When the Phoenix came to town

By Sam Jeffery

On any given Friday around 3pm many of us will generally be winding down from professional servitude and beginning to ramp up for the impending weekend frivolities. However on this Friday just past, patrons of the Eastern Suburbs were treated to a spectacular pre-weekend treat as Madills Farm hosted Ernie Merrick and his Wellington Phoenix to train in front a throng of excited football fans of all ages.

As part of their Football United 2014 tour, that will see Premiership sides Newcastle and West Ham head to New Zealand, the Phoenix were in Auckland and made the home of Eastern Suburbs their own for the afternoon. Two Suburbs first team players, Ernest Wong and Haidar Jabir, were also lucky enough to get the opportunity to train with the players, whilst the generous swell of fans were able to have their photos taken and shirts signed once the session came to its conclusion.


Having trained earlier that morning the session was a relatively light affair but was equally an excellent opportunity to observe the showcase of talent that the Phoenix have. Stars such Tyler Boyd, Kevin Durante and Matt Ridenton could be seen caressing the ball around Madills with aplomb, under the watchful eye of Ernie Merrick, whilst the Lilywhites own Jabir fitted in with pleasing ease.

Suburbs keeper Wong worked separately under the guidance of former Celtic and Scotland keeper Jonathan Gould, now Phoenix GK coach, and was thrilled at getting the chance.

“It was great to play with professional players and get the chance to be coached by someone like Jonathan Gould. I really enjoyed it, particularly as it was at Madills and the club I play for.”


Whilst only two Suburbs players were lucky enough to get the chance to actually train with the Phoenix, hundreds of young fans got the opportunity to interact with the players once the session was over and it is to their great credit that not one fan would have been left disappointed with the time the players took to sign and be photographed with.

Suburbs Chairman Chris Ruffell, responsible for orchestrating the successful event, was left satisfied by what was achieved.

“I think it was a good day all round, we had a big crowd which is great and I thought the Phoenix were certainly very approachable and interacted very well. Overall it’s been very worthwhile and we thank them for their efforts and would love to welcome them back anytime”.

It was a sentiment echoed by the Phoenix hierarchy.

“It’s been a great day”, Coach Merrick commented, “both the Suburbs boys are clearly very talented, and this really is what it’s all about [regarding the swarms of jubilant youngsters running around]”.

It would be impossible to disagree with the affable and thoroughly likeable Merrick, and with the sun beginning to set late on Friday it was with great thanks that Eastern Suburbs bade a fond farewell to its guests.


The Phoenix return to Auckland next month to take on West Ham at Eden Park, and it would be a shock should there not be a whole host of young Suburbs players present, clad in the shirts signed by their heroes. The tour is dubbed Football United, and anyone present on Friday would not testify to a more appropriate title.

An Open Letter from Chairman Chris Ruffell

What are we trying to achieve?

I was asked recently by a coach/parent of a 9-year-old Suburbs player, “what are we trying to achieve at Eastern Suburbs?” This was in reference to the Junior/Youth training and playing program at the club. My answer was simple – we want all players to enjoy their time at Eastern Suburbs whilst giving them the best possible opportunity to reach their potential as a player.

From an enjoyment perspective we attempt to arrange many teams based on friends requests and try and arrange competitions that are as even as possible so everyone can experience winning and losing. There will always of course be the strongest and the weakest team(s), such is sport. From a development perspective we offer many coaching programs, coach education, and extra competition for the elite and a variety of other things to assist players reaching their potential. One of the biggest obstacles to player development sadly can be the game itself, and the perception from parents around the measurement of improvement. It can also be one of the best development tools. Let me explain.

