times shown a willingness to travel long distances if it will allow them to compete in a higher standard of competition.  For many years, Nelson United flew to every away match, be it in the National League or the Central League.  Nelson Suburbs currently make nine or ten trips to Christchurch every season.  A Marlborough team sometimes play in the Nelson League and various teams from Hurunui, Ashburton and Selwyn often play in the Canterbury Leagues.

Responsibilities to the Region

When eight Canterbury teams were complaining about making two trips to Dunedin, they seemed to forget that the two Otago clubs were willingly making eight trips to Christchurch.  The Canterbury clubs might do well to remember their responsibilities to clubs from other regions.  How would Canterbury United react if North Island teams decided it wasn’t worth playing South Island teams and formed their own National League competition?

A New Alternative 

History suggests that whenever one format has been in place for a few years, its disadvantages (and the advantages of the alternative format) start to become more prominent, leading to a change.  Given that neither a fully regionalized competition nor separate Federation-based competitions appear to be satisfactory, perhaps an alternative could be examined that combines elements of both.  This section outlines my solution, aimed at retaining its strengths and eliminating its weaknesses.

In particular, I wanted to uphold the quality of the competition, through maintaining a difficult strength of schedule for the leading teams; having teams play teams of a similar level as much as possible; maintaining interest for every team as far into the season as possible; offering a varied list of opponents throughout the season; and keeping travel outside a team’s own Federation to a minimum.
Eight teams seems to be a reasonable starting number for a South Island League, and presumably four of them should be from Mainland Football and four from FootballSouth. But we need to avoid that balance changing, because we know that once it does, Mainland clubs will start to lose interest in travelling to FootballSouth.

The first consideration was whether eight is too many teams to include in the Mainland Premier League.  Many years ago I read in various places, including the Otago Daily Times online edition, that many within the Mainland area consider six to be the ideal number.  This would leave ten clubs to make up Mainland Division 1.

A Mainland League of six clubs playing each other four times would run the risk of becoming stale and of the second half of the season becoming meaningless for many teams.

My solution is as follows:

South Island Qualifying League (SIQL) consisting of the leading six Mainland clubs
Mainland Qualifying League (MQL) consisting of the ten next best Mainland clubs (including non-Canterbury teams)
FootballSouth League (FSL) consisting of the leading ten FootballSouth clubs

The SIQL teams would play two full round robins (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team.
Upon completion, the top four would qualify for the South Island League (SIL) along with four FootballSouth teams, and the bottom two would qualify for the Mainland Premier League (MPL).

The MQL teams would play one full round robin (four or five home matches), for a total of 9 matches per team.
Upon completion, the top four teams would qualify for the Mainland Premier League (MPL) and the bottom six would qualify for Mainland League Division 1 (ML1).

The FSL teams would play one full round robin (four or five home matches), for a total of 9 matches per team.
Upon completion, the top four teams would qualify for the South Island League (MPL) and the bottom six would remain in ther FootballSouth League Division 1 (ML1).

The SIL league table would be divided into two Conferences (Mainland and FootballSouth).  Each team would play home and away against teams in their own Conference, plus home or away against teams from the other Conference, for a total of 10 games.  At the end of the season the leading team in each Conference would meet at a neutral venue to decide the South Island Football Championship.

All four of the Mainland teams would qualify for the following season’s South Island Qualifying League.

The six MPL teams would play two full rounds (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team.  At the end of the season the winners would be declared the Mainland Premier League Champions.The top two teams would qualify for the following season’s South Island Qualifying League and the bottom four for the Mainland Qualifying League.

The six ML1 teams would play two full rounds (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team.  At the end of the season the winners would be declared the Mainland League Division 1 Champions.  The top five teams would qualify for the following seasons’ Mainland Qualifying League.  The bottom team would be relegated and replaced by the winners of one of the local (Canterbury, Nelson etc.) leagues, subject to one of those teams wishing to enter.

The six remaining teams in the FootballSouth Premier League would play two full rounds (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team. In this league, and perhaps in some of the other leagues, consideration could be given as to whether teams begin the second phase of the season on zero points, or whether points are carried over from the phase, or whether each team receives bonus points based on their finishing position in the first phase of the season.



If this system were to be introduced, many of the areas considered to currently be problematic would be addressed.


Theoretically, with the best clubs competing among themselves for the entire second half of the season, the standard of play would be improved. Matches would be more competitive and the number of hidings would be reduced. This point would also apply to the teams that failed to qualify for the South Island League. Teams would be competing against other teams of similar quality.

With an increased number of trophies up for grabs and four teams from each of the three first phase leagues earning ‘promotion’ of sorts, mid-table teams would have something to play for. Once the second phase had begun, the SIL teams would be aiming to win their Conference, the MPL teams would be aiming to at least finish in the top two to earn a place in the following season’s SIQL, and the ML1 teams would either be keeping an eye on winning the league or avoiding finishing last which would result in relegation. Meanwhile, the remaining FSPL teams would have the chance to win a trophy, something that has eluded them all for many years.

Each competing team would also play at least as many different opponents as they play now, so in addition to the factors discussed above there would also be an increase in variety.

The top four Mainland teams would play five SIQL opponents and four FootballSouth opponents.
The next two Mainland teams would play five SIQL opponents and four MQL opponents.
The next four Mainland teams would play nine MQL opponents plus two SIQL opponents.
The remaining six Mainland teams would play nine MQL opponents.
The top four FootballSouth teams would play nine FSPL opponents plus four Mainland opponents.
The remaining six FootballSouth teams would play nine FSPL opponents.

Another positive is that a club that plays in the South Island League one season and then loses a large number of good players over the summer, will not be stuck competing in that league the next season. Instead, if, as expected, their first phase results are poor, they will end up in one of the consolation leagues in the second phase of the season.

This format would also ensure that every season the South Island League would have an equal number of teams from each of the two South Island federations, meaning the historical imbalance after a few seasons could not happen.

The introduction of this format would also be an excellent time to allow non-Mainland clubs to enter the structure. Currently, unless they are good enough to play in the MPL, they are stuck playing local league football in Nelson or Marlborough. My proposed format would provide the opportunity for clubs such as Richmond Athletic, FC Nelson or Central Pirates to compete in a better quality competition as long as their results merit it. While there has always been at least one Nelson club competing in the MPL, what a disaster it would be for the region if they were to be relegated. But using this format, they would have to be worse than fifteen other teams to be consigned to local league football, whereas currently that only requires seven teams to finish above them.

Finally, while there would obviously be an increase in costs when compared to the status quo, each of the eight teams that reach the South Island League would be required to travel only twice outside their own Federation, rather than the four or five such trips that would be necessary under a fully fledged eight- or ten-team league.

I originally developed this idea in 2005. I hadn’t looked at it since until I read about possible South Island League discussions a week or so ago, at which point I searched for this and found it again. Twelve years later, I think the idea still makes sense and all the arguments I made in 2005 are still valid today.

What do you think?