OPINION: No-one expected Ricki Herbert to come to work in a fedora and an Armani coat. He was never going to turn into Malcolm Alison or Jose Mourinho overnight. But we did expect just a bit of cutting edge from the most influential man in New Zealand football. And then the awful truth began to dawn. The emperor was nearly naked.
Who knows when Gareth Morgan and Rob Morrison first realised that Herbert, a good man with the charisma of a poached fish, was not the leader of their football revolution. Who knows when they realised that the recipient of the New Zealand Order of Merit and two-time coach of the year was an impostor. Because the owners of the Phoenix had started the season with such high hopes.
They wanted a team which played, if not total football - no one was kidding themselves that the Phoenix could be Barcelona - then at least partial football. The first game of the season suggested that the dream may not be so fanciful. Then we found out, like so many West Ham supporters down the years, that the dream was just pretty bubbles in the air. It faded and died.
It is one thing to lose, it is quite another to lose because you cannot escape your own dullness. That, sadly, was the fate of Herbert's team. He tried to get the Phoenix to play football and became as lost as his own players.
Danny Blanchflower once said, "The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom".
In that sense, Herbert's teams have always been anti- football. He has spent a coaching career waiting for the other lot to die of boredom. And when he was told to put on the style, he just didn't know how.
The biggest surprise is not the departure of Herbert but the fact that it took so long. His team has never finished higher than third. In three seasons out of six, assuming they maintain their current position, the Phoenix will have finished last. There was a match midway through this season when the two fullbacks were taking the corners and Ben Sigmund was taking the freekicks.
Was this Herbert's idea of total football. Did he think that getting Tony Lochhead to take corners was the way forward. Were there no better strikers of a dead ball than three of the back four.
It was also baffling why Herbert stayed loyal to Lochhead for so long, when the poor man's form was so pitiful.
Jaws dropped when Herbert said yesterday, "I've had a long and very successful tenure at the club and will always be proud of what I have achieved. But all good things must come to an end".
I guess that is Herbert's version of fantasy football, because his actual achievements are negligible. In a more competitive environment the Phoenix would be looking at relegation for a third time. Their goal- scoring record is awful. And their player development is minimal.
The myth around Herbert is so frustrating because it is holding back New Zealand's football development.
The first week of Super Rugby showcased the sheer brilliance of rugby coaching in this country, expertise that is exported around the world. It is time for New Zealand to import some comparable football insight.
In a competitive environment, Herbert would have been sacked long ago. A month ago Southampton fired Nigel Adkins, a manager who had taken the club to successive promotions. Southampton had just drawn at Chelsea after being two goals down and were unbeaten in five Premier League games, lying in 15th position. That sacking was a scandal. Herbert's departure should be a blessing.
Back in the dark hooligan days of the English leagues, Aston Villa had an owner called Doug Ellis, widely known as "Deadly" because of his penchant for sacking managers. Ellis once told Tommy Docherty that he was right behind him.
The Doc replied that he would rather Ellis stayed in front of him where he could see him.
Herbert never had to look over his shoulder because the men running football in this country are happy to foster such low expectations. It means that they cannot be held accountable. Never mind that putting Herbert in charge of both the Phoenix and the All Whites was a grotesque conflict of interests.
The experiment was also a failure, though it is hard to find many in power who will admit it. The harsh truth is that at one end of the pitch (at least) Herbert's teams have been serial underperformers. His All Whites average well under a goal a game against all teams excluding the Pacific Island nations.
Yet Herbert's reputation continues to be massaged even now. Morrison said yesterday, "Ricki has an unparalleled record in the Hyundai A-League. Without his contribution, the Phoenix could not have had the success it has had".
Morrison is certainly not an idealistic fool. He now knows Herbert's limitations but would rather kill him with kindness.
Such kindness may not serve the long-term interests of New Zealand football because, as Malcolm Allison once said, "You're not a real manager until you have been sacked".
Mark Reason is a sportswriter formerly with the Times of London and Daily Telegraph in Britain. He now lives in Wairarapa.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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