2010 will always be remembered in New Zealand footballing circles as the All Whites’ year, and rightly so - what they achieved in returning home undefeated from the World Cup Finals was beyond the wildest dreams of just about anybody, and they fully deserved the headlines and adulation their efforts realised.
One aspect in particular fascinated this writer. The sheer volume of "fair-weather friends", particularly in media circles, who emerged from the undergrowth suddenly pledging their allegiance to football, having been conspicuous by their absence for many a moon prior.
While their involvement was welcome - and a hearty ‘Well done!’ to NZ Football’s Media Manager, Jamie Scott, and his team for their efforts in keeping on top of all the extra demands last year is most apt at this point - there is no denying their appearance prompted the silent singing of a few bars of the old terrace chant, "Where were you when we were crap?", at various points during the year by those who’ve stuck with the ship during far less heady times - infamous losses to Vanuatu (2004) and, in 1997, both Papua New Guinea and Indonesia spring to mind as dark days in NZ’s not-too-distant past.
There are no such concerns where NZ women’s football is concerned, of course. Even in heady times, the fourth estate has, by and large, either turned a blind eye or, sadly, simply chosen to ignore the efforts and achievements of our finest female footballers. (Mind, with the obvious exception of netball, that statement applies to just about every other sport played by women in this country - yes, even rugby!)
Just as well someone still loves you, cherubs! And is more than happy to continue to endeavour to do justice to your efforts, dedication and commitment by way of the written word in this, my 25th season in NZ women’s soccer!
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be champagne and roses all round, and nor should it be. There are occasions when constructive criticism is called for, and as the following review of NZ women’s football in 2010 will reveal, there are a few things which took place last year deserving of same, just as there are some achievements which are deserving of praise.
Let’s start with one of the latter aspects - another year of progress and improvement from the Football Ferns. After a sluggish start against our West Island friends, John Herdman’s charges produced a sustained run of form which saw them narrowly miss out on winning the Cyprus Cup, and only denied a place in the Peace Queen Cup final by the toss of a coin.
In between times, they made the sort of statement one likes - nay, given our resources, expects - to see from New Zealand teams of either gender when taking on their Oceania rivals by handing out some resounding hidings en route to qualifying for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals, scoring fifty goals without conceding in five games and producing some fine football in the process.
Add to this numerous individual achievements:
Ali Riley winning the Rookie of the Year award in her championship-winning WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) campaign;
Amber Hearn’s Golden Boot-winning exploits at both the Cyprus Cup and OFC Women’s Nations Cup;
Hayley Moorwood securing a contract to play in the English Women’s Super League with Chelsea;
Rebecca Smith is playing a pivotal role in Wolfsburg’s best-ever season in Germany’s Frauen Bundesliga;
European experience in high-calibre competitions enjoyed by Kirsty Yallop (Kristianstads, Sweden), Hannah Bromley (IF Floya, Norway - she has since transferred to Herforder SV, Germany), and Lauren Mathis (FC Zurich, Switzerland - in the UEFA Women‘s Champions League)
and it’s safe to say that things are looking pretty promising for the champions of Oceania as they embark on a FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign which - this writer is quietly confident about this - will see the Football Ferns make New Zealand footballing history for all the right reasons.
While the "shop window" team is performing impressively on the world stage, their younger compatriots endured FIFA age-grade Women’s World Cup Finals campaigns which will linger long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.
I expressed in the aftermath of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Finals in Germany how disappointed I was with the displays of the Junior Ferns via a thorough (read six A4 pages!) review of their efforts, so see no need to repeat that verbatim here.
Suffice to say, a lot of things took place which were decidedly dissatisfying on a number of counts, to put it mildly, with the overall outcome amounting to a backward step for the women’s game in this country.
