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Coach’s burning ambition fires up North Shore

Flagstaff Team

Ballsy… Malcolm McPherson’s playing and coaching football has now led to social-enterprise and business ventures

After his promising playing career was hampered by injury, Malcolm McPherson has applied his football brain to coaching – to the benefit of North Shore United. He talks to Helen Vause.

Glasgow-born Malcolm McPherson reckons he was hardwired to kick a ball  before he could walk. Football was in the DNA of all the boys he grew up with in the UK, and he was a kid with an extra passion for the game.

“It’s the culture. It’s just what we did in that part of the world.  We were all mad on it, but I was maybe keener than most.”

It wasn’t a sure thing that young McPherson would make football his life, but it certainly was his dream. He followed that dream into professional football and later  into coaching on the other side of the world.

Today, the 44-year-old leads North Shore United as coach of the men’s first team and Director of Football. 

And this year he coached his side to the Northern Premier League title. When the team became 2019 champions in August, a crowd of more than a thousand fans turned out at Dacre Park to watch the game. It was a big day for North Shore United.

McPherson talked to the Flagstaff about his career as footballer and coach as he waited nervously with the club for the outcome of another contest – the battle for a major upgrade of their home base, which has recently been the subject of a planning hearing.

“The club and the community really need this to happen. This is the oldest club in the country and an upgrade is so long overdue,” says McPherson.

The tired facilities aside, he loves his job.

McPherson’s own football story started on the footpaths of Glasgow, where he kicked balls around with the other kids at any opportunity.

“Before school, after school and lunchtimes, that’s just what everyone did. There would be kids kicking balls around everywhere.

“As soon as I was old enough, I’d be up, out of the house, and playing football all day long. I’d run off a lot of energy, I guess, and be back home by six with my ball under my arm.

“As a kid I was always a hundred per cent football.”

In the hugely competitive world of UK football, talent scouts were constantly cruising the sidelines. McPherson’s family moved to Bristol, and when he was 14 he was first spotted as a player with promise. Serious opportunities began to look like they would be coming his way.

But it wasn’t for a couple of years that a path into professional football was really opened for him by a stroke of luck. After one game in an otherwise not so stellar season, he was named man of the match, and, by chance, the bus driver who’d taken him to the game was also a football man with some influence. He liked what he saw of McPherson playing that day and recommended him to the Yeovil Town Football Club in Somerset, where he spent three successful seasons.

At 17 years old he was training every day, though school work also had to be squeezed in, and he was expected to try for one A level.

“As a lad at that age, the studying just wasn’t for me and I chucked that A level course in,” he recalls, apparently with no regrets.

“Football is my whole life, it’s where I’ve put my energy and my whole network is based around that.”

After his stint at Yeovil Town, London club West Ham put their money on him, securing a player barely out of his teens in a £30,000 three-year deal, with scope for his future to include much larger sums.

It was an exciting time for McPherson. “It was really big stuff to me at that age. I’d walk into a dressing room and it would be full of the really big names. Of course, such a great opportunity and being amongst the top action really turns your head and it was just totally where I wanted to be.

Unfortunately, McPherson had “glass ankles” and he was dogged by regular injuries.

Though relatively minor, they recurred often enough to make his West Ham years a frustrating mix of stop and start, sidelining him for two to six weeks at a time.

“Finding myself sat on the treatment table so often was really frustrating,” he recalls.

McPherson went on to play on loan for a Swedish club, then turned down a new contract with West Ham and played for Brentford in a Division One play-off final at Wembley.

But his battle with injuries was ultimately one of the factors to convince him hang up his boots.  By his late 20s, he figured he was getting older, he was single, and he thought maybe it was time he followed some of his mates “Down Under”.

He loved what he found when he got here and discovered plenty of opportunity to work in the football world. He came to the job at North Shore United from years as a regional coach within the New Zealand football federation system.

Developing into a top coach, he has  worked with some of the country’s best football talent, and arrived at North Shore with big ambitions. 

“It has been a really great year for North Shore United after some not so good years. When I arrived they were just so pleased to have just made it into the league that the goal was probably no more ambitious than to hang onto their place and stay in the league.

“But I wanted more for them than that. I thought we could win, and winning was my goal from the start. I want to win games. That is the way it is for any serious coach – and you’re pretty quickly forgotten if you’re always on the losing side.

“In football you either win, or you lose. It’s not about being a sore loser – it’s just like any other business. You are in it for success and for us, that means winning the games, not just making up the numbers.

“It has been a really great year for North Shore United after some not so good years… I thought we could win, and winning was my goal from the start. I want to win games. That is the way it is for any serious coach.”

“Of course the one thing about losing is that you do learn a lot more than you do when you win. You find that you can still dig a bit deeper, so you can win the next game.”

This winter season, his team won 14 games, lost five and drew three. 

Overall there were about a dozen new faces, and it was very much a new-look team that McPherson confidently worked to get into shape for the big goal.

He’s worked them hard, but he’s not a coach to ask players to carry on through pain and injuries.

“My own experiences with injuries have helped me manage my players now. I don’t want anyone with injuries training just for the sake of it and I will tell them to take it easy with pains and niggles.  You want them to be fresh and ready for the game.”

McPherson lives in Devonport with his Kiwi wife and two young daughters, and the local job brings him back to where he started in this country, working with juniors.

Alongside his work with North Shore United, he has developed a business in sports travel and a venture to give talented young football players an international education and high-level playing experience in the United States.

He has developed a pathway to take promising local talent into the American college system and to places in big-name universities, including Harvard and Yale. “It’s an experience that can really turn their lives around. They come back here with a degree and full of confidence. It’s been hugely satisfying for me to see how this is working for these young ones who’ve taken this route.”

This article originally appeared in the November 15 edition of the Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.