Although a giant in some sports, New Zealand is undoubtedly a footballing minnow. It sits in the other sports powerhouse-football weakling category that used to describe the USA and Australia until they embraced soccer and began to make an impression at World Cups.

New Zealand had the distinction of being the only undefeated team at the 2010 World Cup but failed to qualify for Brazil 2014 and have only reached the finals twice, without recording a victory.

It’s hardly surprising New Zealand struggles to compete at football’s top level, when you consider that its national team went a year without playing a match between June 2004 and May 2005. The regularity of the team’s fixtures has at least improved – around seven matches a season over the last nine years – even if the national team has not really kicked on since the 2010 success. 

Something is stirring there, though, and one person who is trying to change New Zealand footballers’ mentality is Declan Edge, the Director of Football at the prestigious Olé Academy in Porirua on the country’s North Island. Edge is a stubborn, opinionated, divisive ex-player who coached his son and three of his son’s friends all the way from the Waikato Under-13 side to being signed by professional clubs. And he insists he’s only just getting started.

In 2006, Declan Edge didn’t trust anyone else to nurture his 12-year-old son Harry so left his job as a financial planner to focus on the youth team at the Hamilton-based club Waikato FC that included Harry, Ryan Thomas, Declan’s nephew Jesse Edge and Tyler Boyd. Thomas and the two Edges now play in Europe and Boyd is at A-League side Wellington Phoenix.

Thomas, a 20-year-old winger is already a key player for the Dutch Eredivisie side PEC Zwolle, and scored twice in their 5-1 hammering of Ajax in the Dutch Cup final last April. Harry Edge, 20, plays for Zwolle’s Under-21s as an attacking midfielder, while his first cousin Jesse Edge, 20, is a centre-back for Vicenza in Serie B. 

Declan’s disciples are joined on the continent by other young, ambitious Kiwis. These include the West Ham centre-back Winston Reid, 26; Bill Tuiloma, 20, a defender at Marseille; the striker Chris Wood, 23, at Ipswich on loan from Leicester; the Burnley midfielder Cameron Howieson, 20; the Ipswich defender Tommy Smith, 25, and Marco Rojas, 23, a winger at FC Thun on loan from Stuttgart.

Declan Edge also played a part in Wood and Rojas’s development, having coached them at senior level for Waikato FC, while Wellington Phoenix midfielder Jason Hicks is another Kiwi international who worked with Edge at Waikato.

That list might suggest New Zealand football is in decent shape, but Declan Edge disagrees. Or at least he believes that New Zealand is producing good players in spite of itself. He is highly critical of the New Zealand football system and stresses that the country has no concept of how to produce good players.

As a former footballer with 42 All Whites caps and a club career that included spells at Notts County and Shrewsbury Town, he has no doubt that he does. “Four players who are pros come from one Under-13 team that I coached,” Edge said. “At that time I looked around New Zealand and Australia to see where they could learn the game, but nobody was doing it properly so I did it myself.

“New Zealand football is in chaos. It has no investment, no system to produce young players, so it just keeps its fingers crossed, replaces a few board members occasionally and hopes to get better. If I can produce these guys from one little team with no money and everyone in the country trying to stop me, why can’t the rest of them do something?”

Edge relishes explaining how his Under-13 team produced so many good players. His son Harry has been told by his father he won’t be available for All Whites selection for a couple of years lest it affects his club career.

Does he have a choice? “He does what he’s told.” 

As well as being unflinchingly forthright, Edge is determined not to repeat the mistakes he’s observed others making. “I question everyone and everything,” Declan Edge says. “I have never been friends with anyone in New Zealand football because I am different. I would always do the opposite of what everyone was doing because to be innovative and to be a leader, you need to stretch boundaries.

“My players are all very technical and when they are very young, we work on technique and mentality first - size and power come later. With Harry, Jesse, Ryan and Tyler, we trained twice a day and taught them that to make it as a top-level athlete you need to have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. 

“From the outside it looked brutal. I could be vicious with them, but I did that knowing it was for the best. And to date, I’ve made no mistakes. I was simply reminding them that if you want to play in the European leagues, you have to be tough. Real tough.

