Two A-league spots dangled in front of young guns
First they will have to earn their stripes running out cones and filling up water bottles.
But Wellington Phoenix's nine inaugural "school of excellence" players yesterday had the ultimate carrot dangled in front of them in the form of a professional A-League contract.
The nine promising youngsters – now including Lower Hutt City striker Hamish Watson – will train fulltime with the Phoenix and play for both the club's reserve side and Team Wellington in the national league next season.
But there is also every chance a couple could feature in the A-League after coach Ricki Herbert revealed the nine were basically on trial for the two remaining under-21 contracts.
"They've got their foot in the door and they're in the shop window," Herbert said after the Phoenix's first preseason training at Newtown Park yesterday.
"That opportunity hasn't been here in New Zealand ever, so it's pretty exciting. It's a real statement and the club's needed this."
Tawa's Louis Fenton was one of the less starry-eyed members of the nine, given that he trained with the Phoenix at times last season. The 19-year-old midfielder/forward is an exciting attacking prospect with a touch of Marco Rojas potential about him.
"I was playing in Melbourne, got a call a month ago and everything changed," Fenton said.
"It gives me an opportunity to see on a fulltime basis what it takes to be a professional and also, being a local boy, it's the team you always wanted to play for.
"It's definitely a bit intimidating the first time you see them in person, compared to on TV. You look up to them, for sure, so to get a chance to play with them is just awesome. It's also our opportunity to show we're the best young players in the country because there will be people saying that we're not. So we've just got to prove them wrong."
Lucas Pantelis' injury setback means the Phoenix are likely now to put together a squad of 21 players, rather than the minimum 20.
With 17 on the books, Herbert would like the remaining four signings to be a striker and a centre back in addition to two under-21 players.
The Phoenix are in talks with an overseas striker and, while not giving away much, Herbert was "hopeful that we might get that over the line".
A 19-year-old midfielder from Uruguay, Joaquin Noy, is scheduled to arrive in Wellington on Thursday for a trial to fill the one remaining import spot. Noy is the captain of the reserve team at Montevideo Wanderers, who play in Uruguay's premier division.
All Whites centre back Michael Boxall is also on Herbert's radar after being cut by the Vancouver Whitecaps, although salary-cap constraints could make signing him tricky.
"I haven't spoken to Michael but that's a possible discussion. If we could get him under the cap then it's a chance."
Herbert was resigned to probably being without Pantelis for the first game of the season on October 6. The midfielder will undergo further surgery in August once the infection in his injured knee subsides.
Mark Paston and Jimmy Downey didn't train yesterday but Herbert expected both to be fit.
Paston has had screws removed (remnants from a previous broken leg) but Herbert said he should be fully fit in six weeks.
Manny Muscat and Vince Lia may well switch places.
Herbert said Muscat, a regular at right back last season, would definitely play in midfield, with Lia a strong chance to play right back. "I think he'd be very comfortable there."
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The Dominion Post