Ermal Hajdari has been one of the best for Tasman United in their early outings. Photo: Chris Symes/Shuttersport.

Tasman United ready for the big league

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Tasman United will begin its first ever national football league campaign later this month. Nelson Weekly sports editor Jacob Page spoke with those who made the team a reality

Getting a national league franchise in the Top of the South was only the beginning for those behind the scenes at Tasman United.

It’s been a six year journey of meetings and unparalleled youth success which has created a perfect storm to make Tasman United’s case for inclusion in this year’s national league too compelling to ignore.

The Nelson-Marlborough Falcons youth team, who played their first season in 2013 with the backing of a private group headed by former Nelson mayor Aldo Miccio, were runners-up in its second year and won it the following year.

Last season, Nelson College won the national secondary school crown on home soil, beating talent-identified New Zealand age-group players and more highly-fancied schools along the way.

Nelson Bays Football general manager Clive Beaumont says he first remembered talking to former Nelson Suburbs coach John Slotemaker about a national youth team in 2010.

“John came to me and said that our youth players needed more opportunities and a national youth team would be a way to give young players a pathway.”

Clive says he was confident the province could sustain a youth team on “a tight budget”.

While Nelson Bays Football’s bid for a stand-alone youth team lost to a rival private bid from former board member Aldo, the province got what it needed, a national presence at a youth level.

Current Nelson College coach and Tasman United assistant, Davor Tavich, led the team to a mid-table finish in its first year before an appearance in the decider the following year,

Paul Ifill will be a key part of Tasman United's debut national league season. Photo: Chris Symes/Shuttersport
Paul Ifill will be a key part of Tasman United’s debut national league season. Photo: Chris Symes/Shuttersport

Davor says the amount of young talent in the Nelson region helped make the Falcons’ rise meteoric.

“We had good structures and players with plenty of ability,” Davor says. “It was an exciting time to be involved.”

Davor stepped aside and Mark Johnston, an overage player the year before, became the coach.

They would go one step better in 2015, winning the league.

“We knew something special was happening with the start we had that year of eight wins in a row and we wrapped up our conference with a couple of games to spare,” Mark Johnston says.

Mark says all the while, the goal was to get a senior team.

“That’s what we all wanted and certainly the success of the Falcons helped contribute to what happened last year.”

With New Zealand Football expanding the league, Nelson Bays Football put a bid in late last year for one of three new spots.

Mark Johnston was one of two people who presented the 170 page document to New Zealand Football. It had been established thanks to a 10-person working panel with the likes of Clive, Mark Johnston and Tasman United chairman Mark Sheehan all involved.

“You wouldn’t believe the work that went into that proposal,” Clive says.

Everything from financial strategies, sponsorship player recruitment, coaching staff, succession plans, venues, training facilities and even the club colours and uniform, were discussed.

Mark Johnston says he always felt confident.

“I thought we presented really well,” he says. “We were very thorough and New Zealand Football didn’t ask too many questions because it was all in the proposal. I was 80-90 per cent confident.”

Clive was less sure, the enormity of the outcome was not lost on him.

“If we were successful, that’s great, but what would have happened if we weren’t? We would have totally been left out in the wilderness for two years.”

In December last year, the news came through that the bid was successful.

Clive got a phone call in his office from New Zealand Football, he then passed it on to Mark Johnston, who was at work, while Mark Sheehan heard the news on the radio and Davor was told the news while in transit in Italy on his way to Croatia.

“We got a bottle of champagne and toasted the moment in Italy,” Davor says.

After a brief celebration, the hard work began once again, with sponsors, player recruitment and coaching teams all sourced. Mark Sheehan says, with a two year licence, Tasman United has a chance to cement themselves as a long term fixture in the national league.

While goals for the debut season are realistic – win half the home games, finish as the best debuting franchise and above one of the regular teams – the aspirations years down the track are far greater. Mark Johnston would like to see a home-grown All White in the next five years. With entry to home games at Trafalgar Park free, it’s hoped Nelson will have the biggest home crowds of any franchise.

Now, with the hard work done behind the scenes, it’s up to the players on the pitch to deliver.

Tasman United will play its first game away to Canterbury United on October 23.

The team’s first home game will be against Hawkes Bay United on Sunday, November 13, at Trafalgar Park with kick off at 2pm.

It will be a day that will swell the chest of many football fans in Nelson — finally the region is back with the big boys.