When the coaching appointment for the WaiBOP United ASB Premiership franchise was announced, it caused something of a stir. Many thought it odd that the job had been given to a relatively unheralded Scotsman, especially given that Wanderers coach Mark Cossey had done such a wonderful job of salvaging Waikato FC’s season last term, putting him at the forefront of people’s minds as deserving of another shot at the national league. But when the Waikato/Bay of Plenty Football Federation took over the region’s team for this upcoming season, they were determined that they were going to do things a little differently. In a bid to avoid the failures of the past, they saw it as important that the coaching team not be seen as biased towards one of the big Northern League clubs in the area, so they went for a candidate who had no affiliation to any of them.
Peter Smith is the man entrusted with the future of Waikato and Bay of Plenty football at the highest level, and since his appointment he has already silenced plenty of doubters with some exciting, head turning signings that should ensure a competitive season ahead for the long suffering fans in the WaiBOP region. I spoke to him last week, in order to get a better sense of his background, his thoughts on the state of WaiBOP football in general, and of what his plans for the season ahead might be…
EG: A firefighter by trade, what made you want to become a football coach?
PS: Well obviously being Scottish, it’s in the blood. I guess from the minute you’re born you’ve got a ball at your feet. But while I was in the fire service I was playing a bit of football as well, and just with my shifts, the way the shifts work, it was quite a natural progression to get into coaching because there was a bit more flexibility, as opposed to playing where you have to turn up to training, the coaching was good because it fitted in with the days off. So it worked out well.
EG: What brought you to New Zealand, and specifically the WaiBOP region?
PS: My partner and I came across on holiday because we had family in Whangamata, so we came across two or three times on holiday and really enjoyed it so we decided to make a move. I was just coming out of the fire service, I started off working n Whangamata with GJ Gardiner as a construction manager there, and doing a bit of voluntary football development work, and I got approached by the federation to come and work for them covering the Thames Valley, and that was the start I guess of my association with the federation.
EG: Now that you’ve taken over WaiBOP United, what are the different challenges between building a team from scratch and inheriting an already established side?
PS: There’s positives and negatives. Obviously when you’re coming into a club environment, you’ve got what’s there, as the gaffer coming in you inherit a squad. Whereas with WaiBOP United there’s in essence a clean canvass to work from, but that also has its issues with getting players on board and working within the constraints that are there. But it’s also exciting because you are able to build the team with the players and the personnel who play in the style that you want to play in, so it’s probably a better position to be in to be fair.
EG: Do you have a style of play you like your sides to play or will you tailor the style around the squad you have?
PS: For sure, I mean obviously everyone would like to play like Barcelona, playing it from the back, through the midfield and if we had Messi and Iniesta we would probably do the same, but unfortunately they’ve knocked back the offers that we’ve sent them. So we’ll play a style and a form of play that will be dictated by the strength of the players that we’ve got on board, and that will get the most effective results in terms of winning games.
EG: What’s your philosophy going to be with this side?
PS: We’re obviously looking to score goals. You score goals, you win games. However at the same time if you’re not conceding goals you’re not losing games. So we want to build from the back so we’re strong defensively and not leaking silly goals. In the ASB you come up against some quality players so you are going to concede goals through quality play, however if we can minimise those silly mistakes… But certainly we want to be punishing teams with our movement and with our strikers. At the end of the day, if the strikers have got the ball, we’d rather play in their box than in our box so we will be looking to get into their box as quick as we possibly can and that’s more a sort of direct style of play. However we are aware that we want to play with a bit of flair as well and get people to come and watch us. In essence, for me as a coach, it would be good for the neutral supporter to be able to say “you go and see WaiBOP and they actually play good stuff”. But at the end of the day, we need to develop players and we need to win games.
EG: What do you look for in a potential signing?
