Amber Hearn is one of New Zealand’s greatest ever footballers. In her 125 appearances for the Football Ferns, she scored 54 goals, making her New Zealand’s leading goal scorer. These are statistics that speak for themselves.
But to the children who participate in the Football Connect programme, run in partnership by the New Zealand Football Foundation and Youthtown, Hearn is better known as their beloved coach Amber.
Hearn had just returned from overseas whilst recovering from injury when fellow former Ferns Kristy Hill and Michele Cox, who is the chief executive of the Football Foundation, reached out to her about Football Connect.
An experienced coach who has long enjoyed working with young people, Hearn immediately recognised that Football Connect was exactly what she loves to do, as well as something completely new.
“It’s free”, Hearn says. “No parents had to pay for a thing. The idea is bringing people in who aren’t really involved in sport”.
Football Connect seeks to include those in groups who struggle to access football clubs, including families in lower socioeconomic groups, and those in our Māori, Pasifika, and disabled communities. Football Connect aims to open a pathway to football for everyone in these often excluded groups, by removing all barriers to the game.
In that respect Football Connect represents a “huge change” for Hearn, who is now working for Youthtown.
“There’s really been nothing else” Hearn says of opportunities for everyone to play football. The idea was to provide something for all kids, that listened to, and worked for, them and their families.
Coaching the children who have come to make up the Football Connect family, however, is just like any other coaching experience for Hearn. “They are just kids”, she says, and like all kids, they want to have fun.
Under Hearn’s tutelage, fun is certainly had. As an international footballer, Hearn struck fear into the hearts of many opposing backlines. On the Football Connect pitch, her influence is joy. She wields pool noodles, and ties balloons, as games are modified to maximise engagement and accessibility.
Many of the participants come to their first Football Connect training having never kicked a ball before – not that you can always tell when you see them start playing, Hearn says. The children’s parents, who Hearn and Youthtown work closely with to ensure they are comfortable and supported in the programme, often stay on the sidelines and watch. The parents help Hearn see the profound impact Football Connect has in children’s lives.
At training, the kids take only 5 or 10 minutes to warm up, and are all “best mates” by the end of day one, according to Hearn. But their parents describe how their children have “developed in every way”, becoming more open at school and at home. That is what Hearn finds so rewarding about the programme.
The personal development Hearn describes is an important part of the project. Football Connect is not just about football. The football is a vehicle through which the Foundation and Youthtown seekto provide a sense of community, and other life skills, that aretaught through sport. The Football Foundation helps deliver the on-pitch work, working with local clubs Auckland United Football Club and Papakura City Football Club. Meanwhile, Youthtown help the participants develop important off-pitch life skills. Trainings are accompanied by cooking lessons, nutrition workshops, and other life skill sessions.
Hearn does not often talk about her illustrious playing career. Asked if her young footballers know about her days as a Football Fern, she laughs. No, no they don’t. But reluctant to talk about her own achievements though she may be, Hearn is effusive about those of her Football Connect charges. She lights up talking about the positive changes she has seen the programme create, and the opportunities there are in the future for Football Connect to help communities build connections with each other, and with football clubs.
In the coming months, Football Connect is piloting a programme for children with physical disabilities alongside the Halberg Foundation. Hearn sees incredible potential for Football Connect to help clubs support these players, so that everyone gets the opportunity to play football.
Very few in this country can claim to have played football quite as well as Amber Hearn. Now, the former Football Ferns striker is giving back to her community. All of her community. For Hearn, a football pitch and everything you can learn there, should be accessible to everyone – whether you have kicked a ball for your nation, or are kicking one for the very first time.