The Welly Nix Appear To Be Hitting Their Peak When It Matters Most

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At the most crucial time of their season, having previously gone four games without a win and seen their playoff probabilities sink into the toss-of-a-coin realm, the Nix have now ripped off three straight wins while scoring fifteen goals in the process. All against teams from outside the top six but that’s what you’ve gotta do. And they’ve done it as emphatically as they possibly could have.

The Jets game on Saturday night was their most important of the season so far. A win and they’d all but guarantee their spot in the finals, a defeat and they’d put that top four thing in some strife by opening the door for Newcastle to bridge that gap. Call it a playoff simulation.

That task wasn’t going to be helped by Roy Krishna’s one game suspension. Then things got even worse when Steven Taylor and Michal Kopczynski both failed late fitness tests. Nathan Burns and Tom Doyle were still carrying knocks (although with Burns you suspect there might be more to it than that - a yarn for another day). Stevie T is the one that’s most concerning… for like a month we’ve been hearing how it’s nothing serious and he’s close to a return but here we are and he’s still missing games. Hasn’t played since the game at Eden Park in mid-February. Six weeks and counting. No panic buttons or anything… but we do sorta need him in top match fitness for the playoffs and we’re running out of time.

Having Taylor, Doyle, and Kopa sitting up in the stands did take away one headache for Mark Rudan. Three missing defenders meant no worries in picking Ryan Lowry and Antony Golec on either side of Andy Durante, with Gianni Stensness the only other logical candidate left in the squad. He was on the choicest bench we’ve seen all season: Oli Sail, Gianni Stensness, Callan Elliot, Ben Waine, and Cillian Sheridan. Four kiwi players who did the WeeNix thing plenty of times this season (and in the past with Sail and Waine) alongside a sneaky fan favourite import. There’s not a substitute there you’d feel anything less than hyped to see introduced to any game.

But guts to Sheridan because this was supposed to be his chance. Roy Krishna out suspended so he’d finally get a proper extended run and a great chance to open his tally… instead he got eight minutes plus injury time at the end. Sarpreet Singh and Max Burgess were both picked around David Williams. I’d have guessed that Singh sat on the bench given the undeniable breakthrough form of Burgess lately… instead it was The Sheriff who had to take that one. 12 appearances for Sheridan so far and 11 of them have been off the bench. Which wouldn’t be so bad if he was getting extended cameos but the last three games, even with big leads in second halves, he’s only played 28 combined mins. 80th minute sub, 80th minute sub, and 82nd minute sub.

But the plan worked immediate wonders as Sarpreet Singh slid through a delightful ball for Williams who stroked it past an onrushing Glen Moss to give the Nix an early lead. First minute of the game, mate. With the chance to throw down a massive statement they led this game for eighty-nine minutes of the way, what more can you possibly ask for? Willo stepping up with Krishna unavailable. Sarpreet with an aggressive and insightful assist. The Nix finding a way to take control of the game. Beautiful scenes.

Pretty sure that’s the fastest goal the club have ever scored too.

The first time the Nix played the Jets, opening game of the season, it was a grinding affair which the Nix came out on top 2-1 thanks to an own goal and a Roy Krishna strike. The second time the Nix played the Jets it was a grinding affair in which both keepers, Glen Moss and Oli Sail, had blinders in the midst of a 1-1 draw where Krishna missed a late spottie that would’ve won it. So naturally this was not going to be a completely free-flowing game. But that’s the Nix’s comfort zone.

Because to be honest this wasn’t anything special on the performance scale. Newcastle were pretty creative, working down the wings (especially with Danny Georgievski, the bugger), but they also didn’t offer a whole lot of funk to take the Phoenix out of their defensive shape so it was all fairly comfortable. Meanwhile Max Burgess whipped a couple cut-back shots that didn’t really threaten Mossy and the whole game was nestled in an easy state of relative comfort until Louis Fenton got mashed in a tackle right at the end of the half.

And that sucked, let me tell you. Dude was clearly in horrendous pain with what they’ve since said is a suspected broken foot and that’s a solid six weeks out if that’s true. Fenton started slow this season but has grown into the player it was always hoped he’d be. Aggressive going forward and more than holding his own at the back. He’d been going great… and the fear is that it’s the one position on the park where we simply don’t have a readymade replacement.

