The Golden Touch
After a horror start to the season, Wellington Phoenix have a realistic shot at playing finals football this season – thanks to goalmachine SHANE SMELTZ
After a horror start to the season, Wellington Phoenix have a realistic shot at playing finals football this season - thanks to goalmachine SHANE SMELTZ
WHICHEVER way you look at it, strikers win games and Shane Smeltz has been on fire this season for Wellington Phoenix. But his team hasn-t quite managed to fire as often as their star player.
Like any profession where practice yields improvement, the team are starting to find their feet this term and Smeltz-s goals are dragging the team towards the possibility of finals football and a top-four finish.
In fact, Smeltz has been lighting up the scoring charts for Phoenix since his arrival in the Hyundai A-League at the start of the 2007/08 season.
“I probably wouldn-t have expected to do as well as I have done,” Smeltz admits. “You never know how you-re going to go; you always try to do your best and I-m pretty pleased with how things have gone.”
This season Smeltz has carried the fight to Phoenix-s opposition almost single-handedly, scoring eight of the team-s 13 goals, which is all the more impressive when you consider the stuttering and inconsistent form the team has shown.
“I had a lot of confidence from last season and I-ve carried on from there,” Smeltz says of his blistering form this season. “Everyone in the playing and coaching staff believe in me and when I go out there I feel nice and relaxed and ready to do a job - it comes quite easy to me at the moment.”
LEADING THE LINE
While the season has been one of great achievement for Smeltz - whose goal-scoring exploits caught the eye of new Hyundai A-League franchise Gold Coast United where he-ll be playing next season - the team haven-t quite managed to fire on the consistent basis shown by their No.9.
For all the lows thus far - the two defeats away to Perth stand out - the team has managed to regroup, bounce back and put a few decent results together, proving the quality is there, if the consistency thus far isn-t. It-s something of which Smeltz says the team is well aware.
“We know we have good character in the team and we-ve shown that a number of times this season,” he admits. “When times have been tough we-ve been able to dig ourselves out so it-s a good sign for the team, but it-s a matter of doing it every week and as a team we haven-t been able to do that so far.
“We-re starting to get a bit of consistency at the moment and that-s something we want to continue.”
That consistency could be coming at the right time. With three out the next four games at home, the team has the best possible opportunity to stake a claim for a top four spot. Smeltz says “it-s crucial that we turn [our home form] around”, where they-ve managed just two wins so far in season 2008/09.
The second win came last weekend against a Newcastle Jets side that self-destructed to nine men. With Jets defending doggedly with what numbers they had left, it looked like the game might head for a 0-0 draw. Then, as they say, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
A sweet cross in from the right and Smeltz showed all the predatory instincts to get across his flat-footed marker to head in the goal which provided the platform for Phoenix to go on and win the game 2-0.
Perhaps more satisfying was the man marking Smeltz was Adam Griffiths, a future teammate at Gold Coast United next season.
“I-ve got a lot of respect for him as a player, but it was good to get one past him,” he admits with a laugh.
Smeltz, like Griffiths, knows where he-ll be next year having signed with Gold Coast United. It-s one of many moves that have raised eyebrows across the A-League for its timing.
“I can see the club-s point of view, but the league makes the rules,” Smeltz says. “For me, I-m glad it-s out of the way and I know what I-m doing for the next three years and I can concentrate on my job here.”
It would be human, though, to perhaps have one eye on next season and be distracted on the task at hand. Not so. “I can-t deny that I do think about what-s going to happen in the future,” he admits. “But as soon as I cross the line I-m focused on the club and what I have to do.”
His performances since the announcement on November 4 have continued with commitment and success in front of goal. Smeltz agrees there-s added pressure to continue his form in the face of his impending move, but also says his teammates have been “very supportive” of his decision to leave. “They-re right behind me and know I-ll do the best I can for the rest of the season.”
Wellington Phoenix are currently knocking on the door of the top four, so there-s no time to dream of new pastures for Smeltz quite yet.
“As a club we-re probably as confident as we-ve ever been,” Smeltz says of Phoenix, after beating Newcastle. “We go into a tough game this week against the best team in the league, needing to be fully focused, but we-re confident.
“We-ve got ourselves into a position where we-re in amongst it and, as a club, we-ve always said we want to be part of finals football and that-s our aim. We-re in a decent position.”
As the spearhead of Phoenix attacks, expect Smeltz-s name to continue to light up the scoreboard for the rest of the season, and beyond.
And while media commentators question players- commitment when they-ve already pledged allegiance to another team for next season, Smeltz sees it as added incentive to ensure this season ends in a way that will allow him to leave with his head held high.
“I know how much finals football means to the boys here, and the club, so if I can do anything to help the team get there, I will.”