Prolific young talent on move
Story by: JONATHAN MCKEOWN - Nelson Mail - Photo by: Chris Symes
For a slight 15-year-old who marks men twice his mass to say he is facing a nervous couple of weeks, you know something is looming large.
It is not a key Mainland Premier League football matchup or an exacting defender known for a propensity to slide-in that he is concerned about - he takes those weekly challenges in his stride. What nationally identified football talent Ross McPhie is anxious about is netting a New Zealand representative goal that is strikingly close.
McPhie is hoping to get "the call" from national under-17 football coach Darren Bazley, after attending a trial in Christchurch these holidays. Bazley is assembling a Young All Whites wider training squad which will build towards the 2013 Fifa U-17 World Cup.
Bazley spoke of McPhie's talent in high regard and without confirming his place in the wider squad, he did say he looked forward to seeing more of McPhie in the coming months.
"Ross is definitely in our thoughts. He is a player that did well at the trials and I am looking forward to seeing him with other players from around the country - that is the next step."
McPhie might not have booked his ticket to the World Cup in the United Arab Emirates just yet, but football has already taken the young midfielder around the world. McPhie has played for age group club teams in England and has completed a trailblazing tour of America.
However, pulling on the silver fern is a dream every budding Kiwi sportsperson aspires to, and McPhie is no different. He says that is his biggest goal, but he is aware it is an achievement that is only gained through collaboration.
McPhie's success is not only due to his own unflappable determination, technical ability, and love of football. His growing ability is the product of an improving talent identification system at New Zealand Football, which is picking up several other talented players in the region. In addition and closer to home, the guidance of his Nelson Suburbs coaches and team-mates has seen him become a regular fixture in the sky blue strip this season.
"Playing in the Mainland League has helped my football development because it is more physical and demanding than my own age group," McPhie said.
"It was intimidating the first couple of times but the confidence that the team has shown in me has made each game slightly easier."
Not one to be sullen over his size, the schoolboy who weighs in at around 50 kilograms says his slender standing has only helped to improve his game.
"A smaller stature has assisted my development . . . By being slight I have had to develop the thought patterns and technical ability instead of just using physical strength. I have learnt to play it quicker and smarter, using the ball before getting into contact situations."
Having fuelled his skills in Nelson, it was in the tortured home of football where his spark was first recognised.
McPhie's family moved to Nelson when he was 11, born in Winchester, England; his family spent some time in Auckland before returning home before their permanent shift.
It was as a young lad growing up in a football-mad country where he decided the "beautiful game" was the one for him. All his spare time was spent, as it is now, kicking around a football and when he was asked to play for the Cheltenham Town youth team, the journey had begun.
At 14, McPhie was a regular fixture in the Suburbs men's first division side, his instinctive positioning and intelligent passing making him a perfect link player in midfield.
But it is not all about setting up your team-mates; McPhie has a canny knack for finding the back of the net, a trait he demonstrated by scoring on debut for Suburbs' top side in a Chatham Cup match against FC Nelson last year. A moment he rates as "pretty special".
McPhie has continued to knock them in for the Mainland side this season, most recently scoring off the bench against Christchurch United and previous to that in the second round against Halswell. But as he explains it was not all smooth sailing coming into the top side.
"My worst moment was probably at the very first Suburbs training. I was asked to go to the men's grade last year and I didn't know any of the team. The ball went out, I went to get it and with my first touch I put my foot on the ball and fell over. Gladly it's picked up from there."
It certainly has picked up and a lot of that development can be traced to the Suburbs coaching staff of Ben Wright, Paul Brydon and Joe Green.
Not only do they run the standard trainings, but quite often Green will spend a lunchtime going through one-on-one coaching, working on technique and his left foot.
UEFA-qualified coaches Wright and Green have added extra trainings for the younger talent, girls and boys, from any clubs around Nelson to boot. The academy feeds into an under-19 team that plays on Saturdays in which McPhie features when he is not with the Mainland side, which is not very often.
"Rossi's been a solid member of the Mainland squad this season," said Wright.
"He's had quite a bit of game time this year, he's probably started just under half the games and come on in nearly every game.
"He has a great temperament that's for sure. He is very passionate about football, is always keen to learn and just wants to be the best he can be. I mean, you'll drive up Waimea Rd and past Little Wembley and more often than not you'll see him out there practising with his mates."
Wright said that inevitably the football devotee is going to have to look outside of the region or overseas if he wants to continue his growth. Wright said it is just a reality of the football limitation in Nelson, a prospect that could change if Nelson had a national league side.
Notwithstanding McPhie has already managed to expand his horizons through football. McPhie was the first Nelsonian to travel with the U15 Boys' Wellington Tornadoes team on a tour of America last summer. During December and January, the side competed all across America, including a televised Disney Soccer Showcase in Florida, and the Vegas MLK Cup in Las Vegas.
McPhie must have made quite an impression on Tornadoes coach Guy Smith. His "starring role" has paved the way for five more young Nelson players to make the team this year. They are up-and-comers Matt Tod-Smith, Sam Wilson and James Peters, of FC Nelson, and Max Winterton and Zac Muir, of Richmond Athletic.
The trip to America is a chance to get in front of a number of college scouts, and progress through the NCAA university system - a tried-and-true method used by the likes of Ryan Nelsen and his Suburbs team-mate Erik Panzer who has signed for Quinnipiac University and leaves next month.
While McPhie has only just had a chance to impress the scouts in America, those in New Zealand have been tracking him for a while. When New Zealand Football's Whole of Football plan introduced the National Talent Centre, McPhie was inducted from the outset.
The talent identification system has regional federation staff recruit and train coaches to identify talented youth through local clubs.
From the age of 12, the players attend a Federation Talent Centre (FTC) running programmes related to age and skill development of key football attributes.
The best of those children are then selected to attend a Talent on Location (TOL) day where a series of games and skill-based activities and used to asses attributes. The top talent from those are then invited to attend a National Talent Centre (NTC) of which there are three, in Auckland, Wellington and Oamaru.
Dwayne Woolliams, New Zealand Football's acting Head of Football Development, said talent identification was central to success.
"Producing more Ryan Nelsens more often has to be a major goal of football in New Zealand. To achieve that we need a well-structured talent programme."
Mainland Football football development manager Alan Walker said that a player like McPhie is exactly what the NTC programme was designed for.
"If you're looking at talent development to go on at the highest level at international you look at the four corners," said Walker.
"Technically and tactically how good is he? Fantastic. Socially and emotionally he seems very grounded, has a good family and looks after himself well off the pitch.
"The mental side, how tough is he on the pitch to adapt to things? Fantastic. Physically is the challenge for him, but equally his feistiness and ability to use his physique is great, so he ticks the boxes."
McPhie says you just need to look at players such as Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona to see that often the best players are not tall, muscle-bound strikers. His wiry physique also gives him the natural ability to run all day, and the South Island cross-country champ does just that.
His father, James McPhie, a handy rugby player in his day, said that whenever McPhie gets the chance, he is out practising.
"He just wants to play football at the highest level he possibly can. It's his life - it's what he wants."
The experienced heads around McPhie say his greatest strength is a capacity to learn and an inexhaustible drive to improve.
And, whether an opportunity comes in the form of a Young All Whites spot or openings further abroad, if this dedicated young Nelson footballing talent keeps knocking, doors will open.