Five reason why Wellington Phoenix can challenge for top honours this season

Fresh faces

It is what dominates the press during the offseason in Europe with millions of dollars flying in and out of top-flight clubs, but in the A-League, many new signings simply want to get away from it all, are not interested in the money, or, alternatively, are just looking for an adventure.

Look at Kostas Katsouranis, the 2014 Greece World Cup captain, playing one match for semi-pro club Heidelberg United. Who would have thought?

But back to the Phoenix. Some handy recruiting has been implemented to cover the loss of last season’s top scorer and Australian international Nathan Burns. Blake Powell, formerly of Sydney FC, brings a clinical edge to the front order, scoring over 25 goals in 31 games for APIA Leichhardt in the NSW Premier League last season. Meanwhile, Kwabena Appiah, who was actually born in New Zealand, is a pacy winger who made 25 appearances for Asian Champions League winners Western Sydney Wanderers and brings much needed speed to the outer channels of the Phoenix midfield.

But amidst this talent, it is Jeffrey Sarpong who could prove to be one of the biggest coups of the summer. Since 2013 until recently, he had made over 55 appearances for top-flight dutch side NAC Breda and has played for the Netherlands under-21 team as well as scoring for Real Sociedad in the Spanish La Liga and current Dutch Wellington midfielder Roly Bonevacia could well have had an impact in Sarpong’s decision to head south.

So, a truckload of talent, Powell, Appiah and Sarpong, also Troy Danaskos, a largely unknown defender signed from Sydney Olympic – how to mould these together into an A-League winning side? Ernie Merrick, it is your time.

Motivation

While the Phoenix have been shaping nicely on the field in recent times, many still doubt their ability to maintain a successful franchise off it. Earlier this year, Michael Lynch wrote for Fairfax Media that the New Zealand club does not add much at all in the way of strengthening the A-League and have poor, if not non-existent, financial strength, membership and attendances. Lynch added that should a 10th Australian side be brought into the fray, many more significant opportunities, both nationally and internationally, would present themselves.

However, although meant to be disregarding of the Wellington club, these comments might just be what Durante and co. need to mount a real challenge this season. The fact that their A-League license is expiring at the tail end of this season will also not be far from the minds of players and management, as they hope to put in regular performances that will catch the eye of the FFA. The most motivated team in the league and thus squad gunning for the highest honours, could well be the men in black and yellow this year.

Youth Academy success

Ahh, the youth. Possibly one of the most underdeveloped sectors in the A-League, and most especially in New Zealand. And yet, against the odds, the Phoenix seem to be bucking the trend. Having developed the Wellington Phoenix Football Academy in 2012, the club is finally reaping the rewards.

In the five years to date, All Whites Bill Tuiloma, Cameron Howeison and Joel Stevens have all passed through the system while four professional contracts have been signed with professional clubs in Europe. For a small club like the Phoenix, this is no mean feat. And in 2015, two youngsters have made the much revered step up to the first team to join first academy graduate Alex Rufer. This success shows that they must be doing something right in Wellington. James McGarry and Logan Rogerson, both 17, were signed on three year contracts last month as a result of their outstanding work in the youth academy.

According to Merrick, McGarry is a talented young individual with exceptional technical ability, while Rogerson has already made his first All Whites squad. He added that, although the pair had been nervous when first training with their new team-mates, they had now relaxed and were warming to their new roles in the Wellington Phoenix brand. And with Winston Reid now on board too, presenting two promising players with scholarships to the academy each year, the sky really does seem the limit for the rising Phoenix.

Saturday night home games

Put simply, in the past, attendances have been a problem. A big one too. If people are not coming to watch the games, the club is losing valuable revenue each week, while the A-League becomes a laughing stock, most especially from rugby fans who bask in the local league competitions drawing more than the meagre couple of thousand that trudge down to the Cake Tin each week for their footballing fix.

However, in a radical move by the FFA, this is hoped, will all change in the new year. Because in the 2015-16 season, the Phoenix will officially become a Saturday night home team. Of the 13 matches that are being played in Wellington, only five are on a Sunday, with two on a Friday and six on a Saturday. The FFA believe it is an important change in order to maximise the possible football revenue in New Zealand.

Wellington Phoenix general manager David Dome believes it lands well in the obscurity of time zones, stadia availability and broadcasting while also catering aptly for the club’s large family fan base by making sure that families are not struggling to get kids to school the next day. It sounds great, traditional even, but will it work? We will just have to wait and see.

Impressive preseason

Confidence plays a very important role in the wider scheme of a successful football club. And the Wellington Phoenix are currently running on bucketloads. Winning their opening clash against the Central Coast Mariners in the FFA Cup, the Phoenix were then dismantled by Melbourne City in the second round, but thankfully for fans, have only gone from strength to strength since then.

The players responded brilliantly too, showing their versatility and capabilities, by putting three past Western Sydney Wanderers before winning 5-3 against Blake Powell’s former club APIA Leichhardt in the following game.

But, as it turned out, these matches culminated in a magical performance against Sydney FC, winning 3-1 and scoring three goals in the space of only five minutes. As Merrick puts it, these performances, both individually and as a team, promise much for the upcoming season, and hey, 11 goals in three games is not bad either, is it? So, after what can only be termed as an impressive overall preseason, much is expected in the year to come from the Wellington Phoenix. But can they deliver? Preseason performances do not count for anything if the season is not nearly as successful.