SOUTHLAND Football is making impressive strides in its junior football growth, but like many sports needs more of the players to stick around and breathe life into the senior grades.
Southland Football district manager Ignacio Sande said there had been about a 10% growth each year for the past three years in its junior ranks.
It has about 1000 junior players lacing up their boots in the winter and since 2016 has grown the futsal version of the sport from nothing to about 500 players.
However, there is some concern over the state of the province’s flagship club competition, with the Donald Gray Cup now down to just five teams.
It is the fewest teams in the league since 2008, when the competition had just four teams.
Winton was part of last year’s competition but did not enter this year.
Waihopai started the season as part of a six-team Donald Gray Cup league but have since withdrawn from the competition, reducing it to five teams.
Sande acknowledged the preference was for a six or eight-team competition in the future to avoid a bye.
He said while the Donald Gray Cup competition was down to five teams, the overall senior teams number was down by just one from last year, with teams shuffling around grades.
Southland Football last year entered a Southland United team into the Southern Premier League.
This year Southland United has also entered two youth teams in Football South competitions.
Sande acknowledged it did stretch Southland’s playing resources, but the majority of clubs were supportive of providing the province’s talented players with the best level of competition they could.
Sande hoped the boom in junior numbers would flow through to the senior ranks in the coming years.
“I think it is looking really good for four or five years’ time.”
He said the important task would be to gear the clubs up to ensure they were in a position to create an environment where those junior players wanted to keep playing football into their teenage years and beyond.
Sande said Southland Football would also need to consider what type of formats and competitions might attract people to football in the future.
As in many traditional sports, Sande recognised more and more people did not want to commit to teams which trained twice a week and played in long competitions.
He said it was a balancing act catering for those people but also ensuring the high-performance pathways remained in place to provide the best players with a chance to succeed.
Meanwhile, defending champions Gore Wanderers are again the team to beat in the 2018 Donald Gray Cup competition.
Gore have won six from six this season, scoring 17 goals and conceding just two.
In Southern Premier League action, Southland United picked up an important 2-1 win over Roslyn Wakari last Saturday.
Southland sit top-of-the-table with Dunedin Technical with two games to play.
After round-robin play, the top three teams will qualify for a new South Island Premier League competition.