The Wellington Phoenix have given two New Zealand age group internationals their first professional contracts, signing them on scholarship deals.
Goalkeeper Alby Kelly-Heald (18) and fullback Matt Sheridan (19) are the latest players to graduate from the Wellington Phoenix academy and will join the men’s A-League first team squad.
Kelly-Heald in the New Zealand squad for this year’s FIFA Men’s U-20 World Cup, while Sheridan was called into the national U-23 squad for this year’s Olympic qualifiers.
They are the fifth and sixth players head coach Giancarlo Italiano has promoted from the academy this year and means 11 of the now 21-strong squad have come through the club’s pathway.
“It ties in with what the club wants to do with their long-term vision of trying to produce their own players,” Italiano said.
“It’s good, it’s positive and I think most clubs should be doing the same thing.
“It also helps in terms of establishing cohesion within a group. If you’re constantly recruiting every year and mixing in players it’s hard to find that chemistry, so it does help when the young players have all played together.
“But at the same time they still have to work hard and apply themselves as jumping up to the A-League is a big step.”
Kelly-Heald has signed till the end of the 2026-27 Isuzu UTE A-League, tying him to the club for the same length of time as twin brother Lukas, who has shone in his rookie season to date.
“I think it’s great that my brother and I can continue to grow as players at the same club,” Alby Kelly-Heald said. “It’s really rewarding for my family to see both of us excel.
“It’s good the Phoenix can see we have a future here and can progress into consistent starting spots and develop into great footballers.”
The twins played their junior football at Island Bay United and spent a season at North Wellington before joining the Phoenix academy, where they have been regulars for the reserves for the past two years.
Alby Kelly-Heald was inspired to be a goalkeeper by foundation Nix custodian Mark Paston, who used to coach him and a few other young ‘keepers on Sunday mornings at Wakefield Park.
“The Phoenix are my local team and I always dreamed about playing for the club.
“I grew up watching Mark Paston and idolising him so it’s great I’m able to follow in my idols’ footsteps and be able to play for my local team.”
He is the third goalkeeper in the men’s first team squad alongside Alex Paulsen and Jack Duncan.
“I’m comfortable with where I am, and I know my place within the team.
“I’m going to continue to push AP and Duncs this season and try and get the best out of everyone.
“And I’m going to keep trying to improve and push for that number one spot over the coming years.”
Matt Sheridan has signed with the Phoenix till the end of the 2024-25 season, having joined the academy in 2019 with the aim of becoming a professional footballer.
“I’m pretty stoked obviously,” Sheridan said. “A pro contract seemed so far away when I started at the academy, but it was the goal.
“Making my family proud and giving back to them is pretty fulfilling for me, and being able to develop my career here is pretty exciting.”
He hails from Canterbury and played his junior football for Halswell United and Selwyn United, where Nix centre back Finn Surman also played.
“Selwyn’s a great club with a great environment and really helped me develop.”
Initially a central midfielder, Sheridan made the switch to right back last year and scored “a couple of goals here and there” for the reserves.
“I saw an opportunity to move there. I wasn’t getting much game time or opportunity in the midfield, so I decided to make the move.
“After the first few games I really enjoyed it so I thought ‘I might as well just stick it out and stay there’.”
The move has paid off. Matt Sheridan made his A-League debut last month, when he came off the bench in the team’s fifth round win over Melbourne City in Auckland.
Alby Kelly-Heald has yet to make his A-League bow, but was on the bench for a couple of matches earlier this season in the absence of Jack Duncan.