Our A-League season previews for season 10 kick off with the side flying the flag for New Zealand, Wellington Phoenix, who endured a tough 2013/14 season and finished in 9th place.
Manager: Ernie Merrick
Captain: Andrew Durante
Ins: Roly Bonevacia (Roda JC), Alejandro Gorrin (Sunderland), Nathan Burns (Incheon United), Michael McGlinchey (Central Coast), Tom Doyle (Team Wellington).
Outs: Carlos Hernandez (CS Cartagines), Leo Bertos (East Bengal), Stein Huysegems (Free), Luke Adams (Free).
Last Season: 9th
2013-14 was… All about rebuilding and transition. Ernie Merrick was brought in to replace Rickie Herbert and shake up the playing style at the club as Phoenix fans became tired of Herbert’s one-dimensional, direct style of play. Merrick tried to instil a more attacking philosophy in NZ – one that had served him so well during his tenure as Melbourne Victory manager – but the Phoenix went ten rounds without a win. They had a fantastic spell after this though and looked like they could push for a semi-final position, but faded badly, including a 5-0 loss at home to fellow strugglers Melbourne Heart (now Melbourne City).
2014-15 will be… Another struggle. Listed as massive outsiders for the title this season, Wellington will need to greatly improve on last season in what is looking like the most competitive and strongest A-League season to date. Merrick has looked to put his stamp on the squad however, allowing several older players to leave the club at the end of last season and bringing in some younger players to add some more energy to a sometimes lethargic Phoenix side.
21-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Gorrin joins his compatriot Albert Riera from Sunderland’s reserve side and could be a surprise packet this season. The former Sunderland under-21s captain has already impressed, bagging a goal and setting up new captain Andrew Durante in the win over West Ham in pre-season.
Nathan Burns has signed on from Incheon United and will be making a welcome return to the competition after his brief loan-spell with Newcastle last season where he scored two goals in 12 appearances. The seven-time capped Socceroo will add some valuable experience to the side – particularly with the likes of Carlos Hernandez, Leo Bertos and Stein Huysegems all departing the club – and Merrick will be looking towards Burns to lead the side to a finals push.
The victory against West Ham will have the Yellow Fever optimistic for the season ahead, but with other sides strengthening – particularly Melbourne City, who were the only team to finish below Wellington last season in their Heart incarnation – it’s going to be a tough road ahead.
Key Player: Albert Riera. “Viva La Riera-lution” were the slogans emblazoned across t-shirts at Westpac Stadium last season across the ditch. The Spaniard, picked up from Auckland City, was an instant success for the Phoenix, and was rightly selected in the A-League All Stars side who took on Juventus last month under his countryman Josep Gombau.
Crucial to the attacking style Merrick has brought to Wellington, the diminutive playmaker offers flair and creativity from deep and was only signed just before last season’s kick-off. Riera arrived in New Zealand seeking a break from his day job and football but at his father’s insistence contacted the Auckland City coach, fellow Catalan Ramon Tribulietx, about the potential of a trial. Soon, he was a key part of the City side that reached the FIFA Club World Cup, and impressed enough in a pre-season trial against Wellington for Merrick to sign him up.
A groin injury cut his season short in February and it was no coincidence that the Phoenix’s season started to fade from there. Merrick will be hoping his star pupil can maintain his fitness throughout the campaign.
What, or whom, do Wellington need? A dependable backline. Last season they had the worst defence in the league, shipping 51 goals. Only four teams scored more goals than the Nix, so if they can continue along that line in the attacking third and shore up the back, improvement on last season’s 9th place finish seems very likely.
The Blog FC Predicted Finish: 10th