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Page last updated at 11:40 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Kiwis on the brink of World Cup

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

It may not be only England fans singing God save the Queen at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Shane Smeltz (left)
Smeltz (left) is among the stars of New Zealand's team

If New Zealand can pull off a shock win against Bahrain in Saturday's play-off second leg in Wellington (the first leg ended 0-0), the Kiwis might dust off the old song sheets in celebration and keep singing all the way to Cape Town.

OK, it's only their joint national anthem these days after the Queen gave her permission in 1977 for God Defend New Zealand to have equal standing and it's only really ever used on regal occasions but if the All Whites reach South Africa it will be the crowning glory for a group of players who have plenty of connections with football in the UK.

The squad is bristling with names who have appeared in unfashionable football outposts throughout the UK. Now they're 90 minutes away from taking their country to their first World Cup finals since 1982.

Coach Riki Herbert played in the dusty heat of Spain 27 years ago. He came on as sub in the 5-2 defeat by Scotland and started against the USSR (0-3)and Brazil (0-4). But he did enough to persuade Wolves manager Tommy Docherty to sign him in 1984. It wasn't a happy time for the club though. They were relegated from the old Division Two in 1985 and when Riki left halfway through the next season after 45 games for the club, they were on their way down again.

Herbert has progressed through the ranks in the All Whites coaching set-up from the Under 17's and Under 23's. He became the national manager in May 2005 and he has taken them to 83rd in the Fifa world rankings. That's a climb of 73 places in the last year alone. No wonder some English Football League clubs are monitoring his progress.

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He doubles up as coach for Wellington Phoenix, which enables him to keep an eye on the best players from his national squad who ply their trade in the Australian League.

Shane Smeltz of Gold Coast United tops that list. The 28-year-old is possibly the hottest property in the A-League with 11 goals in 12 games in his first season with the club, after winning the Golden Boot last season playing for Wellington with a league record 12 strikes. But it was here where he really made his name.

After a short spell without any luck at Mansfield in 2005, the German-born striker dropped into non-league football with AFC Wimbledon and his fortune turned. He hit 26 goals in 50 matches and became AFC's first international as they took the Ryman League One title.

His tally at international level is impressive, with 17 goals from 30 games. Last year he equalled a New Zealand record netting in six internationals in a row and last month he warmed up for the Bahrain play-off with a couple against Jordan, forming a useful partnership with Plymouth Argyle's Rory Fallon who made one and scored one on his debut that day.

There is a nagging doubt about Smeltz, though. He failed miserably at this summer's Confederations Cup. I remember, in particular, a late chance to grab a late winner in the 0-0 draw against Iraq when he had the opportunity to chip the keeper but squandered it horribly.

If Herbert keeps an unchanged side, Smeltz and Fallon will be joined by Celtic forward Chris Killen who is another who cut his teeth in the English lower leagues. Six goals in 10 games on loan at Port Vale from Manchester City in the autumn of 2001 persuaded Oldham to spend £200,000 on the rangy striker. He scored 23 in 90 games at Boundary Park before moving to Hibs where memories of a debut goal against Rangers were forgotten as Achilles troubles plagued him.

In 2007 he tried to kick-start his career with a move to Celtic. But he has started only eight games and scored twice. His supporters will point to the two he netted for his country against Italy in June's narrow, if flattering, 3-2 defeat but he was disappointing at the Confederations Cup where he was replaced once by West Brom's big, burly 17-year-old Chris Wood.

The 6' 3" Baggie had a goal disallowed against Bahrain in the first leg in Manama after being sent on with 25 minutes to go. Again he'll be an attacking option from the bench.

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Herbert abandoned his tried and trusted 4-4-1-1 formation last month for a more adventurous 3-4-3 with service to the front men noticeably coming from Leo Bertos who once kept Rochdale in the league. It was his strike in a 1-0 win at Kidderminster in April 2004 that kept the Dale up. Only 3,580 saw it. He could be watched by millions next June.

