Dispiriting decision divides followers

BRENDON EGAN
Last updated 05:00 15/02/2012

The jury remains out as to what sort of impact the demise of Spirit FC will have on football in Southland.

Southland's flagship football team announced on Friday that for the first time in seven years, it will not be fielding a team in the Footballsouth Premier League, which features the best club teams in the lower South Island.

Spirit FC's playing stocks took a massive hit over the off-season with several of their veterans wanting to step away from the side and play their football locally in the Donald Gray Memorial Cup senior competition and their outstanding crop of young talent all shifting to Dunedin to study at Otago University. If that wasn't enough, Spirit also lost two of their best players – Craig Ferguson and goalkeeper Oswaldo Rodriguez, who have played for Otago United in the national league over the summer, and both now reside in Dunedin.

Hard-working Southland Football administrator Kenny Cresswell and Spirit player-coach Barry Gardiner exhausted every avenue to try to muster a playing squad for the upcoming season, but with only nine players attending pre-season training, agreed the only option was to decide against fielding a side for 2012.

Southland Football has some exciting young prospects coming through its youth academy programme, but these players are still a couple of seasons away from the unforgiving Footballsouth Premier League environment. To rush them into the Spirit ranks, just to keep the side going, would have been a foolish decision.

Several members of the football community, including Southland Times football correspondent Stu Munro, have expressed their disappointment about the collapse of Spirit FC.

With Spirit FC not competing in the Footballsouth Premier League, they argue promising Southland footballers will not have the chance to be exposed to a high level of competition or be recognised by Otago United national league coach Richard Murray.

Southland's Donald Gray Memorial Cup senior league will be strengthened by the return of Spirit FC players and is likely to be the strongest it has been in several seasons.

Cresswell and Gardiner are convinced football in the region will not suffer from the lack of a top-level side to aspire for.

Promising youngsters, who remain their top priority, will still receive as much coaching as ever and will still be pushed to trial for representative and national level teams – they just won't be able to play in the Footballsouth Premier League.

It will be interesting to see what lies ahead for Spirit FC or if the composite team will ever grace a football pitch again.

Speaking to Cresswell on Friday, you couldn't help but gain the impression that Southland Football is determined to improve the quality of the senior competition so club teams from Southland might consider entering the Footballsouth Premier League in the coming years.

Spirit FC players I have spoken to in the past have often mentioned the difficulty of playing for a side made up of individuals from rival clubs, which hasn't always been easy, or translated to success on the field.

If any Southland club sides have aspirations of playing in the Premier League in the future, they will have their work cut out for them.

Old Boys, who have the won the Donald Gray title the past three seasons, played Dunedin-based Premier League club Roslyn-Wakari in the Chatham Cup last season and were pummelled 10-0. The disparity between the two competitions couldn't be any larger and would take some overcoming.

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