It’s been an improved and refreshing season for New Zealand’s only candidate in the A-League – well, apart from the last few shambolic days in the land of the long white cloud.
After the indignity of last season’s wooden spoon, Wellington Phoenix head into the 2013/14 season under a new coach and with a number of key signings. Is the only way up from here?
What happened last season
Not content with the club’s record of three consecutive finals appearances, Phoenix co-owner Gareth Morgan decided midway through the season to publicly instruct coach Ricki Herbert to adopt a ‘total football’ approach.
It didn’t end well. The Nix, who at that point sat in sixth position on the A-League ladder, went on to win one out of their next eight matches and eventually finished last.
Herbert, who had been the club’s foundation coach since their 2007 inception and was the longest-serving coach in A-League history, decided he’d had enough and resigned five matches before the season’s end.
Wellington’s Westpac Stadium also lost the ‘fortress’ aura that had been steadily built up over recent seasons, and the Phoenix took maximum points just five times from 14 matches at home in 2012/13.
What happened in the off-season
While caretaker boss Chris Greenacre performed commendably in the role, the board wasted little time in appointing former Melbourne Victory coach Ernie Merrick into the top job on a two-year contract.
Given the owners’ intentions for an aesthetically pleasing football philosophy bringing in Merrick seems a curious decision – after all, the Scot was hardly known for a penchant for flair during his time in Melbourne.
That said, Merrick sits alongside Ange Postecoglou as the only manager to have lifted the A-League Championship twice and unquestionably knows how to get a result.
As is to be expected with a side who finished rock bottom, the Phoenix have undergone a reasonably significant upheaval of their squad.
Benjamin Totori, Tony Lochhead, Alex Smith, Dani Sanchez, Jimmy Downey, Lucas Pantelis have all been released, Isaka Cernak went to Perth Glory and Mark Paston has retired.
Of the additions Merrick’s former playmaker at Melbourne, Carlos Hernandez, appears the most likely to make an instant impact.
The Costa Rican’s creativity and guile made him one of the most dangerous playmakers in the competition during his last spell in Australia and he should link well with Paul Ifill and Jeremy Brockie further forward.
Merrick has also brought in another Costa Rican in diminutive striker Kenny Cunningham who joins from Bolivian club The Strongest.
The 28-year-old has had a litany of clubs throughout Central and South America but has appeared 10 times for the national team, and comes to the A-League on the recommendation of Hernandez.
Mostly, however, Merrick has signed with a view to development. His first acquisition was New Zealand under-20 captain Luke Adams from Derby. Reece Caira heads across from Western Sydney, goalkeeper Lewis Italiano from Perth and Josh Brindell-South from Queensland NPL club.
After impressing in a trial played against the Phoenix last month, 29-year-old Auckland City midfielder Albert Riera has been signed on a one-year deal.
While his influence might not be significant in the 2013/14, perhaps the most intriguing signing of all is 17-year-old Alex Rufer, son of former All White Shane and nephew of New Zealand’s greatest ever, Wynton.
Rufer has been signed to a three-year contract and while it would be unfair to place unnecessary expectations on a player still yet to complete high school, it will be interesting to see how the highly rated number ten develops.
Why Wellington Phoenix fans should be excited about the 2013/14 season
Merrick has compiled what looks to be an ideal mix of proven quality and promising talent, and while the younger members of his squad might not be able to produce consistently there will be times they get it right.
Wellington’s pre-season is the perfect example. 1-0 and 3-0 wins away to Newcastle and Sydney respectively, and a 2-1 loss at Western Sydney all give cause for optimism but that is tempered by results like the 1-0 loss to Auckland City.
If Merrick tries to give as much exposure as possible to the youth – and so far there is every indication the former VIS coach will do just that – Nix fans should buckle in for the up-and-down ride that comes with development.
That said, if the likes of Ifill and Hernandez can stay fit and healthy there is plenty of room for the sublime and spectacular.
Depth might be an issue as the season goes on but Wellington do have adequate A-League experience at the top end of their squad and the Cake Tin should once again be a difficult venue to win at.
The main man that can carry Wellington’s hopes
It was anything but coincidental that the Phoenix’s last-placed finish in 2012/13 came with Paul Ifill either sidelined or struggling through injury.
Yes, Brockie did still find the net 16 times in what was a productive return to New Zealand for the former Sydney, North Queensland and Newcastle striker but it was without the overall influence that Ifill has on the rest of the team.
The ex-Millwall man is Wellington’s all-time leading scorer with 31 but he’s also chipped in 21 assists during his 95 matches with the club and was central to the club’s success during the three seasons that they finished in the top six.
Ifill will turn 34 next weekend and quite rightfully there will be doubts as to whether he can cope with the physical demands of a 27-game season.
But given the additions of the two Costa Ricans and with Brockie set for another strong season after a loan spell with Toronto in the MLS, Ifill won’t have to be relied upon as heavily as in seasons gone.
He is still the class act in this side and if he stays on the park Wellington’s prospect instantly look a light brighter.
Verdict – Building for 2014/15
As Vince Rugari pointed out in his Newcastle Jets preview, it’s hard not to be a finals contender in a 27-round, 10-team competition.
In a market where consistent, 10,000-plus crowds are difficult to sustain the mandate for Merrick will no doubt be to keep the team competitive while simultaneously trying to introduce Wellington’s next generation.
And let’s face it – the likes of Hernandez, Ifill and recently naturalised Kiwi Andrew Durante are all highly competitive professionals that will not stand for credible losses with a view to the future.
If Merrick can bed a handful of the younger brigade into the first-team setup and keep a stable starting XI it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Wellington in or around the six at the midway point of the season.
But it seems unlikely that the youth will be able to sustain the momentum throughout the course of the entire season, and finals might prove out of reach for the Phoenix – this season.