One of the worst kept secrets in our game is out! New Zealand Football’s plan for the development of our national women’s team – the Football Ferns – has been made public. Its centrepiece is a squad of locally based female internationals training in Auckland, with access to top class facilities and coaching, and playing in an under 17 boys’ league.
The idea is to simulate a professional environment for players who don’t have professional contracts. At the moment there is a big gap between the players based overseas and those based here and it’s holding us back. Hopefully this new plan will both prepare the players for the rigors of professional clubs – where ideally they would all be – and to try to bridge the gap between the Ferns and some other countries whose squads are selected entirely from professional ranks.
Sound like a great idea? It is, but there’s a catch – the small matter of local clubs robbed of the chance to have these players in their teams as they try to lift the standard of the women’s domestic competitions they compete in. And some of them are not happy campers…
The proposed compromise is for the squad to play as many games as possible on Thursday nights so as to allow players to turn out for their clubs on a Sunday and for players not selected to play each week to also be released. But even with these measures it’s estimated that the players will only be able to play for their clubs roughly half the time.
In addition, the clubs are really fuming about the short notice. They were only formally consulted a couple of weeks ago, less than a month out from the start of a winter season where squads are already built around the best players.
Several people have asked me what I think about this and I have been very reluctant to commit one way or the other – because I can see both sides.
Aside from the process, there seem to be two main areas of concern – player welfare, and the future of the NRFL.
In terms of player welfare, if promises are kept and players are able to play in both leagues they will be signing up for training with both the national setup, and their clubs, as well as games on Thursdays and Sundays. This will be a lot of football and one might speculate that this plan and the demands it will place on players may have been one of the catalysts for Abby Erceg’s international retirement.
There are also real concerns that the league selected – the Conference – is not the right pick. It’s the second best U17 league in the region after U17 Boys Metro. There are real fears that if the skill levels are a bit low it could lead to recklessness and injuries as well as the players not getting what they need out of the matches.
In terms of the future of the NRFL, the Women’s Premier competition is currently the best women’s league in the country and any weakening of it is a legitimate worry for the next generation of players coming up behind those selected for this programme. If the next tier of players are not able to train and play with the Ferns week in week out, what will that do for their development?
Building up the National Women’s League should be a priority. If the Stirling Sports Premiership is “where All Whites are made” then shouldn’t we be aiming for something similar for the women’s game? The future seems to be the best four performing winter clubs playing in an October/November league with federations from the rest of the country. But might that be skewed by clubs not disrupted by player absences taking those four spots, leaving the Ferns who play for other clubs twiddling their thumbs while our so-called national league is taking place?
On the other hand, I understand what is trying to be achieved here and the constraints that Tony Readings and his team are working under. The situation is what it is even if I have my views on the way the programme is funded and the priorities of the national body.
The genesis of this change is a failure to medal, or come close to medalling, at the Rio Olympics. New Zealand Football had to pitch a new plan to convince High Performance Sport NZ that we can lift our game. Carrying on with the status quo isn’t going to get results and if they had told HPSNZ that they weren’t trying anything different they wouldn’t have even got the meagre funding they did receive.
They have scouted the various boys’ leagues extensively. They have done their homework both watching and playing friendlies against different boys’ age groups at different levels and they are convinced that the Conference is the best fit. This is due to a belief that the number one priority is scoring more goals and that this league will enable the team to take what they need in that department.
The weakening of the NRFL is a trade-off, but the harsh truth is with a couple of arguable exceptions it’s not producing the best quality international players as it is. If New Zealand Football can bridge the gap between local players and overseas pros, they can help more players into pro contracts and bring more fringe players into the programme – if that comes off and turns into a production line it will be better for the Ferns in the long run. Isn’t that worth a try?
Ultimately we have a national coach with a long term contract and I think we should trust him to make the tough calls and in the end he will be judged on results over the next three years. To not do that would be to make it harder for the Ferns to shine on the world stage – something that everyone wants them to do.
Categories: Football Ferns
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