The Return of the Phoenix

Well I must apologise to those readers of this site who are mainly interested in the A-League and the Phoenix, I have been rather neglecting my duties to the southern hemisphere of late. This is for a few reasons, firstly, I missed the 1-2 win at Sydney as I was revising for my exam the next day, and second, there hasn’t been a game since then. Even without any Wellington games though, the club have been keeping themselves pretty busy, and we have a few things to catch up on.

Firstly of course, there was the Sydney game, and by all accounts, what a game! We managed to beat them again, putting in our best performance of the season and looking relatively comfortable for the most part too, with only a piece of tragic goalkeeping from Mark Paston allowing the home side to trouble the scorers. The result leaves us in 6th position, and firmly in touch with the teams above us, so if we can push on and keep the results coming, we may still scrape into the top four and the play offs.

The next big piece of news that i completely ignored at the time was the unveiling of Terry Serepisos’ promised surprised signing. And what a surprise it was, with former A-league winner Fred lured back to this continent as a guest player, on loan from DC United in the MLS. The attacking midfielder looks to be a shrewd acquisition and will hopefully solve the creativity problems that have dogged the Phoenix at times this season. If he can recreate the form he showed in his previous A-League exploits, he will be a real handful, and if the board could negotiate a permanent deal, it would be a huge boost in lieu of the loss of Shane Smeltz from next season.

So one talented attacking midfielder comes in, but it soon proved to be a bit of a revolving door as another one soon left. Leilei Gao has parted company with the Wellington club, with the club citing his failure to settle properly in the area as the main factor in the decision. However, I think most people would agree that the Chinese player had been having real trouble motivating himself to play for the team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ricki Herbert had stepped in and had a word, maybe upsetting the player. Still, though he has undeniable talent, he hasn’t delivered on it nearly often enough, and it is good that we can now concentrate on playing a team that is fully committed to the Phoenix cause.

After Smeltz’s announcement that he will no longer be a ‘Nix player next season, I knew the club would be hard at work trying to prevent the exit of any more first team players, but unfortunately, we have also lost our second most important player over the past two seasons, with Glen Moss having agreed a deal to join Melbourne Victory next season. While many will not see this as a huge loss because we have Mark Paston, another able keeper, I must say that I am hugely disappointed.

Personally I regard Moss as a much better ‘keeper than Paston, he is far more consistent and a much better shot stopper, and I can think of only one mistake he has ever made in a Phoenix shirt, while Paston seems to make a lot of errors (see the Sydney game for a prime example). What is even more disappointing is that I think that Moss probably did not even want to leave, but decided it was best for his prospects, due to Herbert refusing to play him in recent weeks. Though he was injured, I think Paston was far less convincing, and Herbert should have brought Moss back once he was fit. It is down to Moss that we had a reasonably respectable first season, as he time and time again kept us in games with heroic displays, and I think Herbert should have rewarded that with a touch more faith in his ‘keeper.

As it is Moss obviously decided that if he wasn’t appreciated here then he may as well take up Melbourne’s offer, and they have got themselves a very good ‘keeper. I wish Mossy the best of luck with Melbourne, as he was a hell of a servant to this club and deserved to be rewarded more so. As it is I am sure we will feel the loss of such a reliable and talented ‘keeper in the future.

On a brighter note, the club has succeeded in securing contract extensions for five of the current first team squad, with Tony Lochead, Tim Brown, Ben Sigmund, Michael Ferrante and Daniel all putting pen to paper on new two year deals. This is good news for the team as they are all players who are committed to the cause and obviously enjoy playing for the club. Hopefully we will soon see other established and important players, such as Karl Dodd, extend their stays too, as we already have our work cut out in the transfer market to try and find a replacement for Smeltzy, and the last thing we need is to lose more players.

So all in all, there has been quite a bit of off field activity during the little break in games, but of course, come 6pm tonight all that will be secondary again, with Newcastle Jets coming to the Ring of Fire, currently sitting one place and one point below the ‘Nix in the table. This means that if we can secure another three points at home we have a great chance to put a bit of gap between us and the Champions, while the other game, between Perth and Queensland will also play a part on where we end up after the conclusion of this round of fixtures.

Playing staff wise, Herbert has pretty much a full squad to choose from, barring long term absentee Vince Lia of course. He also now has Fred to choose from, who will undoubtedly take Gao’s place in the squad, and he has a bit of a selection dilemma in defence to wrestle with too. Andrew Durante was absent for the stunning performance in Sydney, which saw Muscat step in at right back and perform admirably, while Sigmund and Dodd looked dominant in the central partnership. If Herbert is consistent with his previous mantra of not changing a winning side (which probably cost us Moss next season), then he will be forced to leave his captain on the bench, but I don’t know how likely that is.

There is no denying that Durante is a classy player and a good leader, so Herbert will be sorely tempted to bring him back in. I suppose much will come down to how they have been training seeing as there has been such a lengthy gap since the last fixture, and maybe the ‘winning team’ mentality is less effective with that situation in place. Either way, it is a nice position for Herbert to be in, especially after last season’s defencive nightmare, and his main headache now is how to keep the goals coming.

It may well be that Herbert will allow himself to tinker with the side a little, as of course he now has Fred to utilise and seeing as he is only in for six games, it would be a waste not to play him from the start. Mind you whoever would miss out could feel hard done by, but I think if anyone is to, it may be young Troy Hearfield. He put in a good performance against Syndey, but Herbert will know that he has a young and hungry player on the bench to come on and make an impact if he needs him to.

All in all, it promises to be quite a big night for the Phoenix. I’m sure the Ring of Fire will be fuller than usual after Fred’s arrival on the back of an away win, so hopefully the Fever can get behind the team and spur them to what would be a very valuable three points. I shan’t be there unfortunately as I’m back in Nelson for the summer, but I will be watching on TV, and will post a match report sometime after the final whistle. Let’s hope the Phoenix come back with a bang, and I will try and resurrect my A-League coverage for all the Southern Hemispheric readers!

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