Evergreen Fallon revelling as NZ's elder statesman
The name Fallon is legendary in New Zealand football circles. Rory Fallon will forever be closely associated with New Zealand’s drought-breaking qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, having scoring the decisive goal in the intercontinental play-off against Bahrain.
That memorable strike ended a 28-year absence from the World Cup, with Rory’s father Kevin assistant coach as the All Whites secured unlikely passage to Spain 1982. He also enjoyed a three-year tenure as New Zealand coach during the mid 1980s. Now in his late 60s, Kevin Fallon is still active in the game and recently coached Puaikura FC in the OFC Champions League group stage – the first Cooks Islands club to reach that level.
It was only two months prior to the South Africa 2010 play-off that Fallon appeared in New Zealand’s football consciousness, with Rory selected for his international debut at the age of 27. It was one of several parallels with the Class of 82. The stars, it seemed, were aligning for New Zealand. And so it proved, as the hitherto little-known Fallon Jr headed home the only goal of the two-legged contest.
Fallon went on to feature in all three of New Zealand’s group games at South Africa 2010, including a memorable 1-1 draw against world champions Italy. However, the unsuccessful campaign for Brazil 2014 seemed to be the end of the international journey for Fallon.
After career stops at the likes of Swansea City, Ipswich Town and Aberdeen, Fallon’s career became that of a journeyman with regular club football becoming increasingly infrequent. Yet in 2016 came an unexpected call. New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson - despite a youth-orientated focus on team regeneration - selected Fallon from the obscurity of humble English non-league side Truro City at the age of 33 for the 2016 OFC Nations Cup in Papua New Guinea.
Fallon boasts a strong athletic physic, with an equally large and charismatic personality. With two important goals in PNG, Fallon’s presence as an elder statesman of the team was significant both on and off the field as New Zealand fought their way through a tough campaign to regain their Oceania crown. The reward was a rich one – a ticket to the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017. The eight-nation event in PNG also doubled as Oceania’s Stage 2 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
This team is a lot technically better than our 2009/10 team.
And Fallon believes the tournament was something of a turning point for a side still being created. “That PNG tournament really provided the building blocks for us,” Fallon told FIFA.com. “We went through a lot together as a team. We are starting to get where we need to be.
“You need youth and experience. The younger players bring energy and something different. The older lads bring experience of knowing what it takes (to succeed). The challenge is to get them to mix well, and that has been going really well.”
A unified force New Zealand opened the third stage of World Cup qualifiers with a win and a draw against New Caledonia, ahead of two further qualifiers against Fiji later this month. The Kiwis will then make the trip to Russia 2017 – their first Confederations Cup since 2009 – where they have been drawn against Portugal, Mexico and the hosts.
Though short on familiar names, New Zealand lack little when it comes to team unity. “Because New Zealand will always be underdogs against the big teams, we have always had a good team bond,” Fallon said. “Without that you can’t beat the big teams. On paper they might be a lot better than us, but teams that really pull together can be hard to beat.”
Late last year New Zealand suffered an unlucky one-goal loss against Mexico and collected a 1-1 draw in USA. “We are not a million miles away,” Fallon said, when asked could New Zealand reach Russia 2018. The Oceania winner will meet the fifth-placed South American nation late this year for a spot at football’s grandest stage. “When we need to keep building momentum and getting stronger with each game," he continued.
“This team is a lot technically better than our 2009/10 team. It is about getting that grit and team bond, and building momentum now.”
After missing Brazil 2014, Fallon says it is crucial for the ongoing growth of the local game that the national team enjoys regular success. “We need to get more consistent,” he said. “It is not great for the game to have a big gap (in World Cup appearances). If we consistently get to World Cups and beat top teams, obviously more kids will want to play.”
For now though, spin-off benefits can wait. Fallon’s focus is purely on helping a new-look New Zealand team achieve its immediate goals. It is easy to imagine there is another chapter in this long-running Fallon story waiting to be written.