PS: In essence you are looking for players that are technically good, so they’ve got a high skill level, but I’m also big on attitude. You’ve got to sign the right player and dig a bit deeper and that’s where we’ve worked really hard. I’ve been working very closely with Alan Jones, who’s my mentor and has been for the last two or three years, and we’ve worked hard on ‘the player in essence is the façade’. It’s what’s behind the player. So what drives them? What are they about? Where have they been? What have they done? What’s the family background? Where do they work? All these different components that we say right, we’re getting this, but you’ve got to dive a bit deeper. In essence you want players that will work for you, that will provide something and will create the environment that we’re looking to create, and the fact that they’re helping each other. We’re there as a strong team culture, and I think you’re looking for a player that brings that to the environment.
EG: You’ve made some strong signings, chief amongst them, goalkeeper Andrew McNeil who is an U20 Scotland international. Can you tell us how that signing came about?
PS: Basically through my existing network of coaches, Scottish lads both back in Scotland and in New Zealand, and through discussions his name came up. Done a bit of research, had a chat with the lad, and from the word go he showed an interest in coming over. It was pretty tough initially because he played for Hibs and I’m a Hearts supporter, so there were issues there I had to get across! But no, Andrew is a fantastic lad, he’s a top quality keeper obviously whose played pro for Hibs at the highest level in the premier League in Scotland, played for Scotland in the Under 20s and been to the European championships and so he’s mixed it with some of the best players in the world. So we’re looking forward to getting him involved. He’s excited, he arrives, in the next couple of weeks he’s getting himself here and I think he’ll be a massive asset for the club and more importantly for the region for some of the young keepers that are coming through. We want to get him assisting with some of the federation talent centre programmes. So we’re looking for there to be a legacy for the younger keepers coming through and I think that’s hugely important.
EG: What’s your assessment of the quality of talent in the region. Is the pool of talent in the area ever going to be significant enough to sustain a competitive national league team on home grown talent alone?
PS: I think it’s got to be. You look through the ASB over the last couple of years and the amount of players that are plying their trade in Auckland, and Wellington, and Canterbury, that have come from the Waikato/Bay of Plenty region is high. So it’s how do we keep those players playing in the region? I think from WaiBOP United there’s a need for us to help support the senior winter clubs in the region, so the likes of Melville, Ngaruawahia, Wanderers, Claudelands and Tauranga City. If we could help to strengthen them with the better players in the region, and provide a pathway through, via our Federation Talent Centres for the better youth players coming through there who in the years to come will be our national league players, at the same time as trying to keep those players that we’re bringing to WaiBOP United playing in the region, then strong regional teams will certainly give us a strong national league team. There’s a challenge there for sure, but I think if we’ve got strong teams playing in the region then that will work very well for the franchise.
EG: Given that you have brought a few Aucklanders in, what’s your perception of how much they care about this team winning? Are they going to be fired up to play for WaiBOP?
PS: Oh, for sure. I’ve had a lot of meetings and discussions. George Slefendorfas has been a different class as far as his attitude – he’s a winner, he just wants to win and the first discussion I had with him, his first question was ‘what other players are coming in and will we be able to compete with the other teams, and if the answer is yes, I’m in’. That’s the discussions you have. Obviously the same with Milos, I mean he’s been in the Waikato before a couple of seasons ago and was hugely successful then, and again you’ve got Maxim Manko, another lad who has played for Waikato in previous seasons and was hugely successful so you’ve got guys that, ok they’re Auckland based, but they have got an affiliation with the region. Obviously George hasn’t but already he’s getting a bit of passion. You’re getting guys who are excited because of the other players that we’ve brought in, like Liam Higgins, who has just been at his second under 20 World Cup, he’s a young lad who, I was just speaking to him on the phone last night and he is really excited and looking forward to it and he thinks it’s going to be a really good season. So you’re getting guys who are genuinely excited and as a coach of these guys it gives me a buzz as well to hear some of these players, who are talented players, with that intrinsic motivation that I think is good.
EG: A couple of places still left in the squad. Where do you see as the holes and how do you plan to go about filling them?
