Rovers Return: Provincial powerhouses ready for football’s top flight

Napier City Rovers players and fans are excited for the team’s first shot at the National League in 20 years, and manager Bill Robertson says the team is up for the challenge. Photo/Neil Reid

Napier City Rovers are ready to end a two-decade absence from the National Football League. As they prepare for their big comeback, Trainer Bill Robertson talks with Neil Reid about the challenge ahead.

A player banned from New Zealand for two years has been instrumental in Napier City Rovers’ return to the National League.

And fans of the team are hoping that Jonny McNamara will once again play a major role for the only provincial team in New Zealand’s top national soccer league when competition kicks off next month.

Napier City Rovers are back in the national top flight as an independent team 20 years after a previous renewal of the league in which Hawke’s Bay United represented the region in the team.

The Bill Robertson-led team secured their return after finishing in the top four in the Central League. The 10-team competition also features the top four teams from the Northern League, as well as the top two finishers in the Southern League.

McNamara’s name became a regular fixture on Napier City Rovers’ scoresheet as the season progressed, with the Englishman losing little time to make up for the two years he sat out New Zealand after borders were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. .

Jonny McNamara, centre, celebrates scoring one of his nine Central League goals following his long-awaited return to Napier City Rovers.  Photo / Paul Taylor
Jonny McNamara, centre, celebrates scoring one of his nine Central League goals following his long-awaited return to Napier City Rovers. Photo / Paul Taylor

“He played for us in 2019 when we won the Chatham Cup, he went home to see family and friends for two weeks… well that was the plan… and Covid hit when he was away and the borders were closed, Robertson told the Herald.

“Because of Covid, he was unable to re-enter. We had been working on getting Jonny back at the club for the last two years.

“The plan was to go home and then be ready for the start of the next season.

“Literally the day he arrived was the first day he was able to go back when the borders with the UK opened up.”

McNamara was Napier City Rovers’ joint top scorer in the Central League, with nine, along with Canadian import Leaford Allen.

McNamara reached all four games of the season, while Allen arrived after Rovers had played five games.

“With Jonny coming back, and then a week later Leaford’s inning was huge,” said Robertson, who hails from Manchester but has called New Zealand home since 2007.

“Those two have been significant to the successes of our season, as have others. Their goals have helped make the difference.”

When the National League kicks off next month, Napier City Rovers will line up against Auckland City, Birkenhead United, Auckland United, Melville United, Wellington Olympic, Wellington Phoenix Reserves, Miramar Rangers, Christchurch United and Cashmere Technical.

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Returning to the highest stage of domestic football has been the goal since New Zealand Football revealed in late 2020 a pending restructuring that would see the National League return to club-based, marking the end of the road for Hawke’s Bay United and Canterbury. United.

Canadian import Leaford Allen has played an influential role in Napier City Rovers' promotion to the upcoming National League.  Photo / Paul Taylor
Canadian import Leaford Allen has played an influential role in Napier City Rovers’ promotion to the upcoming National League. Photo / Pablo Taylor

“It’s been a long time in the planning,” Robertson said. “Finally getting there and achieving what we set out to do feels very special for the club.

“I’m happy for all the players, the club, the volunteers at the club who have obviously been waiting for Napier City Rovers to return to the National League for 20 years. I’m happy for everyone who has contributed at the club.”

Fourth place was secured with a 3-1 victory over Western Suburbs in the penultimate round of the Central League.

Given the stakes, Robertson said there was a “feeling of relief” within the camp when his qualification was confirmed with one game to spare.

“The guys had a good night … it was a load off and now the guys can start planning for an NL campaign.”

The National League draw has not yet been made public.

But Napier City Rovers are expected to have four home games and five away games in the 2022 National League.

And away trips should be much more comfortable compared to what the team has endured during the Central League.

Away games against the eight Wellington-based teams involved leaving on a bus at 6:30am on match day, before the bus leg back after the match.

“I guess the professionalism of the ride will go up a little bit,” Robertson said.

“We won’t have to sit on a bus for six hours before a game. Hopefully we can get accommodation and fly to games. Although we go a bit further, flights and accommodation are generally covered by New Zealand Football.”

But what awaits Napier City Rovers will be a step up in class from most of the teams they have faced in the Central League.

The other nine clubs enjoy a much larger player catchment area and in some cases much greater financial backing than Napier City Rovers operates.

Christchurch United is backed by Russian-born billionaire Slava Meyn. He is also the president of the club and previously financed a dedicated football headquarters and academy in Christchurch.

And the Trillian Trust’s 2021 annual report shows that Auckland City favorites received more than $500,000 in gaming machine trust money in fiscal 2021.

Auckland City did not lose a game on their way to winning the National League.

“The level of the competition is going to go up a few notches now, we’re up against some of the best teams in the country,” he said.

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“The biggest thing is the player base here. There’s not as big a recruitment as there is in Auckland and the other main hubs. So for a team from Hawke’s Bay, the only provincial representation, we’re very proud of what’s going on.” I did.”

During Robertson’s tenure as Napier City Rovers manager, the club won the Central League in 2015 and 2018, as well as the Chatham Cup in 2019.

While they are likely to come up as underdogs against some of the most desirable opponents, Robertson said what awaited them was a challenge that the entire club’s playing and coaching staff would relish.

“They want to test themselves against the best players in the country and they will be able to do it.

“We’d like to think we hit above our average and we’ll certainly try. [in the National League].”

Bill Robertson has coached Napier City Rovers to a Chatham Cup win and multiple Central League titles during his successful tenure as manager.  Photo/Neil Reid
Bill Robertson has coached Napier City Rovers to a Chatham Cup win and multiple Central League titles during his successful tenure as manager. Photo/Neil Reid

And there’s a good chance Robertson will be a part of the gaming group for the next three months.

The 38-year-old played over 150 times for Napier City Rovers before concentrating entirely on coaching and training programs aimed at helping develop young footballers at Hawke’s Bay.

At the club level, that means coaching the senior team and taking charge of the club’s under-7 Sharks team.

But the unavailability of several players towards the end of the Central League saw him return to the field.

“I was always registered as a player until the end,” Robertson said.

“But because we lost some players, particularly on defense, it was my assistant coach, Stu James, who pressured me to put my boots back on. A couple of veteran players were itching for me to do it, too.”

“I ended up participating in a few games to help the team…it worked out well in the end. I was happy to support the group from a game standpoint as well as as a coach.”

Napier City Rovers manager Bill Robertson made his return to the field during the Central League after the unavailability of several players.  Photo/Neil Reid
Napier City Rovers manager Bill Robertson made his return to the field during the Central League after the unavailability of several players. Photo/Neil Reid

National League clubs may not include players who have not been registered in the North, Central and South leagues.

Domestic soccer fan status here meant it was a huge commitment for those involved to juggle the sport and family and work commitments until December.

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Robertson, who won National League titles as a Team Wellington player, said the likelihood of him playing in the next league would depend on the availability of other players.

“We have to take stock and reassess where we are,” he said. “The template we had [in Central League] It’s the squad we’ll have for the National League.

“We have a certain number of players that we can roll with for nine NL games, so we have to find the right balance and see what that looks like moving forward.”

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