Winning the Squad Games: How you build a team from scratch

Wellington coach Gemma Lewis was given two months to build a squad and transplant it to another country.

It’s quite easy to put a squad together in a matter of days when you’re playing Championship Manager. It’s a bit less straightforward in real life, when you’re handed a blank piece of paper two months before the start of the season, and told to get cracking.

That’s why I had a moment of pride in the seconds after my Wellington Phoenix team had earned a point in our debut game in the A-League Women. Not pride in myself, but pride that a squad so young and so dislocated could make such a good first impression.

It was only a moment, because there are 13 games to go, and so far all we’ve earned is a point. But I’m glad that supporters and viewers could see that we have a pretty special group of women, who have embraced what is a challenging project on so many levels.

Currently we have 18 players in our squad – 12 of them are 19 or under. Another five are aged between 23 and 20. Our most experienced player is Talitha Kramer, with 21 appearances in the A-League aged 30.

That’s partly deliberate and partly forced on us, not least as most of the senior New Zealand players – people like Claudia Bunge and Paige Satchell – had already signed for other teams by the time Phoenix was granted the right to have a team in the A-League this season and we had to put a squad together.

It helps that I’ve worked with the Future Ferns domestic program, and know a lot of the New Zealand players already. There are also some advantages to having so many young players, but we really are asking a lot of them – to come to play what is mostly their first season in the A-League while transplanted from home, from friends and family, and from the environment they know.

The Phoenix team gained a point in their first game against the Wanderers.

This has been one of our biggest concerns, and still is. When you’re moving a young group of players across from one country to another like this, a lot of the issues aren’t to do with football. It’s their mental health, them missing home, trying to adjust to living somewhere new and being away from home for the first time. 

Having worked with the youth national teams, my assistant Natalie Lawrence and I know the New Zealand players’ personalities quite well, but it’s still really difficult for them. As we go into the Christmas period, and things like that, it’s definitely challenging. We have a welfare officer working with us, looking after the pastoral care and giving them some stuff to do outside of football.

It’s challenging for all of us. We came to Wollongong for what we hoped would be a few weeks but now looks certain to run until April at least. I have a really good staff, and we’re all trying to look after each other. But inevitably you immerse yourself in the team and the training and the logistics, and then you have no balance because you’re away from your family, you’re away from your friends. 

Normally when you’re not working or you’re not coaching, you would see people and your family and friends but when you don’t have that balance here, it can be really hard to not throw yourself into the football all the time. 

But as a staff and as a group we’re trying to make sure people get some time off and take themselves away now and again. The players need to have stuff outside of football, otherwise it’s going to turn into a kind of camp, like a World Cup tour, and that’s not sustainable for the amount of months we’re here for. 

Ava Pritchard of the Phoenix leaps above the Wanderers’ Teigen Allen.

I’ve spent eight years in New Zealand now and I’ve always found it quite impressive when you look at certain sports and how they compete as New Zealand, even though it’s a very small nation. 

They have this quiet, humble mentality, in terms of the way they conduct themselves, but then their performances and what they show in terms of their work ethic and the team dynamics – how much they have each other’s backs – all of that really translates onto the field and into their performance. 

We’ve embraced a lot of that, knowing what we’ve come through; we know we’re the underdogs, we know nobody really expects anything from us. But at the same time, we’re all going through this together, this period of being away from family, away from home, coming together really at the last minute, and being this mix of New Zealand and Australian players. 

So it’s a point of difference, something to embrace, and show people that those things are not going to define our performances this year. Because actually, we’re going to come through it and we’re going to show resilience and strength.

People were wondering how we’re going to break down the barriers of having half a Kiwi team and half an Australian team and bring that together. But we’ve looked into the history of the ANZAC relationship and what happens when Australia and New Zealand come together. Yes, they might be rivals in sport, but when anything matters, and when anything’s big, then they’re going to come together. 

Again, we’re embracing that. It’s taken some work. But it means that when we got to the first game of our first season and there was a lightning delay, the reaction was superb. The girls could have been put off by that stuff, but when you’ve already left home, when you’ve already been put together last minute, when you have to overcome so many things, a lightning delay doesn’t really seem like anything. 

And then you get to the end of that first game, in the 94th minute, and we have a freekick but Western Sydney hit us on the counter, but eight or nine of our players come flying back to our goal to see the game out.

That’s where the hard work shows. It’s not the glory of scoring a goal and it’s not any sort of individual work. It’s the discipline and the work ethic to still turn and run for your teammates and get back behind the ball, to make sure that we’re not going to concede in the last minute. 

It’s still early days of course. We know these girls are going to struggle at certain moments throughout the season. Sometimes we have to stop and remember what some of these girls have had to come through and how young they are. 

But I know there’ll also be more moments of pride ahead as these girls develop as footballers and people.