It came through loud and clear in so much of the feedback we received – one of the things listeners loved most about ITBOTN’s National Women’s League podcast – The Return Fixture – was the interviews. They were in-depth, they elicited insightful and genuine responses, and they probed some of the issues in the game that you don’t see explored with players or coaches anywhere else. As a result, we have made it a bit of a summer project to transcribe some of them, so that they can be enjoyed more widely in written form.
They are all quite long so we shant make them too much longer with lengthy introductions.
Suffice to say that first up, it’s Annalie ‘Flea’ Longo – arguably New Zealand’s best footballer.
Enzo Giordani: I’m talking to Annalie Longo, Mainland Football Women’s Development Officer, Football Fern and Canterbury United Pride Legend – thanks so much for joining us!
Annalie Longo: Thank you!
EG: The first question I’ve got is one I’ve actually always wanted to ask you, where does the nickname Flea come from?
AL: Yeah! I guess it was probably ten or fifteen years ago, John Herdman was my coach. He was on the field and he always thought yelling out Annalie was a little bit too long so he said “what’s your nickname?” I said “I don’t really have one!” I don’t know how he got to it but he got to Flea somehow. Obviously it rhymes – Annalie, Annaflea and when I was younger I did tap dancing so I always used to think I was on my toes a lot, and nippy, so I guess that’s why I got the name Flea. It’s kinda just stuck ever since.
EG: It’s stuck really well eh? When you talk to people on the sidelines nobody says Annalie, everyone says Flea!
AL: Yeah, exactly, sometimes people introduce me as Flea and then they kind of get a little bit confused but it’s ok, most people know!
EG: What’s your football origin story, how did you get into the game?
AL: I started when I was about 4 or 5 years old, I grew up in Auckland and played for a club called Three Kings United. I have two older brothers that used to play football – so I used to go down to the park and watch them. And I guess mum and dad were always very passionate. My dad’s Italian, and I guess on the sideline I used to always ask to have a kick around and I think my parents got sick of me tugging on their shirts trying to play so they thought they’d enrol me. That’s when they put me into Three Kings United and WYNRS with Wynton Rufer and I just fell in love with it and wanted to play all the time. They bought me a football goal that I put in my backyard and I just used to go outside and play all hours. Yeah, I loved the game and just wanted to keep playing and be involved and obviously I’ve now taken it… ten, fifteen years later I’ve managed to travel the world! It’s a fantastic game.
EG: I can’t let the Italian thing go without asking whereabouts is your dad from?
AL: So you could call us the mafia! But he’s from Bagnara Calabria, so very south of Italy, the toe of the boot.
EG: Nice! Do you follow any Serie A?
AL: A little bit, he’s actually got – his number plate is AC Milan so…
AL: So he does support them a little bit but to be honest we kind of actually, a little bit of rivalry, but we do like watching AC Milan or Juventus to be fair. I just enjoy good football and probably I’ll support the team that wins!
EG: Fair enough, it’s probably not AC Milan very much anymore! LOLZ.
AL: Yeeeeeeah, unfortunately!
EG: So what got you down to Christchurch?
AL: Ahhhh so I joined the Pride I think five or six seasons ago. My partner actually brought me down to Christchurch and then I got the opportunity to work at Mainland Football and have a job here and work full time. That was really appealing. I played for a season and used to commute quite a lot between Auckland and Christchurch and then it was probably about three years ago when I made the move and got the job and have now settled into living here.
EG: It’s such a great women’s football federation, Mainland, isn’t it? Everyone talks about it as the gold standard. Is that your sense?
AL: Yeah, we work really hard. If you had said that to me in the past, I don’t think I would have agreed with you but now over the last six or seven years I think we’ve really turned a corner and that’s down to a lot of hard work from a lot of good people. For me, we know we have to do things a little bit differently. We don’t have the same resources possibly, or maybe the same depth as the other federations so we have to try and do things a little bit different. Obviously we start our season a lot earlier than most federations and I guess we really try and lead the standard and I guess it’s showing with the number of New Zealand representatives coming through. We must be doing some things right.
EG: One of the things that strikes me when I go down there and watch the Pride is the professionalism of the set-up, the gate charge, the programmes, the sign on the side of the road that advertises the games, little touches like that and it looks like there’s resource being put into the women’s game.
AL: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve got a fantastic CEO who’s on board. As you’ve seen over the last two years we’ve now joined and become part of Canterbury United. I think that’s really important in creating that unity and that buy in of both teams being, I guess equal as such. And obviously we had the New Zealand Football bargaining agreement that went through and I think Mainland Football was on the same lines, Canterbury United was on the same lines, that we’re wanting to be equal on all fronts and lead the way and create an experience and exposure that I think the game deserves.
EG: Was there/is there much opposition to that from men in the region?
AL: We’re working really hard with the boys so we’ve actually created a few tasks and challenges to align with the men. Last season we were, I hate to say curtain raisers, but we opened their games last year – which was great. A lot of the games we turn up to the boys’ games. We had seven or eight of the men’s players at our game for the opening game. So I think the boys are all on board and we really believe in being the best and to do that you need everybody on board and I think we’re working really hard to do that.