He was coming back from an operation in the Confederations Cup and didn't shine. But he is fast and links well from the right flank. He'll also have a global supporters club this weekend. His dad is Greek, his mum is a Kiwi and granddad is Romanian!

If he recovers from a hip injury, Simon Elliott is again expected to be at the heart of midfield. Fulham fans will remember that a calf problem restricted him to just 14 games in two years at the Cottage. He had come with a glowing reputation having won the MLS title in 2002 with LA Galaxy. But he turned 33 last month and the years have taken their toll. His current club stateside, the San Jose Earthquakes, have just finished bottom of the Western Conference.

Captain Tim Brown, a square-jawed, solid, industrious midfielder, who tucks in with Elliott, was born in Ascot. Michael McGlinchey, who was freed by Celtic in May after four years on the fringe of the first team, may come off the bench to add a little bit of forward thrust.

At the back, the return of Ryan Nelson is a huge boost after he missed the Confederations Cup through injury. His 40 caps have been spaced over a decade, but whenever he plays the defence looks much improved. To be frank, against Spain in the summer the back four was absolutely awful.

With Herbert now preferring a centre-back trio, there may not be a place for another former English lower league player who actually impressed me in the summer. Right-back David Mulligan's scouse accent comes from his Bootle upbringing. He started with Barnsley, once rattled in two thumping free-kicks for Doncaster in an FA Cup tie against Boston and had spells with Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Port Vale before heading south. He could be dangerous at set-pieces.

In goal Mark Paxton is coached at club and country level by former Celtic keeper Jonathan Gould. Paxton, himself, also played in Scotland although only twice for St Johnstone. Before that he suffered 10 defeats in his 14 games during Bradford City's 03/4 relegation campaign and won just one league game in his season at Walsall where he was knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Slough Town. Not the best of C.V.'s then!

But he looked very assured in Bahrain and pulled off two very good second-half saves. It was a real step up for the All Whites. I feared they'd be swamped by a Bahrain side determined not to fall at the final play-off hurdle again. Trinidad and Tobago knocked them out four years ago.

Ala'a Hubail
Bahrain must do without triker Ala'a Hubail

Bahrain may be hoping to become the smallest nation to go to the World Cup finals, but they started the two-legged play-off as the favourites. They are ranked 61st in the world, 22 places above New Zealand. They're unbeaten in seven internationals and have lost just twice in their last 17. This year they've beaten Japan and drawn with South Korea.

On the other hand, the Kiwis have only one win in their last 11 games over the last year. They haven't beaten a team in the world top 50 since 2002 and just three summers ago they were being thrashed by club sides like Blackburn.

Bahrain will badly miss striker Ala'a Hubail, their joint top scorer so far in qualifying, after he tore cruciate ligaments in his right knee just after the first leg. But then again his likely replacement, Ismail Abdullatif, did score the decisive stoppage time equaliser against Saudi Arabia that took them into the play-off on away goals.

The spectre of an away goal will be haunting New Zealand on the eve of their biggest match since Wynton Rufer's team lined up against the Scots in Malaga in June 1982. He is New Zealand's greatest player, scoring the goal against China that took them to the 82 World Cup finals and, yes, he had an English connection.

Rufer was the first Kiwi signed as a professional by an English club when Norwich took him in October 1981. Sadly he was refused a work permit and never played a first-team match. But he learned so much from his time here, just like the players of 2009.

That experience will be vital against the tiny island nation from the Persian Gulf that knows all too well the dangers of English Football League players. The man who ended their play-off dream in 2005 was Wrexham's centre-half Dennis Lawrence. He scored the decisive goal.

Can lightning strike twice? As the South Africans would say: "Ke Nako - it is time!"




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see also
World Cup qualifying reaches climax
13 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Who can step up to topple Liverpool?
03 Nov 09 |  Football
Will Benni save SA?
23 Oct 09 |  Internationals
Stepping out of the shadows
20 Oct 09 |  Internationals
Foster's testing future
06 Oct 09 |  Man Utd
Last fan standing
02 Oct 09 |  Everton
Missing link is hurting Gunners
18 Sep 09 |  Arsenal


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