Ben Bate has emerged as one of New Zealand’s leading coaches of women’s club teams.
Last year, he coached Northern Rovers to the regional league title and a Kate Sheppard Cup final. This year, he’s at the helm of Auckland United’s push for a Lotto NRFL Women’s Premier League title, and National League qualification.
Friends of Football writer Marnie Stombom caught up with Bate to find out more about the coach, his hopes and aspirations …
Meeting Ben Bate
How did you end up coaching at Auckland United?
I am originally from England and came to New Zealand in 2015 for a holiday, and fell into a role with NZ Football.
Originally, I worked for the Welsh Football Association as a performance analyst, starting with their U-15 girls and then progressing through to the senior Welsh national side. Then when I came over here, I applied for a role with the All Whites. I didn’t get that role but I secured a role with the (men’s) U-20 World Cup team.
From there, I started coaching boys at North Shore United, through 2015, then in 2016 I went to Forrest Hill Milford and started coaching the reserve girls.
The year after, in 2017, I took over the senior side and I was there until they merged with Glenfield Rovers to become Northern Rovers.
I was there for two years and then there was a change of circumstances at the end of last year, and here I am now at Auckland United.
What led to your involvement in performance analysis, and how did this progress to coaching at a premier level?
I started playing football when I was 12 or 13 years old. I was raised in the inner city and I didn’t have access to a football team.
When we moved to the country, I started playing football with some friends. When my brother started at about 4 or 5 years old, there was no team, so I helped set up a team for him and coached him throughout, so that’s how I initially got into it when I was about 16.
When I was about 23, I decided to go to Uni and do sports coaching, and part of that was performance analysis modules.
I was a little bit techie — quite liked the computers and data — and my head lecturer was the Welsh woman’s national hockey coach.
She needed a performance analyst, and I was top of the class, so she asked me to help her out. Coaching kind of became a secondary focus for a while whilst I focused on the analysis — but they all build into one each other — very complementary skill sets.
Do you have any key influences on your style of football? Or a key person that has influenced your style of football?
When I was 15 or 16, my friend’s dad coached the team. He was great but then he did a couple of courses, and you could see us improving (as a result). That was the main reason I got into coaching, as I was thinking of my brother — well, if I can do that for my brother at 6-years-old, why not 16 years old?
Then when I got into the professional game, I guess it was more the people I was working with at that stage — there was a gentleman called Carl Darlington. I think he is academy coaching at Everton, and he was previously the Head of Coach Education for Wales. He was the first coach I worked under at the Welsh FA, a pro-licence holder and the level that he was coaching at was mind-blowing. He has been a huge influence on me.
Do you have a favourite footballer and why? Man? Woman?
In men’s football, Steven Gerrard — so I’m a Liverpool fan, my gran is a Liverpool fan. I had no choice in the matter but luckily it worked out. I grew up watching Steven Gerrard play and he is just a fantastic footballer and luckily, I have been able to see a lot in person, being from the UK.
A female footballer … probably trickier. I was very fortunate through the Welsh FA to work with Jess Fishlock, who was at Seattle. I was lucky to see her develop as a coach as well while I was doing the analysis alongside the youth age groups.
For me, she was one of the better players in the world when she was in her mid-twenties, and to then see her go on that coaching journey is quite cool. She was one of the first Welsh players to go professional and having her around the camp was incredible.
Favourite player: Steven Gerrard
Favourite player: Jess Fishlock
Is there a particular team you are looking forward to seeing play at the FIFA Women’s World Cup?
The US. Just a force of nature — I have obviously watched them on TV more times than I can count — but to be able to see them in person …
I have seen their youth national teams play, but I have never seen the full national team play in person.
Unfortunately, England is not over here. Also, I am not sure if you have seen it but there is a documentary on Disney about the Matildas — get a chance to watch it as its really good, to see some of the stories behind the players, who they are and where they come from — so I probably have a bit of a soft spot for them.
With your move from Northern Rovers to Auckland United, is there a difference in coaching style between the two clubs?
I think the academy here (Auckland United) is in a really strong space. There is a lot more of an identity I would suggest across the whole club due to the work that has been done in the last several years.
There is a lot that I am still working though, in terms of the way the boys play in the academy and implementing that in the girls’ pathway. It’s a slow burn as it takes time to integrate these things.
Again, I am not saying one’s better or worse than the other but there is definitely a very clear vision here of what they want the football to look like. Part of my role as the coach coming in is to learn that and work through it.
Can you describe that vision?
It’s more the tactical detail, I guess; more rounded, I would suggest here.
Do you try and get that consistency of approach across the men’s and women’s game?
That’s the bigger challenge. The women’s game is fundamentally different to the men’s, in terms of how you can play.
The boys can play a ball from anywhere and be one touch away from goal. In the girl’s space, that is less likely just physically, so it changes the way you play the game.
We have to be mindful and adapt how we want to play as we don’t have the players who can necessarily do a 50/60 metre ball on someone’s touch every single time.
We have more detail around how we build up in closer patterns of play, as that is where we will probably have more success. It leads to a different watch at times … we are more likely to be in our build-up phase, midfield phase, and there is more likely to be combinations of players passing versus one ball through the middle.
It’s your first season at United; what will success look like for you this season?
National League qualification is not the be-all and end-all but for me, the most important thing at this stage is securing another round of football for the players and that’s what National League qualification gives us — the opportunity to test ourselves against the other federation teams.
The Phoenix have now entered the competition as well in that National League space, so it’s massive for us. We only have 14 Northern League games this year, so that’s where we need to be for our players to give them the increased exposure in the calendar year. It also qualifies our youth side for National Youth League.