EG: And has that just happened or is that something you’ve had to work at?
AL: Definitely work at. Yeah, it’s not easy. It’s changing people’s opinions and approaches and beliefs but I think when people come down they enjoy the experience and they want to watch Canterbury United and that’s all teams – the youth, the Pride and the Dragons and our futsal coming under one umbrella exposes not just us but the whole spectrum of Mainland.
EG: What’s the secret to the Pride’s ability to keep being there or thereabouts every year?
AL: I think just the fact that we work hard throughout the winter – we run a programme in the winter so that the girls are maintaining that standard. A bit of resilience. We don’t stand for anything less than 100%. We’ve got awesome coaching staff that are committed to us. They make us work hard and they believe in us. We’ve got girls making representative teams so they’ve got higher goals than the Pride which is always exciting. It’s easy to push on when you’ve got girls that want more and want to potentially play professional or make the Ferns. I think when you have that and you have people like myself that drive a winning mentality – I hope that I pass that on to the younger girls coming through and we create this legacy of being the best.
EG: Yeah and you do have quite a few younger players coming through don’t you – we’ve talked a bit about the Pride as being quite an experienced team but you’ve lost quite a bit of experience in players like Mouse and Aimee Phillips and you seem to keep coming through with more.
AL: Yeah, fantastic to have those players go over and play pro but yeah we do, we’re really building on that youth, we’ve done a fantastic thing this year – we’ve got a young group of players playing in a boys’ league. We’ve called them the Young Pride and we’ve emulated the Future Ferns Development Programme in Auckland. We’ve tried to do something similar here in Canterbury for our young girls. So they’ve played together all year and played in a boys’ league. Hopefully by doing that we’ve got players coming through that can one day make it into the Pride and maybe beyond that.
EG: And you’ve played a few games for FFDP – what are your impressions of how that’s benefited football?
AL: It’s a good thing. It gives those girls extra contact throughout the week. It can develop the player. Obviously the games are a pretty quick pace and the boys are strong and physical. It definitely makes the gap between playing an international and playing weekend football a lot closer so I think it’s done some really positive things. You’ve seen some girls pick up professional contracts overseas which is what the programme was all about, getting girls into pro leagues and giving them the opportunity and the exposure they need. I think they’ve done very well and we’ll see where it goes next year.
EG: And you’ve taken it a bit of a step further yourself haven’t you because you’re playing in an under 17 boys team down there in the winter.
AL: Yeah so I played for Cashmere Technical this year in the 17 boys’ league. It was just the same thing, trying to keep myself in a challenging environment. It’s not always easy, sometimes it’s out of your social comfort zones and things like that. But yeah, just trying to keep myself challenged and motivated so that I continue to play for New Zealand and continue to do my best. But we’re talking about some things with Canterbury United around how we can play the Pride in potentially a league next year and really try and help our girls so that maybe playing boys isn’t always the option. We might be able to create something else.
EG: Can you tell us a bit about what you do as a Women’s Development Officer – is there anything that sets your role apart in Mainland from what it might be in other federations?
AL: I think we’re very similar. We have certain challenges with locations – we go all the way up to Nelson and down to the West Coast, Blenheim and things like that. The challenge is getting around all of the region. I guess probably the main thing that’s probably different to me is my experience in the high performance side of it. Although the community game is a huge part of my role, I think I have that experience and knowledge to be able to build things like the Young Pride and initiatives like that which potentially may not have happened if someone else was taking the role. Probably more the high performance side. I’m very driven and want the girls to have the same opportunities I had.
EG: And we’ve talked a little bit about some of the federations having challenges with geography as well like we’ve talked a bit about Central and how they are finding things a bit of a struggle at the moment and part of that is the geographical problems that they have. Do you think there’s anything they could learn from how you do things? Because you’ve got quite a similar kind of problem really.
AL: Maybe not to the same extent but I think what we realised is that you’ve just got to try and make things work and you’ve got to be really open and organised. Time management and being flexible are really important. We’re fortunate enough to pick up some school scholarships at some of our private schools so some of the girls from Nelson and Blenheim have had the opportunity to move to Christchurch to base themselves here and get more football and challenge themselves so it’s been really good to have those. We’re working really hard with ARA and University of Canterbury for the same thing, for scholarships, and to attract people to the region and hopefully to even keep people in the region. So just open communication and being flexible really. Working out your timelines, when you can get your team together, how many nights training is and where is it going to be and just being organised really.
EG: The National Women’s League has moved to two rounds this year – are you enjoying the expanded experience?
AL: Yeah, absolutely. I was obviously one of the big ones that was pushing it. I was actually saying after last week we’d played three games and this time last year we were halfway through the competition which was just crazy to think. I’m very happy. I think it’s so much more exciting. There’s a lot more that happens behind the scenes now in terms of being able to watch footage and prepare a little bit differently. When you only play teams once it makes it very hard to know what are they playing, what style and all that. But now having two rounds you can see games, coaches and players are a little bit more prepared. It doesn’t really give room to let any slip ups or mistakes but it’s definitely easier than just having the one round where if you slip up you’re pretty much out. It makes it exciting and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
EG: How are you finding the standard – is it higher than previous years, about the same or lower?
