Among the star names of the Confederations Cup will be a little-known Englishman leading New Zealand’s football revolution.
Anthony Hudson came up through the ranks at West Ham but was released without playing a game. A short spell at NEC Nijmegen followed but his playing career was effectively over by his mid-twenties.
Hudson threw himself into coaching in America before eventually returning to England to manage Tottenham’s reserve side. A stint as Newport County boss didn’t go to plan, but now he is tasked with turning New Zealand into a more professional and competitive force in world football.
A barometer of how far his side have come – and the distance they still need to travel – will arrive when they face some of the world’s best sides at the Confederations Cup. The All Whites will face host nation Russia in Saturday’s opening game, followed by Portugal and Mexico as they look to make an impression in the group stage.
“We want to go there, not just to take part, we want to go there and really do something significant,” said Hudson. “Our ranking (New Zealand are currently 95th in the world) is what it is. That’s down to the state of where we’ve been over the last three years, although we have been very good recently.”
It has taken a lot of work from Hudson and his team to change the mentality of both the New Zealand players and those who run the game in the country. Hudson, the son of former Chelsea and England midfielder Alan, arrived to find a relatively unprofessional set-up and altered a lot of things behind the scenes as part of a long-term plan to make the team more competitive.
“When I first came in there wasn’t much in place. There was a very, very small squad – there wasn’t really a database of players for the national team. There was no analysis department, a very basic medical department, (and) there was no sports science department, so it’s just been a case over the last three years of sticking to our very clear plan.
“We’ve been getting more players into the squad by taking the Under-23s, identifying the best players and working with them. We’ve thrown a load of young players into the first team and we had a cut-off date of when we were going to stop looking at players. That was last year and we’ve identified six or seven young players who are good enough for us.
“We’ve got a really healthy squad – we’ve got competition in the squad whereas we had no competition when I came. Now we have a sports science department which really functions well, we (also) have analysis and medically we’re in good shape.”
It goes without saying that there are plenty of logistical issues for New Zealand internationals playing in England due to the sheer amount of travel involved. The likes of Leeds United striker Chris Wood, the Championship top scorer this season with 27 goals, and West Ham defender Winston Reid, have to potentially travel tens of thousands of miles in order to play each game. But this has not put off the team’s star men, who are key to Hudson’s philosophy.
“I think it’s important that our top players that they come in and set the tone, which they do anyway, and give us a lift. The other players look up to them – they definitely have a positive influence on the group. They are two very proud Kiwis and it’s great for the squad to have them, but our success will definitely be down to the team. Those two are top players but what makes them even better is that they’re total team players.”
New Zealand lost 1-0 to both Northern Ireland and Belarus in warm-up matches for the Confederations Cup, but those fixtures afforded Hudson more time with his players to create a club mentality within the side. Normally when the players get together, they spend the majority of their time travelling across the Southern Hemisphere.
Asked if he was looking forward to an extended period with his players, Hudson said: “One hundred per cent, that’s something we’re looking forward to, it’s important to us, we’ve not had that until now. We’ve had a couple of tournaments in the past in difficult conditions and that time together has been crucial. We’re definitely looking forward to it and hopefully it’s something that can put us in good stead for November (when New Zealand are likely to face the fifth-placed team in South American qualifying in an inter-confederation play-off to reach the 2018 World Cup.)”
It has been a long road for Hudson to make it into international management, a journey that has seen him spend time in all corners of the world. The Londoner knows, however, that his career isn’t the blueprint for all young English coaches struggling to find work in their homeland.
“I don’t think there’s any particular right or wrong way. I think every individual has their own skillset and pathway. It’s not for me to recommend what people should and shouldn’t do, but this has been perfect for me.
“Certain things happen in your career, I’ve had setbacks but it’s how you respond and I’ve used those experiences in a positive way. It’s definitely shaped me, given me more drive and more hunger to want to go out and improve, which has taken me along this path.
“As a coach you have to have the mindset (that) if you want to be a top manager, you can’t be restricted by the people around. If you’re not getting the opportunity somewhere, you’ve got to find those opportunities and make your own way and that’s all I’ve done. There’s no right or wrong way and that’s just what I’ve chosen to do.”
Now Hudson faces the test of imparting enough positivity in his squad to ensure they can compete with the likes of Portugal and Mexico in Russia. He’s come far enough to show what can be achieved if his players share the same attitude as their manager.
Watch all Confederations Cup matches live on ITV.