Issues to address for Canterbury United after failed campaign
OPINION: Canterbury United have an identity crisis and it's one requiring urgent attention this off-season.
The disappointing Dragons missed the finals for the third time in the past four seasons, finishing sixth in the expanded 10-team Stirling Sports Premiership.
Canterbury ended with a whimper, losing their last three matches, leaving coach Willy Gerdsen and chairman Roger Georgieff with plenty to ponder over the winter.
Sixth place was an accurate reflection of where the Dragons are at. They never won two matches in a row, a prerequisite for playoff contenders, and resembled an inconsistent middle of the road side.
Canterbury find themselves stuck in a rut.
They lag some way behind competition frontrunners Auckland City and Team Wellington, while also dropping behind the next tier of teams, Waitakere, Hawke's Bay United and big-spending Eastern Suburbs.
The Dragons' hierarchy must quickly work out whether they aspire to seriously contend for the title or be one, who merely makes up the numbers.
If Canterbury are to even go close to competing with the league powerhouses, they have to firstly find some additional money from somewhere and that's easier said than done.
Canterbury's player budget was considerably lower than the top echelon sides, except Hawke's Bay, and given their resources, making the top four was going to be challenging in a league with more teams.
Maybe down the line, Canterbury United will be forced to compete under the guise of ambitious Christchurch United, with their president, Russian millionaire Slava Meyn, acting as owner.
Should Canterbury stick with the status quo, they risk becoming one of the competition's cellar dwellers, losing their best players to more aggressive clubs and interest dwindling with poor results.
The blueprint for Canterbury is to feature the premier homegrown players in the region, topped up with skilful players from around the country and overseas, who inspire them to improve their game.
Canterbury's board are certainly trying their best under difficult circumstances. The work they've done to look after out of town players and make them feel comfortable is admirable.
Another pleasing initiative has been the efforts to keep several non-Cantabrians in the region and ensure they're not fly-by-nighters.
Englishman Stephen Hoyle is set to make Christchurch his home after becoming Nomads United's first football development officer. Dutchman Colin van Gool and German-born Guatemalan Juan Chang will also turn out for Christchurch United in Mainland Football's second tier championship. It's hoped these sort of players will remain in the province long-term and become Dragons mainstays.
Gerdsen provided opportunities to several Mainland Premier League players, including Danny Knight, Andreas Wilson, Aaron Spain, Sebastian Schacht, Roddy Lockhart and Daniel Thoms, but the jump to national league football remains mammoth.
Wilson has shown over the past two seasons, if you put in the hard yards and are committed it can be done, but he remains one of the few success stories.
The weak standard of the MPL is just one of the issues Gerdsen has to contend with.
The MPL and Football South Premier League desperately need to combine to form a South Island competition, which would inevitably help the Dragons, Southern United and Tasman United.
That option has for too long been in the too hard basket as a logistical and financial conundrum.
On the pitch, Canterbury failed to fire after punching above their weight to make the finals in Gerdsen's first season in charge the previous year.
Converting opportunities into goals once again hurt the Dragons, as it has in past seasons. It was doubly frustrating when their opponent sometimes got one or two in a match and scored.
It was hoped Hoyle would be the answer up front, but he was predominantly played out of position on the right wing due to fitness and inability to implement the press on defence.
Midfielders Andre de Jong and Gary Ogilvie, two of Canterbury's better players the season before, didn't have the same impact in 2016-17. Ogilvie was hindered by back-to-back red cards, which ruled him out of four matches and didn't allow him to get any consistency mid-season.
Finding a proven marksman who can translate a half chance into a goal, again needs to be an off-season priority if Canterbury are to climb the ladder next season.
Adding a creative midfielder to take the burden off skipper Aaron Clapham in the midfield would be welcome too.
Canterbury have lacked a leading holding midfielder since former All White Glen Collins finished up. If they could find someone of his ilk, it would relieve some of their problems defensively.
AT A GLANCE:
Played 18, Won 6, Drawn 6, Loss 6 (Sixth overall)
For: 32; Against: 28
Goals: Aaron Clapham 12 (incl 7pen), Stephen Hoyle 7, Andre de Jong 5, Tom Schwarz 5 (incl 2pen), Juan Chang 1, Matt Wiesenfarth 1, own goal 1.
Best player: Central defender Tom Schwarz was a tireless contributor in Canterbury's inexperienced backline and one of the rare shining lights in a disappointing campaign. Schwarz impressed with his ability to get forward and provide a threat from corners and free kicks, scoring three outfield goals. The Englishman became the third Dragon to play 100 national league matches, rescuing a point for Canterbury with an added time penalty against Auckland City at home.
Best performance: Canterbury's 2-0 home win over Eastern Suburbs, who were then top of the table, in early December was a clinical showing. They were sound defensively, limiting Suburbs' chances and turned the match their way early in the second half through a long range beauty from Andre de Jong. Unfortunately for the Dragons, performances like that were few and far between.
Worst performance: Only three teams lost to bottom placed Southern this season and Canterbury were one of them at their English Park headquarters. The Dragons turned in a horror show on a balmy 27 degree January day, conceding three second half goals after they had led 1-0 at halftime. The 25-yard screamer from Southern's Irish import Eric Molloy was a candidate for goal of the season. Canterbury's 2-1 home loss to Hamilton Wanderers wasn't much better.