AL: The whole experience feels just a little bit bigger. In terms of great people like yourself that are really promoting it. New Zealand Football is doing an awesome effort and getting the advertising and all that kind of thing out there. It’s making the atmosphere just a little bit bigger around the whole event so that’s exciting and great to be a part of. In terms of quality, there’s been some big results all over the board so far and there have been some close games so it’s hard to know.
EG: To change the subject slightly, you’ve been to nine World Cups, which is more than any other New Zealander. How does all that experience serve you in football?
AL: Hahaha… Wow! I didn’t realise that but… Ha ha! That’s quite terrifying actually!
EG: I was thinking maybe it’s some kind of world record, the first thing I did was look up Gigi Buffon and he’s only been to seven or eight so…
AL: Ahey wow… Is it really nine???
EG: I asked Jeremy Ruane and he would never put me wrong.
AL: True, I would have to agree with that. Ummm… Wow. I can’t even remember your question now because that struck me as it sounds ridiculous!
EG: It’s just so much experience, of big tournament football, nobody else has got that experience in New Zealand, that’s pretty cool really.
AL: That makes me sound really old. Yeah, I’ve loved every moment of it. I was very young when I was first introduced to international football. You just learn and you grow as a player and I think that consistency comes after having that experience and I feel like you don’t really have bad days anymore. For me, I don’t feel like I have bad days anymore. I have a personal standard that I try and stick to and yes sometimes it doesn’t always go well but you have some things that you go to and you rely on and I think with experience and getting to know yourself as a player you learn those things. Yeah I’ve loved every minute, it’s been a bumpy ride and hopefully my legs have got a little bit more in them!
EG: I definitely agree you’ve never had a bad day that I’ve seen! Obviously you are good enough to play professionally overseas, is there anything that keeps you in New Zealand? Is it a conscious decision to stay home and give back?
AL: Yeah, it was a tough choice. The life as a professional sounds amazing all the time but sometimes it’s not and some of the girls work really hard over there and they’re living out of a suitcase and travelling and they’ve got a new contract every six months and all those things. I’ve kind of liked the stability and I’ve managed to own my own house and have a job so I feel very settled and still really enjoying my football. It has its challenges, staying here in Christchurch, I have to do things very individual, separate, to keep my standards high. I also have a family here so it makes it tough to move away and leave that. It sounds amazing and exciting to go overseas and I do encourage players to go over and take that opportunity because it’s pretty awesome to see players playing professional and going to some awesome places overseas.
EG: And you’re doing some coaching badges, including I saw you were participating in the landmark New Zealand Football women only coaching course quite recently. Can you tell us about that and why it was so important for a course like that to be offered?
AL: It’s an amazing opportunity for females in the game and sometimes when you’re turning up to courses with men, and potentially men who have been around for a number of years, it can be quite intimidating. I think it’s great that New Zealand Football are giving these opportunities to females to potentially have a go and get in and see what it’s all about. And I think through this we’re finding some great coaches. You’re now looking at the women’s league you’ve got a number of female coaches – so you’ve got Gemma, obviously Gunnie with us and Auckland…
EG: Four out of seven which is pretty great.
AL: Yeah, four out of seven which I don’t think we’ve seen ever. It’s really exciting and hopefully now females can see a bit of a pathway and who knows the Ferns may even pick up a female coach as well. I think giving those females the opportunity to be part of those courses and now with the mentorship programme as well – not only getting on those courses but now having a mentor or some kind of process that goes along with that will help those coaches develop and hopefully pass these courses and go on to be coaches.
EG: The Muir Report talked a little bit about the dearth of women coaching our elite teams in quite recent years. Do you think that pathway is being addressed now or do you think there are still structural issues that could be resolved to help make it easier for a New Zealand woman to coach the Ferns one day.
AL: We’ve definitely lowered the bar. Giving courses like that, we’re definitely getting females into those opportunities. I think you see how important having female role models around is. I think New Zealand Football are definitely on board with that. I believe there’s a short list of coaches already come out for the Ferns job and there are some female names on that list so that’s really exciting to see. I think definitely it’s a pathway that females should look into and I think one day we will definitely see a New Zealand female head coach.
EG: Is that something that you’d aspire to do one day?
AL: Not sure yet. I have obviously started some of my coaching badges. It’s very hard at the moment trying to be a player and a coach. I find myself on the field a lot of the time picking through sessions and what would I do differently as a coach! Sometimes it’s quite hard to flick off that coaching/playing brain. Yeah, done a little bit of it. I enjoy just giving back and seeing the girls develop. So yeah, I’ve taken a young group this year – our 12 and 13 FTC young girls and I enjoy that age. I enjoy their learning the techniques and skills and developing that skill acquisition at that age. I find that age exciting so at the moment we’ll see! Unsure!
EG: Haha great. Well that’s a good note to leave it on, thanks so much for that it was excellent!
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.