An Adventure Well Worth Undertaking
No Regrets For Neil in NZ
His Home Counties tones are now littered with a trace of Kiwi and he has an unmistakable Southern Hemisphere tan.
This week, what’s more, he plays for the second time in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.
But England, in particular its football and the West Midlands, is tugging hard at Neil Emblen.
Three and a half years on from his life-changing decision to see out his playing career some 14,000 miles away, the yearning for home is growing. It may soon be time to uproot his young family once more.
“I don’t regret any part of coming to New Zealand,” says the definitive popular utility man, who is likely to skipper Waitakere United against Adelaide United on Thursday in their first game in a tournament in which they stand two victories away from a crack at Manchester United.
“Just having the experience of living somewhere so different has been brilliant and it is a wonderful way of life over here.
“It’s 14 degrees in the winter where we live on Auckland’s north shore. We can see the ocean from the house and there are ten beaches within five minutes’ drive of the city.
“I went all over Australia as an A-League player and, as a family, we’ve had holidays on the Gold Coast and in Sydney, Melbourne and Fiji, so we have basically seen the other side of the world for free.
“But my wife, who has recently gone back to work, still misses home. I lost my mum at 54 to skin cancer and, because of the grandkids, I don’t think we’d have even thought of staying over here if she had still been around.
“As it is, I play part-time now and will probably retire as a player in the next few months, so we’re likely to make the decision then.”
The 37-year-old’s career ambitions are an important driving force. His contract with Kiwi champions Waitakere includes coaching duties these days – new skills he intends to put to use sooner or later in a higher grade of football.
He plans to fire off a few job applications in the New Year and – Wolves fans will enjoy this bit – he actually dropped a line to Jez Moxey at Molineux as far back as last season.
“I applied a little optimistically when Chris Evans left Wolves,” he added. “I’d have loved his job but they wanted a more experienced candidate, which was understandable.
“It would have been strange to be working there with Mick McCarthy as he was my first manager at Millwall. He was obviously looking at players from the lower divisions and non-League even then.
“He saw me play for Sittingbourne in front of about 150 fans against Atherstone and a few days later he was giving me my debut against Tranmere before a crowd of 16,000. It was a major act of faith which I’ve never forgotten and we won the first five League games I played in.
“When I joined Wolves the following summer, I don’t think he wanted to let me go but Millwall have always been a selling club and made a big profit on the £170,000 or so they paid for me.”
So what, more specifically, are his coaching plans?
“I would love to stay in football and have to bear in mind that there are 92 clubs over there and only one pro club here, Wellington Phoenix. I will probably start applying for jobs in January and I’m prepared to start at the bottom.
“I see my former team-mates like Kevin Keen, Mark Venus and Keith Downing in the system and realise that you do go off the radar a little over here in a country of only four million. It can be difficult living on the wages in New Zealand football, although I was only on £500 a week at Walsall at the end of my career in England.
“We’re on £50 a week win bonus for our regular games and a normal league game for us is watched by 1,000, although our stadium holds 5,000. There isn’t the money in the game here at the top level – it’s all about rugby and the All Blacks really. More people watch the All Blacks train than come to our games. I put ‘footballer’ on my passport and the airport officials think I’m a rugby player. They aren’t half as interested when they realise it’s soccer I play!
“I went to see the British Lions on their 2005 tour out here and I also went to some rugby when Keith Andrews was in the country staying with Darren Bazeley. I’m in contact as well with Kevin Muscat and Steve Corica, who are doing really well in Australia. Muzzy is a centre-back these days for Melbourne Victory and one of the most talked-about players in the A-League. Steve is playing at Sydney FC and has had a new lease of life, with some coaching duties thrown in.
“Other players we have had from the UK are Terry Phelan, Scott Gemmill and Matt Carbon. And Kevin O’Leary, who was a physio at Wolves and then Walsall, is over here running a business called Fit ‘n’ Well.”
Emblen, delighted to discover recently that his two spells at Molineux had earned him 50th place in the Legends section of this website, originally travelled Down Under to play for New Zealand Knights, only for them to go out of business and have their franchise taken over by Wellington Phoenix.
He has since been named Players’ Player of the Year at Waitakere, who are title-holders in the O-League, the Oceania eqivalent of the Champions League, and playing in a three-team group in this season’s competition that also contains Port Villa Sharks from the South Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu.
Then there is the Club World Cup qualifying campaign that has transported Emblen and his team-mates on what to British ears will sound like a magical mystery tour, via Tahiti and the Solomon Islands……………more reasons not to pine too much for those midweek trips to Grimsby and Stockport.
Fergie’s United are present this time at a tournament Emblen sees as his last hurrah before hanging up his boots some time next year.
By then, he and his family should be clearer with their planning. “We looked on this as being something for us for a couple of years. My wife has always thought of it as an adventure.
“My Dad turns 60 next year and my sister is 40, so we’ll be back then for a big family celebration. I thnk we’ll have a good idea of what we want to do by next summer, although it’s possible we might even move back to England and then decide that being over here is what we really want long term.
“We would definitely aim to live in the Midlands if we came back. We might well still have had our house in Codsall but Bully came along for a viewing and, well, you have to try and help out your old mates don’t you!”
* The winners of Thursday’s Waitakere v Adelaide United game in Tokyo in the Club World Cup play Gamba Osaka three days later, with the winners of that tie facing Manchester United in the semi-final. The final is on Sunday, December 21.