Presumably you’ve been keeping up to date with the old favourite Flying Kiwis these last two weeks, where there’s been plenty of words dedicated to Sarpreet Singh and his move to Bayern Munich. It was news that just arrived one morning, completely out of the blue. Of all the dudes in that U20 World Cup squad who made such a lovely impression last month he was one of the few who you didn’t think had any craziness in his immediate future being all nicely settled at the Wellington Phoenix and all that. But nah, bloody Bayern Munich came calling. Absolute insanity.
This is a beautiful development for kiwi football. Even if he doesn’t click at Bayern there’s still a decent chance he pops up elsewhere in the Bundesliga or in wider Europe now that he’s got a little foothold. Shoot for the moon and land among the stars kinda thing. And anyway the fact that they wanted to sign him at all is amazing. But while it’s a beautiful development for kiwi football it’s a complete game-changer for the Wellington Phoenix.
Sarpreet Singh going to Bayern Munich (well, technically the reserves but he’s there with a pathway to the first team) is the best possible development for the Wellington Phoenix’s reputation. As New Zealand’s only professional club they have almost unchallenged access to the best amateur players in the country and Singh’s just shown exactly how far a couple decent years in the A-League can take you. He’s only at the ressies, he’s not made it yet, but for young kiwi footy players hanging off the end of the world all they want is for someone to hold the door for them and they’ll do the rest.
This was a debate we had a year ago (it feels like so much longer) as Mark Rudan ummed and ahhed about going after domestic kiwis, inviting a bunch to trial but only initially signing Callan Elliot. It’s a valid debate: how do you balance promoting local talent with making sure the players you get are good enough? Well it helps if you target the best local talent but yeah, tricky one. The Phoenix’s number one priority has to be winning football games and they’re definitely not some community college for aspiring but undertalented footy players.
Therefore there will always be imports coming in, probably a few Aussies as well (Uffie Talay’s brought a couple new ones in himself). But you can’t fill out a whole squad with that lot alone. Most imports are only here for a year or two and the best Aussie players don’t want to play in Wellington when they could play in Melbourne or Sydney. Fair enough, too. Interestingly this is something that both Mark Rudan and Ufuk Talay, the two Aussie managers this club has had, have made a point of prioritising: both wanted a core of kiwi talent to hold it all down in their squads. The kiwi players bring an extra connection with the fans, they have an extra connection to the club, and, on a more practical level, better kiwis are more interested in playing here than Aussies of the same calibre are so it works on a purely competitive level too. In other words it doesn’t have to be a moral responsibility, it’s just an efficient way to do things.
Replenishing that kiwi core is the hard part. Stefan Marinovic is a brilliant signing but it took a couple weird and negative twists in his career for this to be an option for him. Getting shunted at Vancouver, Stevie G signing an ex-Liverpool youth keeper instead of Marinovic at Rangers, that one unflattering game for Bristol City… for the most part established All Whites don’t want to play for the Nix because they’ve got better options on the table. Again, fair enough. So you try and get them before they become established All Whites.
This is where the Wellington Phoenix academy comes into it because they just had a fantastic year. The last couple years have been really good as the WeeNix have benefited from competing in the kiwi Premiership but last season in particular was huge. Liberato Cacace and Sarpreet Singh solidified themselves as first teamers. Alex Rufer too, although he’s a couple more years removed from that academy. Callan Elliot, Ben Waine, and Gianni Stensness all made debuts. You can count Justin Gulley too if you want. Oli Sail had a couple blinders filling in as backup keeper. Louis Fenton had his best season yet. More than ever before there was a functioning pipeline between the reserves and the top side. Plus that top side remained competitive. Shows that this lot are getting the scouting, the coaching, the development, and the motivations all right.
It’s one thing to settle yourself in as a decent A-League player though. Maybe you get a move to Melbourne Victory or Sydney FC down the line, dunno. But the best young kiwi players are rightfully more ambitious than that which is why this Sarpreet Singh news is so massive. Previously the best transfer they’d orchestrated was… what? Tyler Boyd to Vitoria SC most likely but he was pretty much exiled from the first team by the end of his time in Wellywood. James McGarry to Willem II is a nice recent one but never made a decent dent in the first team. Each of them left as free agents at the end of their contracts anyway. The only two that have ever left for fees are Jon McKain and Nathan Burns, both established Aussie internationals.
Singh though, he rose up through the ranks with the Welly Nix. There you go. The Nix can be that launching pad club. In fact they should be aspiring to be that launching pad club, the production line, especially now that they’ve seen what a nice hefty sum they can get in return. It would have been nice to get a decade of Sarpreet magic for the Nix but it’s even nicer to say that the club developed a future Bundesliga player (fingers crossed – again, that they’ve even considered him is vindication enough). Marco Rojas had to go to Melbourne Victory and win a Johnny Warren Medal before he got his European move. Singh did it after just a year and a half, all with the Phoenix.
For a club with an entire country of players to take a peek at and with an obviously limited financial muscle, not to mention a club that’s always asked to justify its own existence, the business of developing players is a necessary investment. Like, not just some romantic ideal… it’s an absolute necessity in order to be a competitive team in a foreign league. David Dome realises this, Ufuk Talay realises this. That academy is something that the club takes huge pride in and so they should – it’s the key to the club’s future.
Thus it was poetic timing that soon after the Sarpreet Singh thing broke, Callum McCowatt was announced to have signed with the Welly Nix effectively as his replacement. The number one player in the Premiership last season (don’t @ me – he was the rightful MVP) and a big game player who has scored in consecutive grand finals and with two different teams. He’s one of the most exciting talents this country has produced in ages and he went to the U20 World Cup with options looking to put himself in the shop window. Now he’s gonna spend a year at the Nix.
For a guy in McCowatt’s position chose this club shows that it’s all working. CMcC has higher ambitions than the A-League but he knows that a year or two spent establishing himself here as a professional could hopefully lead to him doing what Sarpreet Singh, Marco Rojas, and Tyler Boyd have done before him (ideally with the Singh career script though). And McCowatt is a discerning lad too, he wouldn’t have joined the club for sentimental reasons – he’s seen the Nix give big minutes to young players last season and he’s seen Sarpreet Singh leverage himself into the slipstream of the big time. Word is that his buddy Nando Pijnaker might not be far behind him either.
This is the way to do it. The benefits are there at every level of the club structure. Selling players to Bayern Munich isn’t something you can ever rely upon but if you do good things then good things will happen. A couple years ago Sarpreet Singh was that one dude in the academy who all the hardcores were desperate to see given a chance with in the A-League. That chance finally arrived and the last 18 months have been a whirlwind. The next 36 should be even wilder. And now we wait and see who the next one to follow him might be.
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