Do Australia Really Want To Come Back Home?

With the World Cup now expanded to forty-eight teams it seems anyone and everyone, including their grannies, will be participating at future world cups to such an extent that even Oceania now have one guaranteed spot in the finals.

When this news first came out I was initially outraged, expanding the tournament to thirty-teams had already diluted the product so what would another sixteen teams do to an already overblown format? But then I began to think about it from a New Zealand perspective and I realised the potential this expansion had to the game here in New Zealand. Not only would it give the country added exposure and experience playing against the top teams but the knock on effect down right down to the grass roots of the game.

Young players would now have a chance to represent their country on the biggest stage in the game but those tentative shoots of promise shown as New Zealand under age teams make a ripple in the global game, would be less likely to peter out with a real prospect of participation in a global senior competition. No longer would we just be one of the warm ups who worked out the kinks for the host country in the warm up event but we would get a seat at the main table as well.

But of course there is always a fly in the ointment and in this case it is the murmurings across the pond that Australia may be considering a return to the Oceanic Football Federation but if they do, instead of doing the neighbourly thing and welcoming them with open arms, New Zealand football should make it as difficult as possible for the Aussies to return to the fold.

I know there are arguments that having New Zealand and Australia under the same banner would be good for the game in this part of the world but would it be good for New Zealand? Hasn’t the treatment of the Phoenix in the Australian press shown what they think of New Zealand football and how much they value it?

If Australia are to re-join the OFF then they need to prove they are doing so for the good of football in this region and not so they can have an easier ride through the qualification process. We all know Australia are the footballing powerhouse in this neck of the woods but if they want to come back then they at least need to appear to be doing it for the right reasons and I would suggest one way of showing this is to have at least one more New Zealand team in the A-League. Now what would Mark Bosnich think of that?

Who Next For The Nix?

With Ernie Merrick’s departure the big question in New Zealand is who will be his replacement, here I look at some of the rumoured candidates (my rating of each of the managers’ suitability for the role are in brackets):

Frank Farina (5/10)

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Experienced and at Brisbane showed he is willing to put his faith in youth but dour is the word to best describe some of the teams he has managed. Would likely solve some of the problems affecting the current Phoenix team but long term he would have to be very successful for the fans to accept his style of play.

Mark Rudan (8/10)

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The favourite and another who is used to developing young players, he is the currently working with the Australian Under 20s. Lacks top flight managerial experience but was successful in the Australian lower leagues. His lack of managerial experience may be seen as a negative but can also be seen as a positive as he would likely jump at the chance to manage in the A-League.

Chris Greenacre (4/10)

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Has been assistant coach to both of the previous Phoenix managers as well as finishing his career with the Nix and therefore knows the club well. This familiarity may be a hindrance though if the board wants to make a clean break with previous regimes

Ramon Tribulietx (7/10)

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Easily the most successful coach on the list, who else can say they have guided their club to third place in the World Club Championship? He knows the New Zealand game inside and out due to his time managing Auckland City and his appointment would show his fellow Stirling Sports Premiership coaches that there is a pathway into the bigger leagues.

Neil Emblen (6/10)

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Another who is well versed in New Zealand football as he is assistant head coach for the All Whites. Would be a long shot but his time at Waitakere United proved he can be successful.

Ross Aloisi (3/10)

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Assistant manager at the Brisbane Roar he would be another long shot who probably only makes this list because of his time captaining the Phoenix in their debut A-League season.

Ricki Herbert (6.5/10)

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Would appointing Herbert be a step backwards? Easily the Phoenix’s most successful coach he has proven he knows how to be successful in the A-League and will know how New Zealand football works from his time as the All Whites coach. Could be considered a safe pair of hands but how often does a successful coach returning to his old club work out?

People In Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Rugby Balls – Part II

A recent, rather thoughtful, article in the New Zealand Press highlighted that the British Lions had to win the first test otherwise they would end up losing the series 3-0. Whilst I disagree with this statement, Warren Gaitland demonstrated in Australia he is up to the task of rotating his team to fulfil a gruelling schedule, I do agree that the two blocks of friendly internationals, in June and November, are timed such that the home team will always have the advantage.

The article then went onto call for a global season yet I fear this is always going to be impossible. Whose season would you adopt, north or south? Or if you met half way what happens to the traditional season highlights? Would you want to watch the Six Nations in October or the New Zealand Championship in January? The only solutions I feel would be acceptable to both sides would be minor yet even minor tweaks might level the playing field no matter how unpalatable they are for Rugby’s authorities.

