One of the big stories in women’s football this year was the announcement of the Football Ferns Development Programme (FFDP). It’s a new high performance programme for domestic players keen to train in as close to a professional environment that New Zealand can provide.
While many of New Zealand’s top young footballers pick up scholarships to US universities, continuing their development in the US college football system, this isn’t an option available to or practical for all. And by virtue of the players leaving New Zealand the domestic talent pool is reduced, thus weakening our local leagues. Equally, however, our domestic competitions are not enough to continue the development of our very top players.
So, what do? FFDP. I chatted to Football Fern and FFDP team captain Meikayla Moore and coach Gareth Turnbull about its first year.
First, a bit of context and a quick recap on the circumstances by which the FFDP came about. The key thing to remember about FFDP is that it’s an ongoing programme, with participation in a league competition just a part of it (and more on that shortly).
A new High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) cycle followed the Rio Olympics. This meant that the Football Ferns programme was reviewed and preparations for the next World Cup and Olympic games began. The central strand to this review was FFDP, as one of the key ‘learnings’ from the review was the need to improve the development of domestic based players. Ultimately, the goal is to produce better Football Ferns, and more professional footballers.
“Ferns have always had a Ferns domestic programme,” says FFDP manager and the national under 20s coach Gareth Turnbull, but previous ones “had been focussed on ‘you’re in a team for whatever game’s coming up’, which hasn’t developed the individual all that much, and they’d train during the day, so there was a compromise there in terms of work or education.”
The FFDP squad, of around 25 players, is made up of established Ferns, top Women’s National League players and the last cycle’s Under 17 and Under 20s players that the selectors thought had the greatest potential to become a Fern. Overseas-based players, such as those on college scholarships, also join with the squad when they’re in the country.
FFDP players have weekly plans. During the winter season they train four times a week (in the evenings, to allow for work and education commitments), with games typically on a Thursday. They have access to High Performance Sport centres within their respective regions, individualised conditioning and nutrition programmes, performance analysis as well as specialised medical support. Benefits for the players aren’t restricted to the training environment, however. Careful attention is also paid to how they make the next step in their careers and transition from FFDP to the professional game – what is the best environment, the best contract, the best-fitting team for these FFDP players as individuals to be stepping into?
The aim is to build the players’ capacity to 30 games a season, i.e. a typical professional season. The programme does this, says Gareth, by mirroring “the common week in the professional space – four trainings, two gyms and a match, which is kind of what would happen in the pro space. So we’re preparing players better for that environment.” He also points out that, in contrast to professional teams, the focus of FFDP is on developing each player, whereas the professional environment is focused on producing the team.
This is particularly appreciated by FFDP captain Meikayla Moore, who starred for the Ferns on their recent USA tour. “The level of intensity, physicality and aggression standards are the same as they are for the Ferns.”
“It’s been really good being able to be in an environment that replicates such standards.”
Players based out of Auckland, like Football Ferns centurion Annalie Longo (who is also Mainland Football’s Women’s Football Development Officer), are given programmes to work on that replicate the FFDP environment as closely as possible. ‘Flea’, for example, was training with an under 19 boys team and playing in an under 19 boys league, and flying up for some games with the FFDP squad as their schedules allowed.
A league environment
One of the most eye-catching aspects of the programme when it was announced back in March was the fact it featured women playing in a boys league. But that’s really just an incidental.
It was initially hoped that the a W-League team in conjunction with the Wellington Phoenix might come together in time to give the programme two full seasons before the next world cup. This was a big part of the original plans for FFDP, though ultimately it’s down to the FFA to approve a new W-League team. While it didn’t happen this year, advanced discussions for a W-League team are ongoing – although that might take the form of an Australian-based team playing under the Phoenix brand.
In the absence of entry to the W-League, and after much research as to the profile of the players the different local competitions offered, the AFF/NFF 17th grade Conference league was chosen as the most appropriate for the FFDP team to enter. The players in this division, while technically good, typically weren’t too athletic or fast – which was ideal because that’s not realistic to the women’s game, says Gareth.
The benefit of having the development programme playing in a league as opposed to the previous structure of one-off ‘friendly’ games is that the competitive element is introduced and sustained. While playing in the competition was a key element of the programme, the end result of the league wasn’t. What was important, however, was the environment that the league fostered, however, was. As Gareth notes, “historically we’d always played boys in friendly games, and so an element of the ‘friendly’ nature came into it.”
There were some sceptics over the team playing in a boys league. But the players weren’t bothered by it – Meikayla “relished” it:
The speed and strength of the boys themselves was an area which I found invaluable to be playing in for development.
