There’s been a fair bit of chat lately about this new identity that the Wellington Phoenix have embraced: that of ‘The Selling Club’. To be honest it’s a little bit overdue for a club that has always struggled to convince the best players in the A-League to come and do their thing in Wellywood and even when they do strike on a decent one (Nathan Burns the first time, David Williams, etc.) they’re often one and done having leveraged a quality season in black and yellow into a bigger contract back in Australia. Even a marquee kiwi signing like Kosta Barbarouses didn’t stick. Exploiting their status as the only professional club in Aotearoa and tapping into that production line – of which they were already a major part – just seems like the natural antidote… but then it’s understandable that it took the copious remuneration of the Sarpreet Singh transfer to tip that one over the top.
With a transfer fee reportedly around $750k coming back from Bayern Munich and talk that it could rise up to seven figures with add-ons, the Welly Nix suddenly had the blueprint. Singh was a player they developed themselves through their academy and he probably alone just paid for the upcoming season of expenses (and also chipped in on the transfer fee for Reno Piscopo - the first one the Nix have ever paid). Obviously that was a singular bolt of lightning and we can’t expect European giants to come fishing for WeeNix grads every year but if the club are able to produce players of a level that foreign clubs with much bigger wallets are interested in enough to risk a transfer fee then say g’day to sustainability, friends.
The thing to remember here is that it’s not all about the bottom line though. You can only put an emphasis on player development out of a holistic framing. The more you invest in development (and scouting, crucially), the better the players coming through will be and if you’re doing it right then the better people they will be as well. That is its own reward. Hoping to sell every decent prospect for a fee is not only a little callous but it’s also completely unrealistic.
Anyway, you only really need to strike on, say, one in ten of your best dudes. Some of those prospects go nowhere, that’s okay. Many will settle in the first team as solid contributors but never leave and that’s fantastic – in fact it’s essential to the future of the club. If some leave on free transfers and go on to great things that’s fine too because it’s free advertising for the academy, shout out to Tyler Boyd. It might only be once every couple years that there’s a player good enough for foreign clubs to want to pay for and there’s nothing wrong with that either, it’s all part of a wider process so don’t get swept up in the bottom line or the individual case studies because there’s a whole other side to this that is out of the Nix’s control and that’s the buying club.
Taking a peek at the state of world footy, it’s not always a happy sight. The richest clubs are now global brands which have become too big to fail, their yearly turnover dwarfing that of entire nations. And while Premier League clubs and Champions League clubs make dollars upon dollars we also have the horrible situations we’ve seen from the likes of Bolton and Bury recently. The financial disparity is ridiculous, immoral, disturbing… and fertile turf for the innovators out there.
Manchester United needed a centreback recently so they spent £80m on Harry Maguire. The money was there and they’d identified the player they wanted so might as well spend it, no dramas for them. Most clubs don’t have that luxury. So how do you overcome that disparity if you’re a struggling Championship side, perhaps? Well I just started reading that book Moneyball the other day and I’m not far enough through it to have the specifics but it seems to me that while the legacy of Moneyball is the analytics revolution, the real lesson of Moneyball is that Billy Beane was an innovator who wasn’t afraid to break age-old traditions of thinking in his search for ways to exploit inefficiencies in the game of baseball. The biggest inefficiency in football is the way money is spent (similar to the Oakland A’s remaining competitive all those years on one of the smallest budgets in Major League Baseball).
That struggling Championship club can’t throw millions of pounds at players to get them promoted. Similar with lower clubs fighting relegation in Germany or France or Italy or Spain. Or anyone outside the big two or three clubs in the Netherlands or Portugal. But transfer fees are only a reflection of the transfer market, not the talent of the player. Like with Harry Maguire you pay what it costs to sign a bugger and that has little to do with how good they are (hopefully your scouts have already taken care of that part). The idea that talent can be quantified on a 0-100 scale like in FIFA is childish, there is no quantifier and money’s just another blinder to that point… which is what keeps clubs without that financial muscle in the mix because all they have to do is get creative and exploit some inefficiencies. Sign players who are unproven at this level who you have faith will make the step up. Sign players who were busts at bigger clubs but were in a bad situation and deserve another chance. Maybe even prop up the scouting budget and sign players from countries that the bigger clubs aren’t taking much notice of.
Hey, for every itchy back there’s another itchy back willing to make a mutual deal. The Wellington Phoenix can be one of those exploited inefficiencies, a production line of talent beyond expectations. None of this happens in a vacuum and it’s all a part of a wider trend in kiwi football which that last U20 squad is a part of, same with the current U23s, and of course the fine work at Ole Academy need not go unmentioned either. But the Welly Nix are being clever buggers in using that to their advantage.