Firstly, the northern hemisphere would need to finish their season earlier and perhaps not make the Heineken Cup the culmination of the season. The teams which make up the final usually have a greater proportion of players going on the summer tours and most of these players are usually unavailable or unfit for the first international of the tour. And secondly push the dates of the summer tour back a week, this would give a two week break between high intensity matches which would be on par with what the All Blacks faced between a dead rubber in South Africa and money spinning match against Ireland in Chicago.

Finally, the author of that article finished implying a global season would never happen because England are too focused on revenue to care about the rest of the global game. Their reasoning being Fiji were only paid $172,000 dollars for their game at Twickenham! I have previously stated in this blog the gap between Tier 1 nations and the rest need to be addressed but the implication that this is England’s fault or responsibility is just another example of the All Black Presses sour grapes and hypocrisy.

If New Zealand Rugby really do care about the Pacific Island rugby playing nations on their doorstep, then they need to do something about it. Instead of trying to break the American market, and with it scoop up all of those Trump dollars, New Zealand could have kicked off their Autumn tour with a match against Fiji, Tonga or Western Samoa but that would be bad for revenue, sound familiar to you? Are we talking about the All Blacks or England?

Instead Fiji played England whilst Tonga played Italy, Samoa played France, Japan played Wales and Georgia played Scotland, yet can you recall when one of the SANZAR teams played any of these nations outside a world cup?

Maybe that article was correct and we should consider a global season but instead of the northern hemisphere teams touring one country they could share the love, and the revenue, around. England could play one match against the Wallabies then one against the All Blacks before finishing their tour by playing one of the Pacific Island nations, which would provide much needed revenue for these nations!

Of course this is not going to happen because the rugby super powers, including the All Blacks, don’t want to lose revenue so I would suggest, once more, to the New Zealand rugby press that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw rugby balls.

A Snub To Our Modern Greats

The only unbeaten team in the 2010 World Cup was not, as you might expect, the eventual winners Spain, who were beaten 1-0 in the group stages, but New Zealand, who drew all three of their group games. Sadly, this achievement was not enough for the All Whites to progress to the knock out stages but it demonstrated to the rest of the word the Kiwi organisational and crucially their ability to defend. These qualities are noted in the Whole of Football plan:

“The point of difference is our superior

team culture and traditional Kiwi

strengths combined with astute tactical

cohesion”

That New Zealand team was captained by Ryan Nelson, who was named in at least one Best XI for the tournament, and their opening goal was scored by a certain Winston Reid. It is hardly surprising, based on how New Zealand have had to defend for their lives against more accomplished teams, that these two players made such an impression in South Africa and it is equally unsurprising that both of these players are defenders.

Before I continue I have to admit that I love defending. I was a defender, my childhood hero was a defender, my favourite Stoke player is a defender and the Boy is a defender. During the Liverpool – Manchester United match, earlier this season, I actually enjoyed how Jose set up his team to thwart the way Klopp’s teams traditionally play and even though I like goals I enjoy seeing the teams I support keep a clean sheet.

Therefore, when looking at the Whole of Football Plan, I found myself a little disconcerted when I came across statements like the following:

“New Zealand Football believes that defending is easier to teach than pro-active, creative attacking and that the two transition moments can be addressed in the same training session, because when one team is in transition to attack, the other team is in transition to defend. It is therefore important to spend more time on the attacking moment without neglecting the other moments of the game.”

When you consider that the Whole of Football plan considers the two transition phases as areas to be trained the above paragraph is saying that attacking should consist of more than fifty percent of your training focus. This focus can already be seen to be taking effect if you watch any one of the junior and youth games on a Saturday, the number of goals which are conceded due to poor defending far outweighs the number of goals which come about due to attacking prowess. You may say that this is down to the good players playing up front but watching the defenders in the Boy’s league it is plain to see that they are all comfortable on the ball when in possession but look like rabbits in a headlight when the opposition starts to attack.

And it is not just the junior game which is suffering, how many times have you seen defenders on television fail to pick up a marker, miss a tackle or header and of course play the suicidal back-pass because they are being harried by an attacker? Nowadays football seems to be all about getting the ball in the back of the net and whilst it is true goals win games it is worthwhile remembering that if you score a goal you can still lose the game but it is impossible to do so if you don’t concede.