“The New Zealand football association tried to stop me from coaching, but I knew what I was doing – if my kids were going to get moves to Europe, they needed to be desperate for it.”

A major part of Edge’s philosophy is promising players early on that if they put in the work, they will definitely make it as a professional footballer. This approach defies the conventional wisdom that you should not put children under too much pressure.

Edge disagrees: “You have to make deals with players, you have to promise them that they will become a professional. The young player has to know at about 12 or 13 that he’s going to be a pro. Guaranteed. We got in big trouble with the New Zealand football authorities because they said ‘you can’t guarantee them anything’.

“There was a myth that only a chosen few could make it, but the people saying that don’t realise how easy it is to become a professional footballer, and we told the players that.

“I said: ‘Trust me, you’ll see when you make it that there aren’t many good footballers. Every coach around the world is looking for better players.’

“With kids, once you show them there’s something to aim for, they’ll work 100% towards that. It’s demotivating if the coach says only a few of them will make it.”

The obvious counterpoint to Edge’s philosophy is that, aside from the issue that not every aspiring footballer can make it, children will be even more crushed by failing to become a professional if they had been guaranteed it. “If that happens, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough,” is the coach’s response.

Talking to Edge, it’s easy to imagine why he quickly became the scourge of New Zealand football. As well as his aggressive and sometimes dogmatic approach, he openly admits results are irrelevant to him, as his focus is always on the performance and what’s been learned. 

His employers have often viewed this approach – aimed at developing players in the long-term at the expense of picking up short-term gains – with suspicion. Enforcing this philosophy has led to Edge being sacked from numerous managerial jobs, such as at Melville United (a side in the Northern Region winter league) after they were relegated in 2012 and at Waikato FC later that same year. 

“It’s all about the marshmallow effect1,” Edge explains, “where you accept short-term losses for the long-term benefit. For instance, Jesse Edge was always bigger and stronger than the other kids. But I never allowed him to use his power and pace in matches because I knew once he got to the top level, everyone would be just as big and as strong. So I forced him to work on other sides of the game.

1 The marshmallow experiment was conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s and 1970s and showed that children who could master self-control and appreciate the value of delayed gratification were much more likely to be successful.

“All through the age groups at Waikato, we lost most weeks because as soon as we won a couple of games, I’d move the players up an age group.

“I’ve been sacked many times, but I’m not in the business of winning games. I’m in the business of creating players good enough to go to Europe.”

Thomas experienced first-hand what it was like playing for Edge’s youth sides and recalls: “We hardly won a game. We hated losing all the time but it was fun to have possession and just play.”

Declan’s nephew Jesse also played in the losing Waikato junior teams and looks back fondly on his time there. He said, “No one was tougher than Declan but he was always very honest. 

“I didn’t find it particularly strict, he just prepared us for going abroad, and it made moving to Vicenza much easier.”

Jesse Edge admits that losing all the time could be frustrating, but it was helpful in the long-term. “We would lose 5-0 or 6-0 a lot,” he said, “but that would partly happen because we would try things like playing it out from the back, and I’m glad I was forced to work on other aspects of my game.”

Declan Edge has been Olé Academy’s Director of Football since he was sacked as Waikato manager at the end of 2012, whereupon he took Thomas and most of the club’s best players with him. Olé are famed for playing a possession-based style of football (Edge claims he has got his teams playing between 700 and 800 passes per match at all age groups) and the outspoken coach now has the facilities and investment to produce even more players. Already more than 30 alumni are at foreign clubs or at US universities with a view to becoming professional through the MLS (as former All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen did).

Perhaps the most important aspect of the academy for Edge is that it puts his players on an even footing with their foreign counterparts by providing them with international standard facilities. Olé provides state-of-the-art gyms, nutritionists and dieticians, and all players are tracked by GPS, fitted with heart monitors and receive detailed video analysis.

If the players can take advantage of this and emerge before 2018 then the Kiwis could be in a position finally to make an impact at a World Cup. And Edge says, “I’ve got three or four players at the academy now who are going to be even better than Ryan, Harry and Jesse.”

