How the Phoenix’s academy became so successful

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Sapreet Singh has moved to Bayern Munich. Tyler Boyd is nearing a multi-million move to Turkish giants Besiktas. Liberato Cacace is tearing it up as one of the A-League’s best players. Without a doubt, the Wellington Phoenix’s academy has been a roaring success.

And the man behind all that success? Wellington Phoenix academy director Paul Temple.

English-born Temple arrived to the Academy in 2015 with an impressive CV working with young players and having coached at four FIFA World Cup tournaments for New Zealand Football.

As 18-year-old, Temple moved to New Zealand to play in the National League and had worked with the likes of Singh, Logan Rogerson and James McGarry while coach of the countries U-17 team.

“The building blocks were placed here probably about five years ago, and we are now seeing the fruits of that labour,” he said.

“The secret to our success? I don’t think there is one, to be honest. Everybody has a different way. Our way is that we focus a lot on the environment. Our environment is being open enough to accept that mistakes will be made. We make our players comfortable in our environment so that they can make mistakes.

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“They know they won’t get dropped from the team or kicked out if things aren’t going well for them. We don’t put winning at the forefront of what we do. We, of course, try to win every game, but it’s not our main focus. We look at the long term all the time.

“The modern game requires a lot from footballers. We focus on hybrid footballers. Players that can do a bit of everything, as opposed to being specialists. They can survive by having the variety to do multiple things. That variety goes across positions, it goes across technical framework, and it goes across psychic framework. Essentially, we are trying to build the ultimate athletes that can cope with the demands of the modern game.”

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Despite all of the current success, Temple still sees things that can be improved on, although that may just be a fantasy for the moment due to budget.

“If we had, in an ideal world, a sizeable investment put into the academy, I would focus it on developing our own facility, and hence making sure we could train week in week out. It would mean we wouldn’t have to rely on sharing and booking with the councils as currently the facilities are shared by many teams. I’d also like to hire some fantastic coaches, you are never gonna go wrong with investing in staff.”

With changes afoot in both the NZ and Australian football landscape, the academy is waiting before fully committing to the plan for the next few years.

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“Wellington Phoenix is the most unique club in the world. We’re the only professional club in our country, but we play in another nation’s league, which means we have to abide by two sets of regulations, from both the FFA and NZ Football, and that’s not counting local league rules and regulations. Strategically planning through all of that is complex and difficult. Right now, we are waiting to see how the independent A-League in Australia and see what the competition structure in New Zealand will allow us to do. Hopefully, in twelve months NZ Football, the FFA and the independent A-Leauge will have sorted their stuff out. Once that happens, we will have a much better idea of how to kick on and reach our ambitions.

“We’ve got a goal to be the best academy in Australasia, and gain a reputation worldwide for our work.”

Temple was tight-lipped when it came to naming any players whom he thinks could emulate Sapreet Singh or Liberato Cacace.

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“I don’t like naming players. It puts unnecessary pressure on somebody. Some that are ready to strike now may fall away, and those are a level behind may go through a rapid spurt of development over six months or so. Those who have got what it takes will naturally gravitate to the top. This time last year I’m not sure anyone thought what would happen to Ben Waine did, but his development curve went through the roof, he had a fantastic summer season and now he’s with the first team.”

The goal of breaking into the first team is not universal for every player in the academy, however. Some go after scholarships to US universities.

“The US scholarships are very interesting. The main people that decide these things if they are good enough, is the players and their parents. We aren’t teachers, we only provide a football environment. If they want to chase the scholarship route, we try to identify that with them as early as possible, and we make sure to have constant and open communication. We also have a number of different providers, expert help that we point in their direction. Almost all that have gone to the US have gotten help from those providers on getting them into the college ranks. Where we play our part is we research schools and try to find out what we can do about the coaches and the football program. We try to find out the football side, the family and the experts handle the education side.”

And it’s not just Kiwis that go to the academy.

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“We do get a fair bit of interest from Australia and overseas. It’s a bit of a minefield when you start talking about overseas players that come here without their families and are under 18: FIFA statutes on that are very complicated. In most cases, when the families are not going to move to NZ, it’s quite difficult to give them what they need as they can’t play in competitions. We do sometimes take them on, as there are two lads from the Solomon Islands that have recently joined. Scots College, one of our partner schools have been amazing in that they have offered education scholarships to them both and it’s been life-changing for them. We try to help them by offering them the academy programme on top of their school programme, but they still can’t play in competitions. So it’s difficult. We are, however, getting more and more interest from Australia. It’s complicated though, in regards to overseas interest and we are looking at getting a bit more structure to the process.”

With Wellington’s future in the A-League looking more secure with an independent A-League on its way, benchmarks for how to integrate players into the first team in Sapreet Singh, Liberato Cacace, and Ben Waine, and an extremely competent academy director at the helm, the future of the Wellington Phoenix academy looks bright.

Featured image credit: Cameron McIntosh

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The Football Sack's resident teen kiwi football nut. Loves everything football except defeats.