Far-Flung Adventures: Coaching in the Cook Islands

Drew Sherman has just left the Cook Islands after almost 18 months as national team manager. The 29-year-old from Cardiff previously worked at the Wolves, Aldershot, and Southampton academies. Here, he tells us what it’s like to win a World Cup qualifier – and why he had to leave the Cooks…

The phone call from the Cook Islands came out of the blue. I was driving up the M3 from Southampton to London. It was quite late, about half past nine. The phone rings, I take it, and it’s the president of the Cook Islands Football Association. I wasn’t expecting the call, put it that way.

The president said they wanted someone with academy experience, so they could develop young players. But the big selling point was the chance to coach the national team. They had World Cup qualifiers in 2015, which I knew would be a great experience. I got back to London and told the missus. The first thing we did was Google the Cook Islands. We weren’t sure where they were.

We soon realised it was the right move for my career, and for our lifestyle. She is extremely supportive. She knows it’s a global game and I think she was ready for an adventure. The package was quite good – similar money to Southampton, where I was youth development coach, but it included accommodation. We got a house just up the hill from the beach. Nice view of the ocean.

The quickest way from Britain to the Cooks is via Los Angeles. The government subsides a direct flight once a week (which takes just under ten hours) and it’s a popular place for Americans to go on honeymoon. Tourism is the biggest industry in the Cooks so the infrastructure is quite good. Lots of beachfront, lots of hotels. I came on my own and the missus joined me a few weeks later.

The first thing that hit me was the humidity. To begin with I showered four or five times a day. Within a couple of weeks it cooled down and I acclimatised, but there were other culture shocks. The internet wasn’t great. Our house went weeks without running water. I moved from London to an island with 10,000 people and a 32-kilometre circumference, which took some getting used to.

The senior team had literally no players. There were no identified players in the squad – there wasn’t even a squad – so we had four or five months to find players in Australia and New Zealand, integrate them with local players, train them, and prepare for the World Cup. And the cost of flights from Rarotonga (the main island) to New Zealand is enormous, so it’s not like you can pop over.

I contacted a scouting company I know, who put me in touch with professional players with Cook Islands heritage. We looked at Max Crocombe, a goalkeeper at Oxford United (now Carlisle United) but within a couple of weeks he’d been called up by New Zealand. In fact, even if you were born in the Cook Islands, and have never been to New Zealand, you’re eligible for their team. Often we would find talented players abroad, aged 18 or 19, who wanted to hold out for the New Zealand under-20s.

Although we looked abroad, I was keen to retain domestic-based players in the squad. Having a nucleus of players who understood Cook Islands culture – even if most of them didn’t start matches – was important. The challenge was integration. You might have New Zealanders who’ve only been to the Cooks on holiday, an Aussie who’s half Lebanese/half Cook Islander, and then local guys who are religious, respectful, happy-go-lucky, and not necessarily that competitive.

To be honest, the integration could not have gone better. We spent lots of time discussing our culture, our values, and I could not have wished for a better group. It surprised me there were no issues. No matter who was picked, who was dropped, who was subbed – there were no problems.

The qualifiers were played in Tonga in late August/early September of 2015. We played a couple of warm-up games in Auckland, but we didn’t know what to expect from Tonga (their first opponents). We knew they were domestic-based, we knew they were physical, but the problem with the region is, no one plays any games. So we were analysing their matches from four years ago.

Our centre-back from four years ago played in goal for us. He is domestic-based and works for the association. We thought we had a foreign-based goalkeeper, but at the last minute he dropped out because he wanted to play for New Zealand (he has since played for Cook Islands under-20s). So we were left with the centre-half. He was effective, although technically not great, it has to be said.

For the first game, our captain was in tears during the national anthem. Everyone was so nervous. After ten minutes we settled down, became the stronger team, and won 3-0. Second game we beat Samoa 1-0, meaning we needed a point from the last game against American Samoa to qualify for the OFC Nations Cup (in Papua New Guinea in 2016) which doubled as the next stage of qualifying.

After ten minutes I could tell we weren’t right. We were so nervous. We sat too deep and we weren’t confident. They didn’t really threaten us but they scored twice from set-pieces – both free-kicks that we shouldn’t have given away. We lost 2-0 and missed out on goal difference.

When we got back, we saw more kids playing football in the street, and more people playing football in general. But there was no strategy to capitalise on that. Sending a bus round the island to collect kids for practice cost 60 dollars but the president didn’t want to spend it. Because of the FIFA money, the game is well-funded per capita. But it wasn’t spent in the right areas.

There are 15 islands, only two are active in football, yet each island has an equal vote in football governance. It perpetuates a cycle of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. Funding is given to the wrong areas. We’d send five boxes of kit to islands where the game wasn’t played.

I knew I wasn’t staying long-term, so I really wanted to work on the infrastructure of the game. The league on the main island has seven teams: when I arrived it ran for three months, when I left it ran for six. I introduced club licensing which meant there had to be qualified coaches at every age level. When I arrived the youngest sides were under-14, now they go down to under-7.

Most of my time was spent on coach education. In my last six months I ran six courses, which qualified 80-odd coaches on an island of 10,000 people. It’s all about grassroots development. Unless you get that right, recruitment will have to be overseas. But grassroots is a 20-year process.

I started coaching when I was 15 or 16. My father is a coach and he encouraged me (Rob Sherman is technical director of New Zealand Football and has also worked in Wales, Canada, and Australia). But at that age, I was more focused on my playing career. Coaching was just a way to earn money in the summer holidays.

I was a player at Swansea City until I left for university but to be honest, I wasn’t that close to making it. I was frustrated that my feet didn’t connect to my brain as quickly as I liked. I could have forced a career at the top end of non-league, or overseas. But I wanted to work at the highest level.

I did my UEFA A Licence aged 21. It was only by doing courses, and people being complimentary, that I realised I had a chance in coaching. I had a 15 or 20 year head-start on people I was doing the courses with. When I left university I went to play in New Zealand, which was tied in with a job at an academy backed by Everton. When I came back I worked for Wolves, then went to run Aldershot’s academy. From there it was Southampton, and then I got the job in the Cook Islands.

From a football point of view, the Cooks were the best thing I’ve ever done, without a doubt. The challenges were different to Southampton and Aldershot but the rewards were probably bigger. To build a team from nothing, and develop a bond with those players, was great. And I learned a lot about myself. Things I could have done differently; things I could have done better. It certainly improved me as a coach and a person.

What’s next? I’m open to offers. I’ve had discussions with clubs in the States, but they’ve not quite been right. I spoke to a national association in Asia. Having coached in World Cup qualifiers, that was a highlight, and that’s where I want to be. But I’m only 29 – I’m in no rush to be a Premier League manager or a top-level national team manager. I’m open to any job, anywhere, that interests me.

You can follow Drew Sherman and Owen Amos on Twitter.

Far-Flung Adventures: Coaching in the Cook Islands
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