Culture key to Falcons' success
They fell at the last hurdle but football's Falcons still had a mighty season as Jonathan McKeown reports.
A winning culture propelled the Nelson Falcons football side to a national final in a second season that exceeded all expectations.
The values that set the foundation for that success were so important that when they were threatened, decisive action was taken.
When the group of under-20 youth league players was assembled late last year - with many just 15 years of age - the team set strict rules.
Head coach Davor Tavich made it clear that the team came before the individual. So when the star of the side, Omar Guardiola, their best player and the face of the Falcons, breached those principles by receiving a red card for violent conduct, he was shown the door in a defining moment for the entire franchise.
"The team environment comes before any player and any coach," said Tavich. "We tried to build something that everybody in the region wants to be a part of. As a unit we put in place some rules for discipline and nobody was above it. Everyone believed in that philosophy.
"Omar was one of the best, if not the best player in the team, but he did break the rules. The team comes first. Teams create stars more often than not, stars don't create teams."
The unceremonious exit of Guardiola is an example of team management that some professional sides could do well to follow. The incident was the darkest moment in a bright season, but Tavich and assistant coach Mark Johnston had no choice but to protect the integrity of the Falcons, to show the youngsters what being in a team means.
With many moving parts, a code, unwritten or otherwise, builds trust and confidence within a team. If everyone in a squad is aware of that code's expectations, they are able to move in the same direction and, as a unit, can build success.
"The winning culture came because we all started to believe in our talent. We started to believe that we could play to win, not just play to compete. The shift in attitude and mindset was shown in every game we played this season. We played to win, everything else would be an underachievement," Tavich said.
With a winning culture comes optimism for the future. Tavich said the most pleasing aspect in the second season was that the whole organisation built and improved on their inaugural season. He believes processes are in place to see them improve again next year.
"I am very positive, and I think the future for the Falcons looks bright. Even with the players that weren't involved this year that we know of, for the next two or three years we should be aiming for the finals every year, and winning the competition. It may sound ambitious, but I believe it."
In 2013 the Falcons were rated a success, with a record of two wins, three draws and three losses, while remaining unbeaten at home. This season they won eight games in a row, clinching the southern conference title with two games to spare.
Strangely, Tavich said with each win the pressure on the team increased. He points to a 2-0 away win against Team Wellington as the moment when the achievements of the side really were felt most keenly. He said it was like a "huge weight had been lifted" and the players were "ecstatic".
But the high of winning the southern conference and securing a spot in the final was followed by a trough. The Falcons lost their final two regular-season games against Manawatu and Canterbury. The loss to Manawatu was the first time home fans had seen the Falcons defeated.
Tavich said form was not an issue, because he chose to rotate the squad, and key players were unavailable. But there was a loss of momentum, and the aura of invincibility was broken. However, it may not have made a difference in the final.
Auckland City, who went undefeated to defend their national title, were a classy outfit. But the Falcons held their own. Down 1-0 and turning with a strong wind at their back, if it hadn't for a soft penalty call early in the second half, the Falcons had every chance of forcing a result.
The Falcons were dejected when they left the field because they believed they were good enough to win, and wanted the victory. But as the ceremony progressed and each player received their silver medallion, smiles returned as they reflected on a breakthrough season and playing in a national grand final.
At the youth level, development is still the main focus, something Tavich prides himself on as a coach. When you can start a national final in an under-20 competition with four 16-year-olds and finish with four 15-year-olds and one 14-year-old on the park, the development potential is great.
Tavich also coaches at the Nelson Bays Football federation talent centre, and takes an age-group rep team. He says he and the other top Nelson coaches know there are a great number of players coming through the grades with the technical ability and drive to excel.
The point was also made separately by Clive Beaumont, general manager at Nelson Bays Football, and Falcons chairman and club founder Aldo Miccio.
Miccio said the results on the pitch this season were significant beyond this team and the national youth league. When the original application was sent to New Zealand Football in December of 2011, it was for a full franchise, including a senior men's team. A Nelson-based national men's league team remains the goal. And they will apply again when New Zealand Football reviews the league in 2016.
"This season helped the franchise immensely with our plans for the future," Miccio said. "We went into this, and have always had the ambition to have a full men's franchise. A lot of the work with the youth team has been about getting the organisation to set up to be able to have a full franchise, which is now looking good, and we will be building towards that opportunity with New Zealand Football in two years time."
Miccio said the youth team had laid the foundation that would help build football in the Nelson region. He said he would now enter into discussions with Nelson Bays Football and Mainland Football, aiming to enter a team in the women's national league. A women's team would help to keep players like New Zealand under-17 player Geena Gross and Football Fern Emily Jensen - who both trained with the Falcons - playing in the region.
NZ Football competitions manager Chris Kemp says the franchise had done well since their inclusion in the competition. "The side have done a great job on and off pitch in delivering a product which represents their region superbly.
"On the field, their performances have showed improvement in their two years in the competition, culminating in their Grand Final appearance this season while, off the field, they have been well organised and they have delivered a very good experience around the game for everyone involved," Kemp said.
After two years, the Falcons are now a fixture in the Nelson football scene. They have created history for themselves, but still have goals to achieve. There will inevitably be change.
Captain Coey Turipa may not return. Some players will no longer be eligible to play, and Tavich may move on to bigger things. Yet there will be a core of young players moving through, with two or three seasons to play in the blue and white stripes. After making their debut in a season that has defined the Falcons' culture, it is these players who will pass on "the way we do things around here".