What about the future — how long do you see yourself at United, and do you have any coaching aspirations?
I was at Rovers and Forest Hill for six or seven years with a good amount of success. For me, it’s trying to do that here with a different group of players. I would love to be in the position to be head coach of a national side — that is the big thing on my list.
I’ve done the yardage and hopefully, those opportunities will present themselves. That would be a great honour now I am a Kiwi as well!
What does having New Zealand Ferns based at Auckland United’s Keith Hay Park mean for the club?
The improvement to the facilities is something we can’t look past — having a new field of that quality. Now, it’s more about the excitement for the girls in the academy space — as soon as they saw the black wrapping go up, they all assumed the Ferns (had started) training here.
There is a bit of excitement! We are lucky we have a couple of the girls like Michaela Foster, who played for me last year, as good friends with some of the coaches in the academy. Michaela has come down and taken a session with the under-13s recently and there was a queue of girls trying to get autographs.
I’m really hoping the Ferns will be able to get out and share it around a bit, as they will have a huge lasting impact on the girls here.
Do you think the FIFA World Cup could change football in New Zealand?
I really hope so. The last (Women’s) Euros in England made a huge difference to the country. I was just reading about the impact on attendances, turnover and revenue in the WSL (Women’s Super League).
I know we are in a very different environment; we are pretty much community-based. For us, it’s so hard to find sponsors, for example; in the woman’s game, it’s even more difficult.
There is a perception that the standard (of the women’s game) is not as high as the men’s, which is always an argument I have had with people.
I have had teams where I have had 7-8 internationals playing in my (women’s) side and then the men’s team at the same club has had no one that has never played for their country.
A coach I used to work with used to say to me it is a different game. If you have only ever watched men’s football and you go to a women’s game and expect it to be the same, you are probably going to be disappointed. It’s different and that’s what people need to understand. It’s good but just in a different way. Appreciate that it’s not the same as the men’s game and then you can enjoy the detail of the game.
What do you think are the major next steps in the women’s game internationally?
FIFA’s resourcing has changed significantly in the last eight years, probably 12 if you look back a little further. You can see them holding out on media rights, saying it’s not enough relative to the number of people watching it. You can see in the women’s Euros they were sometimes getting bigger viewing figures than some of the men’s games, so yeah, there is more money trickling down.
For the game in New Zealand, hopefully, we see the major benefit being the (introduction of the) Women’s Club World Cup. If that gets off the ground, and there is actual prizemoney trickling back into the league, and the resources available increase significantly.
It would also give more games against quality opposition, and ultimately for the development of the players, that’s what we need.
We see it at U-17 and U-20 level — they don’t play (enough) friendlies as the resourcing is not there.
It’s one thing to see (the opposition) on video but until you are actually on the pitch, you don’t realize what the speed and tempo is.
Resourcing is probably the biggest thing. Unless we are playing against the Australians or the South East Asian teams, we don’t know what we don’t know.
You have signed Chloe Knott to play for Auckland United in the Lotto NRFL. What does Chloe bring to the team?
I have known Chloe since 2017. She went to Georgetown University, and in the summers, she would come back and play for Forrest Hill. Then she went to Durham and played in England.
She played for us the year before last and then got picked up by the Phoenix. It’s a point of pride to have a player picked up by the pro set.
Chloe is positivity on a stick. Great with other players and a great role model. We are very lucky she is interested to come back and play. She is keen to help the young girls and talk about her college experience.
You’ve got a big squad; how do you handle managing the players who do not get a lot of game time?
The squad is just over 20, including a couple of younger development players. Last season, we played over 43 league games and COVID was still hanging around, so we needed a lot of players.
For a coach, probably the biggest challenge is trying to figure out how many people you need to get through the season and balancing the players when everyone is fit.
I had an idea that this month we would lose four players to the U-20s and that we had to balance that — so that’s not to say the younger girls can’t step up but there is a balance with experience and our driver is to qualify for the National League.
So as a coach, that’s the balancing act — how do we cater for the fact we know we are going to lose X amount of players for U-20s and we have X amount of players trialling in Australia and other places and keep all the other players interested.
At this stage, there are more games ahead of us than behind us as long as we qualify for the National League. Every year you always have it slightly wrong, but you try and get the balance right.
Last question do you have a favourite pre-match song?
I have songs I listen to in the car (before the match). It would be an Oasis song, if it was anything, my favourite. I usually listen to Oasis on the way but if I put it on in the dressing room, the girls would wonder what the hell was going on! Half the songs they play I have never heard of them — or it’s a song that came out 20 years ago that they have butchered, and it’s not nearly as good as the original.
And any last comments?
It has been a challenging year as we did not have as many Auckland United girls, and it’s not what I anticipated, I guess so it was a happy circumstance in a sense with Northern United players moving to United.
Probably the biggest challenge is trying to figure out who can get on with who, but you don’t know that until it gets underway.
It takes time — the football is not too much of a challenge. On January 1, we realized we needed 12-14 players (from outside of United) and the reality is that if you bring in such a large number of players, then 12-14 can become 15-16.
The first year is always difficult and we have a plethora of players here (at United) very close to being first-team players. I take or am around from 9s up to 16s, and now can see it’s not just the odd diamond in the rough; there are a great number of players here with huge potential.
Over the next couple of years, it’s a very, very bright future. I see the girls we have here and there is a lot to be excited about.
Marnie Strombom is an Auckland-based football enthusiast who follows the women’s game and youth football, in particular. This is her first feature for Friends of Football.