In the first of a series of columns from the Hyundai A-League Finals Series club captains, Wellington Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante looks forward in his own words to this weekend's Elimination Final at Melbourne Victory ... and beyond.
Read on for Durante's view on his hopes of leading the 'Nix's most successful ever team, his triple century of appearances, Wellington's standout stars of 2018/19, the credit owed to coach Mark Rudan, the club's fantastic fans and how winning a Grand Final with the New Zealand outfit would cap everything.
"Our group of players and coaches have spoken all year about creating history and doing something special. That’s been our focus. We want to be the most successful Wellington Phoenix team of all time.
"We were probably at one of the lowest points in the club’s history last season, with results and crowd numbers. To have a new coach come in, new players come in, and transform the club back to its glory days has been magnificent.
We’ve worked so hard on rebuilding our culture, rebuilding the camaraderie inside the change room, getting our fans back again and really connecting with the city and I think we’ve done that on all levels.
"The first game of the season was a significant game for us. A new era under a new coach. Historically we haven’t started well and to get a good win against the Grand Finalists, Newcastle, was a real sign of things to come.
"We had a bit of a slump where we lost three in a row and we admit we weren’t playing so well. I think the turning point was against Perth Glory. They were the league leaders at the time and we put in a really strong performance. We should have won the game and we ended up drawing 1-1.
"From then on, we had a really strong belief that we were good enough. That we could really do something special in this league. We went on a 10-game unbeaten run straight after that, and that really set us up.
"For me, the stand out games were the draws against Melbourne Victory where we had them against the ropes and should have beaten them. That showed how far we had come.
"The Central Coast game, where we set records and won 8-2, was a sensational night because there was a lot riding on that game. There was a lot of pressure, because Newcastle were catching us on the ladder so it was important to win. The way we won was something else."
"Another achievement this year came on a personal level. I’m proud to have racked up 300 games in the Hyundai A-League. It’s not an easy thing to do, certainly only playing 27 games a season. It takes a while to get there.
"My Hyundai A-League career started in not the best way. In the inaugural season in 2005, I broke my leg in the pre-season so I ended up missing the entire first year. It was a really difficult setback. To come back from that and to become a consistent player in this league is something my family and I look back with great pride."
"There have been so many players who have stepped up this season and made a statement of how good they are.
"Roy Krishna has been magnificent and having the season of his life. Alex Rufer was almost an outcast last year. He came into pre-season to trial, to try and get a gig again, and he’s been in my opinion one of the best players on the park in every game this year. Louis Fenton, another one who was sent away last year. He came back and had to prove himself. There’s a lot of great individual stories this year.
"I have to include myself in that, coming off such a poor year. A lot of people questioned whether I could play on again. I had a lot to prove and I’ve played every game except one this year through suspension.
A lot of us had a point to prove and Mark Rudan has been key to bringing the best out of us. So much credit has to go to him.
"We’ve got a lot of youngsters in our team that are playing well every single week. There aren’t many other teams who are playing 18 and 19-year-olds regularly like that. We’ve just got a really good mix of youth and experience."
Mark of success
"I think Mark’s brought in some fantastic foreign players as well this year: Steven Taylor, Filip Kurto, Michal Kopczynski. These guys have been standouts every week and really bought into the team culture and what Wellington is all about.
"Every season, players move on and make decisions about their careers. Coaches do the same thing. We want to make the most of this season we’re all together.
"Mark’s been extremely instrumental in what we’ve achieved this year. He’s changed the mindset of the club. He’s reshaped the culture of the club. He’s given our players confidence. He’s given a lot of players second chances. He’s given our players belief in their own ability."
"Another vital factor this year has been our support. The home fans, the fans that travel. They are the lifeblood of this football club. If they do not show up, there is no football club. We are extremely grateful for them showing up every week.
"We have loved playing at Westpac Stadium this year. We feel like we’ve turned it back into a fortress, like previous years, and the support has been magnificent.
I’ve loved playing in front of them for so long and this has been a year to be proud of. Together we have been through some tough times so I’m really glad to put a smile back on their faces and see them enjoying watching our team again.
"We’ve been on the road this year and matched up with some of the best teams. We've had some really strong results against everyone. We don’t fear anyone. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves to turn anyone over, anywhere.
"Finals football is different. It’s about who makes the fewest mistakes. Who is the most switched on on the night. We’ve missed playing in the finals for a few years now so I want all of our players to enjoy it, soak it up, enjoy the attention that comes with it. That’s why we’ve worked so hard all pre-season. We’ll be ready.
"It has been a special year but we haven’t achieved anything yet. There is still a long way to go. We are enjoying the ride."
"For me personally, winning a championship in Newcastle was incredible and still a highlight of my career.
If I was to win one here, in all honesty, it would mean more.
"Because of how much harder it would have been. Because of how people thought we could not do it.
"That’s the dream. I think there’s been so much negative press about the football club and whether we belong in this league. To actually go and win it would be something magical. This team can pull it off. We’ve got a special group here. I believe that we are going to do it."