A number of our brightest teenage footballing talents were members of that squad, among them Rosie White, Annalie Longo, Hannah Wall and Anna Green, to mention just four. For many of them, it was the first time in their careers where they had been associated with failure, and it’s an experience which would have hurt, make no
It’s also one from which I’ve no doubt they’ll bounce back all the stronger, both as players and, every bit as importantly, as people. It’s not something they’ll want to endure again, and I’m sure the memory of it will spur them on to better things for both club and country in the months and years to come.
Furthermore, lessons from that tournament have been taken on board by all concerned, I’m sure, so that come the 2012 Finals - perhaps to be held here - the Junior Ferns will be a fully functioning footballing unit which will do much to restore a tarnished reputation via on- and off-field deeds.
Their younger counterparts, the Young Ferns, were also in World Cup Finals action in 2010, and like their older counterparts, lost every game - undeservedly against Venezuela, narrowly against Spain, and heavily against Japan, a game for which they simply had nothing left to give physically, having given their all in the earlier fixtures.
Straight away, that points to failings in preparations for the tournament, and this is an area where NZ Football let this particular team down. In a sense, this squad was, indirectly, an unsuspecting victim of the All Whites’ World Cup campaign.
With so much focus on and so many resources required for issues relating to South Africa 2010, the Young Ferns were largely left to their own devices, coach Dave Edmondson effectively having to cobble things together with minimal assistance from the national body - the three-match tour to Sydney in July only arose thanks to the coach’s efforts behind the scenes.
For some members of this squad, that trip to West Island was their first time out of New Zealand. On the second occasion they passed through Auckland Airport Customs, they were heading to Trinidad & Tobago, via Miami, where they stayed for a week to try to acclimatise.
While there, they lost narrowly to the eventual champions, Korea Republic, and let’s not forget Japan and Spain were runners-up and third place-getters respectively at T&T 2010. So for a team which had nothing like the preparation afforded their predecessors at this level, both time- and game-wise, I think it’s fair to say the Young Ferns 2010 version made as good a fist of things as they could, in the circumstances.
But - and it is a big but! - the efforts of both the Junior and Young Ferns in 2010 were a lot worse than their 2008 counterparts. Fourteenth-placed finishes this time round, compared to being a solitary goal away from making the last eight in both 2008 Finals, certainly gets one wondering where things have gone awry, and why there has been regression rather than improvement.
I mentioned earlier the resources New Zealand has at their disposal compared to our Pacific Island rivals. These include more women’s football-focused personnel - Bev Priestman, Simon Eaddy and Tony Readings have come on board full-time in the last couple of years - and finances-wise, thanks to our friends at SPARC acknowledging the progress made by NZF in women’s football.
A significant chunk of this funding has gone towards establishing programmes, e.g. Females In Football, which have as their objective ensuring that the opportunities for potential female internationals to slip through the net are now significantly limited. But while this highly important future-proofing plan has been undertaken, it has perhaps come at the expense of progressing the present - short-term pain for long-term gain, one hopes.
Compare the preparation programmes of the two 2008 campaigns with those of 2010. The number of opportunities to get together and play as a group, both on the international stage and against the U-15 boys in the Auckland Metropolitan League, were significantly fewer, and it’s my belief that this was one of the factors in the poorer showings on the world stage last year.
There were others, of course - you can argue over the merits of individual selections forever and a day, for instance. That said, the players chosen should be there on merit, the best around in their positions, and played in those positions.
Let’s be frank - slap bang in the middle of a World Cup Finals campaign is not the time for an attack-minded player to be taking a crash course in the finer points of the fullback role!! Heaven help us if the Junior Ferns had come up against eventual winners Germany, with Golden Ball winner Alexandra Popp in full flow down the left … doesn’t bear thinking about, that, believe me!
I’m a firm believer in the benefits to be had from basing all NZ-based squad members in Auckland for the duration of a campaign, as in 2008, rather than having players dotted around the countryside and left to their own devices in between convening irregularly.
This country’s talent pool and overall resources are too limited to allow us to entertain any other approach, to be blunt. If we want to not only compete but progress on the world stage, we have to maximise our resources as best we can.
