Football Development Project: Wellington Phoenix Football Academy video

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As part of the Football Development Project, Stuff visits the Wellington Phoenix Football Academy to find out how they operate.

This week-long series examines football development in New Zealand and asks some of Wellington's prominent coaches to give their take on it. Tuesday's part three takes Liam Hyslop to the Wellington Phoenix Football Academy.

Wellington Phoenix Football Academy

Founded: 2013 after a merger with the Christchurch-based Asia Pacific Football Academy
Who's in charge: Andy Hedge (Head of Youth)
Club association (highest level): Wellington Phoenix (A-League and national league, national youth league), Wellington United (Central League and under-17 Capital league),
Based: Martin Luckie Park in Berhampore and Boyd Wilson Field in Kelburn
Players: 46, under-15 to under-20
Cost: $4000 per year football fees. Homestay adds approximately $12,500, or they can attend/board at Scots College ($12,150 tuition and $12,700 board).
What do you get for that: Four training sessions per week on the grass plus one game, plus two injury prevention sessions
Scholarships: Yes. Mix of full and partial
How many coaches: Three fulltime, plus contracted goalkeeping coaches and sports science staff
Can the kids play for school: Yes, but only under certain circumstances
Girls programme: No
Recruitment: Yes, but in a selective manner

Andy Hedge coaching the Wellington Phoenix academy team against Team Taranaki this season.
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Andy Hedge coaching the Wellington Phoenix academy team against Team Taranaki this season.

The Phoenix Way

The most high-profile academy in the area, it's the one which most parents want to get their kids into due to the pot of gold of A-League football at the end of the development rainbow. But as the players are told upon arrival, they have only a slightly better chance than a leprechaun of dipping their hand into the golden - or yellow and black in this instance - pot.

"The first thing we say to them and their parents is 'you're not going to be a professional footballer, so what are you going to do?'," Hedge said.

Wellington Phoenix academy coach Andy Hedge talks to a parent in 2016.
PHOTOTEK.NZ

Wellington Phoenix academy coach Andy Hedge talks to a parent in 2016.

"The reaction from mums and dads is 'thank god for that' - a bit of realism. The kids are a bit like 'oh…' then we we explain the statistics and they go 'oh right, OK then'."

Those stats show about six per cent of players in a youth academy get a pro contract. Of those, roughly one per cent play for more than two years as a pro. It means that as much emphasis is put on personal development as football development, with biannual meetings with personal development manager Ben Sigmund compulsory.

READ MORE:
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*FDP: Team Wellington
*FDP: Kaizen Football Academy
*FDP: Ole Football Academy
*FDP: Can NZ be like Iceland?

Even with those stats, it doesn't stop the interest from prospective players and their parents from flowing into Phoenix HQ, allowing Hedge and his coaches to have first crack at a lot of talented juniors in Wellington, and around the country.

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And you can't help but get the sense from some of the players they think they've made it by making the academy. The coaches do their best to stop that, but things can quite relaxed at some trainings without senior players to push things along.

Their football education includes exposure to different formations and tactics. Each academy coach is given leeway to change things up depending on the opposition, which helps prepare players for the type of planning which goes in at the top level, while also expanding their knowledge of different systems.

The academy has a close relationship with the Auckland-based Wellington Phoenix Soccer School. While not technically the same organisation, the WPSS is the primary feeder school for the academy and run their own development programme from under-9s to under-19s. They share a lot of scouting and coaching knowledge and newly-minted professional Sarpreet Singh moved from the school to the academy and now the first team, while eight players from the school played for the club's national youth league team last season, and four played in the Stirling Sports Premiership team.

How the Phoenix see the New Zealand football development landscape

Having worked as talent development manager at New Zealand Football before moving to the Phoenix in 2014, Hedge is well placed to give a view from both sides of the fence.

He sees it as a period of transition whereby NZF were trying to ascertain the best way to retain players at all levels of the game.

"I think we're in a lot healthier position than when I arrived in the country 15 years ago when there was really just no structured development going on. Now it's just time for the development under that top level to kick in and provide your average player on a youth pathway a decent experience to stop them leaving the sport. If we can crack that, we'll get better players out of it just by default.

"It's a step in the right direction, but I think it will be a few years yet before it's really productive. The Whole of Football plan when it came in 2010-11 has made a huge difference, technically, to our players. The kids that started at five or six that are now 12 and 13, the technical ability of those guys compared to say 10 years ago, even 15 years ago when I coached Kosta [Barbarouses] as an 11-year-old, technically they're miles better, miles and miles, there's not even a comparison to make, and now there are more of them. So that means the base is now wider."

The biggest challenge was in the age-old conflict between school and club football, which NZF's incoming technical director, Austrian Andreas Heraf, will need to address when he arrives in late August.

"The pull on some of the best players is being detrimental to their development and to the sport. That's the biggest area we need to address. The quality of coaching and quality of competitions, NZF are well aware of that, so the new director of football coming in has his hands full I think.

"I don't think there is a right answer because kids want to do both. They want to represent their schools, but they want to develop with their clubs. The old school view is school is for education and clubs are for football, and you go 'well yeah, but what if you're in an area that doesn't have a proper club?' It's a really difficult area."

As for Heraf, Hedge said he needed to be a quick learner to get up to speed with the NZ development landscape.

"There are certain things we'll be able to learn from him from Austria and wherever else he's been, but there are so many things that are so different and the challenges, it will take him a while to fully understand them.

"The biggest challenge, without a doubt, is this youth pathway. This schools clash with clubs and what's the best development pathway for them."

Tomorrow: Kaizen's Stu Jacobs on the positive influence the academies have on young players' development.

 - Stuff

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