Time to find out if Hudson is our ‘Special One’
Young, ambitious, articulate, super-confident. Master of the power-point presentation. Well-hyped - but also seemingly always at risk of triggering the nearest Football Bullshit Detector.
That’s Anthony Hudson, who has intrigued New Zealand Football fans since being named as Ricki Herbert’s successor as All Whites coach nearly three years ago.
Was this unknown 33-year old Englishman the next big thing in football coaching; a young Jose Mourinho? New Zealand's own Special One? Was he the best candidate of the 108 coaches who applied? Or, had the boffins at NZF made a mistake selecting an untested foreigner who was just using New Zealand as a short-term stepping stone?
On the eve of the All Whites’ most important year since 2010 - and likely the last of Hudson’s tenure - the jury is still out.
Ask 10 knowledgeable football followers in New Zealand and you will likely get 10 different takes. Hudson is still an enigma.
His record is fairly modest; seven wins (six against Oceania opposition) four losses and five draws in 16 games.
For those games he has named 54 different players; a mad-scientist approach to 'increasing competition', giving youth a chance, but for some, cheapening the New Zealand shirt.
The losses were against Uzbekistan (bad, but had only been in charge a month), Thailand (rock bottom), South Korea (not great) and Mexico (good performance).
draws came against Myanmar (disappointing), Papua New Guinea (horrible Nations
Cup final which New Zealand won on penalties), USA (Probably NZ’s best
performance) and New Caledonia (tolerable result in difficult conditions).
The wins were mostly at the OFC Nations Cup in Papua New Guinea. New Zealand expectantly won the tournament, playing poorly, with a half-strength squad in dire conditions. So was that a reflection of good coaching?
I would argue yes, job done. And until you’ve been to Port Moresby, it’s hard to have a true appreciation for how hard it is to play football there.
Hudson's recent record has been good. The Mexico and USA games were encouraging, the New Caledonia series wasn’t pretty, but Saturday’s important win against Fiji was comfortable.
Ultimately though, the past three years have just been noise. Hudson’s legacy will be determined by how well New Zealand do at the Confederations Cup in June and how they compete with South America’s fifth best team in the playoff (assuming we make it).
But Hudson is so much more interesting than just a spreadsheet of results and convoluted squad selections. He can fly off the radar in interviews. He can be stroppy, charming and in-articulate in the space of one question. He has strong opinions on the media. He wants to be coaching in the Champions League one day. He is cultivating a brand.
Twelve months ago I was cold-called by Hudson. I was a New Zealand Herald sports journalist. He had reached boiling point with the culture of New Zealand Football and needed to get a message out to players and staff, through the media.
Over a two-hour coffee, I took a liking to him. He was intense, driven and passionate. When he first took the job, he told media that he didn’t pay any attention to what was in the papers. It quickly became apparent that wasn’t true.
“Why isn’t there more coverage of the All Whites and what we’re doing?” he asked.
“Because you only had three away games last year against teams people couldn’t relate to, played in the middle of the night,” I said.
“Why is coverage always so negative?” I argued that it wasn’t.
He was taking the bold step of speaking out publicly about his frustrations with his employer. He didn’t seem concerned by any potential repercussions. His boss, CEO Andy Martin, was away on holiday and there were thoughts Hudson was plotting the course for an early exit, as he had done with Bahrain.
But he stuck it out, and despite being slammed by Kevin Fallon, former NZ Football CEO Graham Seatter and many others who had a story about ‘back in my day’, he won plenty of plaudits for his comments too.
Hudson was on a one-man crusade to change the New Zealand Football culture. But, a bit like dating a girl who thinks she’s too good for you, part of the deal with Hudson is that we know he will be leaving us soon. Then what?
Some cynics also thought Hudson was protecting his reputation. If things went wrong, he had his out; NZF hadn’t organised enough games for him and the culture sucks. After all, he’s arguably the most ambitious coach New Zealand has ever had. How many other gaffers have we had who genuinely believed they would one day be coaching in the Champions League?
I found him to be genuine and he appears to have the seal of approval from all of New Zealand’s best players. His message has also been increasingly positive in the last year – buoyed by the fact that he finally has his strongest squad to choose from.
But he can come across as over-sensitive and prickly. At a press conference before the Fiji match last week Hudson blew his top over incessant questions about the return of Tommy Smith – a former NZ skipper who turned his back on the country for the last three and a half years, who is now returning to action.
The Hudson PR machine is in overdrive on the home straight of the New Zealand leg and it seems New Zealand Football are getting in on the act, trumping up his stats with a few Oly Whites (U-23s) results to pad out the numbers.
Hudson is being touted around Europe as the first English manager to win an international match in years. He has been linked with Derby County and the Central Coast Mariners and was at one point the second favourite (6-1) to be the next Norwich City manager (now 20-1).
Someone keeps changing his stats on his Wikipedia page to embellish his record. Yellow Fever techno boffins hilariously report the IP (internet protocol) address of the mystery record-modifier can be traced to NZ Football’s head office mail server.
Tonight the All Whites should cruise through to the final of the OFC World Cup qualifiers with a win over Fiji.
Then the real, measurable fun starts in June with Confederations Cup warm up games against Northern Ireland and Belarus, before proper tournament matches against Russia, Mexico and Portugal.
The five matches in June could make Anthony Hudson but, regardless of what happens, they will not break him. His PR is too polished for that.
Hudson talks a better game than any of our previous 16 All Whites coaches. He selects more players, and certainly best cultivates his own image, right down to his designer stubble.
Question is, can he match the achievements of some of his more phlegmatic predecessors in the job as we approach the big end of international competition – and without setting off our increasingly sensitive Football Bullshit Detector?