Fresh-faced reserves ready for new season

Wellington Phoenix reserves head coach Chris Greenacre has a new-look squad for the 2024 Central League.

Fifteen regulars from the 2023 side that finished second in the league behind national champions Wellington Olympic have moved on, including captain Isaac Hughes, fellow defender Lukas Kelly-Heald, midfielder Fin Conchie, striker Luke Supyk, fullback Matt Sheridan and goalkeeper Alby Kelly-Heald, who have all graduated to the first team.

Greenacre’s group this year features 10 players that were part of the New Zealand squad at last year’s U-17 FIFA World Cup in Indonesia, headed by Gabriel Sloane-Rodrigues, who recently became the youngest Phoenix player in A-League history.

Matt Foord (Cashmere Technical), Dylan Gardiner (Hamilton Wanderers), Ryan Lee (North Wellington), Nicholas Murphy (Christchurch United) and Nathan Walker (Fencibles) have joined their NZ teammates (Sloane-Rodrigues, Anaru Cassidy, Paris Domfeh, Jesper Edwards and Eamon McCarron) at the academy, along with Harry Huxford who has made the move from Napier City Rovers.

“They’ve fitted in really, really well,” Greenacre said. “They’ve been welcome additions to the new squad.

“Obviously, it takes time to adjust to fulltime football training. Going from training two or three times a week to training every day.

“There’s a bit of a transition period and that takes time. We understand that and that’s what we’re in the game for.”

It won’t just be a challenge for the players new to the academy to adjust to the rigours of the Central League.

“It’s going to be a step up for everyone, which is great and that’s the challenge that we face.

“I know there will probably be a lack of consistency, but that’s part of the excitement and you accept that.

“We’re trying to get them mentally and physically prepared to play at this level. It’ll probably take them a little while for them to find their feet.

“We’ve had a couple of really good games in pre-season, which has shown them what the level is so they’re aware of where they need to raise their game to.”

The reserves have been training for the best part of two months to prepare for the new season, which starts this Easter weekend.

“We’ve had a really good pre-season. The players have worked exceptionally hard and the staff that support me have worked around the clock to give these lads the best preparation.

“We’ve had a few internal games and we’ve played Wellington Olympic and Napier City Rovers a couple of times.

“We’ve also had an opportunity to travel away. We’ve had a game in Palmerston North and we’ve had a game in Napier just to get them used to the overnight stays because if they get in the first team they will train, travel and play.

“It’s all part of the goal of giving them those experiences so when they’re in the first team they’ve been in these situations before.”

The reserves played against the Phoenix first team in their final pre-season match last week, which was a “really good eye-opener” for the players.

“They got a real insight into what first team football is about and how fast the game is.

“Leading into a season it’s great to have that exposure to the speed of the game, how the game is played and to play against their heroes who are top of the A-League right now.

“They also got to play in front of the first team staff and show them what they’re capable of. That was great for them.”

Chris Greenacre has seen the squad “blend together” and become a close-knit group over the past couple of weeks.

“The sky’s the limit for them and hopefully I don’t hold on to many of them for too long and they make the step up.

“The main thing is they need to try and play as many minutes as they can and that comes from training at their best day-in, day-out and showing that they’ve got a professional’s mentality.

“That will hold them in good stead so when they do step up it is more of a smooth transition into senior football.”

The Phoenix reserves will play at least one extra match this season, with the club granted entry into the Chatham Cup for the first time.

“I think it’s a great competition. Obviously, I grew up with the FA Cup in England and I know the history of the Chatham Cup and always wanted to be part of it.

“For our players it’s an extra game. We don’t play enough games as it is, in my opinion.

“It’s another game and if you were to have a longer Cup run it’s more games and that’s what it’s about for our players particularly.

“For some teams it might be a chance to have a weekend off and refresh when they’re out of the Cup, but for our boys they need to play.

“It’s another opportunity to play games at different venues that are quite difficult to play at and that’s all part and parcel of senior football. You have to get a result sometimes when the odds are stacked against you.

“And it’s an opportunity to win another trophy, which is great for anybody.”

The Wellington Phoenix reserves face Miramar Rangers in their season opener at David Farrington Park on Saturday afternoon.

Wellington Phoenix reserves 2024 squad (playing numbers subject to change): 1. Matt Foord (gk), 2. Xuan Loke, 3. Harry Huxford, 4. Dylan Gardiner, 5. Jesper Edwards, 6. Fergus Gillion, 7. Ryan Watson, 8. Anaru Cassidy, 9. Daniel Makowem, 10. Nathan Walker, 11. Luke Flowerdew, 12. Hayden Thomas, 13. Paris Domfeh, 14. Nicholas Murphy, 15. Seth Karunaratne, 16. Lewis Partridge, 17. Ryan Lee, 18. Fletcher Pratt, 19. Jayden Smith, 21. Gabriel Sloane-Rodrigues, 22. Eamonn McCarron (gk).

Wellington Phoenix reserves 2024 fixtures (home matches in bold):
2:30pm – Saturday, March 30 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Miramar Rangers, David Farrington Park
3pm – Saturday, April 6 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Petone FC, Fraser Park
7:15pm – Friday, April 12 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs North Wellington FC, Alex Moore Artificial
7:30pm – Wednesday, April 17 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Western Suburbs – Martin Luckie Park
1pm – Saturday, April 20 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Napier City Rovers – Fraser Park
3:45pm – Saturday, April 27 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Wellington Olympic – Wakefield Park
2:30pm – Saturday, May 4 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Waterside Karori – Karori Park
7:30pm – Wednesday, May 8 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Island Bay United – Martin Luckie Park
2:30pm – Saturday, May 11 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Stop Out – Hutt Park
2:30pm – Saturday, May 18 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Western Suburbs – Endeavour Park
3:30pm – Saturday, May 25 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Island Bay United – Wakefield Park
7:30pm – Wednesday, May 29 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Waterside Karori – Martin Luckie Park
Saturday, June 1 – Chatham Cup – Rd 2
3pm – Saturday, June 8 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Miramar Rangers – Fraser Park
Saturday, June 15 – Chatham Cup – Rd 3
7:30pm – Wednesday, June 19 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Wellington Olympic – Martin Luckie Park
3pm – Saturday, June 22 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Petone FC – Memorial Park
3pm – Saturday, June 29 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs North Wellington – Fraser Park
3pm – Saturday, July 6 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Stop Out – Fraser Park
2pm – Sunday, July 14 – Wellington Phoenix Reserves vs Napier City Rovers – Bluewater Stadium

All photos: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.