The Whole of Football plan’s ultimate goal has to be the improvement of the national team and whilst this focus on the attacking game will help to break down the obdurate defences found in regional competitions when we come up against higher ranked nations we will suffer if we can’t defend. This means in practise that the All Whites World Cup hopes are always going to be high as we qualify from the Oceania group but, unless we have an inspired couple of games, we will fail at the final hurdle time after time.

Respect For Referees

In his last game the Boy gave away what I can only describe as, being a father, a rather dubious penalty. After the match I happened to see the referee in the bar and I decided to question him on his decision. In my defence I don’t usually seek out the boy’s referees but I knew the referee in question from work and I listened to his explanation of why he had given the penalty and he listened to why I thought he had got it wrong.

The whole conversation lasted less than five minutes before we embarked on more serious subjects, like what a prat Big Sam had been, but one thing that he said really made an impression on me. He asked me to thank the Boy for his politeness when he asked why he had been penalised. Listening to my friend I was shocked by some of the names he had been called, not only by players’ parents but also by the twelve and thirteen year olds he refereed.

At almost any youth match these days there is the type of parent who stands and bays from the side line, criticising the referee, the coach and the players, in a voice so loud that they can be heard on the other side of town. This type of behaviour not only ruins the enjoyment of other parents but also that of the children who are playing and more importantly it does have an effect on the children’s behaviours. In a child’s mind why is it so bad to mimic the foul and abusive language towards the referee that they hear on the side lines?

This disrespect for referees has been brought into the spotlight recently in New Zealand’s Stirling Sports Premiership because, just like watching your kids junior team, the spectators are right next to the action and the crowds are small enough that you can usually hear most of what is being said. Incidents like linesmen being called blind c**** and a female referee being told a decision she had given was only a foul in the women’s game!

Both of the above comments were made by players on the pitch and the players involved should have been dealt with severely by New Zealand football but as spectators we have a responsibility too.

I am not asking you to not get angry when a decision goes against your team just suggesting when you do shout out your disbelief to be mindful of the language you use. Football, as any fan will tell you, is all about passion and passion can be a good thing but it can also be dangerous and so often it is not left at the sporting ground when the match is finished but leads to irrational hatreds.

Football should also be something which generations can share together, a time for parent and child to bond in despair as they watch their team lose again or to celebrate together as their favourite players lifts the cup. And it is because of these bonds being forged that it can be also be a time when a child’s behaviours are formed. So the next time you want to shout obscenities at the referee, as he is conned by a dive from an opposing player please, be mindful of the child that may be sitting next to you, your restraint just may help them out in later life.

Pragmatism AND Common Sense

A few years ago the Boy took part in a regional age group competition and whilst his team didn’t set the world on fire they had, what could be considered, a good tournament. Central to their success was the fact they had two of the best forwards in the competition and, whilst at one end the Boy and his teammates kept the opposition frustrated, these two forwards ran havoc amongst most of the teams they played.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was disappointed to see that both of these players were now playing in midfield, one as a deep lying wide player and the other sat just in front of the defence. Whilst neither of these players looked effective in their new positions, what disappointed me the most was when I asked the Boy why they had changed, he informed me that the coach had told them they need to be able to play in different positions if they want to succeed in the modern game.

On the face of it this may be regarded as sound advice, in the modern game there are a lot of players who are required to play in multiple positions for their clubs, remember Mame Diouf playing at right back in extra time for Stoke against Chelsea? And this is one of the considerations outlined in New Zealand’s Whole of Football Plan. But I would argue that unless you are a freakish enigma such as James Milner, a player who seems to be able to play most positions on the park with consummate ease, there are natural areas of delineation for every player on the football pitch.

In the case of the two ex-forwards now masquerading as midfielders both of these players have an inbuilt instinct to do one thing, put the ball in the back of the net, and when they take to the pitch that is all they think about. But in taking them away from their natural action areas you are removing them from where they are most effective. Both of these players had OK tournaments but each was responsible for putting their defence under pressure because they were naturally drawn to the opposition’s penalty area. You may argue that these players need to learn discipline and how to play how their coach wants but I would suggest the coach needs to identify what his players’ strengths are and to set up his team accordingly. Otherwise when, or if, these players return to where they want to play you will have replaced an instinctive goal scorer with a forward who is always looking to defend.

