Petone Arena A Game Changer

Hutt City Council’s announcement this week that, in conjunction with Gareth Morgan and the Phoenix, it is pursuing a 12,000 seat stadium at Petone Rec is tremendously exciting.

Wellington has repeatedly proven itself to be the home of football in this country, with two sell-out All Whites matches (one of them a dead rubber), a sell-out exhibition game against LA Galaxy, and of course the continued presence of the Wellington Phoenix.

But Wellington is also the only large metropolitan area in New Zealand without a stadium built for football.

Auckland has former Kingz base, North Harbour Stadium, and one-time home of the New Zealand Knights Mt Smart Stadium. Hamilton has Waikato Stadium. Christchurch has AMI Stadium. Dunedin has the absolutely tremendous Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Wellington has Newtown Park, which is the wrong shape anyway and has a running track around it. It’s a sad state of affairs. The Petone Arena proposal is an opportunity for Wellington to put a marker down and build a top-drawer football-first stadium.

It’s also a chance for the Phoenix to find their financial feet. An ever-present crowd of 6-8,000 is something to be proud of in a small town like Wellington. Per capita, that’s like Sydney churning out 48-64,000 every week for its two clubs. More than respectable. And it should be a crowd that can sustain the team, but the intractable monopolists running the Wellington Regional Stadium Trust are too profit focused.

Westpac Stadium is far too expensive. The Petone Arena will allow Phoenix to control their own financial destiny, and the Stadium Trust has only itself to blame for driving the Phoenix away.

All of which is both interesting and very important.

But I have a chubby over the Petone Arena for other reasons. At a much more personal level it’s bloody exciting for football fans. Just like watching a play in a school hall isn’t as good as watching it in a West End theatre, watching football on a cricket ground simply isn’t as engaging, fun, intense or pleasurable as watching football in a football ground.

Grass roots football fans around the country have a strong attachment to New Zealand’s smattering of proper football grounds: David Farrington Park, Kiwitea Street, Bluewater Stadium, English Park.

Those grounds are intimate, fans get to experience the game in a way that is both visceral and addictive. The thought of watching A-League football up close and personal like that can only get your heart rate up if you’re a football fan.

Gareth Morgan and the Hutt City Council have done an amazing job in getting this proposal this far this fast. It’s quite breathtaking. Now it’s up to the rate-paying football fans of the Hutt Valley to swing in behind it and make it happen. I hope they do.

Phoenix in Central League? Why not?

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At a fan forum last week, the Wellington Phoenix mentioned in passing that they were hoping to put a youth team into the 2014 Central League.

The Central League is the lower North Island’s premier club competition, one step below the ASB Premiership franchise league. It has a proud recent history as one of the strongest leagues in New Zealand, boasting 5 of the last 10 winners of the Chatham Cup.

The Phoenix want to use it to develop their youngsters by entering a group from their Football School of Excellence (= academy). The Phoenix currently have a bunch of 16-20 year olds training with them not signed to professional contracts. Some of them play already in the Central League. Clayton Lewis (pictured below) plays for Wellington Olympic for example.

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The idea is that they get to train together directly under Phoenix guidance, as well as play together against quality teams during the winter. Presumably a bunch of them will also play for Team Wellington in the summer.

There are two obvious ways to include the Phoenix Academy in the currently ten-team Central League. One is to have them replace the relegated team, Wellington United, and keep the league at ten teams. The other is to allow Wellington United to be relegated, bring both Stop Out and Palmerston North Marist up, and use the Phoenix Academy to fill the last spot in an expanded twelve-team league.

Some of the hurdles the idea has to overcome are:

  • the Central League rules,
  • the perception that the Phoenix Academy is a proxy for Miramar Rangers
  • the additional cost if the league is expanded, especially for teams from outside Wellington, and
  • the effect it might have on the integrity of this strong competition.

The Central League rules are, like most of the regulations governing the game in Wellington, horrible. There is a larger than small number of parties with a potential oar in this decision:

  • “The Manager” who is currently Jamie Cross at Capital Football,
  • The “Central League committee”, currently Chris Canton, Richard Reid, their counterparts at Central Football, alonside club appointees, and
  • “Club Representatives” who can be read to be representatives of any Central Football or Capital Football club, but more likely will be read as representatives of Central League clubs.

What’s not clear is who is empowered to make such a significant decision. The regulations suggest that The Manager manages the league with a very broad mandate, but those same regulations also say the league must be ten teams. That doesn’t bode well for Stop Out or Marist if this is to go ahead next year.

The handshake agreement that Central League clubs have that any changes to the format of the league won’t take effect until two seasons in the future also makes next year a very unlikely timeframe.

