Edge's talented Waikato teens are in the sights of New Zealand's top teams
Waikato FC coach Declan Edge knows he's going to lose the majority of his squad over the next few years, and couldn't be happier.
Edge has overseen the development of a gifted crop of young players set to follow in the footsteps of Chris Wood and Marco Rojas.
That would leave Edge, currently in charge of Waikato in the Premiership and Melville United in the Northern League Premier Division, short of talent.
But that's what he's been aiming at all along, and he believes the game in the region is in great shape, with pathways in place for future success.
The Waikato Times understands the likes of Ryan Thomas, Tyler Boyd and Jesse Edge have been looked at by the Wellington Phoenix as potential recruits for their finishing school.
Premiership heavyweights Auckland City and Waitakere United have also been keen on nabbing Waikato's starlets.
"We've been battling them for the last six months to leave them alone," Edge said. "But some of the boys are going, without a doubt.
"I'm going to suggest that in the next 12 months, or the next two or three years, there are going to be seven or eight of these football players that are playing here currently playing in the A-League and higher.
"Everybody has underestimated how good some of these players are – how good they're going to be in the next four or five years."
In his first season back in charge at Waikato FC, Edge opted to use a group of young players he had been developing for several seasons, with mixed results. Waikato finished seventh in the eight-team league, grabbing two wins and three draws but among some disappointing scorelines were regular glimpses of what his young charges could produce.
Edge has struck a similar problem at Melville, who are fighting relegation, and is acutely aware of the struggle to combine bringing through a group of gifted youngsters who are still battling to produce victories against more seasoned opponents.
"My business of player development is spot on. It's going better than I ever thought," Edge said.
"The business of actually trying to win football games is something that we're trying to look at now."
That hasn't been a problem for Hamilton Wanderers this season, with the Mark Cossey-coached side sitting pretty in the Premier Division.
His side also contains a number of top young players – Michael Built, Mark Jones, Daniel Frischknecht, Raymond How and Matt Gibbons among them – which has Edge upbeat.
He is a divisive figure in the game here. His critics say he alienates people involved in the game, plays favourites with his players and has only one style of play, which lacks defensive appreciation.
The former professional footballer would rather the focus was less personal and more towards what was being achieved in the region. He could also counter with a belief that his approach is the same favoured by world football leaders Spain and Barcelona, and is being pursued by a growing number of teams and coaches and he would be stupid not to chose players he knows are capable of playing the game he wants.
There is no denying his passion, commitment and dedication, which may reap rich rewards for those teenagers who have stuck with him through training schedules which would tax many professionals.
"I decided if I really wanted to do something different, if I really wanted to produce players who were capable of playing in the top leagues in Europe, I had to step up and produce a very different type of player, not the type we are currently producing here in New Zealand, who is the physically strong type of player who plays the long ball or the second type of game," Edge explained.
"I believe that at international level at the top leagues in Europe requires players who are skilful.
"I believe that they play a game of effective possession. A short-passing game is going to be crucial. Possession of the ball is going to be of major importance.
"I set about producing that type of player that is capable and comfortable at doing that, and if you look at my players in 2012, I am well in the process of producing that type of player. That has to commence when the players are 10, 11, 12 – and you've got be quite ruthless in the work that you do."
Edge is confident that the region's young players are now being developed along similar lines, promising a strong future for the game here.
"The Whole of Football programme the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Federation has in place seems to be going along the right lines.
"That style of training has just been endorsed in the UK – playing smaller games, less emphasis on winning and losing, and if you down to Wintec on a Wednesday night, you can't get in – there are hundreds of kids.
"The Federation under-15 and under-17 leagues are going well. Things are happening in that area at Wanderers, at Ngaruawahia, at Claudelands. That's another big tick."
Edge is adamant there's a plethora of signs that Waikato football is on the verge of a prosperous era.
"The facilities at Gower Park (Melville's home) are immaculate. At Ngaruawahia, they've put a new surface down there.
"There are quite a lot of young coaches around too. You've got myself. You've got [Mark] Cossey [at Hamilton Wanderers], [Che] Bunce helping there, Mooch [Neil Mouncher] helping me, Duncan Lowry at Matamata, Brayden [Lissington] at Unicol.
"In the national team, there are players from this region – Chris Wood, Marco Rojas, Tony Lochhead. Adam McGeorge is a Rotorua lad. We had two players in the under-23 squad recently in Mikey Kramer and Adam Thomas and if you look at the next lot of under-20s, you can start picking the players from this region that are probably going to be involved in that squad.
"There are plenty of good players. There are plenty of good players in the Hamilton Wanderers team. That's got to be good for Waikato football."
A concern remains, however, over the sustainable future of the Waikato FC franchise, which faces a yearly battle to be financially viable in the country's national competition.
"What's a little bit discerning is there is a split between the WBOP football federation and Waikato Football Club – they don't get on.
"If everybody split up every time they had an argument with their wife, they'd get divorced. They need to come back together and say, `This is a relationship that needs to work'.
"We've neglected how important a Waikato franchise is – if it wasn't for people like [chairman] Brendan Coker, it wouldn't be in existence.
"He saw the picture. He saw that it is crucial."
Waikato FC played their home matches this year at Porritt Stadium, after appearing at Fred Jones Park, Centennial Park and Waikato Stadium in previous seasons, and the lack of a home base is something that annoys Edge.
"If football in this region was more important, it would be found. The Hamilton City Council would find it, or somebody would find it."
Yet his optimism won't be quenched.
"There are lots and lots and lots of good things going on in Waikato football, and yet people can't see that. Sometimes we're still bickering and fighting all over the place.
"Can you imagine what it'd be like if we actually looked at the positive side all the time? Can you imagine if we understood the importance of the franchise and got behind that?
"I've been here for 20 years and I haven't seen it in a better position."
What does mystify him is why football followers in the region, which boasts massive playing numbers among school children, don't seem to realise it.
Waikato FC only rarely got more than 200 to home matches last summer and similar numbers attend Premier Division games featuring Melville or Wanderers.
"I'm blown away that more people don't turn up at games.
"I'm amazed that people aren't coming to watch Ryan Thomas play, specifically. And Tyler Boyd, and Jesse – for free as well!"
While the Phoenix and other clubs are more excited by the emerging teens, Edge still has to be certain that a move is right for his proteges.
"The decision is whether I think the timing is right and whether I think the club is right."
Edge believes while the finishing-school concept is good, allowing the young players to work with the Phoenix first team, the region's top players could continue to prosper here equally as well.
Their training schedule would be more demanding than the Phoenix's and instead of representing Team Wellington in the Premiership, they would continue to turn out for their home franchise.
Eventually, he knows they will go, angering critics who suggest it's pointless to try to build teams that aren't going to be here long.
"Let's not produce good young players and they can stay here – that's the counter argument," Edge said.
"Just continue what you were doing, producing average players, but they go anyway.
"Surely you want to do something as best as you possibly can?
"That they're here for only a couple of years, surely that's brilliant? Let's go and get the next lot coming through."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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