New Zealand U-23 international Isaac Hughes has become the third Wellington Phoenix academy player to secure a men’s first-team contract ahead of the new A-League season.
The combative centre back has signed a two-year professional deal with the Phoenix, joining reserves teammates Lukas Kelly-Heald and Fin Conchie in graduating into the men’s squad for the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League.
Hughes (19) has captained the Nix reserves for the past two years and has represented New Zealand at under-20 and under-23 level.
Main photo: New Zealand’s Isaac Hughes celebrates scoring the opening goal against Tahiti at last September’s OFC U-19 Men’s Championship. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.
Phoenix’s three academy graduates
Hughes recently made his first team debut as a second-half substitute in the round of 16 Australia Cup match against Melbourne City.
Coach Italiano: ‘Really important we give talented players an opportunity’
Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano says Hughes has earned his professional contract.
“We’ve been in the market for a central defender; someone with good aerial ability and somebody who is composed on the ball, and Isaac ticked all the boxes,” Italiano said.
“The fact that he’s come through the academy has made it an easier decision because it aligns with the club’s philosophy.
“It’s really important that we give our talented young players an opportunity.
“Isaac’s a great leader, he’s great off the park, and the players have the utmost respect for him.
“He’s a good kid as well which ties in with one of our core values which is being a good person.”
Becoming a professional footballer has been a lifelong obsession for Hughes.
‘A special moment for me and my family’
“Securing a pro contract feels like a culmination of a life’s work even though I’m only 19,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been working towards this moment every day of my life.
“My mum was the first person I rang after I got the phone call that I was being offered a two-year deal, and I was just like ‘mum, it’s happening’ and she started crying.
“My mum has gone above and beyond to support me. In a family, everyone has to make sacrifices for each other and certainly, my football took a lot of priority over the last few years.
“It’s a special moment for me and my family.”
The youngest of five siblings, Isaac Hughes was born in Warrington, England and spent time at the Bolton and Crewe academies before his family moved to New Zealand when he was 10.
He joined the Phoenix academy in 2019, having played his junior football at Kapiti Coast United.
“As soon as I moved to New Zealand, it has been the goal to turn professional with the Phoenix. The past nine years it has always been my goal.
“Getting into the academy was nice, but a lot of people make the academy and don’t make that next step. I wanted to be a player who got there and made the next step.
“To do it at the Phoenix where I’ve been training, I’ve been going to games and in the environment for so long is really special.”
Hughes ready to build on international experience
Hughes has proven himself internationally at age-group level, having started three of New Zealand’s four matches at this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina before recently being part of the national under-23 squad that qualified for the Paris Olympics.
Now, he believes he can make the step up to the A-League.
“I’ve been exposed to the standard over the past couple of years being involved in first team training and I think I’ve grown over time.
“I feel like I’m starting to assert myself and show more of my qualities at training.
“Coming off the back of the under-20 World Cup I know what’s required at the next level, and I think I’ve got the ability to be a good A-League player.”
And he’s looking forward to playing alongside fellow academy graduates like Kelly-Heald, Conchie and Finn Surman.
“I’ve probably spent more time with my teammates at the academy than I have my family.
“I’ve spent a lot of time playing alongside them at the academy and at the under-20 World Cup so when you’re on the pitch you look over your shoulder and you go ‘I trust him’ and he trusts me.
“We have a lot of respect for each other.”
Phoenix men’s squad now 18-strong
Isaac Hughes is the Wellington Phoenix men’s 18th signing for the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League, with the first registration window now closed.
The men start their season at Western Sydney Wanderers on Sunday October 22, with their home opener against Perth Glory the following Saturday.