Leading midfielder Aaron Clapham steps away for season
Canterbury United insist they did everything to accommodate talismanic midfielder Aaron Clapham and remain optimistic his career at national league level isn't over.
The Dragons were dealt a monumental blow on Wednesday with arguably the franchise's greatest player, withdrawing from the squad, citing personal reasons.
It is a crushing setback for Canterbury, who have made a poor start to the ISPS Handa Premiership, earning just one point from their first three games.
Former All White Clapham, who is part of a rare group to play 100 or more games for Canterbury, met Mainland Football chief executive Julian Bowden on Tuesday. His team-mates were informed of his decision before training that night.
Clapham recently became a first-time father and said he wanted to prioritise his family.
He was finding it increasingly difficult to balance his commitments with Canterbury in an amateur competition alongside fatherhood and work. The 30-year-old is a football development manager for the Cashmere Technical club and runs a US scholarship business.
Clapham did not respond to interview requests, but in a statement said he was at a different stage of his life.
"I have been open in my communication with the club about this being a potential issue - from our first meeting months ago - and we have been hoping to find a suitable arrangement that would work for all parties, but unfortunately we have not been able to make that happen.
"I have been involved in the club for the best part of a decade and it has played a huge part in my life. This has not been a decision that has been made lightly, but for me, my family will always come first."
Bowden said they knew it was going to be a challenge for Clapham before the season and had both tried hard to make it work. Canterbury train four times per week, compared to three last season. Travelling away for matches was also a commitment.
"We don't walk in Aaron's shoes, where he's at with a new baby that's only three months old. It didn't work for him, which is a huge shame.
"The club is hugely disappointed, but we've got to respect what Aaron is feeling and are very much doing that."
Both Bowden and Canterbury coach Willy Gerdsen were adamant there was no rift between Clapham and the coaching staff. They rejected suggestions he was unhappy to have lost the captain's armband to Gary Ogilvie and had been demoted as the team's penalty taker.
"There is nothing between me and Clapham," Gerdsen stressed.
"When I came down [in 2015] I made him the captain ... Parenthood will change people's lives . That's all there is to it."
Clapham was used off the bench in Canterbury's opening match against Waitākere United after missing part of the build-up because of a pre-arranged holiday to Australia.
He was a surprise omission from the side's second home game against Tasman United, which they lost 1-0, making himself unavailable due to personal reasons.
In Sunday's 3-1 away loss to Auckland City, Clapham returned and started the match, being substituted in the 76th minute.
Canterbury won't be able to replace a player of Clapham's ability and experience, but Gerdsen said it would present an opportunity for a young player in their squad.
"We're totally locally based now apart from two imports (Futa Nakamura and Travis Nicklaw), which is a good thing. We're not bringing in 10 or 11 foreigners. We're entirely locally based."
Bowden hoped it wouldn't be the end of Clapham's Canterbury career. He said the door would always be open for him to return in future seasons if his situation changed.
"Aaron has done a lot for football in the region and we totally respect his decision."
Clapham, who has captained Canterbury in recent years, has a fine goal-scoring record for a midfielder, netting 61 goals in his 117 national league appearances.
Last season, he was the second equal leading goal scorer in the national league with 12 strikes, seven which came from the penalty spot.
He played 13 matches for the All Whites between 2010-2013 and attended the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, but did not get on the field.
The Dragons next game is against unbeaten Eastern Suburbs at English Park on November 19.