Professional contracts are up for grabs for Wellington Phoenix men’s reserves players in this year’s National League Championship.
Lukas Kelly-Heald, Fin Conchie and Isaac Hughes have all graduated to the first team in the past couple of months, but the scholarship spots have yet to be filled and up to four academy players will be contracted in January.
Men’s reserves head coach Chris Greenacre says there’s a clear pathway for his players into professional football.
“If you can show that you can get up to speed in the national league you’ll find yourself training with the first team quicker than you thought,” Greenacre said. “And then before you know it there’s an opportunity to get a pro contract.”
The reserves squad for the 2023 National League Championship, which starts this weekend, is made up of “players at both ends of the spectrum”, headlined by New Zealand U-20 internationals Noah Karunaratne, Alby Kelly-Heald, Jackson Manuel, Dan McKay and Ben Wallace.
“We’ve got a group who are trying to get professional contracts and are training with the first team.
“They still need to get some match exposure and try and impress the first team coaching staff as much as they can and try, and hopefully get one of those pro contracts that are potentially available. So, they’ve got everything to work for.
“Then at the opposite end of the scale we’ve got some young players who haven’t yet played at Central League level and now they’re stepping up to the national league.
“It’s a huge step up and it’s going to be a huge learning curve for them. But they’re a good group of players that want to learn, want to progress and want to be pushing for a professional contract in a year or so’s time so it’s another step on their journey.”
The Phoenix reserves finished sixth out of 10 teams in last year’s national league and Greenacre believes the competition will be a good test for the players who have yet to play at this level.
“The games are going to be a bit quicker and they’ll be playing against some really, really experienced players, some of which have been involved in the All Whites so the level is completely different.
“It’s an indicator to show where they need to get to. Hopefully they go ‘I can survive at this level and given a bit more exposure I can actually be comfortable at this level’.
“We’ve got some really good young players at this football club and I’m sure there will be a few that will really thrive.
“The step up will surprise a couple of them, but also there will be others that go ‘I can handle this’ and that’s what we’ll be looking for.”
The reserves face the ultimate test in the opening round with defending champions Auckland City FC visiting Fraser Park tomorrow (Saturday, September 23).
“There’s absolutely no pressure on this group of players whatsoever,” Greenacre said. “All of the pressure is on Auckland City without a shadow of a doubt.
“They’ve had a really strong season and are the champions so what better way to start your campaign than by playing the best team.
“That puts a real marker in that shows where the players need to get to.”
Auckland City won last year’s meeting 2-0 and Chris Greenacre believes his players showed them too much respect.
“I don’t mean we shouldn’t have respect for them as footballers and what they’ve achieved in the game.
“We’ve got full respect for them in that sense, but we didn’t lay a glove on them, we didn’t win a tackle and we didn’t get a grip on the game.
“I don’t want them to stand off and not make tackles because that’s not what the game is about. The game is about competing with and without the ball and that’s what I want to see my team do and no better team to do it against than the best team.”
Phoenix reserves squad: Charlie Beale, Alex Braakhuis, Lachlan Candy, Joshua Capstick (gk), Anaru Cassidy, Raphael Conway, Joseph Cornille, Jesper Edwards, Luke Flowerdew, Fergus Gillion, Noah Karunaratne, Seth Karunaratne, Alby Kelly-Heald (gk), Xuan Loke, Marco Lorenz, Daniel Makowem, Jackson Manuel, Dan McKay, Kaelin Nguyen, Lewis Partridge, Fletcher Pratt, Sam Proctor, Carlos Ranui, Josh Rudland, Matthew Sheridan, Gabriel Sloane-Rodrigues, Jayden Smith, Declan Street, Luke Supyk, Hayden Thomas, Joshua Tollervey, Ben Wallace, Ryan Watson.
Men’s 2023 National League Championship draw (home games in bold)
Round 1 – Saturday, September 23 – Wellington Phoenix reserves vs Auckland City – Fraser Park – 4:00pm
Round 2 – Saturday, September 30 – Wellington Phoenix reserves @ Christchurch United – 12:30pm
Round 3 – Sunday, October 8 – Wellington Phoenix reserves @ Manurewa AFC – 3:00pm
Round 4 – Saturday, October 14 – Wellington Phoenix reserves vs Napier City Rovers – Fraser Park – 7:00pm
Round 5 – Saturday, October 21 – Wellington Phoenix reserves @ Cashmere Technical – 12pm
Round 6 – Sunday, October 29 – Wellington Phoenix reserves vs Eastern Suburbs – Fraser Park – 2:00pm
Round 7 – Sunday, November 5 – Wellington Phoenix reserves @ Auckland United – 3:00pm
Round 8 – Sunday, November 12 – Wellington Phoenix reserves vs Petone FC – Fraser Park – 2:00pm
Round 9 – Sunday, November 19 – Wellington Phoenix reserves @ Wellington Olympic – 2:00pm