At the moment I know it is the vogue to have teams who defend from the front and attackers who are programmed to work hard and look for their supporting players but, as I have mentioned in previous posts, football is ever changing and, what is trending right now in the professional game will not necessarily be the same when the young players of today are old enough to be considered. Would you play Messi at right back or John Terry on the right wing? Would you swap Shawcross and Shaqiri’s staring positions? Holland’s “Total Football” of the seventies, which is the basis of today’s fluid formations worked because of the players at Rinus Michels’ disposal but it was also laced with a huge dose of pragmatism and it is this pragmatism which needs to be exercised when coaches begin to swap players from position to position.

And it is this pragmatism which I feel is missing as teams try to implement the currently popular fluid formations which we see used so effectively by the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona. How many times this season have you seen goals conceded because of the mantra “keep the ball at all costs”? With the advent of midfielders playing in defence, think John Stones and David Luiz, the art of defending is rapidly becoming eroded and it is the prevalence of midfielders spreading into every position on the football pitch which I fear the Whole of Football Plan will replicate. Total Football was all about players being able to play in any position not players playing the same way wherever they are on the park. It was about centre forwards, wingers, centre halves and fullbacks and not just about utility players, it had at its core gifted individuals which made the system work and its success began to wane with those players. A lesson perhaps for those who maintain it is all about having a common system throughout your club or federation?

Those two players may have had OK tournaments but the frustrating thing as a spectator was they were both better than the players who replaced them up front and if they had swapped I don’t think either of their replacements would have minded. One plays central midfield for his club side whilst the other played right back for the last two tournaments.

Maybe it’s not pragmatism that is required but common sense!

The Manchester United of New Zealand

The news that Auckland City have put their name in the frame, however tentatively, as a candidate for an A-League licence in any future A-League expansion should be greeted with enthusiasm by the New Zealand football public, the Wellington Phoenix and the rest of the Stirling Sports Premiership.

Despite the initial shock of losing the premier team in the Stirling Sports Premiership, fellow teams and administrators should look upon Auckland City trying to take the next step up as an opportunity for their teams to capitalise on and become the next Auckland City.

Few football fans in New Zealand will have been unaware of Auckland City’s recent performances at the World Club Championship but if they do move to the A-League, just like the Phoenix, they will be ineligible to represent New Zealand in the Oceanic Champions League. This means that the likes of Waitakere United, Team Wellington and Canterbury United have a chance to reach the pinnacle of the world club game and would be able to benefit from the exposure and financial rewards this would offer. And for those football fans living on the South Island hopefully one of the Uniteds, Canterbury, Southern or Tasman can benefit by challenging to be one of the dominant teams in the Stirling Sports Premiership and provide the South Island the exposure its dedicated footballing community deserves.

As for the Wellington Phoenix, having another New Zealand team in the A-League will provide a domestic rivalry of the type that drives any great club. Where would Celtic be without Rangers and what about the passion when Manchester United play Liverpool, not to mention Real Madrid and Barcelona’s rivalry which transcends football.

In addition, if Auckland were to get one of the two rumoured expansion places, it would be a sign the A-League has mellowed in its views about having a team from their Trans-Tasman cousins. The issues around the Phoenix’s licence renewal have been well documented and as fans we all need to buy into the culture and the club to prove to the Australians we deserve to be in the A-League but how much easier would that be if we had the incentive of trying to get the better of our Auckland cousins.

However, the A-League’s prevarications around the Phoenix’s licence renewal last year are one of the reasons why I fear Auckland City will be down the list when it comes to preferred expansion options, put simply the Australian’s are focused on the Australian game. Whilst this may be reasonable I hope the A-League decision makers can look beyond their own shores and realise Auckland is the fifth biggest city in Australasia and as such has a potentially massive fan base.

It may seem strange I am advocating a team that didn’t even win its domestic title last year but they are the biggest team in the league and their promotion would be a massive boost for the game in New Zealand, from the increased exposure to the doubling of opportunities for young players, to potentially more All White Internationals being able to earn a living in the country that they represent. So for now I’ll cross my fingers, hope the Phoenix’s recent good form continues and of course hope anyone but Auckland City win the Stirling Sports Premiership.

They may be the brightest hope for the future of the game in this country but they are still the Manchester United of New Zealand.