Declan Edge might not be New Zealand's best football coach, but he's definitely our most outspoken. He has fallen out with many at New Zealand Football and is seemingly always outside the tent pissing in. But is he worth the baggage?
By Bruce Holloway
Declan Edge is New Zealand's most unconventional, polarising, blunt, quirky, argumentative, reflective, demanding, controversial, self-confident, anti-establishment, critical, irascible, dyspeptic, witty, eloquent and driven football coach.
He's also impossible to ignore.
Edge, former All White and now director of football at Porirua-based Ole Football Academy, has produced 17 international players since 2012, had nine players sign overseas contracts and has five players – Dominic Woolridge, Dalton Wilkins, Nando Pijnaker, Elijah Just and Callum Mccowatt – playing in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup this month.
More recently, he emerged as the power behind the throne as Eastern Suburbs won the 2018-19 national league title with a team built around his youth products.
That's a huge footprint in our small corner of the world, especially for somebody never trusted with a national post of any description.
But in "Edge World" you buy the package. Declan always speaks his mind – or "the truth" as he prefers to call it.
He ends up offside more than Chris Wood, forever outside the tent pissing in.
He won't even talk with All Whites coach Fritz Schmid, who he doesn't recognise. Further, he has also publicly called out previous incumbent Anthony Hudson as a "fraud", along with former Football Ferns coach Andreas Heraf.
'Tickets please': All Whites coach snubbed at Phoenix match
Big Read: Meet Fritz Schmid - The All Whites coach without a team
Depending on where you stand, Edge is either a new-age football guru, the Pied Piper who can rescue our game from mediocrity - or he's the Nutty Professor, armed with a secret experimental formula that may or may not reconstruct the DNA of your average Kiwi footballer.
Either way, Declan is different; a deadly serious man who can be a lot of fun if you are not on the end of one of his barbs. He is perhaps our last great football "character", a would-be oracle who speaks in parables and riddles, who throws out pop philosophy breadcrumbs along with robust judgements.
He lives, excuse the pun, on the edge of reason, as evidenced by his singular Twitter feed.
Why wouldn’t you just put TW v AC in the final and cut out all the charades of what they call “O league”?— Declan Edge (@edge_declan) March 2, 2019
To search for freedom you first have to recognise all the lies.— Declan Edge (@edge_declan) April 3, 2019
From there freedom becomes a devoution!
I am not in the business of agreeing or disagreeing with opinions, I am only interested in the truth!— Declan Edge (@edge_declan) April 7, 2019
If it was going to be easy everyone would be doing it and then you are average like the rest!— Declan Edge (@edge_declan) April 16, 2019
The problems are the solutions to greatness and seriousness!
Keep it tough and keep it fun!🙏⚽️🇸🇪🦄🍄♟🧬
I said I could make world class players out of NZ ✔️— Declan Edge (@edge_declan) April 25, 2019
Now I say most of football development around the world is wrong and a scam!
Trying to change that now!
I have been worried about the development of the NZF for many years the results recently in O league and in many other areas are now becoming alarming.— Declan Edge (@edge_declan) April 28, 2019
Please don’t say everyone is getting better!
We are not improving and that’s a worry to me!
peaking from Sweden, where he has just taken up the coaching post at amateur club Torslanda IK for the New Zealand winter (in a bid to build European links for aspiring Kiwis) Edge is feeling satisfied.
"Very often I say to myself: 'I'm done, I can stop now. I've done everything I wanted to do.'
"But what keeps me going is the next group of kids coming through with their big eyes staring at me saying 'help me, help me'. So it's 'okay, let's go and do the next load'."
His Swedish "project" is not lacking in ambition. It's also a fitting doorway of sorts into Edge World, where seemingly anything is possible.
"I want to see New Zealand win the World Cup and to do that, there are certain things that we have to get done," Edge said. "We have to get New Zealand players playing in Europe, and we have to get them playing well. That's not easy."
