In the background of New Zealand Football's current coaching crisis, two of New Zealand's best young coaches look to the future.

When New Zealand Football technical director and Football Ferns coach Andreas Heraf spoke his truth at a press conference in Wellington in June, it set in motion a chain of events that made the Kiwi football community question its coaching identity.

The Austrian coach set the Football Ferns up to play "anti-football" against Japan. They parked the bus in their 3-1 home loss in front of a record crowd, bored the bejesus out of anyone that watched, and then implied they would have lost 8-0 if they tried a more positive approach. There was also a suggestion New Zealand couldn't compete with the best in the world due to its population.

There was further collateral damage. NZF CEO Andy Martin chose to 'retire' on the eve of an investigation into the "culture of fear"; 12 Football Ferns submitted formal complaints, vowing never to play for Heraf again, and on Tuesday Heraf resigned from both roles.

The Kiwi football community responded with swift and cutting indignation. One of the clearest questions in the fallout: why does New Zealand Football continually choose to outsource its football identity? And what should that identity be?

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NZF hasn't trusted Kiwi coaches with any of its highest profile jobs for over four years. But should they have? Are there any good ones out there? Or are we destined to forever recycle Anthony Hudson-like European adventurers?

At this point it's worth reporting that 150 kilometres south of NZF headquarters, two of New Zealand's best young coaches have successfully established their football identity in Hamilton. And perhaps, even a blueprint for the way it could, and should be, at national level.

Sam Wilkinson and Michael Mayne are upwardly mobile young Kiwi coaches who are increasingly turning heads in the football fraternity.

You could even be forgiven for thinking Wilkinson and Mayne are the same person. They both grew up in Hamilton, represented Waikato at rep level, played northern league for Melville, Wanderers and Tauranga and national league for Waikato FC, moved overseas, returned to Hamilton to become physical education teachers, took jobs with New Zealand Football, co-coached the Melville United first team and ran the Melville academy while having long-term relationships with sisters.

They are also the future of coaching in New Zealand.

Sam Wilkinson (L) and Michael Mayne. Photo / Marc McMullan photography.
Sam Wilkinson (L) and Michael Mayne. Photo / Marc McMullan photography.

Wilkinson, 34, has already been coaching for 16 years. In 2014 he gained a UEFA A Licence, and is one of the very few New Zealanders to have been employed by English professional clubs, having held youth coaching roles with West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City.

Mayne, 33, steered Waitemata from non-league status to the northern league first division over three seasons. He also made national headlines during the 2016 winter when his division two team knocked five-times winners Central United out of the Chatham Cup.

And for the past two years, they have dedicated their lives to improving football in Hamilton.

The duo run the Melville Academy and the Melville United northern league first team, while Wilkinson is also the Head of Football at St Paul's Collegiate.

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Wilkinson averages 12 training sessions a week, and takes 3-4 games on the weekends, while Mayne juggles a full-time job, young family, six training sessions and a full weekend of games.

It's not financially rewarding. The time invested works out to be far less than minimum wage, but it's their passion.

Wilkinson is ambitious, intense and articulate and is driven by his dream of coaching in a professional league. Mayne is languid, tactical and a strong communicator and is aiming for a national age-group head coaching role.

Mayne has recently been named the WaiBOP National Women's League coach, while Wilkinson has been appointed as assistant coach of the New Zealand U-17s.

Wilkinson played with Chris Wood at Wanderers and Mayne was team mates with both Marco Rojas and Ryan Thomas at Waikato FC.

The three would likely cite Roger Wilkinson, Rodi Rojas, and Declan Edge as their biggest influences from the region, but Wilkinson believes the area is now stronger than ever for youth development.

Michael Mayne (L) and Sam Wilkinson celebrate Melville earning promotion to the Northern Premier League. Photo / Marc McMullan photography.
Michael Mayne (L) and Sam Wilkinson celebrate Melville earning promotion to the Northern Premier League. Photo / Marc McMullan photography.

"Hamilton is now one of a handful of the best places to be for young players in New Zealand," Wilkinson said. "In terms of the coaching team we've got at Melville, if you strip it back to the work on the grass, we've got three or four A-Licence coaches and three or four coaches that have worked internationally or at pro clubs.

"I don't think any other clubs can boast that much experience and knowledge. Off the pitch there are some programmes that do things better than us but purely in terms of coaching I don't think any other programme offers the quality we do.

"And we've got some fantastic talent coming through. I think we can do big things for the region over the next five years."

At 4.47pm on Saturday 28 June, Melville won promotion back to the Northern Premier League with a 2-1 win over Forrest Hill Milford and Wilkinson went through his processes.

"I was a bit emotional," Wilkinson said. "I have a routine where I get the phone out after the game and give the old man a ring (former NZF director of coaching Roger Wilkinson), and I felt a lump in my throat seeing all the players celebrating, including a large number who were there with us last season."

