Watching from afar Ernie Merrick always believed there must be a vast, untapped wealth of young footballing talent in New Zealand.
Now, three months into his job as head coach of Hyundai A-League club Wellington Phoenix, Merrick is convinced he was spot on.
While the workaholic Merrick enjoys coaching winning senior teams, developing players for the future has always been high on his list of priorities.
Undoubtedly that comes from the 12 years he spent at the Victoria Institute of Sport before venturing into the A-League with Melbourne Victory and winning two championships as well as just missing a third in a penalty shoot out.
Since the Phoenix- pre-season began almost 30 youngsters with dreams of becoming professional footballers have trod the turf at the club-s Newtown Park training complex, with the majority being young New Zealanders.
Seventeen-year-old Alex Rufer, a graduate of Christchurch-based Asia Pacific Football Academy, showed enough in his first couple of weeks training to be given a three-year professional contract, joining New Zealand under-20 skipper Luke Adams as two of Merrick-s first signings.
There may be more young signings to come, but it is the overall standard of the trialists that has pleased Merrick the most.
“The standard of the youngsters we-ve had through is remarkable,” Merrick said.
“What is also impressive is how coachable they are.
“Some of the youngsters we-ve had for just two or three weeks have improved immensely and that is a characteristic that is very important.
“It is satisfying for a head coach to see how quickly they improve and to see their willingness to do so.
“As long as I am here we will be constantly searching for new blood and new talent to bring through.”
Some of last year-s Football School of Excellence players have been moved on, but Justin Gulley, Hamish Watson and Tobias Bertsch are still going strong and will be at the FSE again, unless they are offered a professional contract with the club before the season begins.
Contenders for this year-s FSE have come from Auckland in the north, in the form of Matthew Ridenton, to Otago in the South where another APFA graduate, Joel Stevens, hails.
“Matt is a talented young player who will be offered an FSE contract, while Joel is an intelligent young lad who will go straight into our FSE,” the coach said.
The latest Kiwi kid, albeit Zimbabwe-born, to try out is Tamupiwa Dimairo, another from the APFA Academy, and you could see Merrick-s eyes light up during the youngster-s first training session.
“Young Tam is a high quality young player,” Merrick says.
“He has super skills and while he hasn-t got the body for senior football just yet that is the easy part to fix.”
When a youngster arrives at the Phoenix Merrick stresses there are no guarantees something will come of the trial, but those who do not quite measure up immediately are not dismissed.
“There have been lads who are not yet quite up to the standard we require to sign as full-time pros, but they have been shown the areas they have to work on and develop and we will be looking at them again three to six months down the track.
“For me it isn-t a chore to scout, implement a scouting network and clue up on all the emails and DVD-s we receive.
“It is very rewarding that so many young New Zealanders want to come and play for the Phoenix.”