While Football Fern Annalie Longo continues to wait for her dream to play in a professional New Zealand club team, she’s not sitting idle – building her coaching credentials and aiming for an historic national threepeat.
Annalie Longo will probably be one of the first women in line to pull on a Wellington Phoenix shirt – when the time comes.
And while she’s disappointed it won’t be this season that the Phoenix debut in Australia’s W-League – their bid thwarted by a ‘foreigners’ rule – the vastly experienced Football Fern can see a silver lining.
“It’s obviously disappointing. It was the next step in a professional pathway for women footballers in New Zealand,” says Longo, who’s long been a vocal supporter of entering a professional New Zealand team in the league.
“But I think we’ve at least started the conversation, and although it’s not going to happen this year, I’m feeling positive it will happen.”
New Zealand came frustratingly close to having a team in Australia’s professional women’s football league for the 2020-21 season, after the Phoenix club put in a bid for a women’s side to follow in the footsteps of their men’s team in the A-League.
But Football Federation Australia said they wouldn’t adjust the W-League’s player registration rules to allow Kiwis to not be considered imports (the same rule waived for the Phoenix men). They also made it clear they wanted to continue to “enhance and promote playing and development opportunities for women and girls playing football in Australia”.
A place in the world’s third longest-running women’s league, which starts next month, would have no doubt helped to bolster New Zealand’s young players looking ahead to next year’s Tokyo Olympics, and football’s holy grail, the FIFA World Cup, being held here and in Australia in 2023.
But Longo, a stalwart of the Football Ferns since making her debut as a 15-year-old, has a rational outlook on the decision.
“This gives us a little time to do it properly, get it right and get organised,” the 29-year-old says. “It was always going to be a tough challenge to get a team together in the space of a month. It would have disrupted some of the teams in our current national league.
“Although it’s a negative, I would love to play for the Phoenix one day. And it will happen, one day.”
In the meantime, she will still get to play in this season’s league, having re-signed for a second season with the Melbourne Victory.
“It’s not in the Phoenix jersey, but I’m pretty happy to be back at a successful club,” the veteran midfielder says.
Longo will be joined at the Victory by fellow Football Fern Claudia Bunge – the 21-year-old taking up her first professional contract. Paige Satchell is the other Kiwi in the league, signed up with Canberra United.
First, Longo has to get over a groin injury she suffered early in the ISPS Handa Women’s Premiership playing for her Canterbury United Pride team.
Frustrating, after “a tough year” where the Olympics were put on hold and Longo wasn’t sure if the national premiership would even go ahead, or what it would look like.
She’s hoping it won’t be too long on the sidelines, as the Pride chase an historic threepeat.
No team in the national league has ever won the championship three times in a row. With two wins from three games, the Pride are sitting in second place behind the unbeaten Auckland Football side.
“The threepeat? Yeah, we’re all definitely aware of it,” Longo says with a laugh. “We have really high standards here, we all strive to be the best. With that comes expectation and pressure.
“With only one round this season [because of Covid] it’s very challenging – you can’t afford to make a mistake. We’ve already had one loss to a very good Auckland team, so we’re taking it one game at a time, and hopefully you’ll see us again in the final. A threepeat would be really nice.”
The pandemic has changed the face of the Pride, possibly for the better. Five of their players would have been in the United States right now – Gabi Rennie, Amelia Abbott and Tahlia Herman-Watt were to have taken up college scholarships, while Emma Clarke and Lily Bray have both returned from the University of Houston.
“Their lives have changed; they thought they were moving to the States in August. Mentally there are probably a lot of players who are struggling,” Longo says. “But they add real value in the league, and it’s great for the Pride that they’ve stayed here.”
Even on the sidelines, the knowledgeable Longo has much to add to her team. In fact, she could step in to coach if needed.
“I’m still at all the trainings, and if the game’s at home I look after the ball kids and all the logistics around the game,” she says. “If the coaching staff need a hand, I’ll pitch in.”
She has the credentials. Not only is she Mainland Football’s women’s development officer, Longo recently passed her Oceania and NZ Football B Licence, which she explains “means you can become a director of football, or I could choose to take a national women’s league side”.
She’s discovered just how different coaching is from playing. “You definitely see a different side with everything that goes on behind stepping out on a pitch and playing. It’s the little bits behind football – I really enjoy it,” she says.
“Sometimes I find myself critiquing the coaches on how I would change the session or do it slightly different to make the practice a little better; what I like and don’t like. Sometimes you forget about just playing, so I have to take my coaching hat off.”
Longo’s new credentials help her working the Pride development and youth sides in her day job. The young women play in boys’ leagues through the winter. “There are definitely girls coming through who have real potential, which is exciting,” Longo says.
But right now, she’s unsure of where she wants to take her coaching skills next.
“While I’m still playing that’s where my focus is. But I’m quite interested in coach development; maybe not coaching so much,” she says.
This week, she was in Auckland for a ‘Women in Leadership’ programme – part of an initiative funded by Oceania Football through FIFA to build up the expertise in women’s football here ahead of the 2023 World Cup.
Longo is happy to see it becoming easier for women to get involved in coaching and leadership roles.
“They run a few female-only coaching courses and leadership programmes, so I think it’s definitely more accessible for females. You can now see a pathway coming though where you could potentially to go to an Olympics or a World Cup as a coach,” she says.
“To take a national age-group team or a national women’s league team it’s not so far away for many females, which makes it an exciting time to be involved.”
For role models, Longo needs only to look to former Football Fern Emma Humphreys, who’s an assistant coach of the Liverpool women’s team, and her partner Bev Priestman – the former head of football at NZ Football who was assistant coach of the English women at the last World Cup and has now taken up the head coach role of Canada’s women’s side.
And even closer to home, there’s the New Zealand U20 women’s head coach, Gemma Lewis, and Longo’s head coach at the Pride, Alana Gunn.
But for now, the 123-capped Football Fern wants to concentrate on continuing her playing career – for at least another three years.
She’d like to go to her third Olympic Games next year – with the Football Ferns having already qualified for Tokyo – and then shift her focus to her fifth senior World Cup.
She’d love to replicate the euphoria of hitting the back of the net at a World Cup in front of a home crowd – when she scored New Zealand’s first goal at the inaugural FIFA U17 World Cup at North Harbour Stadium in 2008.
And she knows just what impact a World Cup at home will have on young Kiwi girls.
“In my role in girls’ development, it’s only going to grow and get bigger and bigger. I’m excited to see the programmes we can wrap around the World Cup, and the legacy and the impact we can create,” she says.
Longo could have her work cut out for her in the next three years. And, fingers crossed, a Phoenix shirt with her name on it.