The previous season ended in heartbreak. Melville finished the season with the best goal difference in the Northern League, the least conceded in their division, and earned enough points to have been promoted in any of the past 20 seasons of Northern League division one.

Former All White Aaron Scott celebrates with team mates after helping Melville clinch promotion to the Northern Premier League. Photo / Marc McMullan Photography.
Former All White Aaron Scott celebrates with team mates after helping Melville clinch promotion to the Northern Premier League. Photo / Marc McMullan Photography.

But they dropped points in their big games and finished third behind Western Springs and Manukau City. A year of hard work down the drain.

"It was a huge relief and a huge weight off mine and the club's shoulders. Rightly or wrongly, we came into the club with some bold statements about where we wanted to take things, we were a bit outspoken, when we failed to deliver at the end of last season we felt pressure, because we talked a big game and didn't deliver straight away, so getting that done now was a huge relief.

"Because how do you sell to people that you're going to be the best club in the country if you can't get out of the first division?"

Wilkinson celebrated the goal they had worked toward for two years with an early start in Otumoetai on Sunday morning, coaching the U14 Boys and U14 Girls Academy, while Mayne stayed in Auckland the night to attend a national coaching conference to validate his B-licence.

Melville now need one point from their remaining five matches to clinch the Northern Division One title; a foregone conclusion.

It's often said about Hamilton; shit place to visit, great place to live. That's starting to ring true for northern league footballers too.


There are only two Kiwi coaches who have the Fifa Pro-Licence qualification: Ricki Herbert and Bob Sova.

For ambitious coaches like Wilkinson, it's on his shopping list. But for most, the world's highest qualification – a prerequisite to coach the All Whites – is simply unattainable.
Does that make them bad coaches?

It's an obstacle that virtually eliminates Kiwis from the race for the big jobs and leaves us with the likes of Heraf, who arrived in April last year with a glowing CV, loads of experience, but no real idea about New Zealand and how we play football.

"I don't think the pro licence should be a prerequisite for the top NZ jobs," Mayne said.

"It's about picking the right person that fits the job first. I think the qualification represents the commitment and time the coaches have put into the game, but I think there are other important ingredients that are sometimes missing, like understanding the culture of the country or our football landscape and that's where I think it has to be balanced out."

Wilkinson agrees: "Personally I don't think the Fifa Pro Licence or A-licence makes you a good coach. Especially because NZF doesn't offer the licence, I don't think it needs to be a prerequisite. There are a lot of talented Kiwi coaches that could have a really positive impact on our national teams that don't have that licence.

"I have my UEFA A Licence, the next step up is the Pro-Licence. The problem is it's incredibly hard to get on it. I know a lot of coaches in England working at a very high level with 300 league games under their belt who can't get on a pro licence, so it's tough.

"And again, it's a shame it's a prerequisite because some coaches may never get the chance to do the qualifications, let alone pass it and complete it."

Wilkinson is in the process of applying for it. It costs $20,000 to do through the English FA. For a Kiwi coach, with flights, time away from work, for the two or three week-long blocks, you're looking at well over $25,000 to complete the qualification.

"I'm a huge longshot to get on it, but that's my next aim and it would open up a lot of doors.

"I'm not knocking on the door of these jobs. I'm not next in line for the All Whites or Phoenix or anything like that, so I'm not frustrated yet.

"But if my career gets to the point where I'm at the top of regional football and the only thing stopping me from getting a better role is a license from a course I can't get on, then yeah, I would be frustrated. I'm hoping we find a way of offering it to our own coaches, or having our own version of it, or making allowance for coaches to not have it by the time they're in a position to apply for those jobs."

Because Wilkinson has accepted the post as assistant coach to the New Zealand U-17 team, he is now more constricted about what he can say about the politics of coaching.

"I would've been incredibly outspoken three months ago," he said. "I'll probably temper my comments now because I'm part of the NZ Football coaching team. Part of the problem for me was, yes, I saw some things I didn't totally agree with.

"I made a choice that when an opportunity came up to get involved, I could actually try to impact things from inside the tent – that was my line of thinking.

"It's easy to criticise from the outside, but sometimes you have to front up and try make a difference and contribute. I don't think anyone in NZF thinks the game is where it could or should be at the moment.

"I think there's great work going on across the country, but one of the big challenges is bringing everyone together and aligning all that for the good of New Zealand football."

At a national level, it seems the debates about our football DNA, culture, philosophy and identity are just kicking off. That may create much turbulence – but also tremendous opportunities for rising young coaches like Wilkinson and Mayne. Keep an eye out for them.

-Steven Holloway played for the Melville United first team in 2017 and was coached by Sam Wilkinson and Michael Mayne.