Righto Then, Where Are We At With The Wellington Phoenix’s Recruitment Drive?

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Preseason training began last week for Ufuk Talay and the lads and it’s a good thing it’s such a long stretch between seasons in the A-League because the Welly Nix are going to need every bit of it. The idea of being able to pick up where we left off last time pretty much went out the window as numerous players decided to leave, forcing us to accept that this lot were going to be starting… not from scratch but something close to it. Hopefully Uffie’s a fan of the clean slate approach. He has said that recruitment is the major factor in building a quality squad so at least he’s going to get a chance to prove it.

Only one of the five imports is staying on from last season. Only four of the top seventeen players in terms of minutes played are still at the club. Of the starting XI from the playoff game last season there are only three still there. Of the 44 goals scored (excluding OGs), only six are still at the club. Only two current players have played more than 50 times for the Nix. Every single jersey number from 1-12 is available. It was one thing for Mark Rudan to be forced to almost completely rebuild the club after he inherited it in a bit of a mess but Ufuk Talay is taking over a team that made the playoffs last time yet he’s got an even bigger turnover to manage.

Part of that is just natural evolution, this squad wasn’t as good as it could have been last season and there was always going to be some change in order to strengthen. Part of that is players making personal decisions for the sake of their careers, I mean you can hardly blame Sarpreet Singh for moving to Bayern Munich can you? Part of that is the Welly Nix being short-sighted and offering one-year deals all over the show and allowing this many players to be off contract all at once – obviously the licence had a part to play in that but it’s still frustrating. And part is a new manager coming in and looking to place his stamp on the team.

Whatever the case is, there’s no point being all sulky about it, might as well get excited for the project ahead. This is a rare opportunity for a manager to be able to shape a squad in his vision. A chance to really bring this squad into the future and looking at the insane youth of the side that’s seemingly the plan. With a regular flow of signings over the past few weeks things are starting to come together and we’ve now got fifteen players on the books and that doesn’t include Ben Waine who is still classed as a scholarship player. Which means between five and eight more players are still to be signed with two of those allowed to be imports. Preseason training means trial season is upon us. The picture at the end of the puzzle is becoming clearer now.

The new signings seem to fit into three main categories: kiwi players, imports, and young/underrated Aussies. Luke DeVere maybe is the only one who doesn’t fit in those categories but you can say he’s underrated because of his recent injury history. It’s a similar way to how Mark Rudan brought dudes in but without the chip on the shoulder Aussie veterans which is, honestly, a positive thing because while David Williams did the goods in his stint, he was only here for a year before leaving and similar signings such as Mitch Nichols and Nathan Burns were a bit of a mess. Those established Aussie players don’t really want to come here and that’s fair enough. Sometimes you can get a decent season out of them – Willo or Burns’ first spell – but it’s a high risk vs reward approach and it’s cool to see Talay preferring established kiwis/imports… while also flexing his connections with some of the better emerging Aussie talent, who might stick around a little longer.

The two prime signings lately have been the two imports: Ulises Davila and David Ball. Neither are players who have existing reputations that stretch to these shores. Davila, a Mexican U23 international back in the day, was once on the books at Chelsea though never appeared for their top team and spent most of his career so far playing in his native country – though he joins the Nix from the Delhi Dynamos in India where his coach was Josep Gombau, the former Adelaide/Western Sydney gaffer… who Talay would probably know well from the Aussie system (Gombau bossed the U23s while Talay had the U20s). Davila is 28 years old now, a creative midfielder with a great left foot and the ability to strike a ball well from distance. Decent vision by the looks too… no guesses as to who he’ll be replacing in the team. Almost an exact mirror image of Sarpreet Singh’s game only with more experience. Looks like he might be a little more direct too.

Meanwhile Ball came up in the Manchester City academy although the English striker has spent the bulk of his career in the lower leagues, most notably with Fleetwood Town where he scored 49 games in 179 appearances. He never played for Manchester City either but he was on the bench one time… for the famous 4-3 defeat in the Manchester Derby that time Michael Owen scored the winner deep in stoppage time.

With Ball, he’s not a player who has a crazy goal scoring rate and he’s not coming from a top division here… but neither was Shane Smeltz when he signed back in the day. It’s hard to judge a striker’s success based on goals in lower leagues because you’re only really as good as the service you get. The impression you get from Ball’s highlights though is that here’s a dude who isn’t afraid to try something tricky and he’ll work hard for the team. He really is another Chris Greenacre, let’s just hope with a little more pace and creativity for modern times. The Nix have made a big deal about his Puskas award nomination in 2015 and that’s always nice but it’s the bulk of goals rather than the rare flash ones that the Nix need from their leading striker so that instinct in front of goal is what’ll earn his bucks. Talay seems to know exactly what he’s looking for in a striker. Ball might not be a superstar name but he looks like a reliable addition who can fingers-crossed be a focal point for our attack.