Callan Elliot played the second half there, same position as he made his debut in a few weeks back. Might have to think on this one some more info comes to light on Fenton’s injury. Ryan Lowry is the only other bloke to have started at RB this season and we lost 3-1 that day at home to Adelaide. Clearly not a position he’s suited to. If Tom Doyle’s back soon then he could go LB and swap Libby Cacace to the right. There’s also the more creative idea of Michal Kopczynski at wingback. Even Max Burgess might be able to do a job there. He’s a rougher bugger than he looks. And of course there’s Justin Gulley, who is yet to make an appearance since re-signing with the club in February. My guess is Elliot and Gulley split time… but there are options if folks get fit.

After the break the Jets ramped it up a few levels. Mark Rudan had looked fired up on the dressing room cam while Ernie Merrick was cool as a cucumber. Guess that’s because he’d realised that without Stevie T at the back, the Nix remain especially vulnerable from set pieces and crosses. Been the same all season and nothing’s really changing.

They were bloody lucky to still be 1-0 up when David Williams got a nudge on the edge of the area and to be honest I thought they were a little lucky when the review decided the contact took place in the penalty area. But you’ll remember the same thing happened to Max Burgess (or at least a similar thing) last game so what goes around comes around eventually. Willo slammed it home. The Jets then immediately scored from a set piece (told you so) to make it 2-1. Then Willo completed the hatty with a screamer of a right-boot curl from outside the area.

It was a blinder. The kind of goal he’s scored a couple versions of already and this was the best incarnation. Puts him in a very illustrious crew comprising of himself, Nathan Burns, and Blake Powell to have scored hat-tricks for the Wellington Phoenix. All Aussies, interestingly.

From that point it was all over. Sarpreet Singh then did the one thing that his game has been missing this season by stroking one into the net from outside the area like we know he’s capable of and that was 4-1. This was a reinvigorated Sarpreet Singh. Providing goals like he ought to. Being the guy who dominates the crucial moments in games. Max Burgess continued to be a busy factor in proceedings. Filip Kurto made one miraculous save. Mandi had a quality game as well.

But obviously David Williams was the main man and his performance is gonna put him in major recruitment focus for a few other A-League clubs. This is another thing that I’ll possibly write about later in the week but worrying about Mark Rudan’s role in Willo’s signing or re-signing is almost missing the point in my eyes. The way he’s playing, an Aussie team is going to offer him more money and more stability with the comforts of living closer to family or whatever and it’s hard to see him not going for that. You sign a bloke in his position to a one-year deal and you have to know it’s a stepping stone for him to get his career back to past heights. Nothing has changed in that regard, except that he’s playing so damned well.

Cillian Sheridan did finally get a run near the end. Put the ball in the net too but there was a blatant foul before that so it was never going to count. Still, the feeling must have been nice on an instinctive level. Also Ben Waine made his debut. And that penalty shout he had near the end was, in my opinion, a better shout than the one that was actually awarded. No dramas. It’s all even on a cosmic level. Shout out to Ben Waine because he was excellent for the WeeNix this season. Probably their best played and this after getting a taste of senior footy with the Nix in the FFA Cup. Now an A-League debut. He is every bit as good as Callan Elliot and both of them are pushing for more consideration. Good times.

The funny thing is I didn’t even feel like the Nix played that well despite the scoreline. They just bossed the important moments. Scored early and were able to play without major risks for their weakened backline. They scored again when they were at their most vulnerable and then again within minutes of conceding. Those big moments in the game and the Nix bossed them. That, friend, is how you win a game of football when the stakes are this high. They’ll be bloody tough to beat in any playoff game.

There was even more happy news as Western Sydney went and beat Melbourne City 3-0 to clear more room in the top four scrap. If Newcastle drop any more points this season then the Nix are definitely in the playoffs and if they can get a fourth win in a row against Adelaide next game then the top four is basically theirs for the taking. Hitting peak form at the exact right time of the season, and there are reinforcements on the way too. Roy Krishna’s got a golden boot to win. Steven Taylor won’t be hurt forever. Cillian Sheridan is still there on the bench patiently waiting his turn.

Add that all up and this is why I’m more impressed by the way they won this one against a desperate team, despite a few missing players, despite not even playing that great, than I was when they were damn near perfect in the middle fifty or so minutes of the Central Coast demolition or that first half last game against the Wanderers. Because this performance is the kind that translates to the playoffs.

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