Football like most things is a learned activity. With regards to development we measure a person in regards to what he or she can do in relation to the best. For example, the measure of IQ is an intelligence measurement in relation to your age and the mental ability of other humans. Many of you will have had children at school that undertake NSW testing that show they have a reading age of an “X” year old. We measure the ability of a pianist on how well he or she can play and have a grading system to work through which gets progressively more difficult. What we as humans seem to do instinctively is try and encourage our children to learn an activity as quickly as possible and get great satisfaction when our kids excel at something and become significantly better than their peers at the same age. My experience however is that irrespective of where your child fits into the evolutionary scale of whatever activity they are undertaking, we as parents enjoy seeing them improve. I also believe the children get more enjoyment when they are learning.

The involvement in team sports is a very “kiwi” thing to do. There are so many positive aspects that many of us probably don’t fully appreciate. We understand the physical aspect around healthy living, and starting this at a young age is very good. Being “part of a team” and not letting your team mates down by being reliable/punctual. Giving your best for the team. Understanding and dealing with winning and losing. It is also a family activity with Mum and Dad, often sisters and/or brothers on the sideline all supporting the participant as well as the rest of the team. This is genuinely “quality time” in a forever more fast paced “online” life that we now live.

The problem is how do we measure progress? It is easy to measure enjoyment; the kids are either happy or sad. They either want to play or they don’t. Obviously we as parents can impact this as well. Shouting on the sideline or telling your child all the things they did wrong during the game will naturally have a negative influence. Fortunately I don’t think this happens too often (but does happen). But from a progress perspective what we would like to see is no different to any other activity and that is for player’s to display traits that you would expect from players older and better than themselves. So what are those traits?

Before I answer that I would like you to ask yourself as a parent whether you know the answer to that question.

For many parents the major measurement devices they recognise in relation to football are:
• Goals scored/shots
• Goals conceded/saves
• Won/Lost
• Tackles made

Sadly, these things have no bearing on whether your child is improving or not. Although it is of course a team game, in the developmental Junior and younger Youth years we focus on teaching the individual skills required to master the ball, and introduce the tactical appreciation required as they acquire these skills. The difficulty is of course that during the process of learning these skills, many mistakes are made. The consequence of these mistakes and where on the field they are made, can impact greatly on the result of the game.

This leaves us with two choices:

1. Focus on instructing the children in games to avoid risking use of underdeveloped skills that could cause mistakes, and greatly increasing their chances of winning or;
2. Encouraging them to try their underdeveloped skills in the game as well as training and accept willingly the consequence that losing will / may be a by product in the immediate term.

At Eastern Suburbs, in an attempt to achieve our goal of having our players reach their potential, we are choosing the second option. If every team did the same thing then the winning/losing by-product would in fact be nullified. And if winning is a large component of the enjoyment factor (I don’t necessarily think it is, it is more related to the environment created within the team) then this also should balance if everyone takes on board the same philosophy.

So as a parent if I am not to judge the players improvement or progress by goals scored/conceded, games won/lost, tackles made shots saved, then what do I judge it on? Here are some of the things that we like to look out for at a young age (not in any particular order).

First touch, technique whether passing, or shooting, ability to use both feet, composure on the ball, movement with or without the ball, athleticism, close control / dribbling, coordination, “tricks”, decision making, accuracy, playing with head up, recognition and utilisation of space, speed, confidence on the ball. There are many more.

For many parents not brought up on the game of Football, the ability to recognise some or all of these attributes is near on impossible. It is in its own unique way like a different language you hear but occasionally recognise individual words. The tendency is to think when a team wins they played well, and when they lose they didn’t play well. But within that win or loss there will have been skills displayed as listed above that were performed very well at times, and others performed poorly, by both teams. Focusing your praise on the important skills and attributes displayed well (win or lose) is far more important than recognising either the result or trying to avoid mistakes that may impact the result. If you don’t have the knowledge or experience to recognise these attributes, you are much better saying nothing as you may well be unwittingly applauding actions which are detrimental to the progress of your player.

