Young Wellington Phoenix flying under the radar in 2019-20 A-League season
It could be short-term pain, long-term gain as Wellington Phoenix begin the new A-League season with a new identity — and a new rivalry.
Ufuk Talay has come across from champions Sydney FC, where he was Steve Corica's right-hand man for just one season, to replace his good mate Mark Rudan in what will be his first stint as an A-League head coach.
When he arrived at the club Talay made the curious claim that football is "70 per cent recruitment". But with 15 players leaving in the off-season, that has certainly been the case and Talay has been tasked with completely overhauling the squad to suit the way he believes the game should be played.
With the Phoenix deciding to become a selling club in the wake of Sarpreet Singh's club record transfer to Bayern Munich, Talay has made a conscious effort to sign up and coming talent instead of recycling A-League journeymen. The average age of the squad is only 23.7 — making it easily the youngest squad in Phoenix history.
That may result in a tough 2019-20 campaign, especially as the Phoenix have so far failed to replace Johnny Warren medallist Roy Krishna, who, along with strike-partner David Williams, rejected a new offer to sign a big money deal with Indian Super League club ATK. But it should have long-term benefits if the Phoenix can keep the core of the squad together for the next two-three seasons.
Of their 13 new signings, the most exciting is New Zealand under-20 international Callum McCowatt, who possess all the tools to take the A-League by storm. The scorer of 21 goals in 16 games for New Zealand champions Eastern Suburbs last season, McCowatt is clearly ready to take the next step in his career and it was a major coup for the Phoenix to sign him when other Ole Football Academy products have opted to try their luck in Europe instead.
Of course you cannot write a season preview and not mention Sunday's blockbuster season opener against Western United, the A-League's 11th club.
The nature of Rudan's departure, having been linked to Western for months before exercising an eight-week out-clause in his two-year Phoenix contract, tarnished his reputation with many Phoenix fans, who were even more outraged when Western also nabbed long-serving captain Andrew Durante, who spent 11 years in Wellington and was expected to take on an off-field role when he retired.
But after being served up the ridiculous Distance Derby for years, a genuine rivalry certainly adds to the excitement heading into 2019-20 and should result in a bumper crowd on opening weekend.
Despite all their departures, it is really only Krishna that the Phoenix have failed to replace and if they can land an experienced No. 9 before the transfer window closes then there is good reason to be optimistic about the Phoenix's prospects, even if they have been written off by everybody across the ditch.
One of the Phoenix's big failings last season was their lack of depth. But Talay has addressed that by signing versatile players who are capable of filling multiple positions. For once, there are players on the bench who have the ability to make a positive impact like teenager Ben Waine, who has been in good scoring form throughout pre-season. Even the uncontracted Sam Sutton has impressed.
Luke DeVere is a sound replacement for Durante, as long as he remains injury-free, All Whites No. 1 Stefan Marinovic is a best-case scenario fill-in for Filip Kurto seeing as he does not take up an import spot, Matti Steinmann is a decent swap for Mandi while Tim Payne provides better midfield cover than Michal Kopczynski, and Ulises Davila, who once signed a five-year deal with Premier League giants Chelsea but never played due to visa issues, should be an improvement on the inconsistent Singh, who ended up losing his starting spot to Max Burgess.
Alex Rufer, Louis Fenton and Liberato Cacace are coming off the back of career-best campaigns and, along with captain Steven Taylor, bring some stability during a period of significant change.
Sure, a lot will need to fall into place in order make the playoffs this season, but the new-look Phoenix have shown during the pre-season, where they drew against Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Victory, that they are still capable of competing with the A-League's best. They just need someone to score the goals.
AT A GLANCE
Coach: Ufuk Talay
Captain: Steven Taylor
Ins: David Ball (Rotherham United), Ulises Davila (Delhi Dynamos), Luke DeVere (Brisbane Roar), Cameron Devlin (Sydney FC), Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi (Auckland City), Stefan Marinovic (Bristol City), Callum McCowatt (Eastern Suburbs), Liam McGing (Sutherland Sharks), Tim Payne (Eastern Suburbs), Reno Piscopo (Renate), Walter Scott (Perth Glory), Jaushua Sotirio (Western Sydney Wanderers), Matti Steinmann (Hamburg SV).
Outs: Max Burgess (Western United), Nathan Burns, Tom Doyle, Andrew Durante (Western United), Anthony Golec, Justin Gulley, Michal Kopczynski (loan ended), Roy Krishna (ATK), Filip Kurto (Western United), Ryan Lowry, Mandi, Cillian Sheridan, Sarpreet Singh (Bayern Munich II), David Williams (ATK).
Biggest loss: Krishna was the best player in the A-League last season and there does not appear to be anyone on the current roster who looks capable of matching the 19 goals he scored during the 2019-20 campaign. A genuine match-winner with speed to burn. He was particularly valuable as a New Zealand citizen.
Biggest gain: Although the Phoenix have not yet signed a replacement for Krishna, they essentially had Marinovic across the line as soon as it became apparent Kurto would be leaving. The All Whites No. 1 brings experience from his spells in Germany, Canada and England and crucially does not take up an import spot.
Player to watch: Essentially everyone in the New Zealand football community has big wraps on McCowatt, and it is easy to see why. McCowatt led the national league with 21 goals in 16 games last season and even scored a hat-trick during a man of the match performance in the final. Still only 20, the young forward is a star in the making.
Prediction: Sixth. Of course that depends on the club actually signing an import striker before the transfer window closes, Davila emerging as one of the league's best players and one or two of the youngsters having a breakout season. A clear top four should develop with Perth Glory, Sydney FC, Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory boasting significantly stronger squads than the rest of the league but the Phoenix still possess enough quality to mount a challenge for the playoffs, which is always their benchmark for success.