Herbert's dullball craves shot of entertainment

MARK REASON
Last updated 07:14 19/12/2012

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OPINION: Beer and tears. When Italian, Spanish or English clubs lose a football match, the streets are awash with grief for a week. Cities go into mourning and families are torn apart. But in New Zealand, does anyone really care?

It is a dilemma for the management of the Wellington Phoenix. It is easy to sell sport on the back of tribalism but the Kiwi tribe is a rugby one. To rework a phrase from Bill Shankly, the late, great manager of Liverpool FC: "Some people think rugby is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."

Football in this country is very much not a matter of life and death. New Zealanders liked to cheerfully tease that the All Whites were the only unbeaten team at the World Cup but nobody took them seriously. The All Whites got to the World Cup finals only because they won the Pacific Plate competition and then wiped out Bahrain 1-0 over 180 minutes of "bootball".

You might just about get away with that sort of crushing negativity at national level, because patriotism will excuse almost anything. But at club level, the owners of the Wellington Phoenix are only too aware of the need to entertain.

Last week ,Gareth Morgan said the club would hire coaches who could develop a style of attractive football. Rob Morrison had made similar comments. And yet, quite astonishingly, the two men were derided in some quarters.

They were portrayed as accountants who thought they knew more about football than Ricki Herbert.

Morrison and Morgan know more about money than Herbert. They are well aware that the only thing which distinguishes professional sport from amateur sport is the requirement to entertain.

And this is where they are in the process of falling out with Herbert. The manager of the Phoenix has a proven track record of organising his teams to stop the opposition from playing. But he has no track record of being able to coach attractive winning football.

At the World Cup he set up the All Whites to stop the other teams in the group from playing. Fair enough. Herbert knew that the likes of Italy and Paraguay had technically far superior players. But that excuse does not stand up in the A League.

It was amusing to read how the Phoenix were now moving to a more attacking 4-3-3 formation. It's only numbers. The way the Phoenix set up it looks more like 4-5-1. Even then the poor centre forward spends more time closing down opposition defenders than making runs into space. And when the opposition press, as Sydney did the other week, the back players (of which there are generally at least five) are unable to get the ball out of their own half.

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Herbert can't help himself. Even when he is chasing the game, as he has been over the previous two weeks, he never replaces a defender with an attacker. He always replaces an attacker with another attacker. He pulls off Paul Ifill and Stein Huysegems. It's in Herbert's DNA. Once a defender, always a defender.

That's not to say defenders can't become great football managers. Helenio Herrera, Giovanni Trapattoni, Bob Paisley and Jock Stein did pretty well. But more often than not, their instincts tend to be conservative.

It is no surprise that Sir Alex Ferguson was a forward. His teams come at the opposition in waves. United scored a goal at the weekend when they had eight outfield players in the final quarter of the pitch. And the match was still in its early stages. Herbert could not imagine doing such a thing.

United have played 17 matches this season and they have scored more than two goals in 10 of them. In 136 matches over six seasons Ricki Herbert's Phoenix have scored more than two goals on just 17 occasions. That's three matches a season. You are nine times more likely to see United score three goals than the Phoenix.

United became the world's most marketable brand partly through the style of football they play. People are not turning up to watch the Phoenix because they are dull. "Boring, boring Arsenal" the faithful used to chant on the terraces of Highbury.

That chant won't rattle the walls of the Cake Tin. New Zealand football is not tribal enough. Morrison and Morgan know this.

The sad thing about Herbert's brand of dullball is that the Phoenix have the personnel, at their respective level, to set up like United. Vince Lia would have to go to left back because Tony Lochhead is not up to it. Ifill could sit in front of the back four with Muscat like Carrick and Cleverley do for United. Fenton and Totori (or Boyd or Brockie) could bomb up the wing like Young and Valencia, and Sanchez could sit in behind Huysegems or Brockie.

The fullbacks, the wings and the sitting midfielders are the key to making the system work. They need the intelligence and the workrate to cover and hold up play when possession is lost. They also need the belief.

I suspect that Morrison and Morgan are fast coming to the conclusion that Herbert is not the man to instill that belief. At the end of the season Herbert (whose job as All Whites coach represents a partial conflict of interest) will probably become director of football, responsible for recruitment and development.

That will allow a coach to come in, maybe a former forward like Ferguson, Clough, Hitzfeld, Busby and Michels, who knows how to inspire a team.

Maybe they should ask Peter Jackson. At least he would try to entertain.

Mark Reason is a sportswriter formerly with the Times of London and Daily Telegraph in the UK. He now lives in Wairarapa.

- Taranaki Daily News

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