The imports slots are always a necessary resource and with two left you’d assume they’re looking at another forward and a central midfielder. Somebody to replace Roy Krishna and somebody to replace Mandi. With the forwards you simply can’t expect to go like for like and make up for the 30 goals scored by Roy Krishna and David Williams. We need more options there and Callum McCowatt is an outstanding addition while Jaushua Sotirio has some untapped potential… but clearly that’s not enough. As for the midfield ranks… there are only two central midfielders in the squad right now: Alex Rufer and Cameron Devlin. Talay’s probably sorted for goalkeepers with Stefan Marinovic and Oli Sail, or at least they’re not impelled to sign another keeper under the A-League rules, while the defence is easier to arrange given that Talay wants to play a back four. You’d still expect another CB to be added to the ranks given the injury probabilities of Steven Taylor and Luke DeVere with only Liam McGing behind them… but those gaps will have to be filed locally.

Liam McGing and Cameron Devlin are pretty interesting signings. Both are young fellas coming directly from the Sydney FC academy – with McGing captaining the youth team last season – so shout out to Talay for raiding the old employers. It’s a good sign when players want to follow a coach (not going to mention Western United, sorry). Both are good mates too, which helps. Now, there’s obviously a bit of a thing here with Talay signing two New Zealanders so far and five Australians… but five of the six returning players that got first team minutes last season are New Zealanders. We actually didn’t have a single Australian on the books for a little while there. If you bring in an Aussie coach in drastic need of new players then you have to expect them to cash in on their connections. The only one of this signings so far which gets the head-scratching going is Sotirio, as a relatively experienced A-League player (albeit a young one) who hasn’t really done it yet but maybe he’s just on that Louis Fenton trajectory, who knows. At any rate you can’t judge a signing until they’ve played.  

Also a sneaky factor: thankfully seven of the 16 contracted players (inc. Waine) are signed on for next season too, including Davila and Ball, with five of their ten new additions agreeing to two year deals. Contracts are relatively easy to get out of mutually if something else comes up or if the situation isn’t working (might cost some money though) but this way at least the club has some flexibility and control in the matter. A decent idea soon would be to get Libby Cacace’s deal extended so that if he gets a decent offer in a year or two they can get a transfer fee back.

All in all, this is actually a pretty great haul so far. Considering what they started with they’ve done well to build a squad that looks at least close to last season’s standard… minus Roy Krishna but he was never going to be replaceable. Marinovic in goal. Back four of Fenton, Taylor, DeVere, Cacace. A midfield trio that’d have to be Rufer, Devlin and then Davila in front of them. And a front three of McCowatt, Ball and Sotirio. So far isn’t far enough though. Rudan’s lot struggled with a lack of depth so what Talay does with his final 5-8 roster spots could be the difference in the Nix improving on their position or tumbling back down the table. And only two of those can be imports.

Which is where we get to Trial SZN, baby. Here’s what we’re working with at this point…

CONFIRMED TRIALLISTS

Myer Bevan – Young All Whites striker, didn’t kick on with the Vancouver Whitecaps and struggled to score goals at USL level before missing out after a trial with a second division Polish club… which has kinda upended what looked a supremely promising career. But he’s still extremely young and would fit beautifully as a backup to Ball. Trained (but didn’t trial) with the squad briefly last season too. Whether he gets signed is up to a bunch of other factors but he’s an ideal player to be bringing in for a look.

Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi – Trialled a couple times last season and the Auckland City defender/midfielder probably would have been signed had he not kept getting injured at inopportune moments. Has international experience and offers cover in two crucial areas.

Tim Payne – Pretty much a veteran already at 25 years old, Payne is a national league champion and an experienced All White who, like TAHW, can cover CB or CM. He’s a rough bugger with leadership qualities, the kind of player you can do a lot with though also, like TAHW, there’s a little jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none risk at the level up… that’s what trials are there to determine though and the Nix could do a lot worse than all three of these kiwis.

Joe Caletti – An Australian midfielder, only 20 years old, who is coming off a spell with Brisbane Roar where he actually started 22 games over the last three years despite his age. Captained the Aussie U17s at the World Cup a few years back. But he’s been a casualty of a changing of the guards at the Roar hence the Nix are in the mix. Sounds an excellent prospect though we do already have Cam Devlin so whether we want to make room for another inexperienced midfielder is the question.

Xander Houtkoop – 30 year old Dutch winger with a decent looking career in the Eredivisie under his belt (82 games with 6 goals and 12 assists). Doesn’t look like he’s ever been a regular there but that’s why he’s having to trial. Coming off a half year in Norway and has been out of contract since January. Sounds a creative sort though, which is always a quality to want more of.

Alex Molano – A Texan midfielder who tried a few lower league things in Europe back in the day but his best footy has come at the USL level in his home nation. Hasn’t been able to lock down a club there however, playing for three teams in three years. Not really much more to say.

Tommy Semmy – Papua New Guinea international and absolute star of the NZ Premiership, has all the raw talent and athleticism to make a crack at the A-League but it’s definitely raw talent. But Semmy is the obvious candidate to Do A Krishna. Would require a visa (and perhaps a year to find his feet) but it’s fantastic that they’re looking at him and he could have the most upside of any of the trialists.

The first six were there last week and continue to train, or so it sounds. Semmy started with the lads on Monday. One fella who had been linked was Nando Pijnaker who it appears will now be staying in Europe. And of course the other avenue for players which can’t be slept on is that academy, which Ben Waine is still technically a part of and where Zac Jones will be the third string keeper and the likes of Taci Kumsuz, Ronan Wynne, and Sam Sutton (amongst others) are all pushing for contention.

And, yeah, that’s pretty much where we’re at.

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