I thought it was a really important step forward for women’s development in New Zealand. The idea of the FFDP was to try shorten that gap between international standard and women’s football standard in New Zealand.
I don’t think they [the boys] like the idea of losing to us as girls so they always came out firing which is invaluable for us, and what you don’t get in the women’s league.
And the results, while by no means the yardstick by which to measure the success of the programme, given its focus on individual rather than team development, overall were good (see the video below). Looking back over the winter season, Gareth notes that “We finished fourth, so if you’re going off a league table it says we weren’t the best team – there were three teams better over the course of the season, but we scored the most goals, most games we were the dominant team.”
As Meikayla reflects, “I feel for the first season it went really well. Yes our performances were a bit up and down but that is expected when the squad personnel changed a lot throughout the season – from American college girls coming in during their break and other players coming in on trial, as well as injuries.
“And of course it is a development programme so players are to be rotated frequently to all be given a chance to play – so the line-up that took the field varied most weeks.”
The timing of the programme’s announcement proved a little tricky, as it wasn’t officially announced until March this year – very close to the beginning of the 2017 winter season.
It wasn’t until late December that New Zealand Football knew how much of the HPSNZ budget could be used for FFDP. Allowing for the Christmas and New Year shut down, and then getting the programme signed off by the relevant federation CEOs for the team to be granted entry. So turning the programme around had to be done with the speed, balance and accuracy of a striker in a packed out penalty area.
After the Federation CEOs had signed off the programme, the clubs then had to approve it, says Gareth. “Before we could get sign off we had to present to all of the clubs, not all of the clubs were able to attend, so that process took longer than we wanted.” This is something the programme managers hope will be avoided this year by having the information in front of clubs this side of Christmas.
When FFDP was announced some clubs were – understandably – a bit miffed (to say the least) at the prospect of losing some of their best footballers so close to the season’s beginning. And club loyalty of course was a factor for some players, who would be predominantly committing to FFDP for the winter season over the clubs they had grown up playing for. Meikayla observed that “a few of the girls struggled who do have those strong connections, such as the girls from Forrest Hill and Glenfield, and who wanted to play”.
Timing was also a factor in the conversation around the kind of commitments and sacrifices that our elite women footballers have to make in order to push on to the next stage of their careers. FFDP was launched shortly after Football Ferns captain Abby Erceg retired from the international game after the Cyprus Cup, such were her concerns about the effects these commitments were having on the players and other aspects of their lives.
“It so happened to coincide that Abby makes those comments in Cyprus and then the programme didn’t start ‘til March,” says Gareth. “So it kind of looked like Abby had forced our hand, which wasn’t really the case.”
Many of the issues, such as how players could balance being footballers with work and study, had been canvassed by Ferns staff with players when FFDP was in its early planning stages, Gareth says. “We can adapt what we do – training in the evenings for example. So all that stuff she was trying to say, the Ferns staff had listened to back in October and November.”
There’ll be more on the subject of the boundaries between professional and amateur women’s football later in the kōrero, and the issue of the pressures of the game that were raised earlier in the year by Abby and young striker Jasmine Pereira’s international retirements. It’s an important context to the wider development of the women’s game, both in New Zealand and globally. But as Gareth points out, if anything Abby’s retirement has “kind of brought women’s football out of the shadows a little bit more – and since then, I think quite a few other female sports have pushed for more equality”.
The Football Ferns Development Programme was boosted a couple of months ago with news that the programme would be further supported with funding from the New Zealand Football Foundation and the NZPFA (New Zealand Professional Footballer’s Association), to help players out with travel, scholarships, trials and hardship.
Worries that women’s club football might be weakened by the absence of FFDP players also don’t seem to have eventuated. As Gareth points out, “clubland” is still an important component of the players’ development. When FFDP players aren’t selected to play in FFDP games, they would be released to play in their usual club games and attend the usual club trainings – this of course helps with match accumulation. The distinction here is that the club it isn’t the sole component of these players’ development now.
That a few FFDP players, like goal machine Katie Rood with Juventus and defender CJ Bott with Germany’s USV Jena, have picked up contracts overseas already – and Gareth reckons a couple more could be heading overseas by Christmas – is indicative in itself of the programme’s early successes. And the more professional footballers New Zealand produces, the greater the talent pool Football Ferns selectors have to draw from, with more professional players potentially donning the Fern. Can’t argue with that.
Waiheke Islander currently in exile in Wellington. Supporter of Nottingham Forest and England, through thick and thin (there's been plenty of that). As a player is somewhat averse to the offside rule.