This season changed suddenly when word broke that Mark Rudan’s long expected departure was the real deal. The Nix had just lost a mud one 3-1 away to Adelaide and were about to lose an even more mud one 2-1 away to Brisbane Roar. The season changed right then and there because it could no longer be seen as the start of a cohesive long term project. We trusted by then that the club would be in a much better place than it was a year ago regardless of who the gaffer was but any new manager is going to bring new ideas to the fold. Some for the better and some not. Change was on the horizon and you never quite know how that’ll go – which is the beautiful thing about change.
But the Mark Rudan era was now officially a one and done thing. This was now the only playoff run this team, in this incarnation, would get to have. It was all chips on the table from that point on. Everything that Mark Rudan had been working towards would have to find its culmination within a single season and a playoff win or two would leave us talking about a legendary effort. Instead we lost comfortably in the first round and it was just another year, to be honest. Sixth place on the ladder and still no playoff win since 2012.
Which is why it’s been so hard to come to terms with it all. If Mark Rudan were still on board then that continuity would at least be a bonus, knowing that the team was well poised to build upon the foundations of this term and that none of what just happened will go to waste, it was all merely part of the growth of a young team. Except he’s not, so the fact that they blew their chance to finish fourth and earn a home semi doesn’t feel like a mistake they can make up for in a year’s time so much as it feels like a wasted opportunity that they can’t get back now.
Yet at the same time we’re looking at a club that’s made immense progress since last season. Mark Rudan did wonders in restoring the confidence and belief amongst the squad and inspiring breakthrough or resurgent seasons from a number of players. Some of them won’t be back to feast upon the spoils in the coming years but others will be. Particularly the young kiwi fellas that have now established themselves at this level and should be the core of this squad for the next half decade, restoring a club identity in the same process.
Who led the team in minutes played this season? That’d be teenaged Liberato Cacace, the most veteran savvy young player you’ve ever seen. Lad knows all the tricks in the book already. Fifth and sixth on that list were Alex Rufer and Sarpreet Singh. Of the seven players currently re-signed for next season, there are six NZers plus Steven Taylor. Liberato Cacace, Alex Rufer, Louis Fenton, Callan Elliot, Sarpreet Singh, and Oli Sail. Every single one of them improved their reputations under Mark Rudan. Every single one of them understands the Wellington Phoenix’s pride of place within its city and its country.
So when Ufuk Talay takes over at the culmination of Sydney FC’s Asian Champion League run he’ll at least have the core of a proper team to work with. He doesn’t have to build this thing up from scratch. He doesn’t have to convince these players that they belong at this level. He doesn’t have to do what Mark Rudan’s done because Mark Rudan’s already done it. The groundwork is there. Whether or not he’s got the chops to take this thing forward now… only one way to find out and that’s to wait and see. Yet thanks to the progress made this season Talay is inheriting a club in a much better state than his old mate Marky picked it up in.
And honestly we can’t overlook what a state this team was in a year ago. Had they fluffed on the Mark Rudan appointment like they fluffed on Darije Kalezic then it could have been all over. Dude took over a team that had no purpose or vision. He’s put the Welly Nix back on the tracks and in an ideal world he’d be continuing to see that vision through to fulfilment but things don’t come easy with the Nix so that’s Talay’s job now, no worries. But how good to have a little stability now?
We’ve still got dramas that are soon to come to a head with the licence, as the Welly Nix enter their final guaranteed season awaiting an independent A-League to come to the rescue. We’ve also got mad dramas for the second straight year with two-thirds of the squad coming off contract… you really woulda hoped the club would have learned that lesson by now. To be fair the licence thing will have played a part in that too, safe to say.
A lot now depends on the transfer market. Gotta re-sign Roy Krishna for one thing. Gotta replace any jokers that find their way elsewhere too. And somewhere along the way they need to ensure that they add to the depth and talent in the squad to close the gap between themselves and the top three, whilst also ironing out their consistency as far as results go.
But those are all issues for next season, we’re talking about this one at the moment. And I guess the answer is the same as it always is with these questions: a little from Column A, a little from Column B. Success is a tricky thing to define when expectations are always shifting. Before the season a spot in the playoffs would have sounded like the closest thing to a championship this team was capable of. By early January it was clear that the top four and a home playoff game were within reach. So now what felt like the best case scenario in preseason feels like a missed opportunity instead. The Phoenix technically finished in the bottom half of the table.
Maybe I’m being ruthless and greedy and unappreciative here when I say that, no, I’m not satisfied with how it all ended. Can’t argue with the loss to a far superior Melly Vix team but they shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. This team was good enough for fourth and if they’d beaten a team of children over in Brisbane and avoided defeat the week before in Adelaide then it would have been theirs. They were fourth at the start of April. They then lost four of their remaining five games (including the playoff) while conceding 15 goals in the process.
All a matter of perspective then. Depends how far back you wanna stand when assessing this season. And, like, ultimately it’s a meaningless debate because life is lived in the present moment, you know? Even after the most devastating disappointments, of which this was not, you’ve gotta dust yourself off and get back at it. The Phoenix are still in a precarious place. But at least now we know which way is up. You can call that a success if you want to.
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