PS: Yep, obviously we’ve got the nucleus of where we want to go. We’ve got a few players coming in that we need to have a look at in the environment that we’ll create, so in the next couple of weeks there’ll be additional players that we’ve not signed that we’ll get a look at. But at the same time, we’ve made it clear to some of the players that we have signed that, you know, ‘we’ve signed you because we can see technically what you’ve got. Whether you remain in the squad by the time we put the squad in to New Zealand Football is up to you’. So we’ve put faith in them so it’s a case of them showing faith in us by turning up and doing the work. So yep, there’s still potentially a bit of movement in the squad. As far as those other spots go, as I say we’ve got these players coming in, there’s a few that we think will be able to give us a bit of strength in areas where we’re probably a wee bit slack in an the minute, so we’ll make decisions on them in the next couple of weeks. It’s quite exciting when people see, and players see, that you’re trying to do things right, and we’ve built WaiBOP United on the right values, and the righ standards, and there will be good training sessions, we’ll really create a good culture, and good players will want to be a part of that. Good players know who the other good players are and they know who they want to play with so it’s surprising how that does come together and that’s been the exciting bit.
EG: You’ve got a pretty cool assistant in Che Bunce, what does he bring to the coaching team and how does he compliment your skills?
PS: Buncy is a different class, I mean his game knowledge, Buncy has played at the highest level both in club football with his time in the UK and also internationally. He’s played against some of the best players in the world, so his knowledge of the game and his game knowledge is a different class and for me, you know, you could say I’m relatively inexperienced at this level, so it’s good to have Che beside me and just bouncing ideas and challenging my thought processes as well. And what’s been good is, unknown to me, Jonesy was also mentoring Che, and neither of us knew that, so that’s actually brought us together quite well. Che’s just a really good lad as well. He’s a bit of a football icon in the Waikato, so it’s good to have him involved with the set-up, and I’m really excited with that.
EG: Where do you think Waikato FC went wrong and what will you and the federation running the show do differently?
PS: Um, it’s probably not for me to say where they went wrong, I guess that’s been well documented, some of the things that went well and some of the things they struggled in and as I say not for me to say that. But for us to do things differently, I think we need to be well orgainsed and as I say, do things right. If you do things right, you’ve got a good platform or a good foundation to build from and that’s where we’ve taken it from there. Tried not to make any false promises to the players, or the public that’s going to follow us, and say look, ‘we have got a limited budget, we’ve got constraints, but we’ll try and do things as right as we can’, and if we can get the success then we’ll build it from there. From my perspective that means on the playing field, trying to get the best, most effective players within the budget and the constraints that have been placed upon me and to be fair, you know I think the coaching staff and I have done that the best that we could. So I guess for us, yep, get the team winning games, but off the field as well, making sure that everything is done properly.
EG: Realistically, is it possible for WaiBOP teams to challenge for the ASB Premiership against the money of the likes of Auckland City?
PS: You tell me! Is it realistic? If you’re not going into it to win the league, why bother? So yeah, you look at some of the bigger teams with the budgets that have been documented and can we compete with that financially? No. But at the end of the day if we can get players, like I said at the start, who are mentally focussed and have got a good bit of technical ability, we’ll certainly mix it with them and as I said, we’ll get the foundations right and you would hope that, yep, we’ll be challenging this year. But we need to just keep building and building and if we go out every weekend and win games we won’t be far away.
EG: Can I ask you a few questions about women’s football? You have been the coach of Papamoa and the Bay of Plenty women’s team. Sadly relegated this year – where to now for that outfit?
PS: No, they’re still in.
EG: They came third to bottom isn’t that…
PS: No, no it’s only the bottom two so they’re in that league again for next year. [Yay! EG] In essence that was purely a development team. The girls who are in that squad are our federation talent centre players, and in the region, with those better players, the level of competition is relatively limited. So we’ve got a couple of these players who have played in the New Zealand under 17s and we’ve always looked to say ‘how can we keep the challenge up for that group?’ The local regional women’s leagues, bar a couple of teams is quite limited so it’s how do we get the challenge? We had discussions with Papamoa about bringing them into the Northern League basically just to keep them going and it’s working, as I say with two girls in the 17s and there’s probably another couple not far away. Obviously we’ve retained our position in the league for next year so it’s just a case of building it up. The name has changed from Papamoa to Bay of Plenty and we’re trying to get that model that links in with the federation talent centre so that for the best female players in the Bay of Plenty, there’s a pathway for them to come through as a 12 year old, right through into the federation talent centre, into the Northern League, and hopefully into the national talent centre and I guess into national selection. It’s a work in progress, but it’s certainly a big part of the jigsaw in our talent pathway from a regional perspective.
