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  • Writer's pictureJose Campo

Can Auckland FC succeed where past franchises failed?

In a historic moment for the A-Leagues, another New Zealand club will be established from the 2024/25 season. Unveiled as Auckland Football Club, the expansion team is the third in the region to take the challenge in the top flight of Australia and promote professional football within New Zealand. Auckland will build upon the legacies of the Football Kingz and New Zealand Knights after nearly two decades without an Auckland-based franchise. The Black Knights, backed by billionaire Bill Foley, can rewrite the shortcomings of its predecessors and bring a new era of football to New Zealand and the A-Leagues.

Bill Foley, the American owner of Auckland FC. (Image supplied)


The failures of previous franchises have paved the way for future triumphs and the opportunity to relay the foundations that once could not be built. As Pelé once said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and most of all, love of what you are doing.”


The idea of a New Zealand club to play football in Australia first arose from the Counties Manukau Soccer Association chairman, Noel Robinson, following the footsteps of the Auckland Warriors, who joined the Australian Rugby League in 1995.


The dream was simple: to bring football into the mainstream of sport in New Zealand and provide a pathway to the professional game in a country where it was considered a "lesser sport" than rugby or cricket. After meetings with the Auckland Deputy and Australia Soccer Association, Football Kingz was founded in 1999 ahead of the National Soccer League's 1999/2000 season. Chris Turner acted as the club's spokesperson.


Before even a ball was kicked, the club spent the following five seasons of its existence in continuous financial turmoil. Auckland, on several occasions, struggled to repay debts owed to former directors and players who were displeased with the situation at the club. This can be attributed to the lack of sponsors and crowds that were slowly losing interest. The structure placed at the club was heavily frowned upon.

Turner, who climbed the ranks to become chairman, faced criticism for his inexperience and incompetence in a leadership role. Coaches began departing each season after struggling to adapt to the ongoing budget cuts the club were placing and the negative aroma building around it. As a result, their performances in the NSL began to deteriorate while the losses continued to rise.


Turner eventually stepped down from his position at the club and was replaced by Anthony Lee under new owner Brian Katzen, who settled all debts and proposed a rebranding of the franchise before their launch to the revamped Hyundai A-League accompanied by seven other teams. After the proposal was accepted, New Zealand Knights would replace Football Kingz for the 2005/06 season.

Despite a fresh restart and new competition, the New Zealand Knights only continued the trend of the Football Kingz, with directors resigning and being replaced, coaching staff and players departing, and consistently low match attendances. By the club's second season, it was A$800,000 in debt, and the rebranded Football Federation Australia revoked the Auckland franchise's licence.


Wellington Phoenix Football Club replaced Auckland and has been New Zealand's running competitor ever since. Even though New Zealand clubs in Australia cannot qualify or play in continental club competitions, Wellington has found success in recruiting and developing local talent from a young age, as seen through Sapreet Singh and Liberato Cacace, building a prestigious academy in the country.


Entering the 2024/25 season, Auckland FC will bring the first hometown rivalry to Wellington Phoenix in official competition for the first time in Australia's history, which can boost the prosperity of football around New Zealand and create new storylines that can forever conjure up a historic rivalry.

There are many factors currently in Auckland's favour that can brew the results it needs to establish a club culture and philosophy. Owner and billionaire businessman Bill Foley was given the A-Leagues licence in November 2023 and has shown considerate ambition to get the club up and running before the start of the campaign with the trust of Steve Corica, one of the league's most decorated managers, who was announced as the manager in December 2023.

Foley has demonstrated his familiarity with expansion clubs through his ownership and success of the Vegas Golden Knights in the National Hockey League. He intends to bring this experience to Auckland and accompany it with a philosophy.


"We [the Vegas Golden Knights] have a team that all works together and stays together," Foley said, speaking on the day he was awarded the licence for the new expansion club.


"We’ll do the same process here in Auckland, and we’ll do it both for the men’s team and the women’s team because we’re in this program to win."

Foley is a general partner of the Black Knight Football Club. This football investment entity owns AFC Bournemouth (England) and holds significant stakes in FC Lorient (France) and Hibernian FC (Scotland). He plans to use his football model to pave a pathway for young local players to develop and play at the highest level.

"I love the fact that we have this A-League team here because it allows young men and young women to progress and to go to other places to play football," he added.


"This is going to be a pathway for a lot of young people to move up, get into the A-League and then perhaps move on, go to Scotland. If they can go to the top of the pyramid, then they go to Bournemouth."


The talent pool in New Zealand and Australia is rapidly growing. As of 2023, football in Australia had grown to 1.7 million participants over the age of 15, a net growth of 250,000 since 2016, while New Zealand saw a steady growth of 12% in football, futsal, and secondary school players from 2022 to 2023.