But after a breakthrough summer, where Edge arranged for nine of his players from Western Suburbs (Wellington) and Ole Football Academy to join Auckland's Eastern Suburbs and they duly won the ISPS Handa Premiership, who would be sceptical?
"I give credit to [Eastern Suburbs coach] Danny Hay for recognising what was going on at Wests," Edge explained. "Lots of people had the opportunity to see that. He saw it, and was smart.
"But this is how stupid it is. If Danny Hay hadn't approached me, you wouldn't have had all those players playing in the national league, you wouldn't have seen this wonderful team. Could you get any more stupid than that?
"What Ole, Western Suburbs and Eastern Suburbs all basically said was: 'What do you want to do? We love your ideas, we can see what you are doing, will you do that for us?'
"And I'm like, of course. You guys are all Kiwis and I want to develop New Zealand players. I want to help. I understand the beauty of the game. I get it, and I also get the importance of sport for young people.
"It's an unbelievable game that we have the privilege to play. But it must be played properly."
For his part, Hay was drawn to Edge by his overt passion, which he believes breeds everything else.
"After the last New Zealand U-17 campaign it was clear to me that the best players technically, tactically and mentally were coming out of his environment at the Ole Academy," Hay said.
"So I knew some good stuff was happening there, and from a selfish point of view I was trying to be the best coach I could be, so in terms of professional development, the best thing I could do was team up with Declan and get into the nuts and bolts of what he does, how he does it, and why he does it.
"He has very definite views about the way he wants to play the game, he really doesn't want to waste his time with unserious people, and for him and me there were challenges - no doubt about it - but we worked through it."
For the first three weeks together Edge took training so Hay could study and learn.
Edge is bemused more coaches aren't equally as curious.
"If I was a coach I would be trying to get down to Ole and find out what the hell is going on. But do you know how many people come to Ole Football Academy? Just about none of them. Their ego gets in the way.
"They don't want to be told by me that everything they have been doing for the last 20 years is wrong."
He is deeply unimpressed by many of his coaching peers, and this is where things get really messy in Edge World.
"I respect everybody that is serious and is devoted to the craft, but if you really got down deep with a lot of these coaches you'd ask them: 'Are you successful? Are you happy, when you look back at your work over the past 10-20 years? Have you made a difference or created world-class players? [Or] are you living an unbelievable lie?'
"If I could develop world-class players out of Hamilton (Ryan Thomas), how come others who have been doing it a lot longer than me haven't?
"They've all got it wrong and have been living a great big lie for 10-15 years. They've been taught wrong through the New Zealand Football Association and the English FA.
"As soon as they admit that, and say, 'Yeah, it's broken, it's not working,' they can come on the path of enlightenment in developing the young player."
Among those derisive of this view is former All Whites coach Kevin Fallon, who coached Edge as a teenager in Gisborne and also as an All White.
"All been done before," Fallon said of Edge's youth development work.
"Good luck to Declan, but he's not preaching from a very high pedestal. Not if he wants to come and park his battleship next to mine.
"We used to have centres of excellence all over the country that brought through the likes of Danny Hay and Ivan Vicelich until some idiot disbanded them. I took Jonathan Perry from Hamilton to Barnsley."
Fallon said it was disappointing coaches indulged in self-adulation for work they had been paid for.
"Everyone wants a pat on the back these days. But if you really want to make your mark in New Zealand football, don't do it from a highly resourced urban base, go and win a national league title in Gisborne or a Chatham Cup in Nelson."
Nor did he appreciate the tendency for coaches to claim reputational ownership of players.
"Players like Sarpreet Singh and Max Mata came through my programmes, but doesn't mean you go claiming them as yours. As a coach you've played a little part in their football lives, and you've been paid for it.
"At this stage I would say to Declan, 'So bloody what? Go and talk to your dad.' At least his dad (Eddie) got to be a national team assistant coach."
Edge cites Dutch legend Johann Cruyff as a far bigger footballing influence than his Dad - and this also gives a key insight into Edge World.
