After all that the Wellington Phoenix didn’t even finish last. Saved it ‘til the final game of the season to make their move and then absolutely surged to the line, inspired by a double from Sarpreet Singh, catapulting themselves from tenth to… well, ninth… with a triumphant 2-1 victory over Melbourne City up in Auckland.
It means that Chris Greenacre finally gets a win in his third caretaker stint. It means that Sarpreet Singh takes his season tally to four goals in the top flight. It means that the Nix snap a winless streak of six games. It means the wooden spoon goes to the Central Coast, where it’ll suit nicely alongside the massive bottles of sauce they have there. It means that we’ve seen the last of several players for this club. It means the Yellow Feverites got to take their shirts off for the full ten minutes plus injury time for only the third time this season and the second time in Aotearoa.
It also means, blessedly, that this horror season has finally come to an end. A season in which the Nix won five times, drew six and lost 16, scoring 31 goals and conceding a league-high 55. They missed the playoffs for the third year in a row and the fifth time in six years but at least they avoided a second franchise wooden spoon. Albeit they do so with their worst ever points total since the A-League moved to a 27-game season.
The A League table took a few weeks to take shape, it always does. The Phoenix drew two of their first four games to hover above a couple others but dropped to last with a 3-0 loss away to Newcastle Jets in round five. A 5-2 win over Perth bought them some room but going down 4-1 at home to Central Coast a week later dropped the Nix to last and that’s where they stayed for the next five months and twenty games (translation: a very long time). Right up until the final game of the season when the Nix beat Melbourne and then watched Newcastle pump CCM 8-2 (yeah, that happened) and the Phoenix end up ninth. Better late than never, as they say.
You could tell that Melly City weren’t a hundred percent focussed on this game. They turned up in Auckland with an eye on their playoffs game next week with third place already guaranteed to them a day earlier thanks to Sydney FC’s win against Melbourne Victory. But that didn’t stop them dominating possession and taking the lead thanks to a ripper from Bruno Fornaroli, although it probably did stop them creating a few more opportunities to score out of it all as the Nix defended pretty tightly and looked to unleash Roy Krishna and Nathan Burns in space down the other end.
Which is normal for the Nix. They’ve been playing with more confidence and control since Greenie took over The problem is that, like all teams when the results are going awry, they stumble at the worst times and they don’t react great to adversity. A couple months ago it was 1-1 at half-time against Western Sydney Wanderers and they ended up losing 4-1. This was a week after conceding the only goal to Central Coast in first half injury time for a 1-0 defeat in Darije Kalezic’s last game. They also lost 1-0 to Newcastle with a goal right before the break and a few weeks later they leaked one in the same time frame away to Adelaide and then coughed up two in three minutes after the hour, losing 3-1 in the end. Oh and the piece de resistance: the two late goals that turned three points into zero away to Melbourne Victory.
That stuff comes from playing with doubt in your mind. It’s absolutely a mental thing, dropping your heads after you’ve just conceded or failing to shut a team down in those closing stages of the halves. Thanks to some magic from Sarpreet Singh they were able to bring it back to evens thirteen minutes after Fornaroli’s goal and thanks to some luck in the second half his deflected shot gave them the lead. There’s the difference between a solid performance in a 1-0 defeat and a solid performance in a 2-1 win: a bit of individual skill and a bit of a lucky break. The two ingredients this team’s been missing most of all. Ex-Nixer Dario Vidosic’s header off the post in the fourth minute of injury time can be filed under the luck category too.
The skill thing is tricky, because the Nix are clearly working with a weaker squad than certain other sides. Not the weakest in the league, debatably, but they were midway through a roster overhaul when they hired a new manager who then restarted that process with his own roster overhaul and was fired before that was ever completed. So we’ve got a squad that’s one part experienced club favourites, one part Darije’s imports, one part young Aussie recruits trying to make a name for themselves and one part Greenie’s academy grads. A bloody mess, in other words.
But there are guys there capable of game-breaking moments and Sarpreet Singh has proven to be one of them. Obviously the defensive aspects of the midfield will take some work, he’s not a big fella and the A-League can be a rough place. However he’s also one of the few players in the team who can score a goal at the click of a finger. He did it twice against Melly City. First up getting the ball in the box, dropping a shoulder to beat his marker and firing past the keeper through traffic. Great skill, great goal. The other time he ripped one off from outside the box and the deflection was kind. A tad flukey but also an example of the ol’ ‘you don’t know if you don’t try’ mantra. He had a dig. He scored a goal. It won the game for his team.
A positive result to close the campaign, one which was supposed to build on the shreds of the previous one but ended up being even worse. They can’t afford to do this again. The Nix have two seasons to save their licence and it begins with fixing the product on the park because otherwise there’s nothing to save. We’ve got all offseason to figure that one out though, right now it’s just nice to enjoy a win.
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