Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Herbert dangling close to the edge

Former players say Ricki Herbert likes to build a siege mentality. Photo / Getty Images.
Former players say Ricki Herbert likes to build a siege mentality. Photo / Getty Images.

Ricki Herbert is feeling the heat. Untouchable two years ago, the Phoenix and All Whites coach's future now seems more uncertain.

Still the most powerful man in New Zealand football, the last 12 months have caused his managerial abilities to be scrutinised more than ever.

First, there was the debacle at the Oceania Nations Cup in Honiara, where the ill-prepared and tactically outgunned All Whites were stunned by New Caledonia, the worst performance by the national team since 2004 and a result that cost New Zealand Football millions of dollars.

At club level, the Phoenix assembled probably the best roster in their history this season but have endured an awful campaign. Westpac Stadium used to be a fortress but they currently have the worst home record in the league (four wins from 10 games).

In 2013, they have one win in eight games but it is the manner of the defeats that have caused most alarm; the 7-1 embarrassment in Sydney, the 5-0 drubbing on the Central Coast, even last week's defeat to a struggling Roar team coming off an Asian Champions League match three days earlier.

"It's hard to see any light at the end of this tunnel," says one former All White. "For all their shortcomings over the years, the one thing that used to define the Phoenix was their fighting spirit. They would fight till the bitter end, no matter what the situation. That's all gone."

"I don't put my head in that space," says Herbert of his future, in his first major interview this year. "As I have always said to the media, it's out of my control. I don't employ myself. I've worked hard for the club and I feel proud of where the club is at. Five years ago, we probably weren't going to have one. So to have [reached] three finals series - I'm not saying that cuts you slack - [but] the new owners will make their own decisions about positions at the club, mine included. I am contracted for two more years and it is my intention to be a strong part of it."

It is tricky to assess Herbert's achievements at the Phoenix. His teams have done far more than their predecessors (the Football Kingz and New Zealand Knights) and the Phoenix's path to credibility was definitely quicker than the Warriors, Breakers and most of the ANZ Championship netball sides. The run to the preliminary final in 2009-10 captured the attention of the nation and Herbert was hamstrung by off-field dramas in the latter years of the Terry Serepisos era.

Statistically, Herbert ranks 12th of the 16 coaches who have been in charge for at least 50 A-League games and has the worst record of the eight with more than 100 matches. The Phoenix have reached the play-offs three times, though the A-League (where 60 per cent of the teams qualify) finals system is the most generous of any Australasian sporting competition.

They have almost always struggled across the Tasman and are the current team (apart from expansion sides Melbourne Heart and Western Sydney) who have not reached an A-League grand final.

There have been some recruitment successes (Andrew Durante, Paul Ifill, Chris Greenacre among others) but these are probably outweighed by the failures. Herbert doesn't have a strong track record in developing attacking players and compares poorly with his contemporaries in the realm of technical analysis.

His detractors also point to the reluctance to promote local talent, instead often filling his squads with Australians of varying quality. That has turned slightly this year, with the appearance of Louis Fenton and Tyler Boyd but historically, the youth spots at the club were rarely held by Kiwis.

"Above all else, the greatest shame is that over the years the Phoenix have missed a lot opportunities to take the game forward in this country," says one prominent club coach. "They have used a lot of tired, ordinary, journeyman-type Australians and I don't think that is what the club is here for. There are plenty more like Marco Rojas in this country who just need an opportunity but it's hard to get a look in."

Former players say Herbert likes to build a siege mentality, an 'us and them' approach within the dressing room, which has worked at times. He is loyal to players, which makes it hard for others to get a chance. Though he has talked of new styles, his tactical approach hasn't deviated much.

"Ricki has the same strengths - and the same weaknesses - that he did 15 years ago," says one long-time associate. "Nothing has really changed."

"I think I have [evolved] quite a lot," says Herbert. "I'm not sure if my career is easily comparable to a lot of coaches around the world. You had a national team that had fallen off the radar; that was more of a project than a job - how do we build a team that can bring some pride back and qualify for a World Cup? Then to take over a broken-down franchise at the Knights and later be part of a group trying to build a new one, then within five years [have] a change of ownership - that is a bit unique in a coaching job. I haven't had the kind of job where you have all the players, training grounds and budgets and then you are bottom of the league and you get fired."

Herbert has an unusual relationship with the media; he can be friendly and affable but keeps cards close to his chest. Unusual decisions - like benching Mark Paston for much of last season while the cumbersome Tony Warner was preferred in goal - were never explained.

"I learnt a few years ago not to read too much into the media," says Herbert. "One of the few times that I did, my wife cut up all of the good stuff from the [2010] World Cup, which will be great for the kids in a few years. I've kept a balanced view there.

"This club has got a big heart that is still ticking really strongly," adds Herbert. "You need to take in the big picture. Some people get a little emotional, outside the club and some parts of the media. I've tried to remove myself from that and [focus on] what I think is right."

But how does Herbert explain this season?

"I believe this is becoming a very strong football club," he says. "If this league was so easy - look at Perth; [they] were in the grand final last year and they are only a few points ahead of us. Brisbane have been in the grand final twice and they are down near the bottom. Clubs go in cycles and perhaps this is one.

"The league is getting better - look at players like [Alessandro] Del Piero, [Emile] Heskey and [Shinji] Ono - the weekly challenges now are harder. We have grown some younger players this year and I have made some decisions because they are in the best interests of the club. If the results don't show that this year, then that's fine, but I believe it is the right path."

Herbert's standing - and monopoly - over the two top jobs means there is often a code of silence among players and other coaches, despite concern over the plight of the Phoenix. Many of those spoken to asked to remain unnamed.

"I don't know if we really understand professional football in this country," says one former All White. "There seems to be a genuine belief among the administrators, even those that have been in the game a long time, that Ricki Herbert is the only person who can coach at a professional level in New Zealand. It defies all rational logic - there are plenty who could, not to mention thousands across the world."

"The question in my head," says another former national representative, "is what gives people the impression Ricki can turn things around [at the Phoenix]? Where is the evidence from his career that shows he could do that? It should be all about what is best for the game and someone else deserves a chance."

"I've still got the belief I can get the best out of this squad," concludes Herbert. "You could say, to a certain degree, it's transforming. It's similar to the All Whites; in 2005, no one wanted to play for that team. It's evolving at the club now, too. You have a lot of guys who have dug deep, done the hard yards and managed to get the club there and now you are going to see one or two new [players] from a recruitment point of view.

"The club wants to be in the finals series every year but I don't know a club that has done that. I see it is becoming a big club. It's just employed a sports scientist; we've never had that before. I'm kind of excited; you can be bottom of the league and have your lip on the ground but from a personal view of someone that has been involved in football for a long time, I am really proud and excited about where football is going."

- Herald on Sunday

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