Right so what does that mean to the team’s prospects this season? There is always the risk that a young team – and this is shaping to be possibly the youngest Wellington Phoenix squad ever – is not going to get the results that fans expect. That’s not necessarily true but it’s a risk, sure. What I’d say in response is that two years ago this team was second-bottom in the A-League and even last season for all the buzz they still only finished sixth (which is bottom half) and were comfortably beaten in the first round of the playoffs. Even with a very young team they can still match that. If Sydney FC overhauled their roster for youth then okay you’d have a drama but the Wellington Phoenix weren’t doing so great on the traditional path anyway. It’s a situational thing as well as an opportunistic thing. Plus Libby Cacace, Alex Rufer, Louis Fenton… these are experienced and proved A-League guys at this point. And some of the new signings are full internationals, have played at Club World Cups, have won NZ Premierships. If you’re good enough then you’re old enough as the saying goes.
But yeah you do have to have a certain amount of patience with young players and the mistakes that they’ll make. It’s a steep learning curve and it’s even steeper if they move on upwards in the food chain to Europe. These players are ambitious though, they’re driven to take their careers as far as they can go. The best way for Callum McCowatt to get a big contract overseas is to score heaps of goals for the Phoenix and be a part of a winning team… you know, like’s he’s done everywhere else in his career so far. And let’s not forget to add that it isn’t only kiwi players we’re talking about here either. Cameron Devlin, Liam McGing, Walter Scott, and Reno Piscopo are absolutely a part of this vision too.
It’s probably important to point out that the Nix have invested a lot in their academy for years. Sarpreet Singh didn’t get delivered by Santa Claus, he was a player they poured thousands of hours of coaching into. And when Mark Rudan had relative success last season trusting the young fellas at the club, the Wellington Phoenix responded to his leaving by hiring a manager in Ufuk Talay who is even more aligned with coaching and developing young players. It’s all part of the same focus… it’s just that now there’s that extra added incentive of the possibility of transfer fees.
Umm… there is a bit of an issue here with the transfer fee thing though. First of all is the obvious one that it’s off-putting to a lot of clubs who’ll just turn around and sign someone else for free instead so you’d better be delivering top notch talent. But also there’s been a trend in recent times, which had a bit to do with the licence issue, of the Nix offering short term contracts. The fallout from that has seen them drastically rebuild their squad in consecutive years but it affects this whole yarn too because Sarpreet Singh was under contract when Bayern came swooping. Reno Piscopo was bought for a fee in the hope of one day selling him for a fee so he’s under contact for three seasons, that’s lovely. However Libby Cacace, Callum McCowatt, Walter Scott, and Liam McGing are all only contracted for one season. Nobody’s paying a cent for them in January when they’ll be available on free transfers six months later.
The ideal situation is that old Spanish favourite: the buyout clause. Not sure on the legalities there because some leagues allow them and some don’t but it would mean the Phoenix retain contractual control of these players in the mid-term while also giving them that opportunity to progress their careers. Because, like, Callum McCowatt doesn’t really need to sign a new contract. He spent time training at Sparta Rotterdam last year and has access to all the Ole connections. He has options and limiting those options so that the Nix could make some cash would be counterproductive for him. Which is maybe why they agreed on a one year deal in the first place – better one year than none and if he goes on to big things then he’s at least another one for the Welly Nix honours board.
Honestly though this won’t make that much of a difference on the pitch so if you’re worried that the Nix are sacrificing their competitive chances then don’t. The fact is that they were already a team that relied on young players last season and that was their best campaign in ages (and even then there’s heaps of room for improvement). There are four studiously selected imports in place with another to follow and experienced signings like Stefan Marinovic and Luke DeVere to keep it all churning along. What’s true is that the ceiling for the Nix this season probably does depend on how well guys like McCowatt, Devlin, and Piscopo perform because those guys are the X-Factor here. But at the very least they don’t feel any worse than they were a year ago – the only player who hasn’t been adequately replaced is the irreplaceable Roy Krishna and the gamble is that that aforementioned trio can combine to have something equating to his impact. Unlikely… but a more balanced team should help the transition beyond the Johnny Warren Medalist.
Mostly it’s just the Welly Nix fully embracing their position as the only professional club in Aotearoa and having confidence in the ability to be found in an otherwise untapped market. Compared to a certain other only-pro-team-in-the-country who don’t seem to have any dramas with offloading it’s kiwi connections this is a refreshingly modern and endearing stance from the Nix, for the better of the club and for the better of the game in New Zealand.
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