MELBOURNE Heart coach John van 't Schip admits the fledgling club faces a major challenge trying to fill the gap left by departing veterans Josip Skoko and John Aloisi next season.
Skoko yesterday confirmed his first season in the A-League would be his last as a professional footballer following a stellar career which has seen him play top flight football in Belgium, England, Turkey and Croatia.
Aloisi has already said he will hang up his boots in order to take up a youth development role with the club after this season, leaving the Heart without two of their most experienced players for their next campaign.
Van 't Schip paid tribute to the influence the pair have had and doesn't believe he will be able to find players of a similar experience to plug the gap next season.
"I think we thought about that, John (Didiluca) and I putting the team together, that it was very important for the first year to have some experienced players with us. That was the big reason behind signing Josip and John (Aloisi)," he said.
"The experience that both players bring in, you can't buy that. They were happy to come and join us, but to find players like Josip and John, with the experience they have abroad and with the national team, and also the way they can sell that on to the younger players, that will be a problem to find.
"I don't think we are really going to look that way because they are not out there to replace."
Van 't Schip will put pressure on his other players to step up to the mark and fill the leadership void.
"They both move on, they were fundamental to the team, hopefully we can now get some players in, with those established players having had a year to experience the level, the players around them and hopefully they've learned a lot. It's now important that they try to make the next step themselves, for the next year," he said.
Club captain Simon Colosimo, who admitted at being still in awe of Skoko as a player, said the legacy that Aloisi and Skoko have left will provide a good platform for the club's players to grow into more senior roles next season.
"What these guys have brought is an enormous amount of professionalism to the changeroom of the club. That's invaluable," he said.
"I've known the guys for a while and I knew what to expect abut I think the younger boys, who haven't really known Josip or John, they won't know what they are missing until they aren't there next season.
"I'm 32. I'm still going to miss it. I'm sure that I'll be on the phone to them asking them questions and picking their brains."
Skoko feels he is leaving the club in good shape and believes the club's younger brigade can continue their improvement next season.
How long Skoko and Aloisi's careers continue will depend on how Heart fare in their final two matches of the regular season, with a spot in the finals still a possibility should Wellington slip-up.