Geordie Steve’s Coming Back Next Season… Not Sure About the Gaffer Though

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Steven Taylor is sticking around for another year. Could be the quality of the Wellington coffee, could be the thriving arts and culture scene, could even be the length of the pins around town. The footy hasn’t been half bad either to be fair. Taylor apparently had some kind of trigger incentives already on his deal but the player and the club have said bugger that, let’s make it official, and have agreed on a deal that keeps Stevie T at the Wellington Phoenix through until the end of next season.

There’s not a Nix fan out there who won’t be chuffed with this news. Taylor has had a massive effect on the backline, bringing all sorts of experience as the club has reinvigorated itself starting from the defence and moving forwards. Taylor is just an outstanding defender, basically. He reads the game extremely well and acts decisively. Rarely does he make a mistake. Great in the air and strong in the challenge. That dependability has given Andy Durante another lease of life in what may or may not be his final season before retirement which, combined with the general excellence of Filip Kurto in goal, has set the platform for pretty much everything else that Mark Rudan has been able to do with this side.

Plus Taylor does all the little things that take a fella from Admirable Football Exponent status to Heroic Fan Favourite status. He’s the only player I’ve ever seen in my life block a pile-driving shot from outside the box with a mid-air diving header. He’s constantly putting his body on the line with those desperation blocks, the tiny percentage acts that can be the difference between a goal or not. If you listen closely you can still hear his game-clinching roar from the game against Sydney which was kind of the turning point of the whole season. Also, he’s just a world class pest. When he stands in front of keepers as they try set the wall for free kicks… few players have the cojones to be so absolutely irritating in clear public vision.

Steven Taylor: “I feel at home in Wellington and I’m playing well so I’m very happy to be signing an extension here. The fans have been fantastic the whole season in getting behind us and I feel we’re only going to get stronger. Mark Rudan was a big reason behind my extension and the belief he has shown in me has been fantastic. The team are all working towards a bigger goal and that is to win and bring this club back to where it belongs. The goal for this season is to fight for a finals position and then to fight towards the Grand Final.”

Stevie T joins fellow import Filip Kurto and the prodigious talents of Liberato Cacace and Sarpreet Singh in being contracted for next season. Yeah, just the four of them. This is not some distant year we’re talking about – as things stand there are only four players contracted beyond four months’ time. Which is running the terrifying risk of being even more disjointed than last season when roughly two-thirds of the squad was off contract at once. At the moment we’re looking at more than 80% off contract so yeah… best do something about that sooner rather than later. Taylor was a nice start, now let’s get Roy Krishna signed up next and go from there.

Problem is we don’t know what the gaffer’s going to do. It’s been a regular source of headline fodder lately and Mark Rudan has been largely at fault for that with the way he’s constantly dodged the question. It’s no secret that Western United are keen on his services, and fellow expansion side South West Sydney have dropped a few hints too (although they don’t enter the league until the season after next). The bloke’s got fans, that’s for sure.

And let’s not kid ourselves that he’s considering it either. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s Australian after all. His family is still over in Sydney and he’s spoken several times about the emotional toll that takes, about zipping back over to visit whenever he’s got a spare couple days. That’s clearly not ideal. His philosophy that family comes first was made clear when he let Mandi fly home from Perth to be with his pregnant wife – and that compassionate aspect to what’s an otherwise demanding regime is a big part of what’s endeared him to his players so much. He must at least be thinking about it.

Then there’s the sketchy nature of the Phoenix’s future to consider. Everybody wants a bit of future security and while there have been positive developments in this area, the Nix are still far from safe as an A-League entity. Which is a problem for a variety of reasons… the main one at the moment being the situation with those player contracts. Hard to offer long term deals when the long term isn’t even guaranteed – kinda like trying to buy life insurance as the apocalypse hits – but this is a way underrated problem for a team that’s relied on a solid core of players all season, tending to struggle when required to test its own depth. With another squad rebuild potentially on the cards, Rudan might even feel like this is an untenable situation and that he’d do best to cash out while he’s ahead.

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons why he’ll want to stay. His existing contract is one of them, booked in for next season (although that wouldn’t stop the SWS bid from his home city, given they don’t start ‘til after then anyway). Another reason is the bond he’s forged with these players and the thrill of the job in progress. He’s doing bloody well at the moment and it’d be a risk to walk away from that to start all over again somewhere else in the fickle world of football management.

My contribution to the debate is this: Mark Rudan has every right to do what’s best for himself and his family and if that means he’s only at the Phoenix for one season then so be it. Are you gonna hold it against him for wanting to be closer to his family? Of course not. I think most Nix fans would accept that, albeit reluctantly. No arguments necessary.

But I’m gonna continue on this line of thinking and say: so what if he’s one and done? Mark Rudan’s already achieved amazing things in turning this club’s fortunes around, instilling a proper professional atmosphere around the club and getting these players to believe in themselves as genuine A-League calibre battlers. There’s a determination to them now. A real sense of passion that had been lacking in the directionless last few years. There’s also still a lot more to come and we’ve seen that clearly with some of these results lately, with only one win in the last six games despite the real buzz around them. They’re only sixth on the ladder, matey. That’s not even top half.

What I’m saying is that we should be immensely grateful for what Mark Rudan has done so far and the sacrifices he’s made in his personal life along the way. But we shouldn’t also look at it like if he leaves then the club crumbles back to where it was before him. That’s just silly. The foundations are there for the next coach to continue on the same way, they don’t disappear without Mark Rudan to keep them going. There’s a personal standard that each of those players knows to maintain – Steven Taylor isn’t about to pick up the all-KFC diet if Rudes isn’t looking over his shoulder. The example has been set. There’s a club structure in place. As long as the next coach isn’t a total muppet then there’s nothing to worry about.

The things that we haven’t yet seen from Rudan’s Nix – like consistently turning attacking dominance into goals, quality defending against set pieces, more variety in attack, etc… those are tactical tweaks which another manager might have an even better grip on that could even take them to the next level. There just seems to be this fatalism with the Nix that isn’t very helpful to anybody. I don’t see a brief flash of competitiveness here, I see sustainable foundations for future success.

With one hesitation. Because if anybody’s going to mess that up then it ain’t Rudes, it’s the club management, let’s be honest. Hedging on single year contracts with players who, after breakout seasons almost across the board, might well want to cash out themselves. Alex Rufer, Roy Krishna, David Williams, Louis Fenton and Tom Doyle could probably all get interest from other A-League clubs if not even further abroad (those first three especially). Who’d be responsible for hiring the next gaffer too? Same folks that hired Mark Rudan are the same folks who hired Darije Kalezic.

Not to stick the knife in or anything… although I do have a tingling fear that maybe the on-field turnaround is spreading undeserved credit around the rest of the club too. I guess the proof there will be in how many other jokers they’re able to re-sign over the next few months before Mark Rudan commits one way or another to where he’ll be next season. Because if he stays I guarantee they’ll be lining up for new deals, too easy. If he doesn’t then that’s when the club suits get tested.

Regardless of this year or next, nobody thinks Mark Rudan is hanging around for five/ten years in Wellington, he’s too ambitious for that. So if the Nix aren’t planning ahead then that’s where it’ll all go astray. Rudan’s future plays a big part in this, clearly, but we already know he might leave. Failing to prepare for that possibility would just be irresponsible (remember how long it took to get Rudan signed up last year?) and it’d lead to another bunch of off-contract players shrugging and leaving.

Only if the club lets things fester though, getting complacent after a couple great months. Everything that Mark Rudan’s achieved so far is sustainable and I genuinely believe that. Just gotta, you know, not cock it up.

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