Ben Stanley spoke with midfield vet Simon Elliott about his time in the Premier League, the All Whites’ 2010 World Cup campaign, and why New Zealand football hasn’t kept up its momentum.
It was a thing of beauty from Simon Elliott.
A long, looping cross streaming above the turf at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, dropping down over the headers of the Italian defenders, brushing the hand of Fabio Cannavaro, and straight in front of Shane Smeltz, who toe-poked the ball into the goal.
New Zealand 1. Italy 0.
It was a moment Kiwi football fans will never forget in a journey that finally saw the All Whites step out of a three-decade old shadow. This was New Zealand, at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, leading the world champions. Believe it? You better.
The team were propelled mainly by a new generation, with an underlying inertia created by the older warriors. Ryan Nelsen. Mark Paston. Ivan Vicelich. Elliott.
In many respects, Elliott was the embodiment of that All Whites team.
A grizzled veteran midfielder, Elliott – then 36 – was coming to the end of a career of genuine craft and hard work, punctuated by the usual battler’s array of highs and lows.
That cross in Nelspruit, the whole World Cup crusade and an Olympic campaign with the New Zealand Under-23s were highs. But they came after an extended low, languishing on the bench for Premier League side Fulham after suffering a near career-ending injury in 2006.
Elliott spent the majority of his pro career in the States, making his name as a reliable regular for the LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew in the early 2000s.
That reputation helped bring him to England, and make him the fourth Kiwi to play in the Premier League. Elliott had caught the eye of Fulham manager Chris Coleman during a friendly for the Crew against the London club in 2005.
The club signed Elliott to a two-and-a-half year contract. After a bright 12-game start, he picked up a calf injury in a pre-season friendly in Austria – and never took the Premier League field again.
Where do you go after the sun sets on your career? Where does any old, retired gunslinger go? California baby, and that’s where The Spinoff found Elliott.
The midfielder has been largely off the radar since a brief cameo spell with the Phoenix post-World Cup. He played a final season in the MLS with Chivas USA in 2011 and did a bit of player scouting – before heading back to university to finish a Masters in Education at Berkeley.
These days, he’s an academy coach at Sacramento Republic FC; a third tier pro club with hopes of becoming a future MLS franchise.
Elliott’s happy and has no thoughts of returning to New Zealand. But he still took time to check in with The Spinoff and reflect on his time with Fulham, the current state of the Premier League – and look at New Zealand Football’s current struggles.
Had you always wanted to play in England, and how did your move to Fulham come about?
“I was there in 2001 [Elliott trained with Manchester United for several weeks in 2001], and that is when I thought it was going to happen, but I ran into some work permit issues.
“It sort of fizzled, which was disappointing. So I just went back to the States, kept playing there and thought that was it. It happened pretty late, to be honest.
“In a lot of ways I was still grateful there was an opportunity, later in my career, but obviously it didn’t quite pan out, the way that I hoped, with the injury. That’s the way it works, sometimes.”
“We played Fulham in their pre-season [in 2005]. Things were clicking, and it went from there, really. [Manager Chris Coleman] obviously asked around in the UK, and I’d been there for a little bit before so that helped. It grew from there, really.”
Are there any particular moments or memories that stick out from your playing time with Fulham that have stayed with you through to today?
“Looking back, I enjoyed the challenge of it. Playing at Old Trafford [Manchester United versus Fulham on February 4, 2006] was good, but at the time, you’re focusing on what you are doing. You aren’t really paying attention to what is going on around you.
“We beat Tottenham 1-0 at home – that was fun to be a part of. I had a hand in the free kick that led to the goal [by Carlos Bocanegra], which was good. I think we beat West Brom pretty handily, too.
“Other than that, it’s a bit hazy – it’s a while ago now. There weren’t too many games. I haven’t thought on it for a while, to be fair. Not really a long enough history to come up with too many good ones for you.”
How do you reflect on your time in the Premier League now, and how things played out with Fulham, particularly with your injury?
“I enjoyed living there, and enjoyed the club – but I was really disappointed with the injury, and the way it was handled.
“[Recovery] took a lot longer than it should have. It could have been handled a lot better.
“It can take a long time to get to these places. Injuries are a part of the game, and you accept that. But it was more the way it was handled from the time it took place to find a solution.
“You live and learn though, and move on. At one point there, it was looking like I wasn’t able to play again, so I was certainly grateful that I was able to come back and play in the Olympics, and the World Cup – and have some pretty cool memories from that kind of stuff.”
How much has the Premier League changed in the last decade, since you played in it? Have those changes been for good for the game of football, worldwide?
“I guess it’s really just continued on the trajectory that it has been on. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know.
“If you’re an English player, maybe not. If you’re a young English player, probably not – because now you’re competing against people from all over the world.
“Everyone wants to play pro, and the highest level they can. By definition that is a Darwinian process, but how many of these kids are not making it, and what’s happening to them? Are those numbers going up?
“Those, to me, are the interesting questions. I’m inverting it a little bit. I don’t know whether it’s good for the English player.
“Is it good for the game? I don’t know. Is it a high standard of football? It definitely is, but having said that, could a good player from the 70s or 80s perform just as well in this environment? Sure. Good players can play in any era, really, assuming they have access to the same resources.”
What have you made of the rise of Leicester City this season, and how that might impact the Premier League over the coming years?
