Danny Hay: Football Ferns are the stars of 2013

DANNY HAY
Last updated 05:00 29/12/2013

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OPINION: A new year is almost upon us - so, after a 2013 which could have been so much more for football in New Zealand, what is there to look forward to?

Pessimists will be pointing to the likelihood of the Wellington Phoenix picking up another wooden spoon and the further dwindling home crowds, largely due to the poor quality of product on the pitch.

While on the international stage, the All Whites' World Cup qualifying humbling at the hands of Mexico and the under-17 men's team being reduced to whipping boys at their World Cup in the United Arab Emirates is also something to move on from.

Granted, none of that reads well. But, but I'd prefer to look forward to 2014 a little differently.

The highlight of the last year was undoubtedly the performance of the Football Ferns. Tony Readings' troops picked up the prestigious Valais Cup in Switzerland before incredible results against the No 1 ranked USA and current world champions Japan.

Moving up to 16th in the world rankings has ensured continued support from New Zealand Football and High Performance Sport New Zealand. Their sustained growth is going to be a high point on the football calendar in 2014 as they build towards their showpiece event a year later - the World Cup in Canada.

On the men's side we are now moving into the start of a new era. This year saw the end of Ricki Herbert's reign as Phoenix coach and All Whites boss, both coming to an abrupt end. Why is this a positive? Well, Herbert will be remembered as the coach that helped restore pride in the All Whites shirt, as well as the man that played a big role in ensuring professional football has credibility and a permanent place in Wellington. His departure was, however long overdue, and now opens the door for an exciting period for both his former sides.

The All Whites in particular have a raft of young talent coming through, much of which saw game time in Wellington against Mexico. These players have ability, and under the right stewardship can change the face of our game.

Gone will be Herbert's "park the bus" mentality in favour of an attack-minded game plan. But as I wrote last week, 2014 and beyond is only going to be productive for the All Whites if NZ Football are prepared to generate and spend cash on the right coach - as well as guarantee consistent and challenging fixtures.

Locally, rather than look at the failings of the Phoenix in 2013, I'd prefer to look at the positive side of what has been achieved.

A new coach in Ernie Merrick has taken the reigns and despite the results not forthcoming at any great rate, the signs are encouraging for a team evolving into a proficient possession-based, attacking side.

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The calmness and assured disposition of the man at the helm has been the highlight to date. Merrick has not once swayed under the pressure of having failed to pick up a victory for what must have seemed like an eternity. He's stayed true to his philosophy and has never publicly blamed the players for any shortcomings.

The club under Merrick has also evolved into an environment where young New Zealand players are cherished and encouraged to develop. Off the pitch, the Phoenix have further developed their school of excellence and invested time, money and resources into creating a structure that will allow elite young talent to develop within our own borders.

Danny Hay is a former All Whites captain.

- Sunday Star Times

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