Olé is not alone in nurturing young Kiwi talent – alternatives include the Wynrs Academy, which acted as a finishing school for the likes of Rojas and Wood, and the Asia Pacific Football Academy, which has links with Chelsea and whose alumni include Tuiloma, Howieson and Alex Rufer, an 18-year-old at Wellington Phoenix who is the nephew of the 1982 World Cup player Wynton Rufer. 

Jesse Edge feels that with a lot of young players coming through, the next few years could be a seminal period in New Zealand football, especially with the country hosting the 2015 Under-20 World Cup where 24 nations are competing. 

“The Under-20 World Cup is very important for New Zealand football,” he said. “We’re aiming to get to the last eight, which we’ve never done. And then it’s all about 2018 in Russia. I think we’ll qualify – we’ve got lots of good young players in strong leagues.” 

Jesse, who has 14 caps for the Under-20 side, also feels that the Kiwis’ success at the 2010 World Cup had an effect on young players. “It was a big eye opener and got a lot more kids into the sport,” he said. “To remain unbeaten against countries like Italy and Paraguay showed New Zealand can compete.”

In many ways, though, the football-obsessed Jesse Edge is the exception to the rule in New Zealand where most young sportsmen aspire to play for the All Blacks, the all-conquering rugby union team. Jesse Edge believes football is no longer seen as a sport solely for those who couldn’t make it in rugby. He says: “At school, football used to be seen as a bit of a girls’ sport – you were soft if you played football; hard if you play rugby. But it’s changing and a lot of young people are getting involved in football.”

Jesse still believes there’s much work to be done though in how New Zealand football is run and he looks enviously at Australia. “The way the youth system is set up there is a different class to New Zealand,” he said. “You can’t compare. The facilities, youth development programmes and infrastructure are so much better. 

“A big part of it is investment, but there also needs to be people at the top pushing for better coaching of young players. We want to test ourselves against the best in the world and beat them, and we need a system in place that supports us.”

Jesse Edge’s fearlessness about playing the bigger footballing nations would please his uncle. Something that infuriates Declan Edge about New Zealand football, which he wants to change, is the inferiority complex many of the players have. “All the stuff about a football tradition is a myth,” he argues. “I read about ‘footballing hotbeds’ with lots of talented players, but football doesn’t care where you come from.

“We do a lot of brain work and we tell the kids aged 11 or 12 that where they’re from is irrelevant. There is no reason New Zealand can’t be successful.”

The New Zealand FA for their part have attempted to help the Under-20 team at the World Cup by organising a number of matches for the young All Whites. 

Last June, Jesse Edge was one of eight overseas-based players who joined up with the Under-20 squad to participate in the Panda Cup International Tournament in China. The Kiwis lost to Croatia and China but drew 0-0 with Brazil. They then flew to Doha in September and beat Morocco 3-1 after losing to Chile and Qatar.

At senior level, Englishman Anthony Hudson was appointed the All Whites manager in August 2014. Three years ago, when he left a coaching job at Tottenham to manage Newport County (in England’s fifth tier at time), the then Spurs boss Harry Redknapp likened Hudson to a “young José Mourinho”.

Though Declan Edge’s priority is not the New Zealand national team (“I couldn’t give a shit about that”), he is aware that partly due to the players he has produced and is producing there is the potential for the All Whites to improve. “There’s a big New Zealand football story going on at the moment,” he says. “Ryan Thomas will make a big difference to the national team – he is going to be a global superstar, mark my words.”

Spending time with Edge, you feel at times invigorated and at times a little sceptical. Fundamentally, though, you are left hugely curious as to where his project will be in a few years’ time. He could be speaking proudly of the Edges and Thomas emerging as key players for European clubs and that he has plenty more kids now playing in Europe. 

Or he could have been sacked multiple times again. Or both. 

Whichever way, the success of his protégés will almost certainly have a big impact on whether New Zealand has emerged as a credible footballing nation in time for the 2018 World Cup. Declan Edge simply says: “This project, this journey we’re on, it’s only just getting started.”