With secure financial backing, Auckland FC will be a guaranteed competitor with the Wellington Phoenix for the brightest talents and best players in New Zealand. The NZ National League, which replaced the Football Championship in 2021, is a potential feeder league for Oceanic prospects into the A-Leagues. Brian Kaltak and Roy Krishna are proof of that, having successful stints around the league before making the professional jump.

Northern League side Auckland City FC has predominantly been the most dominant Oceanic side in the last decade with a good eye for undiscovered talent such as Krishna and Kaltak, among others like David Browne and Tim Payne in its past squads. The Navy Blues have built a reputation in the region as the best in Oceania and an attractive club for players to start their pathway towards professional football.

It comes with the fact that exciting, promising local talents and competent star players can influence a crowd and committed fanbase for Auckland FC. We have seen this in the A-League previously through Alessandro Del Piero and Shinji Ono, a duo that undoubtedly helped create a golden age for the league, which saw consistently solid crowds and excellent atmospheres.


Corica has previously announced that the club will focus on signing local players. They have just announced the signing of six New Zealanders, and are linked with other All Whites and even Phoenix players, creating a brand awareness that could instigate an intense rivalry with the Nix.

"We’re a team from Auckland, a team from New Zealand, so we want a good mix of Kiwi players. So we’re looking to bring in a lot of young New Zealand players. Also, there’s some New Zealand players overseas, bring them back to New Zealand, and that’s the really exciting part of this," he said in a press conference after the club's launch.


Corica is also looking to take advantage of Black Knight Football Club's model, hoping to use the scouting system for new foreign players. Clubs are permitted to sign five visa players, except for New Zealand clubs, who can sign Australian players as non-foreign.


"The other part is we’re going to have a mix of some players who’ve been around the A-Leagues and know what it takes to win. Then we have the five visa spots," Corica added.


"We’re really lucky with that in being part of a multi-club model – we have scouts who are based at Bournemouth. We have connections into Hibs (Hibernian) and Lorient too. We’re using all those connections to go out there and look for European players, South American players."


Bringing in a foreigner or Kiwi national who can gradually impact the club could be pivotal. As seen when Ono joined the Wanderers or when Del Piero arrived down under, a big name could coincide with a more considerable following for Auckland, increasing attendance and providing the club with a solid foundation.

Even a player who can have an impact like Alessandro Diamanti did at Western United is beneficial. Though he may not have had the desired effect on Western's off-the-field fortunes, he enhanced the club's identity, laying the foundations for success, punctuated by a surprise championship in 2022.


Auckland could follow this strategy by recruiting a passionate and talented marquee who will bring success and credibility to the club. This player must leave a long-lasting impact rather than join as a big name with an astronomical salary without providing anything in return. But domestic talents have brought new life to the A-Leagues, connecting fans and players once more in what is crucial to growing the game.

Although signings can account for marketing in Auckland, the excitement will amount to nothing if the results do not accompany it. The 33,000 support at Sky Stadium for the Wellington Phoenix in their Semi-Final second leg proved that on-field success would bring more interest from the general public. Auckland has the experience on its coaching staff to push a squad to its maximum potential—Corica's track record of 13 trophies demonstrates that, despite how his tenure at Sydney FC faded.

 

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Foley can bring new life into the A-Leagues. Despite the APL's financial situation, the leagues are still afloat. If this current upheaval is managed correctly, they can return to the right path. Auckland FC is a new club in a region that initially brought football to New Zealand all those years ago. But this time will need to go much differently should the club challenge Wellington as the nation's dominant professional football team.


Auckland FC will play home matches at Mount Smart Stadium next season. Foley has also opened up plans for a 20,000-capacity stadium built on Auckland Waterfront, one of the region's touristic areas. This stadium could be the first club-owned one in the A-Leagues.


Mount Smart Stadium currently accommodates the New Zealand Warriors of the NRL. Auckland FC has opened the possibility of North Harbour Stadium as a training base, although the local council may demolish the venue.


Creating an atmosphere at either Mount Smart Stadium or a possible club-owned stadium is essential to initiating the club's identity and culture. Finding a home is one thing, but making it feel like one is crucial in allowing fans to associate with and feel pride in what the club represents. Money cannot buy passion, and it cannot buy a loyal fanbase.

Auckland FC will be looking to change the future of football in New Zealand, rewriting the failures of its predecessors ahead of the new A-League Men's season. The club will also expand with a women's team for the 2025/26 season and open new opportunities for female footballers to enter the professional game.


No one knows the journey Auckland FC will embark upon. However, with Bill Foley financing the squad and having lofty ambitions, it will be fascinating to see whether its management can fulfil the expectations.


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