If it hasn't happened already, the name of Leon Birnie will be rolling off the lips of countless followers of the beautiful game in New Zealand for some time.

So who is Birnie? No, I mean who REALLY is the Kiwi bloke who has been quietly plotting the demise of powerhouses at the girls' Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay for the past month?

"Look, he's just a fellow from little Hawke's Bay who has been working hard behind the scenes," said the 36-year-old from Napier who eventually spoke from Montevideo when his cellphone overcame "congestion" due to an overload of calls minutes after his young charges beat Canada 2-1 for bronze medals, thanks to a brace of goals from striker Grace Wisnewski early in the first half.

"You know, he's done a lot of preparations, attended a lot of coaching courses, a lot of time has been spent talking to others to present my case over the last 10 to 14 years so I've taken the opportunities I've got," said the Central Football development officer based at Park Island after their final feat at the Estadio Charrúa yesterday morning.


For Birnie, the dividends yielded at the Fifa campaign in the past month are the culmination of all those years of dedication and sacrifices.

"We got the fastest goal in the under-17 World Cup now so it's another thing to add to the history books," he said, mindful that the early body blows would eventually have taken their toll on the Canadians as they tried to play catch-up footy.

"In that last 30 to 35 minutes we showed that real Kiwi attitude, determination and focus just to hang in there because the girls really wanted to show they can do that."

Never mind which angle fans take a look at the Kiwis' campaign in Uruguay it's impossible to go past the word "history", no matter what spin.

The opening 16-second goal to Wisnewski set the tone yesterday in the playoffs for bronze medals.

"Yes, it's been a historic campaign where we've broken a lot of records firstly through the group stage, making it to the semifinals, the quickest goal in the tournament's history and then the bronze medals.

"No teams have done that at home at any level, male or female, so it's just an amazing experience to be involved with."

Asked if he had become a walking billboard for home-grown mentors in New Zealand, Birnie said his philosophy was simply the best person for the role.


"Whether it's a male, female, a Kiwi I've always believed it should be the best coach for the role.

"What I think this campaign has done is really highlighted that we can use Kiwi coaches and help them through the pathway so if the opportunities come up for these candidates then so be it and if it doesn't then we should take a different option."

A talented midfielder who represented Thirsty Whale Hawke's bay United in the national summer league before becoming their assistant coach under incumbent Brett Angell in 2014, Birnie had embarked on a coaching career at 21, was the national U20 coach in 2015-16 before finding himself at the helm of the U17s to Costa Rica in 2014.

Leon Birnie, of Napier, basks in the bronze medal glow with player Mackenzie Barry, of Taranaki, after the Fifa U17 World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay, yesterday. Photo/supplied
Leon Birnie, of Napier, basks in the bronze medal glow with player Mackenzie Barry, of Taranaki, after the Fifa U17 World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay, yesterday. Photo/supplied

So is he ready to undertake another journey to the giddy heights at a different plane in mentoring for his country?

"You know, at the moment I'm quite comfortable and would like to continue with an age-group team, either the 17s or 20s," he said, revealing his contract was expiring next month.

"With this tournament I'm hoping that it'll be renewed but I've really enjoyed working with the girls and I'd like to continue with an age group."

In the future, Birnie said who knew because he was relatively quite young.

After his appointment as national U17 coach in August last year, he had revealed pulling out the clipboard with the Football Ferns will be a dream job but it isn't a given by any means.

However, he is mindful that sort of commitment demands a change in lifestyle and a shift out of the region.

"It's really important to me that life balance but if in the future that opportunity comes to move to that higher level well then it's something I'll seriously consider."

For his partner, Michelle Gillespie, who is in Napier with their 5-year-old daughter, Harper, and 7-week-old son Grayson, it has been a bitter-sweet occasion in Uruguay.

"There were mixed emotions every time we got a win because she realised I'm going to be away for another four days and then another four days so I think the whole family will be really happy as soon as I get home."

The Kiwi contingent returns to Auckland on Wednesday.

Birnie thanked his employers, Central Football, for its coaching as well as giving him time off to fulfil his duties on the national and international portfolios.

"I just really appreciate all the help that they have given me over the years."

A chuckling Birnie said the girls would have been accorded their normal celebratory rituals of singing and dancing in the team bus on the way back to the hotel where pizza, chips and lashings of ice cream would have been on the menu.

"They will be allowed to listen to music in their hotel rooms well into the night but we'll have to keep an eye on that," he said of the teenagers who found, among a legion of fans, an avid follower in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week.

Birnie was happy with the first half but saluted the pure drive and determination of his troops to hang on for the medal.

He is indebted to his coaching stable, players, family and friends who had made countless sacrifices to vociferously back them all the way.

Birnie lauded the support from New Zealand and the expectant media, dedicating the bronze medals to everyone.

The match, if judged purely on statistics, would have been a given to Canada but it just goes to show there's no discounting passion and motivation.