“I made my debut for Waikato FC with them both. I remember my first touch in the National League was a throw-in to Mayney and he just told me “are you serious?” and he hoofed it back out and just stared at me!”
– Aaron Scott
Prowling the sidelines in the late morning sun last Saturday, as the ‘Pride of the Waikato’ took on Glenfield Rovers on the rock hard surface of Gower Park number seven, was Melville United Chairman Bruce Holloway. He’s seen a few pre-seasons come and go. Squads assembled, hopes high, single-minded coaches full of cunning strategies that are tried, tested and evaluated in friendlies against other teams, coaches and administrators planning and striving for the same slice of glory.
“How’s it going, Bruce?” I chirped as he strode over for a chat. He reported that his new dynamic coaching duo of Michael Mayne and Sam Wilkinson are bursting with the “audacity of youth”, breathing new life and new enthusiasm into the fabric of the club.
I had made the trip to the Tron partly because Sam, son of Waikato coaching legend Roger Wilkinson, got in touch and asked if I would be interested in chatting to him and ‘Mayney’ about what they were up to with their new gig. I had already been planning to contact Melville’s veteran defender Aaron Scott for my annual NRFL pre-season interview, so I proposed a three for one deal – and to my eternal gratitude it was accepted!
When I first heard about Michael and Sam taking over at Melville, I found the prospect more than a little bit exciting. These are two motivated young coaches with fine pedigrees. Michael did a superb job to get Waitemata promoted twice in two years and has also picked up some great experience as assistant to Leon Birnie with our women’s under 20 national team. Sam has recently returned from the English Midlands where he was the under 16 academy coach at Birmingham City following a stint at West Brom coaching their under 14s.
Sam told me “one of the big things, the drawcards to coming back to New Zealand from the UK, is that I felt here I could really influence a club or a programme from top to bottom.” And the more we talked the more obvious it became that these guys really mean business!
And when I say that they mean business, it may be a slight understatement…
Sam makes the pair’s ambitions crystal clear… “We want to make Melville United the best club in the country. To put that into a tangible goal, we want to go and win the O-League eventually – that’s what we’re aiming for. I appreciate some people will snigger at that, but I think that’s achievable. I think we can win it in five years. Obviously there may be some roadblocks out of our hands with the way you get into the National League but I’ll tell you one thing – we will put as much pressure on… If we’re performing in the Northern Premier League and knocking on that door we will make as much noise as possible.”
This naturally led to one or two philosophical questions about clubs vs franchises and whether it is sensible to have a second Waikato club spending time and money on trying to get into the National League when the region is already represented there. Obviously Sam favours clubs and is a passionate proponent of a promotion/relegation system for the National League. My fear with that is we could end up with no geographic spread and all the Stirling Sports Premiership clubs based exclusively in the three main centres.
Sam’s response was “tough luck, you’ve got to get your ass into gear! For the good of the league and for the good of what you’re doing as a club you will only ever get in there when playing wise you are capable of being in there and competing.”
Michael expanded further: “We want to give the region a kick up the ass. When we were young there was so much potential here but I stopped playing in the end because I was frustrated with the coaching basically. I didn’t feel like, for the type of player that I wanted to be, that there was the right environment in the Waikato for me. We think we can provide something for players who want to kick on and we can do it here.”
And if that means taking Wanderers’ spot in the big league? “I’ve got question marks about the way they’ve run their franchise and the feedback I get from the trainings so I wouldn’t feel sorry cutting their lunch in any way.” Sam said. “Because I know the way we’re running things and the time we’re putting in and I don’t think they match what we do and so from that point of view I’ve got no guilts about saying to them you’ve got to step aside, we’re going to do it better than you.”
But when it comes to the clubs vs franchises debate, former All White Aaron Scott has a different perspective from his experience having played for franchises Waikato FC, Waitakere United and WaiBOP United as well as having done the unthinkable and donned the blue shirt of Wanderers in the summer season just finished…
“I think a standalone franchise seems to work better because then everything is completely separate. I think the thing is when you’re trying to do a winter team and a summer team at the same time when the latter half of the season started to mean sharing coaching resources for one, pitches and things, it didn’t work as smoothly as it should have.”
Earlier in the summer, Aaron raised a few eyebrows when he appeared to hit out at the team culture at Wanderers, describing it as the worst he’d ever experienced. But he did concede that things improved as the season wore on and some of the players who were less committed were replaced by young talent from closer to home.
“We had a few players who wanted to turn up but not really get involved into what we were trying to do. OK we got some results in the first half but in the second half of the season people got a bit more stuck in, in terms of the local ones training wise and I felt it got better. I think if you commit to it you’ve got to go full into it and I think some people wanted to [play] without really committing to it.”
But looking ahead to the more immediate future, it seems as though the new regime at Melville is set to produce a more exciting brand of football to watch at the very least. Aaron told me he’s been happy with what he’s observed so far from the sidelines as his National League season winds down. “We’ve looked proficient but also looked dangerous rather than just being good. With Sam and Mike we have some structure in place to work out the how we are going to score or create chances and the same to nullify them at the defensive end. We have always tried to outwork and out-scrap teams in the past and now it may be about out playing them with a common idea.”
In terms of style of play, Sam told me they break it down into four main components.
