Nine seasons, five finals spots and two wooden spoons – the Wellington Phoenix’s first era in the A-League has been a pass mark. Yet now, leading into a bright new age for the club, it is time for New Zealand’s sole representative in the competition to prove its place.
Failing to compete in this weekend’s finals marks a season of disappointment for Wellington.
It is a clear regression after storming into the A-League finals amid a solid defence and vibrant attack in 2014-15. While they lost the services of top goalscorer Nathan Burns, they should never have fallen from fourth to ninth within 12 months.
A number of factors led to the uninspiring 2015-16 campaign, including injuries to key players and the obvious distractions off the field. Yet the failure to adequately replenish the squad was one major setback before a ball had been kicked.
Jeffrey Sarpong arrived with an impressive Dutch DV but without any evidence of goalscoring pedigree; expecting him to directly replace Burns was an ill-informed pre-season move from coach Ernie Merrick. Sarpong ended his stay with the Phoenix in January having failed to score in 13 games.
The injury to Roy Krishna was a blow too, the Fiji international on target to improve his threat in the box until missing more than two months of the season. Krishna left Wellington in sixth, when he returned they were ninth and never recovered.
Added to the lack of firepower up front was the astonishing collapse of defensive solidity. Wellington conceded three or more goals on ten occasions. Simply not good enough, though perhaps to be expected from an ageing back line.
The Phoenix did show glimpses of quality, including victories over Adelaide United, Western Sydney and Melbourne City. Roly Bonevacia’s form was promising too (seven goals, five assists) as was the progression of young stars such as Tom Doyle, Blake Powell (eight goals) and Dylan Fox.
But at the end of the season, Wellington had scored 34 goals, conceded 54 and notched just seven wins to secure a more than deserved ninth-place finish. It was back to where they were in 2013-14.
Next season, therefore, poses as a big test for Merrick; his fourth campaign in New Zealand.
In his favour is the secured future of the club, with the FFA handing Phoenix an immediate four-year license with two three-year options available if benchmarks in performance, crowd figures (hopefully a move to Hutt Recreation Ground is considered) and TV revenue are matched.
It is arguably the first time the current owners, Welnix Group, have been handed a chance to build the club.
Already the signs are positive. Kosta Barbarouses arrives to strengthen the wing play that crumbled apart when Burns departed, and his combination in the final third with Krishna and Michael McGlinchey must be an exciting prospect for fans.
Then there is the arrival of Gui Finkler, an incredibly gifted playmaker with the added threat of accuracy from set pieces. He will join Albert Riera and Bonevacia in a midfield that already looks the goods. The only concern is that Riera will have sole defensive duties in this trio, placing a lot of pressure on the Spaniard.
Riera’s job, however, may become easier if Merrick can get further recruitment spot on. Gone are Ben Sigmund (retired) and Manny Muscat (Melbourne City), meaning Wellington’s back line has been decimated. The experience of Andrew Durante and Glenn Moss, coupled with the youth of Louis Fenton provides a strong base, but a quality centre-back and right fullback are crucial.
As well as defensive reinforcements, it is time for Wellington to sign a marquee player, preferably an out-and-out striker who can take some of the burden off Krishna and back-up Powell. The club’s owners have to start showing ambition, and with the club’s future partially assured they finally have a reason.
To say this is a defining season for Wellington would be incorrect. To say this is the start of a defining era is more accurate. Wellington face a clutch off-season. Recruitment has to be spot on, community engagement has to be on point and their four-year plan needs to start with a finals berth. Anything less will not be acceptable.