Ricki Herbert is not only a great coach, he’s a fantastic person. Personally I owe him a lot, especially when it comes to the way I ended my career.
To truly appreciate the huge impact that Ricki Herbert has had on New Zealand club football in the last five years, you have to go back to the first days of the fledgling club that emerged from the ashes of the defunct New Zealand Knights.
Terry Serepisos had come to the rescue of the club and quickly appointed the only man in New Zealand at the time who had a real understanding of the region and what was needed to make the team competitive right from the start.
Our facilities were not the best. We were often windswept and waterlogged at Newtown Park. It often felt like we were playing in a European winter league rather than the Australian summer season, such was the inclement weather.
But our geographical isolation had the effect of drawing us together and forming us into a tight knit group. Along with myself, the likes of Tim Brown, Glenn Moss, Richard Johnson and Karl Dodd saw ourselves as leaders and, to a certain extent, pioneers. Other squad members such as Michael Ferrante, Vince Lia and Kristian Rees probably realised that this was the final chance for them to establish themselves with an A-League club, or they faced the prospect of having to look for employment outside the game.
We knew that this would probably be the final chance that a NZ-based club would be given to make an impact in the A-League, and that another failure would prove terminal to the hopes of football fans in NZ for a domestic professional team.
Although we finished joint last in our first season, we shook up and surprised a few people – none more so than in our first game of the season when we snatched a 2-2 draw against reigning champions, Melbourne Victory, and truly announced ourselves on the scene. I will never forget the jubilation we felt on the pitch and in the changing rooms after the game that day. It was definitely one of the happiest memories of my professional career.
I have to thank Ricki for giving me the opportunity to have a final hurrah in the A-League. Everyone knows that I didn-t really want to leave Adelaide Utd where I had also been their inaugural A-League captain, but sometimes decisions are taken out of your hands.
Whereas many might have written me off at the time, Ricki showed real faith in me by not only signing me, but making me captain too. As a non-Kiwi with no history in NZ, that was a real honour for me and one that I never took for granted. From the time that my agent called me up to ask if I was interested, to signing the contract was probably no more than 48 hours – a testament to the genuine excitement that surrounded the new club and my enthusiasm to make a real go of it.
You-d think at my age it would-ve been hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but Ricki certainly developed my leadership skills further, and gave me an insight into the Kiwi mentality which was subtlety different to what I had been used to in Australia.
As it turned out, after a good start, my own season tailed off after a back injury that just wouldn-t improve, but I did have the opportunity for a pretty special farewell against David Beckham-s LA Galaxy. I really shouldn-t have played in that game as my back injury was pretty chronic. But Ricki gave me the choice of whether I wanted to play or not. Not only did I get to take my children out onto the pitch and say goodbye to the NZ fans who had been so great to me, I ended up scoring a rare goal playing on until after half time and getting a great send-ff from the crowd when I was substituted.
If Ricki had not been magnanimous enough to leave the choice up to me, I would-ve been robbed of a golden memory – it-s not every day you retire and get to do it after swapping shirts with David Beckham and sitting alongside the likes of him and Ruud Gullit in the press conference. Another great memory that I have Ricki to thank for – I don-t know how many other coaches would-ve done that.
Phoenix has played in the last three finals series – not a bad achievement for a team that are always up against it in terms of recruitment. It-s hard to tempt the better domestic players across the Tasman while they are at the peak of their careers. Contrary to public belief, Phoenix receives no special treatment in terms of salary cap allowances to compensate them for the difficulties they face. Players also know that as it stands, they cannot play in the Asian Champions League, even if on the face of it they ‘qualify-.
Yet Ricki has consistently managed to put a team out on the park that is tough to beat and dangerous going forward.
He has show-cased the talents of the likes of Shane Smeltz, Kosta Barbarouses and Marco Rojas who all owe a massive debt to him for providing a kick-start to their careers. He introduced Paul Ifill to the A-League public, as well as providing visibility to NZ internationals who were previously unheralded and unknown by Australian fans such as Tony Lochhead, Tim Brown and Ben Sigmund. Perhaps Louis Fenton, Tyler Boyd and Michael Boxall will also look back in the future and thank Ricki for giving them their opportunity too.
So on behalf of myself and everyone involved in NZ football, thanks for everything Ricki.
I-m sure your positive influence and experience will continue to be felt in your new role at the club. Whoever comes in as the new head coach should learn from what you brought to the club in terms of local knowledge, and the knack of getting the best out of the playing group.