"Why do you think I wore Puma boots? Cruyff."
Beyond Cruyff, he's more vague on his influences.
"Anybody that pisses anybody off. Anybody that is one of a kind, anybody that stands up to authority, because obviously in football that is what Cruyff did.
"Anybody who has the courage to stand out in a crowd and say, there's another way'."
Also on Edge's agenda at the moment is actively spruiking for Hay, who admits to having an ambition to coach the national side, to be the next All Whites manager.
"I don't understand lobbying, I only understand the truth, and Danny Hay should be the coach of the national team.
"He's done his work with the U-17s and U-20s, he knows lots of the players quite well. He's a New Zealander, and I have been saying for a long time we need to give the game back to New Zealanders.
"Let us drink our own poison. We've had the Europeans and all the foreign coaches since the day I arrived here and nobody has done anything."
Unfettered criticism is another key feature of Edge World.
In a series of tweets Edge savaged his former club Melville for playing defensively in a Northern Premier League match.
It culminated in this: "I am calling them out as frauds. If I don't do that I am a fraud!"
I am calling them out as frauds. If I don’t do that I am a fraud!— Declan Edge (@edge_declan) April 25, 2019
Edge was happy to double down on his criticisms, though said he was not specifically pointing the finger at Melville, but all clubs with youth academies.
"In the area of player development you don't park the bus, you don't allow the opposition to have the front foot - you go out and you fight them.
"That is the only way that young players learn. If you're not in the business of player development, don't claim to be in the business of player development as a club, as an academy, as an organisation.
"Do whatever you want to do - I am not going to come in and plough anybody's fields - but don't say that you are planting potatoes if you are not planting potatoes."
Melville co-coach Sam Wilkinson, holder of a UEFA coaching 'A' licence, rebutted that criticism.
"In terms of developing players it is not only what they do with the ball - but what they do when not in possession," he said.
"We want well-rounded players, and while you never set up every week to focus on defending, it is a reality of the game. You have to learn how to defend as well. While 80 per cent of your work may be with the ball, there is also out-of-possession play."
However Wilkinson also tempered his comments by saying he still had great respect for Edge, his coach in 2003-04.
"Declan fronts up all the time and he lives what he says. And because he always backs up his words with his actions, I would defend him.
"But I don't buy into the Ole Way as being something revolutionary.
"I think they have an outstanding facility with boys training full-time and they are well resourced, which allows them to pull in the best talent from around the country.
"I think if other programmes had the same resources and the same good coaching they would also be producing very fine players."
Wilkinson argued the jury was still out on Edge in terms of performance results.
"Yes, Eastern Suburbs won the one-off national league final match. But Suburbs are a huge club which would have been competing for the title anyway.
"On the performance side Western Suburbs have won the central league once, but Declan has also had national league teams bottom of the table and premier league teams relegated, so we shouldn't get too carried away."
James Pamment, who has worked with Edge at senior level, described him as a national treasure.
"With Declan, there is no grey area," he said. "It's all black and white, which is socially unconventional.
"Declan is a great teacher, slightly zany and a tad unpredictable in his approach but there's always a reason for his actions… He would and still does create some attention almost for the sake of it - but he's very intelligent so understands the ramifications of his actions."
Pamment suspects Edge enjoys making people feel reflective, uncomfortable and, at times, inferior.
"He's a product of his environment; very artistic, almost Bohemian. Eddie (his father) was eccentric in his approach to football and man management and Dolores, his Mum, is very artistic and spiritual.
"Characters of this nature are always going to have 'establishment' issues until they can surround themselves with liked-minded individuals or receive full backing for their vision."
As a player Edge was a teen prodigy, better than his current Ole charges. He went on to play professionally at Notts County, and was a real crowd-pleaser in New Zealand at national league level.
In 1991, he was behind only Michael McGarry as the most exciting player in the country until breaking his leg - though he dismisses his playing career as an irrelevance.
"When you are playing, you are in the pond, in the pigsty, just swimming around. But when you stop playing, you get out and look at it and see that it is shit.
