After two seasons as Coach for the Wellington Phoenix, Ufuk Talay has already left an indelible mark on the Club as one of its most successful and influential coaches.
After guiding the Phoenix to a historic third-place finish in his first season before Covid ruined the team’s momentum, Talay then harnessed a group of veterans and talented young players together for the 2020/21 season while having to play out of Wollongong, New South Wales – that squad ending on a Club-record 11 match unbeaten run.
As Coach Talay prepares for his third season with the ‘Nix, we catch up with ‘Uffie’ as he discusses how the Club is preparing for the 2021/22 A-League season under the shadow of Covid; his learnings from previous seasons, and an insightful update on pre-season, squad signings and what the new season could look like.
How has the past few weeks been for you as Coach, especially after finally being able to return to New Zealand?
It’s been a challenging couple of months. I was supposed to arrive in Wellington in early July, obviously, NSW going into lockdown ended that – so I ended up arriving early August.
I did the [14 days] quarantine, got out of MIQ, had one day of freedom and then we went straight back into lockdown… so that’s been pretty ‘fun’ to be honest!
On that one day of freedom, I was lucky enough to get on the park with the boys that were training, it was actually a nice feeling to get back onto the field and try and do some work.
And I was fortunate to have a dinner that night with my assistant coach Giancarlo [Italiano], so we had a good meal before we went into lockdown.
Given your pre-season last season was similarly affected by Covid, does it feel like Déjà vu to you? And what learnings have you taken from previous seasons around how to cope with the impact of Covid and lockdowns on the team being able to prepare for next season?
It’s been difficult, there’s been a lot of challenges thrown at us so I think the experiences that this group has had [in the past] means they’ll all be a lot stronger from it, because we’ve lived it – and not just once – so I hope that whatever challenges are thrown at us this season the group will be a lot stronger for it.
It’s just learnings you know. Like with players coming in, doing their two weeks of quarantine and being stuck in a hotel, then joining pre-season late and working out how we get their loads up – whatever we need to do to support and manage them.
So these are all experiences that we’ve had, also with players who have come out and started pre-season and then two weeks later have had little niggles or gotten injured.
These are all great learnings for us, and unfortunately, it’s the world we’re living in today – so we’ve got to take that all on board, and even though we have little challenges like being in hotels and being stuck on top of each other for long periods of time, we’ve got to work out ways on how to manage that a lot better to get the best out of our players.
Ideally, what would you and the squad be doing in pre-season at the moment, if it wasn’t for this lockdown?
We’d be training, that’d be one thing! I think we’re the only A-League Club not training, even though there’s a lot of cases in NSW, those teams in NSW are still training regularly - and in Victoria as well.
So at the moment, this lockdown has hindered our pre-season a little bit by not being able to get on the park. And as it stands, we won’t be able to return to training until we’re in Level 2.
It is a disadvantage, we’ll have a shorter pre-season window to work in.
But for me, it’s not the time off that the players are having and it’s not the length of the pre-season we have, because you can have a six-week pre-season and still get players fit. So for me, it’s the time the players are actually having off – if they’re having close to two or two-and-a-half months off then it takes a bit longer to build that load into their legs to get them to a certain point; whereas if they had four weeks off and then we had a four week preseason, no problem – because the downtime is not so great.
What does the Covid situation – both here and in Australia - mean for the Phoenix from both a competition standpoint and a player standpoint?
There’s a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty again [like with last season] so I’m hoping that we get some news this week around what the competition will look like for the Wellington Phoenix.
Like I said, if we need to go over to Australia for a certain period of time then we need to do that, and the experiences this group has had means our players can go over there a lot stronger [mentally] and with a different mentality.
So we’re uncertain at the moment as to what it will all look like – but I think every challenge possible has been thrown at this club and this team and we’re still here, so we’ll just take it as it comes.
There’s no guarantees as to where we’re going to be as a team tomorrow, at the moment we’re all in lockdown which means players are with their families; I’m sure they’re enjoying their little period where they get to go and do their individual training programs to actually get out of the house!
We’re fortunate in the sense that we don’t have a lot of players that are married with kids as well – we have Bally and Hoops in that category – but the rest of the boys are younger and have girlfriends, so it’s fortunate from a logistical sense that it doesn’t hurt too many people at the same time.
How has the Covid situation in both New Zealand and Australia affected your ability to recruit new players for next season and build a team?
The hardest thing has been able to sign the visa players, the overseas-based players, to actually get them into the country.
You know I was supposed to fly into New Zealand in early July and ended up getting in the country – and I’m very grateful to have gotten into the country – in early August. So there are no special conditions for the Club, we have to sit there and try and book our MIQ spots [like everyone else] to get into the country as well.
At the moment we’ve got Nicholas Pennington who’s still in Italy, he’s got an exemption to come into the country but not an MIQ spot, so we’ve been trying to get him over here as soon as we can as well. In that regard we’re don’t get any special conditions, we’re just like the general public; we go in, we try and book a spot and if we get in, we get in.
So I think that’s been the most difficult part of recruiting players, more so with the visa players.
The fans want to see who we’re bringing in, the new names coming into the team that add a lot of value to our Club. So as I said before the hardest part has been getting them into the country, whether it’s through Australia or straight through into New Zealand.
And while that hinders us a bit, we’re in no rush with that; once we have a clearer picture of what the season looks like for us, then we can decide what we want to do with players.
What is the best-case scenario for the Wellington Phoenix next season with regards to where the Club plays its home matches and where it’s based from in order to be part of the A-League competition?
Obviously we want to play games in New Zealand and at Sky Stadium next season, and the Club is doing everything it can to make that happen. What happens in New Zealand, Australia and with the Trans-Tasman bubble over the next 4-5 months plays a big part of this, but home is where we want to be.
I don’t think the plan is – if we are going back to Australia for a short time – to go back to Wollongong.
It’ll always come down to what’s best for the Club and what’s best for the team, so there’s a few options for the Club that are being looked at this stage, but nothing concrete so I’m sure in the next few weeks – once the A-League knows what is happening from a competition perspective – we’ll know what we’ll be doing and where the teams will be based, whether it be in a hub or in another state.
I’m sure we’ll have more clarity in the coming weeks, but the most important thing if do have to hub in Australia for the short-term, is that the facilities that we go to and the training ground that we train on is up to standard – as we’re training on it every day. The boys need to be happy and comfortable where they’re working.
Things change very quickly, but at the end of the day, there's several places that the Club – and the wider competition – are looking at in terms of where we could be based next season.