EG: Do you approach coaching women’s football any differently from men’s?
PS: Um… I guess the simple answer is yes. However I don’t think your coaching principles change. Your style of coaching is your style of coaching. I guess some of the language might be a bit more colourful! But no, I mean as a coach you’ve got how you play, your principles of playing never change, the game is still the same, there’s still getting the wee round thing in the back of the net so that never changes. But yep, obviously the skill level, the technical and tactical input is obviously different, the social and emotional needs are different so again, as a coach, in some instances it’s possibly harder with women’s football because the social and emotional needs are different, you’ve got to be aware of that for sure. So there are differences, but at the end of the day it’s still coaching the game. But certainly for me, the ASB is the highest level of football in the country so It’s a great opportunity for me which I’ve obviously grabbed with two hands and I’m really looking forward to it.
EG: It’s also pretty exciting what they’re doing with the National Women’s League, making it more of a national competition now. Obviously you won’t be coaching WaiBOP this time. Who will be and how is that team going to shape up in the new league?
PS: Simon Mead has taken over the head coach with Ian Heath supporting him in that role also. I was helping the guys the other night with their trial, they had one of their trials in the Bay of Plenty so I helped support that because that obviously is part of my role, encompassing supporting these guys. The squad is coming together. Again, there’s a nucleus over the last couple of years, but what’s been good is the ability of women’s football in the region to increase, so even at the trial there were 25-30 girls there and the standard was getting better and better so you can see things are happening. It’s getting there, so I think it’s exciting times for these guys as well.
EG: You’ve got that really strong nucleus of Claudelands Rovers players. Is it getting harder to keep them in the WaiBOP or are they starting to get pulled by Auckland and Australia?
PS: Well some of the better ones obviously with that connection with Dave Edmonson across in Aussie, the likes of Sarah McLaughlin and Holly Patterson, are obviously plying their trade across there, but some of these guys are still coming back. I mean you’ve got Olivia Chance, who is across in the States, but came back for a couple of games for Claudelands so they’re always keen to come back to where their roots are. Is it getting harder to keep them? Well, I guess they keep coming back, I think there’s a degree of pride with the region and again, full credit to the staff, they’ve built that pride in playing for Waikato/Bay of Plenty and it’s something we need to keep working on.
EG: Why do you think many of the top women’s teams in NZ are coached by men? What do you think the barriers are to women becoming successful coaches?
PS: I think it’s purely numbers. At the end of the day, if there are female coaches who are there and are qualified, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be coaching at that level, but do the women make better coaches than the boys? I think that’s irrelevant. It goes back to game knowledge. If they’ve got the game knowledge and the knowledge of the game then there’s no reason why, the gender is irrelevant. Do women respond better to women? Well, the jury is out on that. At the end of the day, in my opinion we need to help and support the female coaches because it is an area where probably as a country we’re behind the times on so it’s important that we do support that. However I think it’s also important that we get the best coaches coaching the best players and the best teams. But at the same time, like I’ve said to you with the federation talent centre pathway, I think it’s important we push the female coaching pathway as well, and the coaching pathway in general. I think the more coaches we get accredited and qualified the better.
EG: Last question, what are your future ambitions as a coach, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
PS: Obviously I want success with WaiBOP, making a name for myself I guess as a coach and getting the credibility there by the team that I put on the field actually performing. I’ve probably got to earn the respect from the football fraternity in New Zealand. Building a legacy with WaiBOP would be good and where the next step is, I don’t know, at the end of the day in football you just take every day as it comes and I’m big on if you do your best every day, then what’s meant for you will not go past you and if you just keep working hard, giving 100% and every day just getting better and better, then what’s meant for you will not miss you.
EG: Thanks heaps for talking to me!
PS: Thank you.
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.