'It’s not easy as there (the Cook Islands) is only around 17,000 in population, covering 15 islands over a geographical mass the same as western Europe...'
Name, age, where are you based?
Jess Ibrom, aged 42, New Zealand
Current and past roles:
Tasman United FC (Head Coach & Director of Football)
New Zealand Football (Coach Developer)
Cook Islands FA (Technical Director)
Wellington Phoenix (Academy Director)
APFA/Chelsea FC (High Performance Academy Coach & Head of European Operations)
Houston Dynamo (Head of International Academy Recruitment)
UEFA “A” & USSF “A” License
It’s been a while since you featured in your last article with us when you were at Wellington Phoenix. What’s happened since then?
Directly after deciding to leave the Wellington Phoenix I took a sabbatical around the world for 6 months, using it to visit a number of countries and professional football clubs. These included Chelsea and New York City FC. After this, the opportunity came about to become technical director for the Cook Islands FA for nearly 2 years back in 2016. Upon leaving this role I took some time before I committed to my next role going to Mexico and spending 6 weeks with Pachuca and the U17 national team.
I also visited Europe and clubs such as Ipswich Town, Barnsley as well as FIFA and other organizations for my own professional development. I was also fortunate to support NZF in the delivery of some coach education courses and just recently, I've come off a season with Tasman United FC, of the ISPS National Handa Premiership in New Zealand.
How did you enjoy the Cook Islands and what would a typical working week consist of? What was the balance between coach and player development in terms of you delivering it?
On the whole it was quite structured with a majority of my work developing the younger national academies and staff. This was on average five evenings a week alongside watching games around the main island, to continually talent identify players and build relationships with the local football clubs.
Coach education courses would take place as it was aligned to the Cook Islands FA strategic plan and I would deliver courses with lead educators, from the Oceania Football Confederation. These courses were specific to each club and their own club licensing program, ensuring they were following the criteria that was laid out by the Cook Islands FA, OFC and FIFA.
How was you supported in terms of continuous professional development whilst in the role and was there any communications with your home F.A?
The English FA and the US Soccer Federation have both been tremendously helpful in terms of my own continuous professional development. As part of my 3 yearly UEFA A License CPD, I spent time with the senior New Zealand national men’s and women’s teams in national training camps. I then had to present my work back to the English FA who were always supportive and communicated really well. In addition, I also had the opportunity to attend OFC and FIFA technical director conferences and workshops to continually enhance my own professional development which was also invaluable.
What are realistic expectations in terms of overall achievement at the different levels for island nations such as the Cook Islands, and what were the main challenges in the role??
There are eleven countries within the Oceania Football Confederation. If this was broken down in terms of where each country sits with their current level of development in comparison to others, the Cook Islands would be in the lower bracket of countries that include Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.
Our goal at the time certainly at the youth international level, was to be as competitive as possible with these countries and to try to be at the top in terms of the competition element. It’s not easy as there is only around 17,000 in population, covering 15 islands over a geographical mass the same as western Europe. Alongside this, you were also competing with other sporting codes which can can impact on the participation and commitment levels from players. Just like other countries across the world, the culture is very different in terms of interest in different sports and sports altogether.
Was it good to get back to New Zealand and did your coach education duties take you anywhere interesting?
It was great being back in New Zealand and being around many different elite sporting environments. My role with NZF was to support lead coach developers on senior coaching licenses and this was a very worthwhile experience for me. It enabled me to gain a greater understanding of their coach education framework and all its outstanding lead staff.
In your opinion, what progress is being made in New Zealand in terms of strategy, coach education and player pathways?
Recently, NZF brought out their strategic plan for 2020-2026 and it's clear to see there’s some strong plans for New Zealand football in the future. Coach education in recent years has really developed to an outstanding level, with greater coach engagement across the country which can only be good for the game as a whole. In terms of player pathways there’s some very good environment’s operating both at academy and club level, that are creating strong pathways within the game in New Zealand and also abroad into Europe and the US college market.
There’s probably more Kiwis playing abroad both male and female now than at any other time and this again, will only increase the profile of these players as well as making New Zealand even stronger at the international level in the future.
How was the transition into your Head Coach role at Tasman Utd and what was the coaching environment like in terms of facility, resources and league organization?
My transition was fairly simple but the main challenge was the timeline in terms of recruitment. Due to this limitation, it was challenging as I needed to recruit a national league squad that could be as competitive as possible in a very short window.
We were one of the under resourced clubs in the league, certainly in comparison to clubs such as Auckland City and Team Wellington. It was a challenge in that we had to create the best professional environment as possible with what we had, putting much emphasis on getting good people through the door which we manged to do - this in turn drove the quality up across the board.
The ISPA Handa National Premiership is a very competitive league and is very professionally run by New Zealand Football. We would fly to games every other weekend around the country taking on the best national league team from that region, sometimes staying in hotels or travelling back the same day. Some of our games were also shown live on Sky Sports, so the profile of the game not only in New Zealand but this part of the world, is relatively good.
Photo Credit: Nelson Weekly
What’s been the most enjoyable moments of the role and what have been the main challenges?
The most enjoyable moments were beating Auckland City and Team Wellington for the first time in franchise history, as well as finishing the highest the club had ever done before. The main challenges were having to shape a squad in a short period of time, creating a strong culture as well as balancing the relationships of each player and the board above.
We trained four times a week as well as a game on the Sunday and with some players needing to work, it was important that the environment was professional with the quality of work which encouraged player buy-in.
Across the past few years, what’s been the best for your development and how are you keeping yourself up-skilled ready for any future happenings?
Moving abroad and exposing myself to different cultures and football environments has been invaluable. I’m always enhancing my individual learning as much as possible, mostly by viewing other top-level elite sporting codes in operation such as super rugby league teams in New Zealand, national netball franchises, the new zealand black caps team and other football environments such as national teams and A league teams.
I’m presently taking some online learning with the LMA and other organizations and looking to challenge myself with future online courses.
What’s next for you, any thoughts on the future?
Enjoying this enforced break. It’s an opportunity to reflect as well as focus on those key areas I need to improve upon, and it's also a good time to connect with my fellow professionals in the industry around the world.
In terms of what’s next, it’s a case of following the ball and seeing were it ends up!..