Where Are We At With The Wellington Phoenix?

The FFA Cup is stupid, we didn’t wanna win it anyway. What’s the point in licensed franchise clubs playing against club amateurs? What’s the point in that when the Nix only ever get away draws at other A-League clubs? Eh, it’s just a surprise the FFA let their Wellington reps compete in the cup at all, to be honest.

As the Phoenix battled away against Western Sydney Wanderers though, a few things did spring to mind. For one it’s crazy how far away the proper season still is – the first round of the A-League isn’t until the start of October. Also of note was the new manager, on display in his natural habitat for the first time. Darije Kalezic looked fun. He was bouncing around on the sideline with instructions, while the players out there provided a nice aesthetically pleasing style of footy – building off the Ernie days but you’d imagine with a little more purpose to their attacks.

However it was also rather frightening just how far off this squad is from where they wanna be. Sure they rested a few folks and Marco Rossi had to pull out injured close to kickoff but, jeez, there’s some perspective there alright. Kosta Barbarouses, Glen Moss, Alex Rodriguez and Vince Lia have all left the club – Lia signed with Adelaide Utd the next day after that game. Only one of them has even been replaced and the most jarring warning sign so far was seeing Roly Bonevacia lining up against his old team there for WSW.

Hey, Goran Paracki looked really tidy. Nothing glamorous about him but he’s the kind of transfer that could be influential – early signs suggest he might offer a tad more than A-Rod ever did. Plus they’ll look plenty better when you put Rossi, Andrew Durante and Gui Finkler in there alongside them. Finkler and Mike McGlinchey should see more influential roles without Roly Bonevacia and Kosta Barbarouses kinda stepping on their toes. Roy Krishna too and that’s exciting.

Plus we’ve gotta throw some love out there for WeeNix defender Liam Wood who looked damn fine in his first team debut. Definitely something to work with there. Big praise for how Alex Rufer went in central midfield as well – that’s gotta be his position moving forward now, no more of this attacking stuff.

Thing is, we’ve known about all those dudes leaving for ages and while it was understandable, if frustrating, that they wanted to wait until the new gaffer was unveiled before they got to work in the transfer market… that was ages ago now and we’ve only got one Croatian midfielder and, just today, the assistant coach's son to boast about since.

Now there’s this bloody story in the Sydney Morning Herald which only reiterates a known annoyance but they reckon the Welly Nix “will not fill the remainder of its roster with New Zealanders this season as they are close to giving up on their policy of prioritising local talent due to the disadvantages of playing in a competition without international breaks”.

I mean, of course that’s what they’re doing. No bloody joke, that’s nothing new – Ernie was doing the same thing last season. Up to four games will be affected by international breaks that aren’t international breaks and the Phoenix have always suffered far more than any other club there. It’s dumb and there doesn’t seem to be enough sympathy out there to force a change.

Although perhaps that’s what this is? There’s mention of ‘club sources’ in there so no debate as to who slipped this scoop to the SMH – the Nix are trying to drum up some solidarity among the Aussie football community where the FFA might actually take notice. Beats screaming into the echo chamber over the ditch, pretty sure David Gallop isn’t a NZ Herald subscriber.

But that threat about fewer kiwi players coming through had better be a bluff. The Nix are already suffering with their home crowds and you take the local battlers out of the equation and there’s one less connection for the fans to make. Apparently their TV numbers grew last season but, you know… metrics. Gotta hit ‘em all within three years.

And let’s not forget that the club let Moss and Barbarouses go since last season. There are two players right there who won’t be needing stopgap replacements for the three international breaks… although they haven’t even been replaced at all so now it’s like one big international break for the entire season.

There were four Phoenix players named in the latest All Whites squad: Andrew Durante, Tom Doyle, Mike McGlinchey and Oliver Sail. One of them is a reserve goalie so he barely even counts. Plus Roy Krishna is supposed to be playing in Hong Kong with the Fijian team in the week of the first game of the season. So… potentially we’re talking about four players missing here. Funny story, the English football leagues have a rule where if three or more players are unavailable for a match due to international commitments then they can apply to have the game postponed. Seems fair. (This is only League One & Two since the Premier League and Championship automatically break for int. windows). In fact Liam Graham’s first All Whites call-up triggered Chesterfield to postpone a game in 2016 for the same reason.

That isn’t an option in Australia and it’s ridiculous but you already knew that. What’s annoying here is the Nix’s apparent stance doesn’t really mesh with the state of the All Whites. We’re experiencing a winter where an unprecedented number of kiwi footy players are getting new pro contracts. There’s enough depth in the All Whites suddenly that we get to have genuine selection controversies now, other than having to roll eyes at undeserving call-ups only there to make up the numbers. Bill Tuiloma and Clayton Lewis couldn’t even make the last squad!

Point being that while four Phoenix players were just called up for the All Whites, there were plenty more left behind. Didn’t see Alex Rufer or Matt Ridenton in there (okay, the latter’s injured). Didn’t see Hamish Watson or Logan Rogerson or Sarpreet Singh either. Yet these five players, all young players too, can each do a job in the A-League. The Nix were never in the mix to sign Bill Tuiloma, sorry to break this to people but MLS > A-League by a significant margin. They weren’t about to get Ryan Thomas or Marco Rojas or Stefan Marinovic either.

In fact the only All Whites the Wellington Phoenix might have a shot at signing didn’t make the latest squad. Clayton Lewis and Moses Dyer are the obvious options and each has had multiple trials at European clubs over the last two years – would imagine they see their futures a little higher up.

And that’s where the Phoenix need to stay strong and do their bit for kiwi footy. Their New Zealand stocks aren’t gonna be the top level of guys. Winston Reid isn’t gonna come back and retire at the Nix. Shane Smeltz came back but he’s not been a sure-fire starter for the national team for a couple years now. And also… Shane Smeltz left rather quickly too. You might even say one of the main reasons he came was to remind the national team boss that he existed. As more New Zealanders find careers in better leagues, fewer Phoenix players are gonna be playing internationally and that’s a positive for everyone.

Hence the Welly Nix aren’t there to harvest the best of the best of NZ footballers. They can, however, hoard the professional depth beneath those guys. They can house a few older guys and they can give a home to the good-but-not-good-enough brigade too. They can also bring through some of the best local youngsters and give them a few years before they take the next step up… think Tyler Boyd and Marco Rojas there.

To be fair there’s no indication that they’re gonna stop looking down that youngster path. Kalezic seems like the type who’d embrace a decent academy team. What they’re talking about is more not wanting to sign those top end guys on the salary scale who might zip off for All Whites (or otherwise) duty. You know, like they did with Kosta Barbarouses. Well… Kosta was crap for 75% of last season. Storm Roux and the Ighams aren’t available. Big deal.

Meaning either that’s an empty threat or they’re being very stupid and punishing themselves in an area where this problem doesn’t even affect things. Clearly we don’t wanna see a New Zealand based team chock full of Aussie battlers but a couple quality ones would be nice. Hell, they need to sign someone, anyone, at this stage. What’d be really annoying is if they continue to sign half-decent young Aussies when there are academy guys worth giving time to because if they’re worried about giving them too much footy and losing them a few times a year to internationals then settle down – Uncle Tony picked Alex Rufer out of the NZ Premiership a few months back so there’s no predicting.

Of course, the other thing is they could just tell their most important kiwi players to say some mean things to Anthony Hudson and not apologise and then he won’t pick them anyway, no worries.

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