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Phoenix, Greenacre primed for exciting pre-season schedule

Chris+Greenacre+League+Rd+26+Wellington+v+K0oJKQilcI7lNext week, Wellington Phoenix are to play West Ham United and Newcastle United as part of the Football United Tour. Sydney FC are also playing against the English Premier League opposition as New Zealand hosts games in Dunedin (22nd July), Auckland (23rd July) and a double-header in Wellington (26th July).

It is a great opportunity for the Phoenix to prepare for the upcoming A-League season by playing against teams who finished the last Premier League season in 13th and 10th place respectively.

Taking time away from preparing for next week, Wellington Phoenix’s assistant coach Chris Greenacre gave me his thoughts on the games, pre-season and this year’s FFA Cup and A-League campaigns.

Attracting opposition such as West Ham and Newcastle will help football in New Zealand.  I wanted to know what Chris believed would be the effects of the Football United Tour:

“Hopefully football in New Zealand will take another massive step forward just like, in 2010, when the All Whites gripped the nation in South Africa. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the young people of New Zealand to see world class footballers on their doorstep. It will encourage more kids to participate in football and want to become future stars themselves.”

Having previously played in England, Chris will be aware of the capabilities of teams such as West Ham and Newcastle.  My next question was about the challenges he was anticipating from the upcoming games.  “The speed and technical ability of the top players is on another level. The speed at which they make decisions is very fast. They do the simple things well, very well. In tight areas they are comfortable on the ball and their first touch is often perfect, setting themselves up for their next movement.” Chris continued, “Fitness levels are sky high and they are able to reproduce intensive runs time after time while still being composed, fresh in their minds and making the correct decision. Tactically, they are aware of their job within the team.”

Chris was adamant that these games were vital for the Phoenix.  I put the question to him that high profile games such as these can be a distraction but he vehemently denied this.  Interestingly, he cited the distances required in travel as a barrier to getting quality opposition to New Zealand.  To qualify his answer, Chris put the games into context:

“The problem we have as we build towards an A -League campaign is having top class opposition to play against. The tougher the games are during pre-season, can often give you realistic feel as to how you are improving towards the season and how you’re going to fair.”

Having established that the West Ham and Newcastle United games were part of the plan, I asked Chris what the plan was.  Having finished 9th last season, the Phoenix have a lot of work to do to get back to the finals for the first time since the 2011-12 season.  Chris set the scene on pre-season so far. “Firstly, having an almost full squad on day one of pre-season has been a huge help. In the past, we have been as light as 8 or 9 players on day one.” With this fillip, it’s clear that the Phoenix’s coaching staff are able to work on the areas they want to. “The players have come back to work in great condition which has allowed us to begin at a high intensity immediately. We have key messages that we installed last season with the playing group on how we are going to play and they are truly on board with our style”.

The 2014-15 season sees the inaugural FFA Cup being played.  With games starting in August, pre-season is affected and I queried how the Phoenix were approaching the competition:

“We are taking the FFA Cup very seriously. Whenever you have an opportunity to win a competition, and silverware, it’s important you take it seriously. Obviously our focus is our first A-League match and winning the FFA Cup won’t change our domestic campaign, but it’s an opportunity to build up some momentum, playing good opposition, in front of decent crowds.”

With such a categorical answer, the natural sub-question was concerning the goals set by coach Ernie Merrick for 2014-15:

“Our aim as a club has not changed since I arrived. Finals football is a minimum. The players are hurting from our last campaign and know they are more than capable of achieving this. Our mid-season form was arguably the best in the league and given a better start we would have made finals. However, those first ten games were a big learning curve for everyone regarding our new style and strategy of play.”

It would be easy to deal with the negative aspects of a disappointing season so I asked Chris to give some names of players to watch out for this season.  Names such as Nathan Burns, Matthew Ridenton and Tyler Boyd were offered:

“We have some good quality young players at the Phoenix who came in to a tough environment and were asked repeatedly produce top level football and as we know consistency in young players is difficult to maintain. This experience will have done them all a world of good and we will be better as a squad for this.”

Having talked to Chris, it is clear that Wellington Phoenix have a plan and the games against West Ham and Newcastle are part of that.  The step up in class will undoubtedly test but also act as a learning experience that will stand the Phoenix in good stead for 2014-15.  The additional challenge of the FFA Cup is a positive one that further engenders momentum for the opening A-League game in October.  A coaching partnership with a clear idea of their targets, Ernie Merrick and Chris Greenacre are doing everything they can to move football in New Zealand forward.

I’ll leave the last word on the matter to Chris with a paraphrase of one of the greatest coaches, in my opinion, of all time in Brian Clough:

“The senior players in the group really help the younger players to thrive at this club so if they prove they are good enough then they are definitely old enough.”

Photo Credit: Hagen Hopkins/Getty

About the author

avatarJonathan is a freelance writer, and contributor to Ultimate A-League.

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