AS REGULAR as clockwork, an army of critics has tipped Wellington Phoenix to come last this season. Out of sight, out of mind is one explanation. The harsher reality? Nobody rates them.
No matter what the Phoenix do or who they sign, it is a perception that cannot be shaken, even if they are gunning to make the finals for the fourth consecutive season. The tag ”the A-League’s most unfashionable team” sticks.
However, Wellington wear it well, and with characteristic Kiwi irony, it has become a badge of pride.
They are the polar opposite of tonight’s opponents, Sydney FC, who have revived their ”bling” roots in style. Sydney’s spend on their two marquee players – Alessandro Del Piero and Brett Emerton – is what Phoenix spend on their entire football department. But that does not bother Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert.
”We’ve never really bought into that,” he said. ”Sometimes we’ve had to nominate a marquee to help reorganise our salary cap, but our objective is completely different.
”We are what we are and we’ve made three straight finals series, so I reckon we must be doing something right.”
The Phoenix will run their own race and rightly so; they defeated Sydney three times last season, then proved it was no fluke by eliminating the Sky Blues in the finals.
”We’ve got some senior players who won’t take part this week but that should provide some opportunities for some younger players a little earlier than expected,” Herbert said. ”Paul Ifill is still a doubt. Vince Lia, Dani Sanchez, Jimmy Downey, Mirjan Pavlovic and Lucas Pantelis are all out. But we’ve got something pretty special happening with our kids so I’m not too worried.”
The youth angle has caught little attention on this side of the Tasman.
Having not been able to compete in Australia’s National Youth League, Wellington have lacked a proper mechanism for junior development. However, they have spent the past six months establishing an academy, with the first entrants now going through the program. Within the next few years, that academy will go regional, then national, giving the Phoenix access to New Zealand’s best talent.
”It’s an opportunity for us to produce on our own back doorstep,” Herbert said. ”This year we’re going to have close to 30 [juniors] with the extension of the academy and that’s huge for us.
”The quality and quantity of players we’ve had going right through the pre-season has been excellent … We’ve already got young players with potential who could be a threat.” For a club that teetered on the edge of extinction last year, when the then owner Terry Serepisos was forced to pull out, it is a huge turn of events that the Phoenix are now looking to become a force through long-term planning.
”We’ve got incredibly good people who have come on board and who have been very clear on the direction of the club,” Herbert said. ”I’m allowed to spend the salary cap and that’s it. We’re comfortable and understand that.
”Our focus is more about production now, building the academy, really solidifying the club for the long term. We aim to be the most stable club in the league. Perhaps we are already.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.