• Coach Leon Birnie, of Napier, impresses on his national representative age-group women players the importance of using the "modern game against yourselves".
• For Birnie, it's not just about enhancing the prowess of his terrific teenagers but also adding value to his support staff by setting goals they can incrementally evaluate and achieve in gauging their self-worth.
Silence is never deafening for Leon Birnie because that's the dictum which the New Zealand men's football coach of the year draws his blueprint from.
Birnie's mantra for his under-17 national women's representatives and the support coaching stable throughout their campaign has been "work hard in silence and let success be your noise".
The 37-year-old from Napier feels that also is the ideal edict to encapsulate his coaching journey to this juncture of his illustrious career.
"I've never been one to put myself out there to shout from the rooftops what I can do as a coach because people locally can see what I have been able to do so they are beginning to recognise what I can do as a coach and offer," says Birnie, who has held the OFC/NZF A licence for two years, the highest credentials a mentor can hold in the country.
He took his New Zealand teenagers to the giddy heights of the Fifa Under-17 Women's World Cup in Uruguay late last year, returning with a bronze medal, the first for the country in any grade and gender.
About 15 months before they had embarked on the World Cup journey, he had pitched to the girls the significance of toiling in solitude.
With players scattered around the country, working individually or in pairs or clusters of threes it was imperative they found a rapport with their national coaching staff daily.
"We said to them all the work you do now — getting up at 6am, going to gym sessions, getting video feedbacks, eating well and looking after your nutrition, fitness programmes — no one sees it but when you get to the World Cup everyone will see you play and that'll be your success," he says.
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Providing key indicators and challenges for the staff, he feels, offered them a yardstick to measure their progress and growth in their positions as well.
Birnie got the male coach of the year accolades at the New Zealand Football Awards in Auckland late last month. The other male coaching nominees were Danny Hay, of Eastern Suburbs, and Jose Figueira, who was at the helm of the national men's U17 and Team Wellington in the men's national summer league.
"It's an honour to be recognised at men's coach of the year and something, I hope, I will be in a position to be nominated for again," he says, back training youngsters at Park Island, Napier, to the humming sounds of drone hovering above them. "It was a historic campaign wining a bronze medal & achieving what no NZ team or coach has achieved before."
The U17s side got three nominations to the annual Halberg Awards in February, including Birnie as coach of the year, but only won.
Goalkeeper Anna Leat's successful penalty shootout against Japan, leading New Zealand into the world cup semifinal, was voted as New Zealand's Favourite Sporting Moment of 2018 — the only award the public votes on.
The opening 16-second goal to striker Grace Wisnewski, in the playoff for bronze medals, was the quickest in the history of the tourney as the girls went on to become the first Kiwi team to make the playoffs of any Fifa World Cup tourney.
Birnie has mustered 14 victories and four defeats from 18 outings in world cup qualifiers and matches to date in his career. As head coach for two years, he has five World Cup age-group wins over Ghana, Uruguay, Finland, Japan and Canada and losses to France, the United States, Spain and Ghana.
He has analysed videotaped footage of the team's training and matches to come to the conclusion they need to use the "modern game against yourselves".
"What I mean by that is everyone loves to play the beautiful game — you know, the ticky-tacker football — building up from the back and playing through the thirds so all countries are doing that.
"What we did, when we were there, is we let the opposition teams do that but we controlled on the field where we can let them do that — whether it was on the edge of the box or in their defensive third."
When the oppositions made mistakes his teens pounced on them, which was a common theme with considerable success from the start.
"I have done a lot of analysis and self-reflection around my style of play, management style and the team culture that was created to make sure that I have the tools and capability to build on this with the next New Zealand Under-17 group."
That means he employs a lot of modern technology, including drones, as a powerful tool to teach them on the field as well as play it back to them to improve incrementally.
"It brings a lot of clarity for the players so bringing in the drone for the first time just gave a whole new dimension to the level of footage."
In the previous seasons Birnie's been more focused on players but in the last campaign he had goals to ensure they added value to the staff as well.
"If I or they were to move on to a different environment it would improve our skill sets and to be better people as well."
Last month, Birnie assumed the mantle of community development manager of Central Football, the amateur administrative arm of NZ Football for the federation catchment area that embraces the Bay, Manawatu, Taranaki, Gisborne and Whanganui.
He became the beneficiary of a restructuring exercise from Central Football operations and game development manager Darren Mason that saw former Thirsty Whale Hawke's Bay United coach Brett Angell become redundant.
Birnie says his new role entails working and overseeing a team of nine across the federation in a position that sees him lead rather than be a part of it under the previous structure.
"We're changing to a more community focus so the actual direction in which we're heading will actually change."
The emphasis is to ensure the programmes the federation offers will support the affiliate clubs on the platform of surveys and feedback in the past 16 months.
The Birnie brand is to lead by example by thinking outside the box in injecting creativity.
"That is, I don't want to ask anyone to do something I'm not willing to do myself."
Bringing new initiatives to the table and the park are essential for the Bay coach of the year in the face of the geographical challenges the scattered catchment area can pose.
Birnie has no players returning from his previous cycle so he's has gone back to the drawing board with an entirely fresh group for the next U17 campaign in the next 15 months.
His charges have already shown promise in finishing second at the China Youth Championship where they beat Chile 2-0, Thailand 2-1 but didn't cope so well with a 10,000-strong crowd in the 39C heat in succumbing to 2-0 to the regimented hosts.