When Nathan Burns re-signed with the Wellington Phoenix a year ago the buzz of that deal was a little bit ruined by the state of the club at the time. Darije Kalezic was still about ten weeks away from getting sacked while Dario Vidosic and Gui Finkler had already left the club in midseason. But that signing was a big deal. A proven goal scorer at this level, a player who had already had huge success in his one year with the club - back in 2014-15 when he scored 13 goals and won the Johnny Warren Medal. Just the second Wellington Phoenix player to win the award after Shane Smeltz in 2008-09.
That deeper Welly Nix depression also helped him out though. It meant that when he failed to score a goal in 12 starts and 3 subs appearances nobody really cared, because the season was dragging to the finish line anyway and after all he’d signed for two seasons. The next campaign, with a proper manager in place and a full preseason to get into his best shape, would be the one where Nathan Burns really shone.
And here we are two months into that season and Burnsy is still without a goal. 1566 minutes of action for the Wellington Phoenix without hitting the back of the net. 1642 if you want to include the FFA Cup game. And it’s not like he ended his stint in Japan in the best form either or he wouldn’t have ended it at all. His last competitive goal came in April 2016 so we’re already at two and a half years… makes his old teammate Jeremy Brockie’s recent drought in South Africa look like the blink of an eye when you look at it that way. No matter the circumstances, when a striker is out of the goals for this long it becomes an inescapable situation.
Nathan Burns: “I think just from a team perspective I want to get on the score sheet, because I feel like I can be a massive threat too. If I can get into the form that I am capable of, then it's a lot scarier for the defence. I think with Roy and Sarpreet and myself in good form, it would be hard to stop… It's a different situation to what I've been in before but I'm happy with my game and the condition of my body, so I just have to keep shooting and have that belief, and eventually they'll go in.”
I have a suspicion that we’re going to hear a lot more about Nathan Burns’ goal drought if it continues into the New Year. It’s a tidy narrative, count the hours he’s gone without a goal and there’s your headline already written. Then you’ve just gotta spin some yarns about Burnsy which compare him unfavourably to his first stint with the club and then maybe get a quote or two to top it off. Another word from Burns himself continuing to say he’s not bothered and just wants to help the team, probably something from Rudan backing him to break the run soon enough. That’s your clickbait reaction there all ready to go.
As usual, it ain’t that simple. You can’t compare what Burns was doing in Japan to what he’s doing in Wellington, for starters. Even comparing between the last two Phoenix seasons feels unfair to him considering we’re talking about a Nix team with almost no direction to a Nix team that has arguably too much direction. And within the scope of this season we’ve got a bloke who played four combined minutes in the opening two games, then came off the bench with the side already 2-0 down in his next one before missing a game entirely for the birth of his kid… then he came back and has started four in a row. You don’t call four games without a goal a ‘goal drought’ unless you’re Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Also it’s only really in the last three games when the Nix have looked like anybody is capable of scoring any goals at all. Three games which have not coincidentally been the only three games where the front three of Roy Krishna, Nathan Burns and Sarpreet Singh have been out there from the opening whistle. Previously they’d spent 28 minutes all on the pitch together against Western Sydney… and that was it.
Getting that trio playing together on the regular has changed everything. In 242 minutes with Burns, Kirshna and Singh all out there the Nix have scored six goals. In the other 478 minutes they’ve scored three – and two of those in the first game of the season. Plus in the tried and true tradition of the best defence is good offence, it works the other way too. One goal conceded in 242 mins with the trio all out there, 10 conceded in the other 478. Being a smartarse and turning those into ninety minute averages we get a 2.23 – 0.37 win with NB/RK/SS intact compared to a 0.56 – 1.88 defeat with the trio broken. I’m not sure what those numbers are supposed to mean, they really don’t look like football scores to me, but they also seem to illustrate the point nicely.
So the bottom line really is that however you want to frame Nathan Burns’ lack of goals in his second spell with the Nix, he’s playing well at the moment within a team that’s performing well at the moment. It’s really not that big of a deal… although of course if Burns, as he said, was banging the goals away along with the rest of them (which mainly just means Roy Krishna, to be honest) then this team would look superb. They’d be able to breathe if Krishna ever got injured or suspended. It’d be that next step towards pushing for that top six – don’t forget it’d be very useful for Burns personally when it comes to pleading his case for minutes if Mark Rudan does as is expected and signs another striker in January.
He’s not that far away. In each of the last couple games he’s had chances, similar to the ones which Roy Krishna has been putting away (in behind the defence, one on one with the keeper sort of thing) and he just hasn’t been able to bury them. In the last game against Central Coast his best chances were chances he never even attempted, hesitating when a striker with full confidence woulda just unleashed a shot towards goal. But as Mark Rudan would probably say: he’s getting in the right positions. That’s the hardest part. The rest is all rhythm, technique, and confidence. Get one and he’ll probably Do A Brockie and go on a big ol’ run of goals.
That’s what happened the last time he was here. I distinctly remember watching him on debut for the Nix and thinking this dude can play but jeez his finishing is absolute arse. I remember it because he then scored ten goals in his next ten games including the club’s first ever A-League hat-trick and I promptly looked like an idiot.
But, you know what, I still think there’s something to that. Burns isn’t a Smeltz-esque polisher of goals. He’s quick and he’s creative but he’s got a funky sense of balance sometimes and while his overall play was superb that first season in Wellywood, a lot of his goals were pretty jammy. I mean, he seemed to fall over scoring half of them. And after getting ten in his first eleven games he then went and only scored three in his next thirteen (dashing away for Aussie international duty in there too). Streaky is the word I’m looking for.
I doubt we get him reaching the heights he got to in the Johnny Warren Medal season because I doubt that season was an accurate reflection of him as a player. More like an anomaly where everything aligned for him. But I mean, to hold a dude’s greatest ever year against him because he can’t repeat it is like those people who moan that Lauryn Hill hasn’t put out an album in twenty years even though Miseducation is right there waiting for you to listen to it again. Enjoy what you’ve got, not what you think you’re missing.
If you want to make a big deal about Burns’ goalless streak then go ahead, expand it as far as you feel necessary. Two and a half years is an obscene amount of time to go without scoring for an attacking player and there are indications that it’s affecting his game. I just wouldn’t worry about it while he’s contributing in other ways that have helped the team get back to winning games of football. If he still hasn’t scored in a month’s time then we can talk.
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