This piece was written back in March as part of the coursework for University. Not sure why it has taken this long to put it up here, but here it is.
As the final whistle blew at the Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Nuku’Alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, the away dugout erupted into cheers as the realisation hit them. They had just won the nations first ever FIFA sanctioned match. The tiny nation of Cook Islands had beaten the home team Tonga by 3-0 in the First Round of the Oceania qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
At the helm of the Cook Islands team stood a man with a past at Aldershot, Welshman Drew Sherman.
He realised early that he wouldn’t be a professional footballer despite being in Swansea’s Youth Squad and decided to retire to focus on being a coach.
Sherman was Academy manager at The Shots who, at the time, played in League 2. When he joined Aldershot in 2011 he became the youngest Academy manager in the country at the age of 23. He had previously met Shots manager Dean Holdsworth while completing one of his training courses a few years earlier.
“I took the role at Aldershot having worked at Wolves beforehand and after meeting Dean Holdsworth when completing my A License in Wales when I was 21,” Drew explains.
The time at Aldershot was a hard yet rewarding one with the Academy coaches allowed to test different things to find the best way to make the young boys the best footballers they could be.
“The biggest issues were financial, for a small club with limited first team budget, investing properly into youth development is difficult and it means you have to think about the business plan that supports your youth development strategy. In regards to operations and philosophy the role was great, we had license to experiment and tried to ensure that people felt valued and satisfied in their roles when they were working for very little financial reward.”
In the end the financial aspect was the club, and the Academy’s, downfall. When the club was relegated from the Football League and into the obscurity of English football, they were so poor financially that the club had to enter administration to survive and the Academy was closed. Drew looks back at his time at Aldershot with pride as many of his Academy alums have gone on to academies in better clubs, and made first team debuts.
“I was privileged to work with some excellent people both staff and players at the club, the beauty of small clubs is the proximity of Academy and first team and the opportunity to transition. Jordan Roberts (now at League 2 side Crawley, played 18 times in the league this season) was maybe the most successful graduate to play in the first team, and he was a great character as well as player, which is important.” Drew recalls.
“In terms of younger boys that have progressed on to forge careers but left the Academy after its closure there’s the likes of Rian Bray (Millwall, on loan at Bishop’s Stortford), Tommy Wood (Burnley, club’s youth team player of the year last season), Fabio Sole (Reading, caps for England U-15), Josh Bowler (QPR, penned a professional contract last month) and Harry Anderson (Peterborough, on loan at Lincoln). All of them are fantastic young men as well as excellent footballers, that is probably the biggest testament to the culture we tried to create at Aldershot. Many of the boys I still speak regularly to now.”
After his time at The Shots he took up the role as the Regional Academy Manager for Southampton’s London-based Academy and even started his own Academy called Pro Way Academy. Then one day, Drew received a call from an unexpected person.
“I had been working at Southampton and was driving back up the M3 to London when I had a phone call,” Drew recalls.
On the other end of the line was the president of the Cook Islands Football Association, Lee Harmon: “He explained the nature of the role and that they would employ me as Technical Director but the main scope would be managing the National Team through World Cup Qualification.“
The Cook Islands is one of the smallest countries under the FIFA-umbrella with a population of around 21,000, the main football place in the country is the main island Rarotonga where roughly 10,000 people live. Despite the small numbers the Cook Islands is a massive place. It consists of several islands, 15 in total, whose area cover 240 square kilometres of land. The total area of Cook Islands, however, cover 1,800,000 square kilometres of water as well, an area roughly the size of Western Europe.
Drew jumped at the chance to take over the Cooks football team and the next few months was spent trying to get a squad together.
“Most of the squad were based on New Zealand and Australia with only two of the starting-11 based on the Cook Islands (of those two, one was a makeshift Goalkeeper!). Therefore we had a total of 4 days contact with the squad to train and prepare which is madness.”
Despite the short preparation time before the trip to Tonga Drew enjoyed the process.
“It was probably the most rewarding experience of my career, the reality was that the group of players was recruited and put together by myself, and we worked hard to ensure that they all bought into the fact that we could achieve success. The size of the country didn’t matter to us, it was all about making the world sit up and take notice of us, we had nothing to lose.“
— Drew Sherman (@DrewCSherman) August 30, 2015
Back in Tonga, prior to the first historic match, Drew tried to instil confidence in his young charges, but scouting the opponents proved to be a difficult task:
“Of course history was massively against us because the national team had never won a competitive game but as I said, we believed that as a group we could cause a shock and as soon as we had that belief transmitted to the players we knew we would be successful. We couldn’t get any footage of the teams we were up against other than from 4 years ago (for the last World Cup Qualifier) so we were in essence entering the unknown, but as soon as we played 15 minutes against Tonga, the players could see that what we’d been saying was true and they could win the games.”
Having won that first game against Tonga, the Cooks were up against the traditional best of the four teams, Samoa. Once again, Taylor Saghabi was the man of the moment, after scoring all three goals in the first match. He curled a free kick into the Samoan goal to mark another great moment in Cooks footballing history as that 1-0 winning goal made him the top scorer in the entire World Cup Qualifiers, across all continents, alongside India’s Sunil Chhetri.
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Al-Sahlawi would top that just a few hours later, as he put three past Timor-Leste in a 7-0 thumping, to put his total tally up to five, but for a few hours Saghabi and the Cooks were on top of the world.
“Trying to convince the President where spending was necessary whilst never really having transparency over available budget was a nightmare.”
In the final match against American Samoa, in front of a crowd of roughly 250 people, the white and green-clad boys from the Cooks lost 2-0 after conceding twice from two free-kicks in a ten-minute period during the middle of the second half. They missed the qualification spot on goal difference, finishing third behind American Samoa and winner Samoa.
After the match, Drew spoke to OFCTV and was clearly disappointed with his players: “We didn’t deserve to get anything out of it, it’s simple, really. We didn’t play as we can do, the pressure probably tolled on us. We conceded far too many free-kicks and we were punished for it. The tournament is three games in five days, not two. That simple. We played two games not three.
After the end of the qualification and Cook Islands world cup hopes Drew left his position and while everything looked fine and dandy at the surface, not everything was as it seemed.
“Trying to convince the President where funding spending was necessary such as physio and medical cover whilst never really having transparency over available budget and where the funding was being spent was a nightmare. I imagine the governance across most small islands, where the FIFA funding is actually a fairly significant amount of the nation’s GDP face similar problems, the evidence of corruption in FIFA recently would suggest as much, “ Drew explains.
He wanted to continue his role as Technical Director and had turned down several job offers in order to do so but in the end, Drew claims a series of trust-issues and ‘broken promises’ – including over money – made continuing impossible.
Now Drew works as the Academy Techincal Director for Australian A-League club Brisbane Roar. He got that job, as with the Aldershot job, through going on a coaching course
“When I was in the Cook Islands, I paid to complete my Pro License in Australia and met John & Ross Aloisi (Head coach and assistant coach at Brisbane). I’d done some consultancy work for another A-League club and they knew about this and wanted me to do something similar for the Roar initially without a commitment to coming into the club full-time.”
The Roar must have liked what they saw because earlier this year Drew packed his bags and moved to Brisbane. Yet another journey for a man who, at the relatively young age of 29, has seen more of the world than most people have. He would not be without his experience in the Cook Islands despite the sour ending
“Aside from the fact that my wife and I had the opportunity to spend time together in a beautiful country and met some fantastic people, from a footballing perspective definitely working with the squad in the lead up to and while we were there. That experience is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”