Let me give you an example which I see all the time. The ball comes to a player in defence with very little pressure on him/her, and the ball is kicked a great distance forward. Parents clap, danger is gone because the ball is further from the defenders goal and occasionally the ball goes directly to a striker on the same team who is now in a goal scoring position. If I relate that to how the game should be played based on how the best players play the game (and remember we are trying to develop our players by emulating what good players do) what do I want to see? Firstly the player controls the ball. Secondly he/she then makes a conscious decision to dribble or pass based on the space and players around. Once the ball has been accurately released he/she makes a run to support that player.

Unfortunately taking this course of action gives the player several opportunities to make a mistake and give the ball away in a dangerous area. And when that mistake occurs it could well be costly for the team. However if the parents on the sideline applaud when he/she belts the ball down the field, the next time they are in the same position they will do exactly the same thing because he/she enjoys the adulation received as a result of the action. From a development perspective an opportunity is missed to undertake a course of actions that will require several different skills which when mastered will make him/her a significantly better player than one that can only kick the ball a long way. This is one example.

So as a parent what should you do? Firstly recognise in its most basic form, football is a game where you try and keep the ball. I don’t mean the individual keeps the ball, but the team keeps the ball. This is done by either passing or dribbling around and through the opposition. From a development perspective it is better to lose ground and keep the ball, than gain ground and lose it. One of the problems with the game from a development perspective is that the goal is like a giant magnet. Players for some reason come hell or high water need to get the ball towards the opposition goal preferably through the shortest possible route. If this involves somehow going directly through opposition player’s bodies then so be it. When you watch the top players playing they look to work their way around the opposition, creating gaps to play through by clever manipulation of the ball player movement and speed. If something is not working they retreat and then start again looking to probe and puncture until something opens up which can be exploited. These top players have developed the attributes required through many thousands of hours of practise and countless mistakes and failures. But they eventually learnt from those mistakes and good coaching.

In most top football academies around the world the parents if allowed at games are required to remain silent. The parents watch quietly, just as they would if they went to their child’s school to observe them learning in the classroom or playing in the orchestra. We are not a top academy, but recognise that if we want our players to reach their potential we too might emulate some of the things that organisations better than us undertake. So what we’d like Eastern Suburbs parents to do is come to your child’s game, enjoy a coffee and a chat, and just let the kids do their thing. Remember, they’re not there for your entertainment, they’re there for theirs.

If they can be left alone and applauded for the right reasons, the game can become one of the best development tools of all.

Thank you,
Chris Ruffell

Will Richardson – World Cup bound

The phrase “you’ve gotta be in it to win” is an often overused cliché that’s generally spouted by some sort of gameshow host or salesman. Equally, “once in a lifetime” can be a bit of an exaggeration. In the case of Eastern Suburbs’ very own Will Richardson, both sayings could not be more apt. Because this young Kiwi is getting the chance to do what every football fan across the globe dreams of doing, walking out on the biggest stage in international football, the World Cup Final.

Will, who plays for the ESAFC 10th grade Yellow Team, was one of over 1000 youngsters aged between 6-10 who entered a McDonalds Skills Zone Day on the Auckland Domain. His mum Victoria explained how it all came about.

“We were sent an email through from the club about the McDonalds Day and we took both Will and his sister down to have a go. We didn’t hear anything else about it until two weeks later when a PR guy from McDonalds called”.

It was then that Victoria was asked several questions relating to Will’s suitability, age and, tellingly, passport. Finally as the conversation neared a close it was revealed that Will had in fact won, and his mum was given the unenviable task of having to keep it a secret.

“I was told not to tell Will so that we could surprise him at training!”

Thus following a full three days of blissful unawareness the surprise was finally sprung on Will by All Whites Tim Payne and Matt Ridenton amidst something a media frenzy.

Will - World Cup

“Will was absolutely speechless”, Victoria revealed, “it really is once in a lifetime”.

Victoria is not wrong, of course. Not only will Will and his mum get the chance to soak up the atmosphere and drama of this most prestigious of international tournaments, they get to do so in one of the World’s great cities.
As part of the prize for winning, the Richardson’s will be housed in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer, on Ipanema Beach.

