Friday, January 23, 2009


Better Than Seventh

The above could serve as a glass-half-full summary of Wellington Phoenix's season, which ended tonight with a scrappy 2-0 defeat at the hands of Melbourne.

There were plenty of good signs from the Kiwis this term, for which they can thank, among other things, their canny recruitment. Jon McKain and Andrew Durante were excellent buys, and Manny Muscat, a state leaguer, proved (like Shannon Cole and Pedj Bojic, among others) that the step up to the A-League is not at steep as some like to pretend.

If there was one main factor which prevented them from breaking into the top four, it was surely Shane Smeltz's sad dip in form towards the end of the season. He looked listless and short of ideas in the pivotal 1-0 loss to Sydney FC two weeks ago, and failed to recover his earlier brio in the final two games. An injury to Durante (one of the most under-rated players in the league) didn't help either, while Tim Brown's sendoff against Adelaide necessitated the use of the habitually inadequate Michael Ferrante in the engine-room against Melbourne.

The Phoenix faced their share of difficulties during the season, including the thorny Leilei Gao "situation" and the handicap of not having any youth troops to draw upon (this is an issue which the FFA will need to address in future seasons, I feel). But they have built a solid supporter base by now, and they have achieved their aim of maintaining a good complement of local players.

So, to the future. Glen Moss will be sadly missed in goal, but at least his understudy Mark Paston, who has often been impressive when given the chance, is still there. With the departure of both Vaughan Coveny and Smeltz, the first items on Ricki Herbert's shopping list should be two decent strikers; Costa Barbarouses has been lively but very raw, and needs a "focal" player next to him. The midfield looks healthy enough, with Brown, McKain, Leo Bertos and Daniel - inconsistent but occasionally incisive - all in the mix for 2009/10.

One last issue: the infamous comments from Mohammed bin Hammam on the New Zealand side's continued existence in the A-League caused more of a fuss than they really should have, given that his initial remarks were in the nature of an afterthought, and were swiftly contradicted by Sepp Blatter. There are plenty of good reasons why the Phoenix should stay in the league, and having visited Wellington recently I can attest to the enthusiasm of the locals for the game. And the stadium, in stark contrast to the Knights' distant home in Auckland, is ideally situated.

Michael "habitually inadequate" Ferrante. Never has there been a more fitting description.

The Phoenix (arguably) deserved better. As with Perth or any other club, it will be disasterous to have them starved of success. Particularly if immediately losing the cream of their talent becomes something of a yearly ritual.

As you say, the likes of Brown, McKain, Durante and perhaps other names like Ben Sigmund becoming solid fixtures at the core of the side will only see them improve.
I suspect Hammam's comments about Wellington's future in the A-League was a gambit to fold Oceania into Asia and to formally gobble up their half a WC place.
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