IT’S EARLY EVENING on the west coast of Ireland when I pick up the phone to ring Anthony Hudson, New Zealand’s current trail-blazing international manager. Having taken the reigns in late 2014 in an effort to guide them to the World Cup in 2018, his sights are already set on tasting the atmosphere of the biggest competition of them all – but he’s also keen to make the most of the inevitably educational journey to come.
Thousands of miles away, on the other side of the world, and with a busy day ahead of him, the All Whites coach sounds surprisingly chirpy as he takes my call in the early hours.
There’s a genuine, friendly tone to his voice as we chit-chat about a few things before we get down to business; in truth, there’s a great deal I’m intrigued to find out. After all, he is one of the youngest to achieve his UEFA Pro License and with a flair for Spanish, there’s more than a hint of culture to the 34-year-old, too.
Aside from his current position, Hudson will be best known by many fans of the game as the ex-Bahrain manager, a role where he quickly caught the eye after a number of convincing performances and results saw the minnows exceed their potential with a number of unprecedented triumphs.
Having helped guide them to a multitude of successes since jumping on board as under-23 head honcho, he quickly found himself at the helm of the senior national side. Between both posts, he garnered quite a nice little haul of silverware winning gold at the Gulf Cup, bronze at the West Asian Championship as well as guiding the side to an uber-successful qualification campaign for the Asian Cup, where they remained unbeaten to top their group.
Clearly, then, Hudson is a man who knows how to win. He has managed to do so through hard work as well as lots of extra-curricular learning – and he’s often done so by getting the best out of a side from studying on the job day-to-day, but he’s also regularly taken it upon himself to go on coaching visits far and wide across the globe.
Learning from some top coaches and managers in world football, he has spent time drinking in the words, lessons and wisdom of some of the best and brightest minds in the modern game, as he recently revealed to These Football Times.
“I have learnt from many coaches,” Hudson tells me. “John Still at Luton [Town] is one of the best around and more than that he’s a good man.
“Harry Redknapp has been incredible to me. I’ve travelled all over Europe and watched many coaches over the last ten years and it’s been a huge part of my education,” the New Zealand boss says.
Compiling advice and tips from some of the best minds in the game, fusing it with his own philosophy, his collaborative efforts underline a work ethic that many would find difficult to replicate.
Keen to glean as much as he can wherever he goes, the patchwork of philosophies he has gathered together is an interesting method, and it would be difficult to argue that it hasn’t worked for him so far.
When I probe him about who his biggest inspiration has been – although he considers quite a few out of politeness – there is little uncertainty as he names the ex-Athletic Bilbao manager as his primary choice.
“I’d say the biggest influence on my idea and beliefs on the game has been [Marcelo] Bielsa. I’ve travelled far and wide to see him and learnt a great deal. A man with huge principles and an idea about the game which, at its best, brings a lot of happiness to people.”
Interestingly, despite being fuelled by his own dream to achieve at the highest levels of professional football where he tells me he intends to get to the top of the game to take part in “the Champions League and the World Cup”, his core ideology is closely modelled on that of Bielsa’s in that he is all about making the people who are invested in his side happy.
I prompt him to discuss what motivates him most of all, and his reply is refreshing. Not aspiring to see his own name in lights, his altruism is plain to see.
“The dream. The dream to do something special for a country – and the love for the game. And to build something that excites people and brings people pride and happiness.”
Indeed, it’s clear that this is what he is trying to elicit with the New Zealanders. Having helped create unparalleled joy in Bahrain with the senior team, his resume already speaks a great deal about his capacity to bring success to teams who, arguably, have limited resources available to them, as well as to elicit a unifying philosophy.
“My role here is to oversee and align the whole football set-up from U17 to first team – one style of play. Our U20s have just made history, qualifying out of their group at a World Cup – never been done in 30 odd years of trying at any level.”
One of the main differences, however, that Hudson has noticed between the two jobs is the fact that New Zealand don’t have as many tournaments to split their attentions, something that could well give them a real advantage for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers for Russia 2018.
“I think the biggest difference is that we’re not in a team enough,” Hudson admits.
“When I was in the Middle East [with Bahrain] you’ve got your regional tournaments, your Gulf Cup and your West Asia Championship. We don’t have that here.”
Although they might not have as many competitive games in the mean time, they do have time to prepare, work any niggling issues out and ready themselves for the big fight ahead.
Focused on getting the most out of his players and thinking positively about the future – and 2018 in particular – he’s also been keen to highlight what has been achieved here before him. Using the wonderful success of what Ricki Herbert helped bring about, it’s clear Hudson knows that the opportunity is there for his players to go out and make some big waves themselves.
Back then, the All Whites saw themselves conjure a final tournament spurt of brilliant defiance, but it was a fantastic display that masked months of hard work and preparation.
“What they did in 2010 was incredible and the vision of players like Ryan Nelsen is very special. And that’s given us the platform to grow from. I feel if we continue to grow the way we are, we can not only emulate it, but I firmly believe we can go further. That’s what we want to do.”
Without question, attempting to get anywhere close to that level of performance where Herbert’s charges remained unbeaten throughout – finishing their group ahead of Italy – is going to be a massive challenge, but I get the sense, talking to him, that Hudson has what it takes to give it a right go.
Listening to him speak, there are a number of phrases that jump out at me in particular as out conversation ambles on.
“I’m passionate about the game,” he says at one point before, minutes later, saying: ”I’m not afraid of a challenge.”
Indeed, it’s that self-belief incarnate that gives more than just the impression that he is mentally prepared for almost anything that might come his way. Incidentally, when I ask him what he feels his biggest strength is as a coach, there’s an audible hesitancy in his voice as he mulls it over for a few seconds. The reply, however, is incredibly telling.
“I think it would be my desire to work and develop. I want to be the best coach I can be. I’m ultra reflective and self-critical, purely because I want to always make sure I’m doing what I need to improve.”
He might still be learning, but it is not a fleeting engagement and it merely suggests a willingness to steer clear of stagnation.
At the helm of a small island nation, Hudson is as far removed from the naivety some young coaches suffer from as possible. Reactive, focused and keen to evolve with his squad, the incredible journey to come over the next few years promises to help shape both parties – and they’ll hope it does so positively. Because although he dreams big, so far Hudson has the method and the talent to back it all up.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90