The Manager works for Capital Football, giving him a significant bias and making him probably the wrong guy to decide. It seems more like a decision that should fall on the Central League Committee, as the representative group of both Capital Football, Central Football and the league clubs.

With Stop Out in the mix and potentially impacted, this is a discussion and decision that Capital Football chairman, and proud Stop Out man, Chris Canton should stay well clear of.

Other clubs, particularly below Central League, will justifiably wonder whether this is a play by Miramar Rangers, who now have intimate ties with the Phoenix, to weaken them and attract players to Dave Farrington Park.

It’s a reasonable fear. Of last year’s Phoenix Academy intake, a large percentage ended up in black and blue. Miramar Rangers first team manager Ryan Holland is now on the Phoenix org chart.

With that relationship, could the Phoenix not use Rangers as their vehicle to play their kids?

They almost certainly could, and it may be the easiest solution of all to get what they want, but it would turn one of Wellington’s premier and most successful clubs into a Phoenix nursery, something Miramar stalwarts past and present would resist for sure.

And what of the Central League itself? A strong, and strengthening, competition full of good players. What does having a Phoenix team full of kids add to that league? And should the integrity of that league be compromised for the greater good of the Phoenix?

This is a league, don’t forget, that has produced Louis Fenton (Tawa AFC) and Alex Rufer (Western Suburbs) already, and has nurtured a bunch more youngsters currently in contention for Phoenix Academy spaces.

A Phoenix Academy team in the Central League risks being of variable quality, and inconsistent form, but having a (potentially significant) impact on the outcome of the league. Diluting its quality, and affecting its outcome, without adding anything much.

And that is just a beginning. So many other permutations exist, and discussions have not yet even begun. It’s hard to see a short path through all of these speed bumps, making it premature of the Phoenix to announce it to fans before putting it in (even wet) cement.

Phoenix end on the bottom, but on the up.

avoidthespoonGreat to see the Wellington Phoenix finish their season with a credible performance, albeit a 3-2 loss, against Melbourne Victory.

Ricki Herbert led the club through some of its toughest times, from inception, through the Terry Serepisos saga and to within a game of the grand final. Nobody can deny his place in football history in this country.

But it is equally impossible to deny that since his resignation the Phoenix have played with an attacking zest that was never a hallmark of his time in charge.

Stein Huysegems and Paul Ifill in particular seem to have thrived in his absence, or under the oversight of Chris Greenacre depending on how you want to look at it.

Greenacre must surely have a chance of the top job.

Inexperienced? Yes. But don’t write him off too quickly. Greenacre remains well connected in English football (particularly at the level where the Phoenix are likely to pick up the bargain signings that they’re likely to be looking for). He has clearly demonstrated an ability to guide his team to play the sort of football that the Phoenix board demand. And he can hit the ground running, familiar with the league, the staff, and the setup.

Would an Ernie Merrick or a John Kosmina really be better? Are the Welnix likely to fork out for genuine European quality? I guess we’ll find out, but for me, we could certainly do worse than what we already have.

Game on for Whole of Football Plan

Today, John Herdman is coaching the Canadian women’s soccer team, with his family about to join him in his new home country.

Back here in little old New Zealand, a workforce of regional development officers throughout New Zealand are busy embarking on year two of implemention the plan that Herdman wrote and championed, New Zealand Football’s Whole of Football Plan (WOFP).

That won’t mean much to you unless you’re very young, or a parent of a young player, but the WOFP is the hook that New Zealand Football is hanging its hat on and which, if followed through, will shape the next generation of footballers this country produces.

Like Herdman himself, the WOFP is slick and professional.  It looks the part, and sets out a methodical, if not revolutionary, module-based structure for the game from the very young to the very old, through players, coaches, referees and club administrators.

It is impressive, if only for its ambitious scope.  Under the hood is a raft of reporting and measurement processes the likes of which football, and indeed sport generally, in New Zealand has never seen before.

The reporting is the true revolution of the Plan, which otherwise is based around some quite unremarkable football principles.  Measuring and tracking the sport at a grass roots level has never been done to this level of granularity before, and is the true task facing NZF’s football development officers throughout the country.

SPARC liked it, enough to sink more than $2m into its implementation.

That implementation is at various stages depending on where you are in the country, but most of the football family will be affected over time.  Whether you’re a young lad now playing much smaller sided games, or a teenager aspiring to the Talent Centre program that is now consistent across the country, or a coach who might now be working through the new coaching qualifications framework, you’re going to experience the WOFP somehow.

Its success or failure will very much determine not only John Herdman’s legacy, but the success of the sport in this country in fifteen years’ time, when the crop of players that have grown through it are in their 20s.

