Oskar Zawada and the Wellington Phoenix are semi-finals bound, against all pre-season predictions (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Oskar Zawada and the Wellington Phoenix are semi-finals bound, against all pre-season predictions (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SportsMay 10, 2024

How the Phoenix went from wooden spoon favourites to title contenders

Oskar Zawada and the Wellington Phoenix are semi-finals bound, against all pre-season predictions (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Oskar Zawada and the Wellington Phoenix are semi-finals bound, against all pre-season predictions (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The club’s surprisingly good season is built on the desire to prove a random A-League YouTuber wrong… and a few other factors.

“There’s no way that Wellington Phoenix play finals this year. I can’t see it happening at all.” 

Those are the words of Lachlan Raeside, an Australian football content creator, forecasting a last-place finish for the Phoenix as part of his A-League Men’s ladder prediction last October. His comments didn’t raise too many eyebrows at the time – even die-hard supporters had modest expectations for the side ahead of the 2023-24 season. But they did catch the attention of Giancarlo Italiano.

The team’s new head coach printed out a screenshot of Raeside’s dire prediction and pinned it up in the dressing room, in the hopes of developing a prove-the-doubters-wrong attitude within his squad. It worked. Now “Chiefy”, as Italiano is affectionately known, can tell the doubters to shove their wooden spoons back in the kitchen drawer – the Phoenix are reaching for silverware.

The A-League Men’s only New Zealand side (until Auckland FC enters competition later this year) finished the regular season just two points shy of Premier’s Plate winners Central Coast Mariners. But the pursuit of glory continues, with the A-League Champions Trophy firmly in sight. Now all that stands between the Phoenix and their first ever A-League Grand Final appearance is a home-and-away semi finals series against old foes Melbourne Victory starting on Sunday night. 

Raeside can only take so much of the credit, however. Here’s how the Wellington Phoenix have gone from wooden spoon favourites to title contenders this season.

Proving the doubters wrong

NFL great Tom Brady once disclosed that proving his doubters wrong was his driving motivation – a method it’s safe to say paid dividends for the seven-time Super Bowl winner. It seems to have had a similar impact at the Phoenix. 

Raeside was far from alone in his wooden spoon prediction. Even on this side of the Tasman, few pundits saw the Phoenix making the finals. And, in fairness to them all, such a prediction made plenty of sense.

Heading into this season, only six members of the Phoenix’s starting eleven from their final game of last season remained at the club. Key players like midfield linchpins Clayton Lewis and Steven Ugarkovic, defenders Callan Elliot, Josh Laws and Lucas Mauragis and fan favourite goalkeeper Oli Sail all departed during the off-season. 

But Italiano was unmoved. “I must be missing something,”  he said of the pre-season doom-mongers at the start of the campaign. “They must have knowledge I don’t have to make big calls like that.

“That will fuel all the players. I wouldn’t say it’s offensive towards us, but I’d say it’s very disrespectful, especially with the squad we have.”

The Phoenix players and supporters on Sky Stadium after the final match of the regular season (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Investing in youth

Replacing that laundry list of talent was never going to be easy. Recruiting from overseas to plug all those gaps was financially impossible. It meant trusting the fledgling stars of the Phoenix Academy’s ability to fly the nest.

It was a gamble previous boss Ufuk Talay seemed reluctant to take last season, with no new graduates featuring in 2022-23 and others, like Finn Surman, Sam Sutton and Ben Waine, before his move to England, mostly used off the bench, if at all.

But these spring chickens have turned out to be the Phoenix’s golden eggs. Finn Surman has been among the best centre-backs in the competition. Long-term understudy Alex Paulsen finally stepped out of the shade of Oli Sail and has excelled between the sticks (while Sail ended up collecting the wooden spoon at his new club, Perth Glory). 

Ben Old, Oskar van Hattum, Isaac Hughes, Lukas Kelly-Heald, Fin Conchie… the list of important internally-elevated talent goes on. 

“Rightly or wrongly, in years gone by we were recruiting players out of Australia that were probably blocking these kids,” said director of football Shaun Gill at the start of the season.

“Now we’ve gone, let’s look internally first and there has to be someone demonstrably better than someone in our academy to see us not sign an academy player.”

The Phoenix’s league standing certainly justifies the refreshed approach.

Young goalkeeper Alex Paulsen has been one of the Phoenix’s players of the season (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Solid recruitment

Most naysayers’ biggest concern at the start of the season was recruitment – or the distinct lack of it. Trusting the youngsters was one thing, but bringing in zero big-name replacements for those key departures was another. 

But that discounts the smart recruitment of previous campaigns. The Phoenix spent more money than ever to lure Kosta Barbarouses back to the capital in 2022, along with star Polish striker Oskar Zawada and Bulgarian playmaker Bozhidar Kraev. The latter duo signified a move away from signing 30-plus Brits, the Nix’s traditional visa player archetype, and bringing in players in their prime with a point to prove. 

Meanwhile, Mohamed Al-Taay was a trusted off-season recruit Italiano knew well from his Blacktown City days, and while it took some time to fill the last remaining visa slot left by Yan Sasse’s departure, the industrious Costa Rica international Youstin Salas was a shrewd January addition. 

The Chiefy factor

Which brings us to “Chiefy”. It wasn’t only players who needed replacing in the off-season, with the departure of the popular Ufuk Talay, who eventually rejoined Sydney FC. Again, the Phoenix promoted from within, with Talay’s understudy stepping into the void.

The former analyst embraced the new direction of the club head-on, empowering the young players while inspiring huge improvements from the more experienced talent pool: Alex Rufer, Scott Wootton and, in particular, top-scorer Barbarouses have massively upped their game under the new management. 

His previous lack of experience coaching at this level was another note in the negatives column for those predicting the ‘Nix’s campaign, but he has been a breath of fresh air among the more curmudgeonly sideline golems of the A-League, the likes of Marko Rudan, Tony Popovic and, let’s be honest, his predecessor. Much like his counterpart at the Mariners, Mark Jackson, Italiano mostly lets the football do the talking. 

That, combined with his attention to detail, open-minded innovation and impressive coaching acumen, has resulted in a stubbornly effective defensive rearguard capable of ruthlessly punishing teams on the counter-attack. 

A little luck

Football is a game of narrow margins, and every title push involves a bit of luck. Other than Zawada, the Phoenix have managed to stay relatively free of long-term injuries this season. And rival clubs in the league were also weakened over the summer, with a record number of talent scooped up by clubs across Europe. 

Even the refereeing decisions, which the Phoenix fans will tell you have always gone against them, have been slightly more favourable this season (the key word being “slightly”). 

The result of all these factors is a two-legged clash against Melbourne Victory standing in the way of a first-ever Grand Final for a Phoenix side that was never expected to make it this far. 

The second leg at Sky Stadium on May 18 is likely to see the Ring of Fire ablaze in a way it hasn’t been for many years. After the tough seasons of pandemic relocation, it’s just rewards for a Phoenix side, and their fanbase, who have lived up to their name this year. 

A team burned, with eight players and their head coach all leaving, they have risen from the ashes to prove all their doubters wrong. That elusive first piece silverware would be the crowning glory.

Keep going!