"Then you start investigating: if that's not it, then what should it be?"
His son Harry was the inspiration for Edge wanting to build an environment where he could create world-class players.
"When I said this 10-15 years ago everyone was trying to crucify me. But with my hand on my heart I can now legitimately say I have some world class players.
"I'm in the business of teaching the art of learning, with football as the medium."
At senior level Edge was initially modestly successful in making the Chatham Cup final with a team of Melville United no-names in 2003, and then the national league playoffs in 2004-05, in conjunction with manager Pamment (now better known for his cricket coaching achievements.)
But by 2005-06 his Waikato FC team bordered on unwatchable, with the ball almost carried off on a stretcher after matches.
"I was miserable," Edge said. "It wasn't what I wanted to do. I looked at it and said I didn't want to do this for 15 years, take amateur players 2-3 times a week and play a style of football I didn't want."
Pamment soon became the human buffer between Edge and the football hierarchy. They began working with talented youngsters in the Waikato area.
"To him it was so simple but initially the ability to align his vision with that of the other stakeholders in the game wasn't so easy."
Edge re-emerged as Waikato FC coach in 2011-12, basing his team around the kids he had been working with for years, while looking after Melville United in the winter.
But it ended in tears with Edge not reappointed by Melville at the end of the 2012 season, when his premier league team - featuring the like of a very young Tyler Boyd and Ryan Thomas - finished last and was relegated, winning just one match.
The club's annual report noted: "At academy level Declan's work is all about playing style and technique, but... the premier league makes a poor nursery."
In late 2012, midway through his second summer, Edge was sacked as Waikato FC coach, for his team's continued poor performance, prompting him to move south and threw in his lot with Western Suburbs and Ole Football Academy.
"All the things that happened to me in Hamilton, I can go back there and say thank you all from the deepest bottom of my hard for not making it easy for me, which made me better, made me stronger."
Bruce Holloway was chairman of Melville United when Declan Edge was appointed head coach in late 2011 and also in 2012 when he was not reappointed.
View from the Edge:
Biggest strength as a coach:
"Reading social media and finding out what everybody is saying I can't do. I can't wait for everybody in New Zealand to start slagging Sweden because I'm sitting here unmotivated because nobody is giving me a hard time about anything. I like to prove people wrong and to do that you need a chip on your shoulder.
Biggest weakness: "I'm probably too nice, too kind. I'm very loyal, and I see that as a weakness because there are too many idiots, and I should really call them out quicker and dismiss them from my life faster so I can find the people who are serious and devoted... I give people too much of my time, instead of telling them, 'nah, I'm done with you, you are taking too much of my energy'."
On lifestyle: "I live a minimalistic life, with very little of anything. I travelled to Sweden with just a suitcase and have put half of it away already. Everybody accumulates shit. It's like, 'how many houses can I buy? How many cars can I buy?' It doesn't make you happy, it doesn't give you fulfilment. To have less is way healthier."
On other interests: "I don't do anything else than football - but I study everything. I study philosophy and read as much as I can, I listen to podcasts every day, I am constantly submerging myself in ideas."
On age: "Why the hell would you base anything you do on the chronology of how many times a rock has orbited around a star?"
On former All White coach Anthony Hudson:
"I thought he was arrogant and used the post as a stepping stone. I saw through Mr Hudson early. It's always the people at the top that do the damage."
On former NZ Football technical director Andreas Heraf: "I thought he was a complete idiot. He told me he would have done way better with Ryan Thomas if he was in charge of him. This was a kid who came and lived with me when he was 14."
On the All Whites: "I could pick a New Zealand team now right out of the Ole Football Academy. It would be a hell of a New Zealand team. But you wouldn't want to do that, because there are other world-class New Zealanders around the world."
On coach development: "You go through cycles. At the start of your coaching career you might be a camel. You're storing everything, trying to do everything. But at the end of the cycle you end up as the lion or the tiger, where you are very convicted in your views."