Only then will we know if Herdman was right, or came up short.

Charitable smoke and mirrors

Sadly, nobody in the football community will be surprised to learn that there is more to the new NZF Football Foundation than meets the eye.

I’ve been meaning, since its launch, to have a look at the legal document underlying the Foundation to see if the press release measured up to the reality.

No guessing what the answer is.

The rules are freely available on the Charities Commission website, so I won’t bore you too much – you can read them yourselves.  But here are a few things to bear in mind as you’re reading:

1. Billed as a multi-million dollar fund.  NZF have in fact only put $500,000 (the “NZF Fund”) into the Foundation, and only the income generated by that money (which then forms part of the “Core Fund”) is available to the Trustees for disbursement (check out clause 9.1.1).

2. The NZF Fund, which as well as the initial $500k means any money made available to the Foundation by NZF (clause 1.1) so would include any further money NZF put in, must be held on call by the Foundation (clause 9.1.1).

3. Even better, the Foundation may apply the NZF Fund money in accordance with any written request from New Zealand Football (clause 9.1.3), enabling NZF to effectively get its money out again at any time.

NZF no doubt would tell us that this is all prudent and necessary.  But, coupled with the requirement that any application for money from the Foundation be “prepared in conjunction with [your] regional federation” it does seem that NZF are really keeping pretty tight control on their money, rather than freeing up a new charity to “provide a long term boost to the game” in New Zealand.

To me, it all rather sounds more like good publicity than good for the game.

Don’t you think?

Is Browny our Beckham?

If you’d asked me on Saturday May 23rd whether a last gasp 2-1 loss to the Socceroos would be a good result for the All Whites I’d not have hesitated in saying “yes”.

If you’d thrown in the fact that we would lead 1-0 and dominate significant portions of the match I’d have been falling over myself to take that.

But if you’d told me that all that positivity would come at the expense of Tim Brown, lost to a challenge from that most unprofessional of professionals Vince Grella, I would have been hard pressed to make a decision.

Current reports are giving Brown an unspecified chance of making the World Cup following surgery on his broken humerus scheduled for tomorrow (Thursday 27/5).

Realistically though it means Brown will be out of action for at best the rest of the All Whites’ build up in Europe.  He will miss the altitude work that Austria is designed to offer, and he will not play any part in the preparatory friendlies that will establish tactics and personnel ahead of the Slovakia game on June 12th.

If he does manage to get himself to the Cup it will be a monumental effort.  And that is why we should take him anyway.

Brown is to New Zealand what David Beckham is to England.  He is a good player, with tremendous athletic ability and work rate his trademark.  But it is what he brings to the team other than his footballing ability that lifts him from a capable midfielder to an indispensible team man.

He has a presence.  A quiet, articulate confidence about him that brings others along for the ride.  And that helps others share his desire to win. 

Ben Sigmund summed it up when he said “you don’t realise how much you miss Tim until he’s not on the park.”

If, like Beckham, he is unable to play in South Africa, he is someone that any coach would want in the dressing room.  And while it might be heartbreaking for him to tread on the grass at the World Cup without being able to lace up his boots it is exactly that desire to be there, and the fact he will wear it on his sleeve, that will propel the rest of the squad.

Every team, no matter how talented, needs winners.  Weak teams like New Zealand need them in spades.  We can’t afford to leave one of our best at home, even if he can only sit in the dugout and inspire.

Suspended Moss on the pine a roll of the dice for Herbert

Glen Moss is suspended from international football for two more matches, and so cannot play the first two games of the All Whites’ World Cup campaign.

Much has been made by the Dominion Posts’s Fred Woodcock and Coen Lammers today about the risk that Ricki Herbert has taken in not selecting four goalkeepers in his World Cup squad.

And rightly so.

Popular mythology has it that Herbert can replace any goalkeeper at any time during the competition if injury rules them out.  This comforting notion would mean that, if first choice Mark Paston was to get injured in the All Whites’ first game against Slovakia, James Bannatyne would have to play the remainder of that match, but Herbert could bring in a replacement (probably Auckland City’s Jacob Spoonley, although Portland Timbers’ youngster Jake Gleeson may fancy himself an outside chance).

Popular mythology is wrong though.

Fifa’s World Cup regulations are very clear.  Teams can only replace a player on their final list of 23 players in the case of “serious injury up until 24 hours before” the team kicks off its first match. 

After that, Herbert has to live with what he has on the list.

And in our scenario, that would mean 90 minutes for big Jim Bannatyne against Italy, with only an injured Paston on the bench as cover.

A gamble, for sure.  Is it one taken because Moss is the future, or because NZF feel guilty for breaking for Christmas instead of appealing his ludicrous ban?