Today, the opportunity presented itself to head down to the Birkenhead United clubrooms and interview Bill Tuiloma, currently back in the country for a short time during the Christmas break from his French Ligue 1 club Olympique de Marseille. He was paying his old club a visit to say hi to old friends, sign a few autographs, and then spend some time outside in the drizzly weather enjoying a kick around with the kids.
It was a real privilege to talk to Bill. Not because it’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever had a conversation with a player from a Champions League club, nor because I’m the sort of person who gets a buzz out of meeting someone famous. The real buzz was completely unrelated to sport or celebrity. It was the simple pleasure of listening to a kid talk about living his dreams – and that is exactly what Bill Tuiloma is doing right now. Living his dreams.
He has gone straight from playing NRFL at places like Manurewa and Ellerslie, to playing in World Cup qualifiers against Mexico in front of a packed stadium, and sitting on the bench, a hairs breadth away from getting out onto the pitch, in the famous French derby – ‘Choc des Olympiques’ (Clash of the Olympics) at Lyon. It fills you with warmth to hear him talk about it. He seems so happy, and proud – as he should be. And so humble.
EG: Thanks for talking to me!
BT: No worries.
EG: Are you able to talk us through how a Birkenhead United player ends up at Marseille? How did they discover you?
BT: Um, first I went to QPR and trialled there for a week and somehow, I think they have a connection with Marseille, because Joey Barton was with Marseille for a little while, so I think that’s where they have the connection… So I went there for a week, trialled, played a game as well, came back and got some good feedback from them, and then a few months later they wanted to sign me. I was over the moon, I was speechless, it was really good news for me!
EG: What did you know about the club before you went?
BT: To be honest, I only knew Joey Barton played there, that was pretty much it, I didn’t know much about Marseille or who played for them, I had a little bit of info there but that was pretty much it.
EG: Were there other clubs interested in you?
BT: Not that I know of. I think that it was just Marseille that were keen to sign me so, I think QPR was trying, but they couldn’t do anything else so that was pretty much it.
EG: What would your advice be to other players who have big clubs chasing them, in terms of what are the things they should look for in a club that will help to get the best out of them?
BT: They just need to work hard. That’s pretty much it. They just need to show the coaches their determination and desire that they want it so bad… If you want it, you just gotta go get it, it’s not going to come for you, it’s all up to you. If you want it, go out and get it.
EG: Do you think you should be trying to go for the biggest club you can? Or should you be looking at the facilities and the coaches…
BT: Marseille is one of the biggest clubs in France, and it’s a good club to start at. The development there, the coaches there are really good, they help you a lot. They have helped me a lot on things I needed to improve on. It’s a good environment, a good professional club. All the players are friendly, all the players help me a lot… because I’m a person that doesn’t speak a lot of French, but there are a few who speak English which is good for me.
EG: France won the 2013 FIFA Under 20 World Cup, a tournament you played in, and having now seen the youth set-up at French clubs – is there a connection? What are the French doing right?
BT: I think so, yeah. The French clubs, the development there, is unbelievable and you know, they have one of the best development squads. There are a few in Marseille that are in the Under 17 French team already, there’s a 15 year old player that’s in the Under 17s already and he played with us in the Champions League, and he scored as well, so you can see that there are a lot of good players coming through. There will be a few available for the next Under 20 World Cup that’s held in New Zealand so…
EG: Are French clubs, I mean obviously PSG splashes money all over the place, but as a rule are the other clubs investing in youth more than you see in other countries?
BT: Um, I think so yeah. They are looking for the younger generation, to develop them and guide them, set them up to perform at the top level, so yeah, that’s what they’re looking at, the young generations to come up and make a difference.
EG: I understand the Marseille youth team plays in the French lower leagues – how is the standard of football at that level compared to NRFL or the ASB Premiership?
BT: Oh, it’s up there. It’s up to another level than the New Zealand, no offence though ha ha…
EG: Yeah, the French fifth tier is still better than the New Zealand top tier?
BT: It’s a lot faster, a lot more physical, it’s a lot better.
EG: What are the crowds like? Do you still get a bit of European atmosphere at those lower league games?
BT: Oh yeah, the crowds are decent! You get a few hundred, four hundred people there watching. Pretty good, yeah!
EG: Do you get a bit of singing and dancing?
BT: Oh yeah, sometimes, if we’re winning!
EG: Depends who you’re playing?
BT: Yeah, depends who we’re playing. There are a lot of clubs that want to beat us. A lot of semi-pro clubs that want to beat a professional club and get their name out there, so yeah. Absolutely.
EG: Tell me about the UEFA Youth League – you’ve been playing for the Marseille youth team against the likes of Arsenal, Dortmund and Napoli?
