Waiheke United will be playing division one regional football next season after securing their sixth consecutive promotion with three games in the season to spare.
The Fullers-sponsored senior men’s team thrashed Te Atatu 7-1 away to maintain their unbeaten record in division two of the Northern Regional Football League. It is the islanders’ first year at this level, having worked their way up from the lower echelons of Auckland club football to a regional competition which includes clubs from the Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Auckland and Northland. Division two is effectively the third tier of the regional league which has a premier division.
Waiheke coach Nick Saunders says the goal for next season is to again win promotion so that by 2019 the small island club will be competing at the top level of regional football.
“Getting promoted is definitely addictive – we are on a roll,” Nick says.
The club currently sits in second place in division two, four points behind the only other unbeaten side, Howick Fencibles. It has not given up hope of winning the title if the Fencibles trip up in their final three games.
“Our goal this season was to win our division and if they slip up we can be there,” Nick says. “We’re not in party mode yet – we are satisfied but not overjoyed.
“It’s been a huge effort from the players and their partners and the coaching team. Training three times a week and bus trips to away games – it’s a long season for everyone involved.
“It shows the real passion and dedication of the people involved.”
The team also draws inspiration from its fanatical supporters, La Banda del Pipazo.
Playing at a higher level next season will be a challenge – Waiheke need only recall their 4-0 Chatham Cup loss to first division Tauranga City in April to recognise that.
But Nick says the team will head into next year with the same dream – to win the division.
“It doesn’t scare us.”
The senior and reserves squad of 44 is built around Waiheke’s South American migrant population, with many on short and long-term work visas.
“We have a lot of Argentinians and players from France, Spain, Uruguay and Japan. It’s not about the type of football that they play overseas, it’s about playing football at a fast tempo and continually moving.
“The technical skills are there but we really focus on fitness and I think that’s how we have managed to remain successful.
“The football quality has totally changed and it is inspiring younger generations coming through the ranks of our club.”
Team captain, 28-year-old Alan Llunes, is a chef from Buenos Aires who arrived in 2014 when Waiheke was a third division Auckland club side. “Being here is making history every day,” he says in an interview on the club’s Facebook page.
Nick anticipates that 15 to 20 of this year’s squad will be available next year, including a core of key players.
“We are going to be very competitive next season and we will also be recruiting people who we think can fit into our set-up.”
“We want to be in the top division – that’s our goal.” • Geoff Cumming