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Season Preview 2014/15: Wellington Phoenix

Second-bottom last season and winners of the wooden spoon the year before; optimists might argue Wellington Phoenix is on the right trajectory, but pessimists could be expecting another disappointing season from the New Zealanders. Joe Gallagher takes a look what to expect from the Phoenix this season and what could make or break their campaign.

The line-up

Ernie Merrick’s first-choice back four is all but set in stone, and he has perhaps more choice in the midfield and in attack than any Phoenix coach ever has. Albert Riera will anchor the midfield, with Manny Muscat moving to right-back, and could be joined by any combination of Roly Bonevacia, Alex Rodriguez, Michael McGlinchey, Louis Fenton, Kenny Cunningham and – when fit – Vince Lia. 2012/13 golden boot Jeremy Brockie is again likely to spearhead an attack featuring new signing Nathan Burns. Merrick has retained the nucleus of the squad he adopted from Ricki Herbert and has had another off-season to ingrain his style of passing football, as well as hinting that the high defensive line which often caught out his side last season could be a thing of the past. Wellington were one of the more entertaining teams to watch last season – which wasn’t always in their best interests – and they could do worse than to approach some games this season with more pragmatism.

Depth

Merrick is making all the right noises about the depth of his squad this pre-season. Perhaps unfortunate to have lost two integral members of last campaign in Stein Huysegems and Carlos Hernandez, the Scot has added quality to his squad by bringing in Tom Doyle, Bonevacia, Burns, Rodriguez and – belatedly –McGlinchey. On paper, that’s enough to cover the holes created by the departures of the Belgian and Costa Rican attackers, but the question is whether the Phoenix have merely papered over the cracks. Last season exemplified how devastating an injury or two can be and Merrick has quite rightly gone about ensuring his team’s underbelly is ready to step up when required. On paper Wellington has a very strong starting eleven, but all 24 of the squad will be called on at some point if the side are to make their first finals appearance in three years.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Last season, the Yellow Fever observed three different Phoenix teams, split almost perfectly into thirds; there was the tentative side which opened the campaign winless, the defeated and depleted unit which limped to the finish line and, in the middle, a team which showed unmistakeable signs of promise. Unfortunately, pre-season has given few clues as to which Phoenix will show up this term. Ernie Merrick oversaw a win against West Ham United and a loss to Newcastle United, but the Magpies now sit second-bottom of the Premier League and the Hammers have recently taken care of Liverpool. Wellington’s two matches against A-League opposition have seen them defeated and held by Newcastle Jets and Sydney FC, respectively. They’ve convincingly put away two regional New Zealand sides but it looks as though fans will get their first proper look at Wellington on match-day one against Perth Glory at the Cake Tin.

Goalscoring

Between them, Carlos Hernandez and Stein Huysegems contributed 17 goals for the Phoenix last term, just shy of half of the entire side’s tally. The Costa Rican, in particular, was integral in creating several more. Merrick has undoubtedly improved his midfield by bringing in McGlinchey, Rodriguez and Bonevacia but the squad still seems to lack and out-and-out goalscorer. Jeremy Brockie will be tasked with the majority of the work leading the line but his performances last term simply weren’t up to the standard he set with his first season with the club. He might hope that his final touch of last season, a blasted volley into the top corner, is a sign of things to come. And, who knows, confidence is a funny thing in football and the All White recently broke his much-spoken about duck for the national side. Contributions from Burns and the occasional cameo by Roy Krishna could be crucial.

Crowds

Perhaps more than any other, the football fan has a curious obsession with crowd numbers. In the context of falling attendances in all codes, Wellington found themselves with the A-League’s lowest attendance average in 2013/14. This figure (8,202, if you’re wondering) was even inflated by a trip up north for a one-off at Auckland’s Eden Park. In a ground like Westpac Stadium, small crowds are hard to hide and short of some clever marketing strategies it appears the only guaranteed way to boost attendances is to win on the pitch.

The start

Traditionally, Wellington are not strong starters in the A-League. They’ve only once won their first game of the season and 2013/14 involved a dour opening; nine games without a win. Starting so poorly was the reason the Phoenix were not in the mix come crunch time last year, and it’s critical that they avoid the same hiccup this season. With Perth to make the long trip across the continent in week one, the draw has been kind to Wellington. A healthy pre-season, not overly plagued by injuries, has certainly helped, too.

Expectations

Wellington are a shade more balanced this season than they were a year ago, and are better placed to deal with injuries in key areas. However, with a slight lack of depth in defence and question marks over their ability to score goals, the New Zealanders could require luck, discipline and fitness in equal measure if they are to finish near the top of the pile. The Phoenix are a much better side than second-bottom indicates, and should be a strong contender to return to finals football after a two-year hiatus. Off the field, Wellington aren’t likely to be increasing their income at the gate by any large margin, so expect the mid-season trips to Hutt Valley to add fuel to the fire as to where the side’s home ground should be.

Pre-Season Results

Wests 1-2 Wellington Phoenix — Hicks, Sigmund

Miramar Rangers 0-5 Wellington Phoenix — Boyd x2, Cunningham, Krishna, Brockie

Upper Hutt City 0-4 Wellington Phoenix — Brockie x2, Boyd, Rufer

Petone 0-3 Wellington Phoenix — Ball, Rufer, Krishna

Wellington Olympic 0-2 Wellington Phoenix

Wellington Phoenix 2-1 West Ham United — Durante, Gorrin

Wellington Phoenix 0-1 Newcastle United

NZ XI 2-3 Wellington Phoenix — Krishna x3

Central League XI 1-4 Wellington Phoenix — Krishna x2, Burns, Hicks

Newcastle Jets 2-1 Wellington Phoenix — Brockie

Sydney United 1-1 Wellington Phoenix — Hicks

Sydney FC 0-0 Wellington Phoenix

Wellington Phoenix 6-2 Canterbury United — Bonevacia, Brockie, Gorrin, Cunningham, Boyd, (OG)

About the author

avatarJoe is a sports journalist for Goal Weekly, and a writer for Ultimate A-League.

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Comments

  • Bladesfan

    A balanced article. Hit the nail on the head. Nix improved but so have all other teams. Cautiously optomistic.