All Whites coach impressed by young guns
Ricki Herbert has hinted his young guns could be pressing for places in the Oceania Nations Cup campaign after completing the All Whites' first international victory in two years.
Striker Shane Smeltz gave New Zealand a 1-0 win over Honduras – ranked 62nd in the world to the All Whites' 130th – when he headed home Jeremy Brockie's brilliant left-footed cross on the halftime hooter in Dallas, Texas, yesterday.
Herbert hugged his coaching assistants as he celebrated the All Whites' first win in 11 matches since beating Serbia 1-0 in May 2010 in the leadup to the Fifa World Cup finals in South Africa.
He hailed a "a terrific" team performance that saw the tenderfoot team survive a Honduras onslaught in the final quarter to claim a morale-boosting victory at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
However, he was already looking ahead to Sunday's Oceania campaign opener against Fiji in Honiara after completing an unbeaten short tour of the United States that opened with a 2-2 draw with El Salvador last Thursday.
Herbert said senior players Winston Reid, Chris Killen, Rory Fallon and Tony Lochhead would join the squad in Brisbane "in the next 48 hours" to prepare for the Oceania assignment.
However, they might not be guaranteed starts after youngsters Kosta Barbarouses, Marco Rojas, Chris Wood and Ian Hogg grabbed their opportunities to impress in the Texas doubleheader against opposition the All Whites could strike in the November 2013 inter-continental World Cup playoffs.
"It's about performance, not about age," said Herbert, who felt 20-year-old Wood was "strong and dominant" after replacing Smeltz for the second half.
The West Bromwich Albion striker created gilt-edged chances for Aaron Clapham and Barbarouses, but neither was able to pull the trigger with only Honduras goalkeeper-captain Noel Valladares to beat.
The All Whites had few chances in the first 44 minutes despite some razzle dazzle by Leo Bertos, who replaced Hogg – a goal-scoring debutant against El Salvador – after the latter limped off following a heavy challenge.
However, the Hondurans were equally shot-shy in the first spell.
Smeltz fired the All Whites ahead in the 45th minute when he soared high to head home a perfect left-wing cross by Brockie.
The new Wellington Phoenix signing had been released by a precision pass from Clapham, the Canterbury United captain who produced an energetic effort in his first All Whites start in an unfamiliar holding midfield role.
The All Whites were under the cosh for the final 30 minutes, with the woodwork twice coming to their rescue when Honduran shots struck a post.
However, Herbert was happy with the "tremendous composure" in challenging circumstances.
The 32 degrees Celsius heat was taxing, a pockmarked pitch tested technique and the All Whites had a limited warmup while El Salvador beat Moldova 2-0 in the curtainraiser.
"The guys were fantastic," Herbert said.
"We've backed up, [Honduras] were fresh and I thought we might be a little lethargic.
"I thought we took it to another level today."
Tommy Smith – New Zealand football's youngest captain at 22 – and veteran Ivan Vicelich marshalled the defence admirably, with solid support from Clapham.
Seven of the All Whites starting lineup were aged 25 or younger – as were five of the six substitutes, including debutants Tim Payne, 18, and Adam McGeorge, 23.
Burnley professional Cam Howieson, 17, won his second cap off the bench.
Rojas and Barbarouses were more subdued than they were in the El Salvador draw.
However, they will still put real heat on Herbert for starting places in the Solomon Islands tournament.
"As an ex-All White, I'm really proud to see the depth and quality of the players coming through," Herbert said.
"I'm pleased we've been given the chance to blood them at this level of international football."