“For so long it’s been essentially the big six clubs dominating. How many clubs have we had win the Premier League? Not many.
“Now you are seeing a completely unfancied club that could go all the way. To me, that’s exciting. Is that a positive thing? “Do these smaller clubs [Leicester City has a yearly wage bill of £36.6 million, compared to Manchester United’s £203 million] have access to enough resources where it mitigates the effect of the really big clubs, and have we got to those kinds of economies of scale? In that sense, it’s a good thing.
“I think it gets more interesting next season, too. All of a sudden, they’ll be thinking, ‘wow, we did well’.
“But then they’ll have to expand their squad, because they are in Europe, and certain players may be out of contract – or want more money. Others might be lured away to a bigger club.
“How do they adapt if they go all the way, or far enough, like second or third? That’s still Champions League. That’s when it gets really challenging, and that’s when the resources of these bigger clubs are going to take over.
“I would imagine it would be hard doing it every year, but no one picked them doing it this year, so who am I to say?”
Including yourself, only six New Zealanders have played in the Premier League. Do you think it is harder for Kiwis to reach the Premier League than ever before? Should New Zealanders set their sights on different international leagues?
“It’s as difficult as it ever was. It was different conditions ten years ago, but it’s all relative.
“Good teams are always going to want good players. To get to that level, it’s always going to take a lot of hard work, sacrifice and discipline – but it is doable.
“You’ve got to work out as a person if the juice is worth the squeeze.
“There’s so much stuff that people don’t see. [Professional football] can be a Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The number of very good players you’ve never heard of is huge. Life happens, right? People get injured, or they get treated badly by an agent – there’s a million different ways things can go wrong. The flip side is you need a bit of luck.
“I think the fact that New Zealand have Winston [Reid at West Ham] playing there, and the exposure he gets, makes things more relatable for kids in New Zealand.
“The other thing for me is that, while I know the Premier League is the Premier League, I don’t know whether it’s the best place to go for New Zealand players.
“I still think New Zealand is a bit colonial in that respect. Why is the UK the place to go? Why not Spain or the Netherlands?
“A lot of that is probably the links New Zealand has to the United Kingdom, which is fine, but look at someone like Ryan Thomas [at PECS Zwolle in the Netherlands].
“I think these other options are good ones for New Zealanders, and I think they should be considered more often.
After trying his hand at club management in the MLS, your former All Whites teammate Ryan Nelsen has emerged as a player agent recently [for American defender Matt Miazaga, who played in New Zealand during last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup and has since signed with Chelsea]. What do you make of Nelsen starting a new career as an agent?
“Does it surprise me he’s an agent? Well, it doesn’t surprise me he is still involved in football – he should be.
“Everyone knows his qualities as a player, and he’s got a lot to offer. At the moment, that’s getting players to where they want to be. He was there for a long time and he knows a lot of people.
“In my personal opinion, are there other ways that he could be involved that could benefit players? Sure, but player agent is one way to do it, for sure.”
It’s more than six years since that famous victory over Bahrain that propelled the All Whites to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. How do you reflect back on that time in your career, now?
“I look back on it with affection and very fond memories. New Zealand players shouldn’t doubt themselves –they’re capable of a lot. When we work hard behind the scenes, we get the best out of ourselves – and that was an example of what can happen.
“New Zealand still has this thing that we’re a small country, and it’s almost used as an excuse sometimes. There’s always going to be someone that can derail you – for us, we didn’t care. Who we were playing didn’t matter.
“Being a small country and not having the resources, you can’t use it as an excuse – you have to get on with it. We were very fortunate that everybody chose to buy in.
“I was over there, so I don’t know what made the headlines in New Zealand. But a guy like Tim Brown or Ben Sigmund, who played a lot up to the World Cup – and then didn’t get to play during it – and to handle it the way they did – that’s class. The easier option would be to get upset and drag away from what the time was trying to achieve – but what they did was very, very classy.”
“To me, there was this authenticity to the team. Fans recognized that, and they connected to it.
“It was a lot of fun. There was just this really authentic relationship between the team and the fans, and the fans were part of the team that night [the 1-0 qualifying victory over Bahrain in Wellington], really.”
It could be argued that New Zealand Football has squandered the momentum, and public goodwill, of the All White’s 2010 World Cup campaign. What are your thoughts on the recent eligibility scandals, and Anthony Hudson’s frustrations’ with the NZF?
“I don’t think I’m going way off base by saying this is not the first time. A lot of stuff has gone on, and, yes, of course, it is disappointing.
“I would hope that everybody doesn’t want it to happen. I don’t know Anthony [Hudson] at all, but if you’re a coach and you are trying to get a team to a World Cup, you want to have fairly specific things in place, and you want to have access to the resources that will help you do that.
“If that’s not happening, I can imagine that would be frustrating. The other thing I would say on this is that every time something like this happens, certain people pop up and say this isn’t good, and this-and-that. I don’t want to get into that.
“I think New Zealand players are capable of playing at a very, very high level. They don’t always have access to what they need to do it, but there seems to be some pretty decent public/private partnerships out there, in addition to what the federation is doing.
“At the end of the day, we all just want to see New Zealand do well and have New Zealanders have the opportunity to do well.
“It’s a little bit cyclic too. There are going to be peaks and troughs. Sometimes you are going to have better teams or teams that aren’t quite as good. You’ll have better referees, and better administrators, at times, and so on.”