With the A-Leagues season starting in the coming weeks, one club in particular has been keeping a very low profile – and that’s the way Wellington Phoenix like it.
COVID has been incredibly tough on the New Zealand-based club. Having to relocate to NSW for two years in a row and not being able to see your family and friends for several months would be tough for anyone to deal with.
This season, the club will be based out of Chatswood in Sydney’s north and will have exclusive use of the Valentines Sports Park for training – ‘home’ matches are to be played at WIN Stadium in Wollongong, though.
Pre-season has yet again been chaotic as the Phoenix played their first trial match only recently and the full squad have arrived in NSW late.
The club has had a horror off-season in terms of its playing roster, losing stars Ulises Davila, Tomer Hemed, Cameron Devlin and Steven Taylor, as well as reliable squad members Stefan Marinovic, Matthew Ridenton and Mirza Muratovic.
The Phoenix will enter the season with the youngest squad they’ve ever had in the A-League – an average age of just under 24 years old.
Wellington do, however, have one of the most astute managers in the league: Ufuk Talay, who they managed to keep a hold of, after he turned down the Melbourne Victory hot seat.
Talay has been lauded for his man management skills and tactical acumen, but it is his ability to find young players that might be his best trait – the shrewd signings of Nicholas Pennington and several others yet again prove that Talay has an eye for spotting talent.
Pennington was born in Rome and came through the Cagliari youth system before finding his way at Olbia Calcio 1905, who play in Italy’s Serie C.
Fans who are unfamiliar and hoping to see goals from Pennington might be disappointed – he is a defensive midfielder with an amazing engine. Expect to see him cover every blade of grass and be near the top of the leaderboard when it comes to miles run during a game.
Even though Talay turned down the Victory job, there appears to be no bad blood between the clubs as Wellington have pulled off another fine acquisition with the loan signing of Matthew Bozinovski.
Bozinovski was a starting centre-back for the Victory NPL team, but with Tony Popovic in charge – a manager who prefers older players – Bozinovski jumped at the chance of more regular game time with this young Wellington side.
Although not the quickest, Bozinovski is an old-school CB who will prove a handful for attackers due to his gangly frame, strength in the air as well as one-on-one situations.
Impressive young right-back Callan Elliot returns to the club after an unsuccessful spell with Greek club Xanti and the squad has been beefed up with three talented youngsters from New Zealand club Lower Hutt: Ben Old, George Ott, and Kurtis Mogg.
Ott is a striker who scored 21 goals in 18 matches for Lower Hutt and has been compared to Burnley’s Chris Wood, who coincidentally went to the same school, St Pauls.
Mogg is a centre-back with a cultured left foot and Ben Old is an attacking midfielder capable of scoring and providing goals.
These new arrivals will add to an already exciting young core that features breakout stars from last season, Ben Waine and Rene Piscopo.
The Phoenix’s season will ultimately come down to whether they can score enough goals. Pressure will be on UK imports David Ball and the returning Gary Hooper to take up that challenge.
On paper, this is a side that looks like it is in for a rough season; even the most hardened supporter would be surprised if they made the finals.
With the wily Talay as coach and plenty of young talent, Wellington will surprise sides that underestimate them. They are a team that will rise like a phoenix, as well as crash and burn at different points this season.