Phoenix youngsters could represent a change of approach in Wellington
When Wellington Phoenix was born in 2007, the club pledged to bridge the gap between New Zealand’s ASB Premiership (previously known as the NZFC) and the lucrative professional leagues of the UK and mainland Europe. The club was advertised as a gateway for young Kiwi talent which had, at the time, failed to be exploited by the Phoenix’s predecessors – the New Zealand Knights and the Football Kingz.
You might think that with the success of the national side, especially at the World Cup in South Africa, this pledge had been well and truly upheld. But until the end of last season, only a handful of Kiwi youngsters had actually made the club’s imagined progression from the amateur national league to the international spotlight.
Kosta Barbarouses made 21 appearances for Ricki Herbert between 2007 and 2010, the majority of which came off the bench. In this time he scored two goals, before seeking out regular first-team football in a shift to Brisbane Roar. In one season in Brisbane he made 30 appearances and scored 9 more goals than his three years in Wellington. He now plays his football at Panathinaikos, on loan from Russian first division club Alania Vladikavkaz.
Herbert’s next successful Kiwi youngster came in the form of Marco Rojas, the first recipient of the Youth Scholarship from the club’s supporter group Yellow Fever. His performances toward the back end of a two year stint in New Zealand’s capital earned him a more attractive contract at Melbourne Victory. Like Barbarouses, he made more appearances in one season for the Victory (24) than he did in his two full seasons in Wellington.
An argument could also be made of Ben Sigmund, who despite never featuring as a youth player, made the move to the Phoenix directly from one of the ASB Premiership’s leading sides in Auckland City. Since signing in 2008 he has featured 91 times in Herbert’s squad, become a fan favourite and is one of the first names on the team sheet each week. He has been named Wellington’s player of the year for the past two seasons.
Other than these three, it is difficult to look back at Wellington’s history of players and spot another who has followed the initial proposed pathway that was promised to young footballers. With the club approaching its sixth season in the league, that’s a conversion rate that some might call questionable.
There are plenty of reasons for it. Previous owner Terry Serepisos’s time at the helm of the club was littered with uncertainty and instability, so it isn’t particularly surprising that the club opted to sign players with A-League experience, in the mould of Nick Ward or Dylan Macallister, rather than casting their eye across the national league.
It’s a tendency which flowed through to matchday. Youth and development took a back seat to the immediate need to win. As a result, players like Barbarouses and Rojas spent their time in the capital largely unused – often appearing as substitutes – and standouts in the national league such as James Musa (now on trial at Fulham) and Aaron Clapham (a member of Herbert’s national team) were overlooked.
Another cause had been the Phoenix’s lack of a NYL side. While other A-League clubs used this competition to gauge the talents of under-21 players, Wellington’s absence from the league meant that their youth players would not play week in week out like they might at another A-League club.
But this season, all this can change.
I’m of the opinion that this off-season is the Phoenix’s first truly stable one. In June, new owners Welnix set up the Phoenix’s Finishing School of Excellence, targeted at bringing youth players into the club’s professional environment. And with confirmation this week that Tyler Boyd (17) and Louis Fenton (19) have joined Cameron Lindsay (19) as the squad’s necessary under-20 players, the club has three New Zealanders in its youth ranks for the first time since the rule was implemented.
The finishing school is coached by Chris Greenacre, a player with a wealth of experience in the A-League and abroad. With a full off-season under their belt, in which they trained and travelled with the first team squad and staff, Fenton and Boyd might represent a fundamental shift in the way the Phoenix do business.
It looks as if the club has made a conscious decision to rediscover the pathway for Kiwi youngsters. What remains to be seen is whether Herbert will be as willing to allow these players into his match day squads. If not, they may well follow the same road as Barbarouses and Rojas and take their talents across the ditch.
To every other A-League club but the Phoenix, New Zealanders take up a foreign visa spot. As a result, Wellington has a virtual monopoly over the development of Kiwi talent. It’s this detail alone to which New Zealand Football owes a great deal to the Phoenix’s set up over the past five years.
If the signings of Ricki Herbert and the wider movements of the club as a whole are anything to go by, it seems they might now be truly starting to profit from this monopoly.