Soccer's state of play: Critical days for sport's maturity

By David Leggat

All Whites and Blackburn Rovers player Tim Payne (right) works with Sacred Heart's Alistair Tremlett (left) and his fellow students. Photo / APN
All Whites and Blackburn Rovers player Tim Payne (right) works with Sacred Heart's Alistair Tremlett (left) and his fellow students. Photo / APN

New Zealand can once again take a place at soccer's grandest table if they get past Mexico in their qualifying playoff. Victory will mean a third appearance in the finals, and the second in back-to-back tournaments.

All that after a 28-year hiatus since John Adshead and his squad shoved open a door previously seen as unmoveable for New Zealand soccer. So what shape is the game in approaching a huge week for the sport in this country?

In the first of a three-part series, the Herald looks at the state of the game in its developmental areas; and the pathways available to talented young players.

The next two weeks shape up as critical for New Zealand Football.

Win their home and away series against Mexico and it's a third journey to the World Cup, in Brazil next year.

Lose and it's back to ...

Win, and New Zealand's future players who are striving for the top have a new set of players to aspire to emulate, just as golf sensation Lydia Ko, canoeing champion Lisa Carrington and rowing kings Eric Murray and Hamish Bond have lit the flame in luring youngsters to have a crack at their respective sports.

For every Wynton Rufer, Ryan Nelsen, Winston Reid, Fred de Jong, Ivan Vicelich and Marco Rojas there are thousands who don't make it.

There are also thousands who don't fancy following that path, who are happy with their lot at school and age-group level before moving their life in different directions but retain an interest in playing at a lower, or social level.

All major New Zealand sports have their own specific issues to contend with, but they share one common problem: how to retain their young players once they leave school.

In one sense, there's not much they can do. If young men or women are determined to pursue other avenues and step away from a sport, so be it. All a sport can do is try to present itself as appealingly as possible.

There's an old chestnut about soccer being the most popular game among young children, but that it also suffers significant drop-off around the school leaving age. But now there's evidence that the sport is making headway, and certainly winning approval from on high, for the way it is going about arresting the declining participation numbers.

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Five years ago, Sport New Zealand decided it could not be all things to all sports. It targeted a group of sports to ensure they were on the right path to give youth the opportunity to succeed. Put more formally, the aim was to drive behavioural approaches around delivery pathways to provide the best way for talented young people to reach the top.

Netball, rugby, league, hockey and cricket were identified, discussions held, plans laid out, and the outcomes have impressed the Government funding agency. The result may surprise those who take a dim view of NZF's management of the game.

"The others are catching up, but football [soccer] is a leader in the approach of adaptation of their game," Geoff Barry, general manager of sport and recreation for SNZ, said.

"They were all suffering declining numbers in certain segments of ages. Football very much led the pack, but the others, because they've got good intellectual property and grunt in their organisations, are catching up very quickly.

"But without doubt [NZF] had, and still have, leaders in adapting opportunities for kids to learn and play football."

This is not about the All Whites or the ASB Premiership. That's for the next couple of days. It's also not Barry's specific focus area. But within the zone he oversees, he likes what he's seen from NZF.

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The Whole of Football plan, designed - in NZF acting chief executive Mark Aspden's words - "to give people the best experience possible so they want to be part of it as long as possible", takes in a range of soccer forms, such as junior holiday programmes, futsal and schools' involvement, and is having an impact.

Numbers are starting to be crunched. Barry rates the early signs as extremely encouraging.

For example, NZF statistics show a 14 per cent growth since 2010 in registered junior club players; and a 328 per cent jump in junior participation numbers in schools programmes in the past two years. There are 450,000 juniors who have identified themselves as playing soccer, with 207,000 regularly involved in NZF recreational programmes.

"My own view is those numbers are very accurate and very large," Barry said.

"What we're seeing is a large number of kids getting, at a relatively low level, a football experience. So the conversion is if they're having a good experience, they like what they see, they might come back."

That is the theory; the statistics are only two years in and Barry believes that in 2013-14 and 2014-15 a clearer pattern will emerge and "we are pretty confident we'll start to see growth in junior numbers".

Aspden, an Auckland lawyer who has been in the job since July, suspects the organisation has not been as good as it might at "getting the stories out about grassroots".

On the key risk area of school-leaving age, Aspden believes it is common across all sports. Former All White Danny Hay knows all about this.

He's been coaching the Sacred Heart College first XI for six years, during which time the school has jumped from having single-figure teams to 20. Its top team were national champions a couple of years ago, Auckland champions last year.

"It's all there on a platter for them," said Hay, who spent time at Leeds United, then in the English premier league.

"They finish school, have training afterwards and get recognised for their achievements. Once you walk away from that environment you've got to be pro-active yourself, go to a club, get trials and there's far more commitment. Certainly the dynamic does change.

"You do get players [for whom] first XI is going to be the highest level they'll ever play.

"If they're not one of those elite kids by the time they're getting to 16 or 17 they're probably realistic and understand it's never going to happen for them. So they make decisions based on where they're going to take their future."

Barry rates the transition from primary to secondary schools as just as significant as the school-leaving age.

"We definitely need to acknowledge there are periods of transition in life that we all have to battle with. We're really conscious of it but not fighting things that are too hard.

"If the wall's too big you go around it rather than through it and sports are getting better at being more selective around battles that are winnable," Barry said.

Aspden takes a holistic view of the importance of sport, any sport, in a person's developmental years.

"It's absolutely not about trying to knock off, for example, rugby. It's about making football as good as it can be.

"I don't see us competing with other sports. In a way, hopefully, all sports are doing the same, getting more Kiwis active which is great. And if we can increase our total numbers then other sports can as well and that's got to be a good thing for the country."

Barry's final word should be music to the ears of NZF, an organisation which gets its share of operational flak.

"Football is seen as a safe pair of hands, a good organisation, who've got a good balance sheet, are functioning effectively, working to a plan, not flip-flopping, and have a long-term approach to growing their game."

Beating Mexico certainly won't hurt the recruitment drive either.

The series

Tomorrow
We take an in-depth look at the ASB Premiership which kicked off its 10th year last weekend. Is it meeting its initial objectives? We canvas opinions from those in the know. Plus a look at the women's game through the eyes of a current Football Fern.

Thursday
Over the next week New Zealand Football could pocket the biggest windfall in its history. But what has it done with the $10 million nest egg it got in 2009 for qualifying for the last World Cup?

- NZ Herald

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