In a three-part series, we’ll look at a trio of key phases in this term’s ASB Premiership – the pre-season, round robin and playoffs.
Today, the comings and goings of the pre-season are put under the microscope.
As always, the season started not with the first official kick of a ball on November 10 but weeks earlier as each of the eight teams scrambled to put the best possible group of players together to launch their assaults on the competition.
Defending champions Waitakere United appeared to be the biggest losers over this period as coach Paul Marshall departed and a raft of senior players followed suit, most notably strikers Roy Krishna, Ryan De Vries and Allan Pearce.
To rub salt into the wounds, Krishna and De Vries headed across town to bitter rivals Auckland City, although Krishna was to be with his new club only until the New Year when he earned a well-deserved move to the Wellington Phoenix.
Defender Brian Shelley stepped up to fill the void left by Marshall as a player-coach and was joined at the helm by Paul Temple, who had been assistant to the previous boss.
It was clear the new coaching team would have less firepower to work with – fellow strikers Maksim Manko, Chris Palmer and George Slefendorfas had joined the aforementioned trio in moving on – but the numerous departures were offset to some degree by the arrivals of Jordan Lowdon and Richie Cardozo from state football in Australia.
Despite welcoming Krishna and De Vries, Auckland had some high-profile losses of their own to deal with after a quartet of Spanish players – Albert Riera, who signed for the Phoenix, Manel Exposito, Gustavo Souto and Pedro Garcia – all left Kiwitea Street, along with All Whites goalkeeper Jacob Spoonley.
They were boosted by a pair of Spaniards heading in the other direction though in Angel Berlanga – a former City favourite who returned after a spell in India – and the classy Cristobal Marquez, as well as picking up John Irving, who came through the ranks at English Premier League club Everton.
Those additions supplemented a squad already packed full of talent and that strength, coupled with the apparent weakening at Waitakere, meant Ramon Tribulietx’s men would undoubtedly be title favourites by the time the proper action got underway.
Outside the City of Sails, there was likewise plenty of activity on the transfer front as Team Wellington, Hawke’s Bay United, Canterbury United and the rebranded WaiBOP United looked to lay the foundations to challenge the Auckland-based teams and push for the playoffs.
Hawke’s Bay coach Chris Greatholder would have been particularly pleased with the business he was able to conduct, bringing in David Mulligan (Waitakere United), Tom Biss (Team Wellington) and Tomas Mosquera (YoungHeart Manawatu) – all proven performers at this level who would add a lot to the attacking side of Bay’s game. Greatholder would not have been so happy with the quality that went through the exit door, however, as the likes of Cole Peverley, Conor Tinnion, Jarrod Smith and Dakota Lucas all left the Napier-based franchise.
Peverley made the trip south to the capital, where he joined a raft of players signing up to be part of Matt Calcott’s bid to become the first coach to wrestle the title away from the Auckland clubs. In a key acquisition, Spoonley was lured from Auckland City – where he was in danger of playing second fiddle to Tamati Williams – while James Musa returned after his stint in England with Fulham.
Also arriving from the UK was Charlie Henry, who had played for several non-league clubs on a fulltime basis in his homeland but fancied a change of scene. To complete a busy off-season for Wellington, Colin Murphy came back to New Zealand after his university studies in the United States and Cameron Lindsay joined after being released by the Phoenix while Australian Jamie de Abreu and German Tobias Bertsch were also recruited.
Indeed, it was somewhat of a player revolution in the capital as a big chunk of the previous season’s squad waved goodbye, including the skilful Luis Corrales and many stalwarts such as Wiremu Patrick, Darren Cheriton and Tim Schaeffers. The most significant of the other departures were Adam McGeorge, who moved back to Auckland City, goalkeeper Scott Basalaj, having secured a contract at Scottish club Partick Thistle, and Jason Hicks, another beneficiary of new Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick’s desire to exploit the talent on offer on his doorstep in the ASB Premiership.
Canterbury coach Keith Braithwaite was nowhere near as busy as Calcott but made some shrewd additions nonetheless, bringing in Italian Federico Marquez and Englishman Steve Morrison from local football in the Waikato, along with former New Zealand Knights player Michael White. The latter was in fact the only Kiwi-born signing as Chilean Pablo Moya, Scotsman Stu Kelly and a pair of Morrison’s countrymen, Danny Boys and Dan Schwarz, rounded out the new arrivals.
Those leaving the club included Darren White, who joined Auckland City permanently after being involved in their 2013 OFC Champions League campaign, and goalkeeper Tom Batty. Crucially, Braithwaite was able to retain the services of All Whites midfielder Aaron Clapham, one of the finest talents in the league, and reliable custodian Adam Highfield.
WaiBOP’s Peter Smith did not have the luxury of such stability as he was a new coach taking over a new franchise with an entirely new squad. Virtually the whole of the Waikato FC line-up from the year before were gone and Smith had his work cut out for him in bringing a set of players together that could compete at this level.
He made some wise choices in his attempts to do so, bringing home local favourite Aaron Scott from Waitakere and prying George Slefendorfas, Maksim Manko and Masaki Nomoto away from the same club. Nik Robson, Milos Nikolic and Liam Higgins were also among the arrivals but the key signature was probably that of Scottish goalkeeper Andy McNeil, who came with an impressive pedigree that included a 2007 Scottish League Cup winner’s medal with Hibernian.
Another franchise undergoing a change of identity and similarly exhaustive overhaul of the playing staff was Southern United, who had previously competed as Otago United. Brazilian Luiz Uehara took on the challenge of moulding the new-look team into a competitive unit and, like Smith, was not shy in brandishing the axe.
There were few survivors from Otago’s previous campaign as Uehara chose to put his faith in the region’s promising youngsters. The squad had an average age of around 20, which effectively meant that two youth teams – the other being the newly-introduced Wanderers SC concept – would be competing in this season’s ASB Premiership.
Recognising that some experience would be useful in bringing the best out of young charges, Uehara did look further afield to recruit several players with professional backgrounds, however. Brazilian Henrique Alves Viana added a dash of South American flair while Patrick Ebanda, a defensive midfielder from Cameroon, had professional experience in the Ukraine to draw upon.
While Southern were in many ways an unofficial development squad, Wanderers SC genuinely were. Made up of players likely to be involved in the New Zealand-hosted 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the Wanderers team was brought into the league to give those players the chance to play regularly together at a competitive level under the watchful eye of coach Darren Bazeley, who will take charge of the national team at next year’s event.
With plenty of technical ability but no experience at this level, the youngsters were always likely to find the going tough. But, under the terms of the Wanderers’ mission statement, Bazeley was not able to introduce any older figures to bolster the ranks and, in any case, was fully aware his main aim was player development rather than securing positive results.
To find out how he and the other ASB Premiership coaches got on in the regular season, check out part two of the season review over the coming days.