Phoenix veterans tipped to renew their contracts

SAM WORTHINGTON
Last updated 05:00 28/12/2013
Leo Bertos
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ANOTHER YEAR? Coach Ernie Merrick says Leo Bertos has a future at the Wellington Phoenix despite featuring only sparingly this season.

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Manny Muscat won't be the only Phoenix veteran extending his stay in the capital.

The 29-year-old utility yesterday confirmed a two-year extension to his contract, which now expires at the end of 2015-16.

Muscat's retention was a no-brainer for the Phoenix; he is consistently good whether playing as a fullback or in the heart of midfield.

But Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick also offered some surprising news yesterday, declaring the club's five other off-contract veterans are also in line to stay on in Wellington.

Stein Huysegems, Paul Ifill, Vince Lia, Albert Riera and Leo Bertos are all seeking security beyond 2013-14.

Of that quintet, Ifill, ruled out for the season with a ruptured Achilles, and Bertos, who has barely been sighted, appear most at risk.

But Merrick believes all five offer future value.

"All of them, I think, are on track to be with us for another year or two years," said the Scotsman, who himself has a two-year deal with an option of a third.

"All of those players are good leaders and very experienced players. We'll have discussions with them over the next month or two. I don't think you need to clear out players who have been the rock and the foundation on which this club has been built. All of those players have been tremendous players for this club so I can't see myself turning over too many at all."

Before last night Bertos had made just two starts and three appearances off the bench this season.

But the All White is a popular team man and does offer utility value; Merrick is working with him to become an option in the left midfield role now occupied by Kenny Cunningham.

Ifill's situation hinges on his recovery from the 8 to 12 month injury.

But the club's leading goalscorer also has a trump card up his sleeve.

The Englishman becomes eligible to apply for a New Zealand passport in mid-2014 and if successful would free up a valuable import slot.

"There's no pressure coming from us but I know he enjoys New Zealand and he particularly enjoys life in Wellington," Merrick said.

"So that may be an option for him."

In the short term, the Phoenix can sign another import for the remainder of the season as an injury replacement for Ifill.

Merrick also has a spare roster spot available and ideally would bring in two attacking players in the January window.

"We've got to bring in a high striker, maybe an attacking midfielder or maybe two strikers. We desperately need depth. All of the ball winning and possession has to eventuate in goals and that's the part we haven't been doing very well."

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There is no interest in All Whites and Canterbury United midfielder Aaron Clapham, who is "not the type of player" Merrick is looking for.

The Phoenix can also replace Reece Caira temporarily in January.

The out-of-favour left back has been picked in Australia's under-22 squad for the Asian Cup in Oman.

Merrick hoped to bring in a young Kiwi for a month-long "trial" period but that would hinge on the player being released by his club.


- The Dominion Post

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