“The first is we want to keep the ball, we want to play through the thirds, we want to dominate possession. The second aspect is where we allow for rotation and flexibility within our shape. We want to be clever and creative around the top third, we want to have the majority of the ball in their top third and keep it as high as possible – so we’ve got to be able to break teams down when they sit off us. And then the last part is looking to go and press and stay high and be brave enough to almost go man for man all over the pitch when you defend.”
Sounds great, but isn’t that what they all say? As Anthony Hudson will attest, when the realities of the level of football and conditions you are up against set in, will we see a reversion to route one? Or as Michael says himself, “It’s probably where coaches get found out, they say they like to play tiki-taka and keep the ball but the moment a team gets in your face it’s just bang it back up the field.”
But Sam was quick to point out that in senior football you have to get results. “So we’ve also looked at, as a Plan B, being able to sit off if we need to and counter. At times in that game against Glenfield, in the first twenty minutes, we were a little bit more direct than normal. We don’t want to be too predictable with what we’re doing where we never have that variation.”
It will be interesting to see how much Plan A and how much Plan B we end up seeing as the season progresses.
In terms of the opposition Melville will face in the race for promotion, their first match against Michael’s old club Waitemata on Saturday looms as a fascinating test of where the two sides are at. “It’ll be good to see where they’re at and see some old faces and things like that” he said. “It was a pretty hard decision to be fair, to walk away, I had a plan for five years there and it was just family and work stuff that brought me back down here. But yeah, you couldn’t have scripted it better in terms of the draw!”
As for the rest of the teams they will have to beat to achieve their goal, the club seems more focused on what they are trying to achieve than spending too much time worrying about specific opponents.
Sam was keen to talk about what he called the “massive focus” they are putting on their training environment. “We’re in three nights a week, we have the younger group of our first team players do a Monday morning session as well so some of our boys are doing four sessions a week which is not a million miles away from what a young pro would do. That was a big thing we wanted to try and almost change the culture a little bit. Even down to things like planning the sessions. We make sure the whole session is out before the first player gets here so they can walk in and see it’s not making it up as you go along.”
And while in the short term they have imported some of their playing stock in from the UK, they hope to use the academy they are setting up to nurture the next generation of Waikato players through to the point where the team is populated with home-grown talent.
“We’ve started with a 14th grade academy. We’ve got 33 14th graders on that programme, in which basically the best 30 in the Waikato region have all come and bought into this.” Sam said.
“Michael and myself do their two sessions a week. We do analysis with them so we get some of their games and trainings filmed. We have reports and individual learning plans for them. So we do all the peripheral stuff as well, which again is aiming to almost create that European academy model to the best of our abilities here. We want to make this a bit of a hub, if you like, for the best local players to come through and actually have an opportunity to go and have a career in the game. And [eventually] our first team is populated with the players that have come through our system but haven’t kicked on to the pro game. Then we’ve got that cluster of the best National League players and that’s, long term, where we see laying down these foundations on the academy side.”
Possession based football. Training young players in a pro-environment and sending them off to pro careers… I have to admit that all of this had a bit of a familiar ring to it. Hasn’t it been tried in the Waikato in the not too distant past? And didn’t it end in tears then? I couldn’t resist putting the question to Michael…
“Declan [Edge] did some really awesome things with those young players but had different objectives. We understand there’s a performance outcome we need to get. At the same time we’ve got a responsibility to the development side.”
True, but where’s all the money coming from? Surely the biggest reason for the provinces struggling in the National League through the ages is the Auckland and Wellington clubs being so much better resourced than us? Not in Sam’s book. “A lot of those things don’t actually take a lot of money and resource. It’s just organisation and planning.”
I was also interested to know how co-coaching arrangements would work in practice. So I asked Michael: ‘Who’s really the boss?’
“Sam and I have known each other for a long time. I think when it won’t work is when I’ve got one idea, he’s got another idea but we’re quite close in our thinking. We’ll challenge each other’s idea, but there’s not one of us that needs to drive things, there’s no egos there to push through. It works for us because we are happy to [each] lead sessions, we can split it up so we work with smaller numbers and we know we’re not losing any of the quality in the session. And look, if it’s good for Iceland it’s good for us!”
And it certainly seems that the buy-in from the players is there, both from Michael and Sam reporting that they have had nothing but good feedback and lots of keen beans turning up to all the various training sessions, and also from senior players who know them well – like Aaron:
“I have a lot of time for them. I respect what they’ve done in the game and I think they are both footballers in terms of they love the game and want to do the right things and put the time and effort into it so I’m quite excited to work under them.”
A squad that blends youth and experience, an exciting brand of football tempered with a healthy dose of pragmatism, young players flocking into the academy from all around the region, and two fine young coaches who are chomping at the bit to take on the world!
I’m reminded of my 2007 trip to Italy, when I took a number of Waikato FC scarves over with me as gifts. One of my cousins refused to take one until I was able to, with a substantial amount of effort, convince him that it was utterly inconceivable that Waikato FC could ever face Roma in the Club World Cup.
I’d love nothing more than to take Melville scarves next time, only to have to lug them all the way home again due to an inability to, in good conscience, make the same case.
[P.S. I will post the full interview with Aaron Scott in a couple of days]
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.