2015/16 A-League season review: Wellington Phoenix

We analyse just how the Wellington Phoenix’s stop-start season meant they never really got going, and the fact they only managed to play to their full potential on a few occasions ensured that they were destined to finish in the lower reaches of the table.

From the dizzying heights of the previous campaign’s success, and despite early optimism, the Nix were soon plumbing the depths of their capabilities and flirting with the Wooden Spoon. In short, the under pressure New Zealanders crumbled under the weight of FFA and fan expectation.

The Story

A season of license renewal drama. A soap opera of Yellow Fever signs and FFA stonewalling. After real hope was generated in 2014-15, fans were bought back to reality in many ways this season as the franchise struggled throughout. There were highlights – Blake Powell’s four goal haul against the Wanderers, Roly Bonevacia’s highlight reel goal against Adelaide at Westpac and a breakout year for a young star of the future in Dylan Fox.

But the highlights, as always, were overshadowed by the injuries, uncertainty over the license, attendance and winless runs. The Phoenix would ultimately not live up to the high beginning of season expectations and finish a dismal and deserved ninth, with the second-worst goal-difference (-20) and a staggering 54 goals conceded in 27 games.

Consistency of performances will never be a Phoenix staple – and this season has been yet another prime example of the NZ sides inconsistency on the field week in and week out. The highlight of the season ended up being that they were granted an off-field license extension by the FFA, and will be playing in the league for at least another four years.

Key Player

Roy Krishna. An injury to the flying Fijian early in 2016 meant that the Phoenix lost their spark up front, and a consistent squad performer. Some will say that the Nix missed Ben Sigmund more, after he too was injured early on. But, in Fox or Manny Muscat they always had a capable replacement – not so for Krishna, very much left a void throughout his 12 game injury lay-off. After scoring and assisting freely in his opening matches, Krishna was ruled out long-term after an ill-timed New Year’s clash with the Mariners. It was no surprise that this coincided with the Nix’s downturn in fortunes and winless run.

So crucial was Krishna, that Ernie Merrick rushed him back into the fray so that he could play the final three games of the season – outings in which he made little impact as he was so short of match fitness. With Kosta Barbarouses and Gui Finkler arriving next season, the prospect of the duo linking up with Krishna and Kiwi International Michael McGlinchey is tantalizing.

Manager

It was another season of frustration for Merrick, after a crippling spate of injuries and a horrid away run, the Nix and their playoff aspirations were as good as done after the first 13 games of the season. The vastly experienced manager has had his worst season in the A League – even with a squad that seemed to be capable of so much more. On their day, Wellington cannot be beaten – but aside from dominant performances against Adelaide, WSW and Sydney, where they ran rampant in respective 4-2, 5-2 and 3-1 wins, Merrick could not bring the best out of them enough this season. Despite all his good work with New Zealand football, laying the foundations of a solid club and building on previous successes, both the men’s top team and the Phoenix reserves finished second-bottom of the A League and ASB Premiership respectively. A cumulative failure.

Off-season recruitment

Their off-season recruitment for the 2015-16 season was largely uninspiring, although Merrick has unearthed some gems. The candidate for least impressive signing was a close run race, between Troy Danaskos barely getting a game, Justin Gulley’s long term injury and the Jeffrey Sarpong marquee flop incident. However, the Alex Jones transfer debacle was by far the greatest blunder, and although this was not entirely the fault of the Nix, it still rankled with fans. On the plus side, Powell was the handiest acquisition and almost immediately jumped into the first team. Australian Fox made a seamless step up into the A League, and looked the part despite his tender years. Hamish Watson also impressed after his emergency call up from Hawkes Bay United.

It is next season’s signings that have fans the most excited though, with Barbarouses and Finkler already confirmed to be making their way to Wellington for the 2016/17 season.

Exciting times beckon yet again as Nix fans prepare to strap in for the inevitable bumpy ride.

Grade – E

So much promise, such a disappointment. The fact that Wooden Spooners Central Coast picked up two of their three wins all season against the Wellington is enough to warrant this grade.