For the first time this season, the Wellington Phoenix were allowed to enter a team into the ASB Premiership, the national football league here in New Zealand
In my opinion, the existence of the Wellington Phoenix Premiers (affectionately known by the Fever as the "WeeNix") is not only creating a development pathway towards the A-League for young footballers in the region, but it is already having a tangible effect on the first team squad in it's A-League campaign.
Most of the benefits of creating a 'reserve' team are long term benefits through player development. Instead of having to rely on other organisations in the country to develop young footballers to a level where they could be offered a contract by the Phoenix, the club is able to put together a group of players and have them train in a professional environment with coaching from Phoenix staff. As player development is not an overnight process, this will have an impact on the first team in future seasons, as Ernie Merrick will be able to sign young players into the A-League squad having seen them train at the club for 1-2 years, with the knowledge that they are able to thrive under the footballing philosophies that he is implementing at the club.
For me, one of the best things about the WeeNix is that first team players are able to get competitive game time, even when they are not included in the 15 man squad for an A-League game. All of the other clubs in the A-League have been able to do this for many years now, as each club has a National Youth League (NYL) team that they have been able to move players that are not getting first team game time into. The NYL rules state that a maximum of four first-team players can be included in a NYL match-day squad, which is the same limitation that has been played on the WeeNix in the ASB Prem. There is also the option for the opposing team to allow two additional A-League players to take part in the match, which has been approved by Team Wellington and Wanderers SC (NZ U20s), but denied by Waitakere United so far in the season.
The Phoenix have lacked a true reserve team since its inception, which has been just one of the disadvantages that the Nix have had compared to other A-League sides. There was the short-lived "ASB Phoenix Challenge", where a "Phoenix A" team played against the ASB Premiership franchises in midweek games, however this only occurred in the 2010/11 season and the first half of 2012/13. Any footballer will tell you that there is no substitute for competitive games, even though coaches try to emulate these as closely as possible in training sessions. The Phoenix Challenge games were essentially friendlies, which lack the intensity that ASB Premiership games have due to the competition points at stake.
A great example of being able to give game-time to squad players is Michael Boxall, who took the field in the 1-0 win against bottom of the table Wanderers when Louis Fenton got injured. In previous seasons, he would be taking the field with no match fitness at all, but this year he could be subbed on having played 180 minutes of competitive football in the two weeks prior to the Wanderers game. Another example is backup goalkeeper Lewis Italiano, who is getting a chance to remain match fit in case Glen Moss ever gets injured or called up to the All Whites by playing for the WeeNix when the A-League and ASB Premiership schedules allow him to.
Being able to give players who are coming back from injury some competitive game time is going to be a huge benefit to the Phoenix this season as well, as they will be able to prove their fitness to the coaching staff without needing to be risked in high tempo A-League matches. Ideally, no Phoenix players would pick up injuries so this wouldn't be required at all, but we all saw how injuries derailed the 2013/14 campaign so it's inevitable that this will be required. With Fenton likely to be able to return from his injury at around late January, playing in the WeeNix side will be great for him to get his match fitness back before returning to the A-League squad.
All of this adds up to it being an exciting time to be a supporter of the Wellington Phoenix, as it's great to see the ownership group and the staff at the Phoenix put a focus on developing talent, while also creating a more even playing field for the A-League squad compared to the Australian clubs. It's also fantastic to have two ASB Premiership teams based in Wellington, as it means that there is almost always at least one football match to attend on any given weekend, be it the Phoenix in the A-League at Westpac Stadium, or Team Wellington at David Farrington Park or the Phoenix Premiers at Newtown Park. There's no better way to spend an afternoon in the Wellington summer than watching a bit of football.
For more thoughts, follow on Twitter @patrick478
*The views in this opinion piece are my own, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Yellow Fever.