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October 5, 2009 | by  | in Books |
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Ricki Herbert: A New Fire

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Wynton Rufer, the 1982 All Whites, Ryan Nelson, various age group successes, the underachieving Auckland Knights/Kings and now the Wellington Phoenix. Not really enough material to create an extensive literature of Aotearoa football. This is often reflected in A New Fire, where the exploits of one person (even with as mammoth a CV as that of Ricki Herbert) barely manages to fill a whole book. For a fan of biographies this is not ideal, but for a fan of footy and anyone interested in the beautiful game and its New Zealand history this is not too bad at all.

Footy really is a game of two halves, and for Ricki Herbert the division is clearly that of player, then coach—this book mostly focuses on the second half of this understated yet considerable footy great. Herbert’s passion for the game is evident, and straight away the gauntlet is thrown at rugby: “rugby never entered the equation, apart from throwing a ball around and a few light hearted kicks at goal… or playing out on the wing, and then off to the real football in the afternoon”. This footy fever is something that many previously ardent rugby fans have been experiencing recently. Footy (of the roundball variety) is on a huge popularity buzz while the traditional pursuits are waning in ticket sales, merchandise, and ratings. Not a moment too soon I say.

Russell Gray certainly likes Ricki Herbert. He is continually portrayed as the seminal Kiwi bloke in a team of similar Kiwi sporting heroes: “we had a few beers on the plane on the way home… someone gave me a ride into town where I met my best mate Dave… called into a couple of bars on the way up Queen Street to meet our wives and out we went for the night”. There is no doubting Ricki’s love of and dedication to all things footy and this is drilled into the reader as regularly as training runs and shooting practice. Yet, it’s a refreshing change to read that someone has regrets and is willing to share them with us. Ricki clearly rues several decisions he made as a player, such as retiring early (at the age of 28 and only 16 games short of 100 All White appearances) and the decision to return to New Zealand after finishing at Wolverhampton Wanderers rather than chasing a new English team. Despite these regrets he is also quick to find the ever-present golden lining after making these decisions, such as learning new jobs (training and racing/driving horses at the trots and selling cars) and of course spending more time with his family.

For a book purporting to be about Ricki Herbert there is an awful lot of space dedicated to the ‘82 FWC team and the Phoenix—not necessarily a bad thing as the stories around both are worth the read, but when six of the last nine pages are dedicated to Terry ‘the saviour of New Zealand footy’ Serepisos it really does lose its original intent. Much is also dedicated to various Phoenix players (past and present in a short two-year history). Again, interesting in itself, but nothing new about Herbert is revealed or discussed. Instead we are treated to many fun and reflective moments from the Herbert scrapbook. A favourite is the tale told after New Zealand bowed out of the ‘82 World Cup, Ricki and his wife Raewyn travelled Europe staying in a tent, with all his kit and other paraphernalia that World Cup players pick up in tow. A small Italian beer and pizza place found out and made sure the couple wanted for nothing the night they watched the Italians win their semi-final as the biggest event in world sport continued sans the All Whites. We are hardly likely to see Christiano Ronaldo backpacking around Taupo after yet another unsuccessful Portuguese campaign. Phoenix-wise, everyone gets a mention from those that are still with the Phoenix (including the author who is kit man for the team), to those that lasted a matter of months. And it is all positive (which surely is not the case in a professional football environment—where are the boot-flinging, Audi crashing and WAGS stories we have come to expect from the beautiful game?). The juiciest it gets is a touch of social commentary. Herbert is at great pains to detail how during his youth there were no computer games or other interminable distractions and how he and his mates could spend all evening out in the park kicking the ball around. Commenting on how today’s parents may be to blame for a lot of the problems (and traps) facing young society “lamenting how hard it is to get [their] kids involved in sports… the attitude of the parents has something to do with that… because they can’t get a car park”. The discipline and dedication to the team (and the benefits of such) form a central midfield theme to this book. There are also a heap of good glossy B&W 80s moustaches. Awesome.

At the end of the day (as they say) it is good value for a read and especially so if you have an interest in footy (as you should). There is enough in the way of humour, statistics, stories, and insight to keep it readable. The dearth of New Zealand footy literature makes this a worthwhile effort, but perhaps with more Ricki input it would have truly fulfilled the co-author tag mentioned in the preface.

Ricki Herbert
A New Fire
Russell Gray
Harper Sports
Release Date October 2009
NZ$: 36.99

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