Will also gets the opportunity to play against the other 21 lucky winners, tour some of Rio and sneak an early look at the spiritual home of football that plays host to the final, the Maracana.

Asked who he’d like to accompany onto the pitch and who he’d like to win, there is little surprise to his answer:
“Messi – I’d like Argentina to win”.

Time will tell who the eventual tournament winner will be, but for Will Richardson, he’s already a victor in the eyes of every football fan across the country. For following the rather ignominious defeat to Mexico in the Playoffs it seemed inevitable that there would be no New Zealand representative at this year’s World Cup.
Not anymore.

Time for a Healthy Dose of Footballing Medicine

By Sam Jeffery

It’s that time again. Fever has struck and frankly with each passing day it becomes more and more of an epidemic. We should’ve been prepared, we all knew it was coming of course. One of those cyclical diseases that strikes every 4 years – same time, same symptoms, same outcome. But the cure isn’t housed in some doctoral encyclopaedia, nor is it ingested via pill or syringe. The antidote comes in that most pleasurable form – International football and in the most lavish amounts possible. For what we all suffer from is World Cup Fever.

June of a “World Cup year” is the culmination of 47 long months of arduous torture and longing. In the immediate aftermath of a World Cup there are the initial early stages of major football-withdrawal symptoms; tears, tantrums and transfer-talk. Luckily the Premiership season swings into life just when it would appear that life no longer required living. The eager football fan is appeased and gorges on league, cup and Champions League delicacies all the while blocking out thoughts of Jules Rimet and that glistening golden trophy.


The Euros, Copa Americas and African Cup of Nations – inferior brothers to their loftier kin – of course present a large degree of comfort to us football fanatics. But then the ripples begin, and ripples soon become waves. The qualifiers start. Excitement surges through the veins of all the hopeful nations. It’s just a teaser though, we’re being mocked once again because we’re still a full 2 years away from the main event.

As an Englishman (yet to experience a qualifying campaign here in Aotearoa) qualifiers involve a blundering, painful struggle against a variety of lowly Baltic states and principalities – Macedonia and San Marino are staple opponents – and the boredom generated by such affairs makes the shining lights of Rio seem far off.

But as qualification begins to loom tantalisingly on the horizon, and the spotlight start to veer towards the World Cup destination so the excitement begins its now seemingly endless rise.

Brazil has been plagued with demonstrations, destruction and even deaths. Do the football fans around the world really care? Harsh to say but probably not. Morally we do; in reality it’s all about the football now. It’s so close and we all know that Brazil are going to put on one hell of a show.

Squads are announced, wallcharts are printed or purchased, sweepstakes are completed. Twitter, Facebook, and all across the web armchair pundits offer their opinions. Pub discussions rocket and excuses are already being planned for late arrivals to work, early exits or just plain “sickness”.


And then finally, finally after all those long, dark World Cup-less days the moment is finally due to arrive. A feast of football from the finest banquet the world can offer. Fans from all nations descend upon Brazil ready to party in sporting paradise. There’s a hint of envy (well, jealousy, let’s face it) at those that can afford time and money to make the pilgrimage but our consolation is epic.

The greatest players, 3 matches a day, four and half hours of sensational football. And it’s not just the games of course, we’ve got build-up, analysis, post-match reaction, highlights. By the end of the day we’ve known every moment of each match in gooey detail, and back to our mundane lives we go, for a few fleeting hours.

And then the cycle starts again. Hour after hour, day after day, for 4 glorious weeks. It doesn’t get any better. Whether we’re watching one of the favoured South Americans or one of the no-hopers, it doesn’t really matter. The possibility of a stunning strike, silky team goal or scandalous sending off, the excitement never dims.

A mere 2 weeks from now the eyes of the world descend on the spiritual home of football. It’s a worldwide pandemic – World Cup Fever has struck.