That can only happen through centralising operations, and if that means players making another sacrifice for the greater good by relocating, so be it. Do you want to be a top footballer
representing your country on the world stage, or a talented footballer left to wonder what might have been because you included an ‘i’ when spelling ‘team’?
There are other questions applicable to each campaign - could certain aspects of each have been done better? Were fitness programmes adhered to? Were coaching appointments made and players identified early enough to maximise the time available in the campaign? Could the way player selections were made be improved upon?
Some of these are being addressed right now. Which brings us nicely onto the domestic scene, in particular the National Women’s League. It didn’t take place in 2010, but has instead been replaced by a Youth League variant which will kick off - rather than conclude - the women’s season for the next three years, before the unrestricted National League returns in 2014.
Needless to say, the revamped competition has its plus points, the biggest one of which sees it serving as a vital means of player identification for our U-17 and, particularly, U-20 squads for the next couple of years, thereby tackling one of the aforementioned aspects of the ill-fated 2010 campaigns straight away.
You can’t please all-comers, though. It would be good to see even more members of the Football Ferns playing in it than are doing so, but due to a combination of personal choice and an over-age player restriction applicable to the Youth League - each squad can field three such players out of a total of five at any one time - it means it’s simply not feasible.
That restriction has effectively curtailed the aspirations of a sizable group of players to whom representing their province each season meant a great deal. While international aspirations were beyond them, the likes of Clare Warner (Mainland), Patrice Bourke (Capital) and Tina Stevenson (Central) gave their all and then some when it came to doing their utmost to win National League honours.
The change of player emphasis, and the limited opportunities available for those who are good enough, but no longer young enough, sends out a message which could, to some extent, see those players seriously reconsider their footballing options.
Will playing for their clubs each winter be enough to sustain their long-held love for and interest in a sport to which they still want to contribute at the highest level available to all players? Time will tell, but it’s certainly not a situation which provides satisfaction for all.
Mention of clubs allows us to touch briefly on that aspect of the domestic scene, the highlight of which was one of the all-time-great National Women’s Knockout Cup Finals, in which Claudelands Rovers edged Three Kings United by the odd goal in nine to claim their maiden cup triumph, Olivia Chance’s hat-trick the individual highlight.
Their victory marked a season which saw a bit of a changing of the guard in the women’s game, brought about by the remarkable circumstances surrounding perennial league and cup contenders Lynn-Avon United, who came close to being unable to field a team at all in 2010 as the cream of their crop of fine footballers were lured away to pastures new, both at home and abroad.
Glenfield Rovers, in the club’s Golden Jubilee season, broke through for a maiden Northern Premier Women’s League title, while Marist Wellington (Central Region), Coastal Spirit (Mainland champions for the second time in three years) and Roslyn Wakari (Football South) claimed the other regional championships.
Marist also won the Kelly Cup in Wellington, where Brooklyn Northern United were crowned champions, while the Reta Fitzpatrick Cup was withheld this year, a victim of the Canterbury earthquake.
Mt. Albert Grammar claimed National Tournament honours for the first time in Secondary Schoolgirls football, the source of the other highly notable achievement in 2010, which saw a long-lost honour claimed at last.
The Deane Low Trophy has been contested between the cream of New Zealand and Australian Secondary Schoolgirls footballers since 1993, and in all that time, it had never left the clutches of the West Islanders.
But as we enjoy the summer of 2011, the silverware is where it belongs thanks to the 2010 crop of Kiwi youngsters, virtually all of whom had played in a World Cup Finals earlier in the year.
The disappointments from those experiences in Germany and Trinidad & Tobago turned to sheer delight in Tweed Heads, where the old enemy was well and truly put to the sword, particularly in the final match of the series - it doesn’t get much better than a 5-0 win over Australia, does it?
So to 2011, FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals year. The quadrennial celebration of world women’s football promises to be a special event, but this writer is quietly confident that it will be especially so for New Zealand, with the Football Ferns poised to follow the example of the NZ Secondary Schoolgirls in rewriting the record books at last.