Reserves captain graduates into the first team

Isaac Hughes is the third Wellington Phoenix academy player to secure a men’s first team contract in the past few months.

The combative centre back has signed a two-year professional deal with the Phoenix, joining reserves teammates Lukas Kelly-Heald and Fin Conchie in graduating into the men’s squad for the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League.

Hughes, 19, has captained the Nix reserves for the past two years and has represented New Zealand at under-20 and under-23 level.

He recently made his first team debut as a second-half substitute in the round of 16 Australia Cup match against Melbourne City.

Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano says Hughes has earned his professional contract.

“We’ve been in the market for a central defender; someone with good aerial ability and somebody who is composed on the ball, and Isaac ticked all the boxes,” Italiano said.

Isaac Hughes poses for a photo alongside Phoenix general manager David Dome at NZCIS. Photo: Priyanka Rao/Wellington Phoenix.

“The fact that he’s come through the academy has made it an easier decision because it aligns with the club’s philosophy.

“It’s really important that we give our talented young players an opportunity.

“Isaac’s a great leader, he’s great off the park and the players have the utmost respect for him.

“He’s a good kid as well which ties in with one of our core values which is being a good person.”

Becoming a professional footballer has been a lifelong obsession for Hughes.

“Securing a pro contract feels like a culmination of a life’s work even though I’m only 19,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been working towards this moment every day of my life.

Isaac Hughes in action for the Wellington Phoenix men’s reserves in the 2022 National League Championship. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

“My mum was the first person I rang after I got the phone call that I was being offered a two-year deal, and I was just like ‘mum, it’s happening’ and she started crying.

“My mum has gone above and beyond to support me.  In a family everyone has to make sacrifices for each other and certainly my football took a lot of priority over the last few years.

“It’s a special moment for me and my family.”

The youngest of five siblings, Isaac Hughes was born in Warrington, England and spent time at the Bolton and Crewe academies before his family moved to New Zealand when he was 10 years old.

He joined the Phoenix academy in 2019 having played his junior football at Kapiti Coast United.

“As soon as I moved to New Zealand it has been the goal to turn professional with the Phoenix. The past nine years it has always been my goal.

“Getting into the academy was nice, but a lot of people make the academy and don’t make that next step. I wanted to be a player who got there and made the next step.

“To do it at the Phoenix where I’ve been training, I’ve been going to games and in the environment for so long is really special.”

Isaac Hughes in action for the Wellington Phoenix men’s reserves in the 2023 Central League. Photo: Cam McIntosh/Photomac.

Hughes has proven himself internationally at age-group level, having started three of New Zealand’s four matches at this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina before recently being part of the national under-23 squad that qualified for the Paris Olympics.

Now he believes he can make the step up to the A-League.

“I’ve been exposed to the standard over the past couple of years being involved in first team training and I think I’ve grown over time.

“I feel like I’m starting to assert myself and show more of my qualities at training.

“Coming off the back of the under-20 world cup I know what’s required at the next level and I think I’ve got the ability to be a good A-League player.”

And he’s looking forward to playing alongside fellow academy graduates like Kelly-Heald, Conchie and Finn Surman.

“I’ve probably spent more time with my teammates at the academy than I have my family.

“I’ve spent a lot of time playing alongside them at the academy and at the under-20 World Cup so when you’re on the pitch you look over your shoulder and you go ‘I trust him’ and he trusts me.

“We have a lot of respect for each other.”

Isaac Hughes is the Wellington Phoenix men’s 18th signing for the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League, with the first registration window now closed.

The men start their season at Western Sydney Wanderers on Sunday, October 22, with their home opener against Perth Glory the following Saturday.