Football: Chris Wood’s strong message to young All Whites squad

Chris Wood hopes the recent achievements of national age group teams can drive a new level of ambition within the All Whites.

Ahead of the game with Curacao tomorrow – their first in almost two years – Wood expects the Tokyo Olympics success to be the catalyst for more at senior level.

The Oly Whites reached the quarterfinals in Japan, eliminated by the host nation on penalties, with credible results against Korea (1-0) and Romania (0-0) in group play.

That success came after the Junior All Whites made the knocked out stages of the 2019 Under-20 World Cup, beating Erling Haaland’s Norway and Honduras on the way.

“I’m hoping there is [a new ambition],” said Wood. “I want to get to those days where we are turning up to win games and we are not coming in to make up the numbers.

“We need a winning mentality. That is [what] it is going to take, going into these [Oceania] qualifiers, into the Intercontinental playoffs and then hopefully [into] Qatar. So these boys will have to learn very quickly that it is both performance and the mentality to win and the maturity to see out the games when needed to be.”

There is a youthful core to this All Whites team, with a generation of promising players plying their trade in Europe and eleven who featured at the Olympics.

That’s engendered a lot of excitement for the future, though Wood offers the realism of a hardened professional.

“Most of the lads know what they are coming into,” said Wood. “It’s a different environment from the Oly Whites and other age group football.

“It’s international football. It’s time to step up; you are not here on potential or anything like that, you are here now to play and win games, and that’s what some of these younger players will have to learn very quickly. We don’t get long in these windows so we do it once and we expect them to pick it up in one go.”

Wood expects to be “alright” for Sunday’s game, despite picking up a knock in his last Premier League match before the window.

After a tough start to the season with Burnley, who have picked up only two points from their first seven games, others may have elected not to make the trip, but that is not in Wood’s DNA.

“I want to score as many [goals] as I can [and] I want to play as many games for New Zealand as I can,” said Wood. “Those have always been two [things] high on my list.”

The upcoming games (they play Bahrain on Wednesday) are the All Whites’ first in almost 700 days since they played Ireland and Lithuania in November 2019.

Those two games were meant to be the start of something, after a long hiatus, before the Covid-19 pandemic intervened.

It means coach Danny Hay has a delicate juggle, trying to assess players while also building combinations and getting results.

“I wish it wasn’t the case but this is really our start on the road to Qatar 2022,” said Hay. “We need to have a good long look at a number of players and see who we want to move forward with. But at the same time we are here to win football matches.”

Hay watched Curacao lose 4-0 to Bahrain on Thursday, but warned it was a deceptive result, as they “dropped their bundle” after a couple of goalkeeping errors.

He is expecting a tough test from the Caribbean nation, who are ranked No 79 in the world and boast players from top leagues across Europe. Bahrain are No 91, with the All Whites at No 121.

With only two days between games, Hay intends to rotate his squad, depending on how players cope with the hot, humid conditions in the first match.

Fullback Dalton Wilkins didn’t make the trip, after an injury at training before the window, which means Kelvin Kalua and Niko Kirwan will provide cover for Liberato Cacace on the left side of defence.

The uncapped youngsters are among many in the squad that need to make the most of their audition over the next week.

“It’s an opportunity for the players that are here now to stake a claim,” said Hay. “They cannot afford to waste a single training session, or a single minute, in the game, to show us what they are capable of.”

All Whites – October internationals

Sunday, October 10, 5am: v Curacao
Wednesday, October 13, 5am: v Bahrain

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