BT: That’s ah… Ooh, that’s unbelievable you know… it’s a dream to play in the UEFA Youth League and to see all the other players who are probably signing next year. There are six players from Arsenal who have signed pro already, and there’s a few in Dortmund and Napoli so… It’s a different level! I can tell you that. A lot different level…
EG: You’ve already had a game on the bench for the senior team, and it was a derby too! How has that experience helped your development?
BT: Oh, that was ah… Ha ha I’m losing words! It was a good experience, just to see and feel, you know… feel the atmosphere and know if I go on, how quick it’s going to be, how physical it’s going to be. But yeah, should be good if I ever get on, hopefully I can get on and show them what I’ve got.
EG: What do you think you need to do to push your way into that first team?
BT: I just need to work hard. Train hard. Push my way up there. You’ve got to start from the bottom, you know?
EG: Has the coach given you any indications of where you need to improve or anything?
BT: Ah, not really, nah.
EG: He just expects you to work hard and show him that you want it?
BT: That’s pretty much it, yeah.
EG: And so, you’ve been playing as a defensive midfielder? That’s a bit different from what you’re used to playing back here?
BT: I’m used to that, I’ve shifted around a bit. As long as I’m on the field, I’ll play any position except for goalkeeper!
EG: Do you have a preferred position?
BT: Defensive midfielder. I think I’ve earned my spot there so…
EG: Has that always been the case?
BT: I’ve been playing centre back for a little while, but defensive midfield, I feel comfortable, it’s awesome – I get the ball a lot…
EG: In sport you sometimes hear theories about how it’s bad for young players to be rushed into the top levels too fast. Is that something you think about, or are you just hungry to push yourself as far as you can as fast as you can?
BT: Yeah, that’s my goal. To try and get into the top team as fast as I can and try and stay there.
EG: So you think it’s rubbish that you shouldn’t rush these things?
BT: If coaches think that a player can play at the top level, you should bring them up. It doesn’t matter what age, just play them.
EG: How are you finding the language barrier?
BT: The language is difficult but I’m getting there. On the field I can talk, you know I can say ‘go to the right side’ and things like that, but off the field just a little, ha ha, I’m learning.
EG: Have they arranged accommodation for you? Are you living with other young footballers from around the world or have you got your own flat?
BT: At the moment they have what’s called a ‘Centre Formation’, it’s for youth and young players coming in and there are about 28 of us. It’s a good set-up for young players coming in for those that live far away from the area to come and stay. But hopefully next year I’ll probably move out to an apartment.
EG: What’s your normal daily routine like? Are you pretty much playing and training all the time?
BT: Training 10am to about 11:30-12:00 and then the rest just have a break or do whatever and also I take French classes as well, which is good for me.
EG: Are there any of the famous trappings of the pro football life that you need to avoid?
BT: No, it’s pretty low key in the area where we’re staying in. We’re pretty much in between two hills, it’s a pretty good set-up for the youth and for the media to not, you know, barge in.
EG: You haven’t been out on the town in Marseille?
BT: I’ve been out to look around in the city a few times. It’s a really good city. The sun is always out which is good! We don’t see much rain. Good weather, good city.
EG: There aren’t many Maori and Pacific faces in New Zealand football. Why is that, and what attracted you to the game?
BT: I think it’s typical for Island and Maori kids to play rugby, but when I was a little kid I played football. As I grew older I played rugby at school but football was just the one for me.
EG: Is there anything that kiwi clubs could be doing better or differently to appeal more to young Maori and Polynesian kids?
BT: I think just give them an opportunity to come in, to train and develop. If they are keen to play and it’s their dream to play in a professional environment, just keep on developing them.
EG: You must have a few mates who are into their rugby, what do they make of your football success?
BT: Oh, they love it! They support me a lot. Sometimes they go “you should play rugby” but overall they support me, they are good friends, they support me with everything.
EG: Just to finish with a few questions about the All Whites. Tough first start in the home leg of the World Cup qualification campaign against Mexico – what did you take from that experience?
BT: Oh, that experience helped me a lot. I know now what… how high and how intense the game will be if I play in a top national team. It’s good to have a taste of what’s going to be in front of me for the next few years, for the future.
EG: What was your impression of Ricki Herbert’s coaching? Is it true that he lost the dressing room?
BT: I’m not sure. I respect coaches. That I don’t know.
EG: Do you think he had the tactics right in Mexico?
BT: Um, for some parts there, but there were areas where it didn’t look quite right for the players and the tactics, but you know coaches are there and you’ve just got to do it.
EG: If you could give one piece of advice to the next All Whites coach, what would it be?
BT: Just make us get through to the next World Cup. I want to go to the next World Cup so just hopefully we get a good coach, you know, that will help us and hopefully he’s got something in his pocket.
EG: Do you think it should be a New Zealander or an international appointment?
BT: I think just get someone that’s been in there and been at the top clubs as well, but you never know…
EG: Thanks heaps! That was my last question so thanks and good luck for the rest of the season.
BT: No worries, cheers.
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.