A difficult season for the ‘Nix saw coach Ernie Merrick resign early in the campaign as they missed the finals for a second straight year. We examine Wellington’s season and look ahead to the 2016/17 campaign.
Record: Played 27, Won 8, Drawn 6, Lost 13
Leading Goal Scorer: Roy Krishna (12)
Best home crowd: 10,034 – Round 1 against Melbourne City
Star performer: Roy Krishna
The Fijian flier was Phoenix's standout this season. Now looking every inch an A-League star in his fourth season in the competition, he scored a dozen goals, double the number of the side's next best. His searing pace and deceptive strength were a lethal combination as Krishna became the club's second all-time leading goalscorer, with only Paul Ifill now ahead of him. His off-field humility and giant smile just added to the overall package of a player who is now among the Hyundai A-League's most dangerous attackers.
Breakout player: Jacob Tratt
Right fullback has often been a problem position for the Phoenix, but in the former Sydney FC squad player, they finally found a consistent, reliable, multi-talented #2. Tratt started every one of the side's first 19 matches, developing both his defensive and attacking skills and becoming a Yellow Fever favourite. His departure for family reasons – first temporarily and then permanently – robbed Wellington of a player who looks to have a bright future in the game. At season's end, he won the club's Young Player of the Year award.
Goal of the year: Vince Lia
In the first game after the resignation of coach Ernie Merrick, the Phoenix produced the best possible response, beating Central Coast 3-0 in Hamilton. The second goal was an absolute stunner, with Vince Lia seizing upon a half-clearance before smashing the ball into the top corner from 25 yards to notch just his fourth goal in over 200 Hyundai A-League games. An honourable mention too for Tom Doyle's mazy run and strike from outside the box in the round 17 visit to Adelaide United.
Highlight: Becoming Victory's bogey team
The Phoenix visited Victory in round four, where a red card to Dylan Fox was the catalyst for a catastrophic opening of the floodgates, Victory scoring four goals in the last 20 minutes in a 6-1 thrashing. The two next met in a rescheduled fixture after the November earthquakes in New Zealand's capital. On a balmy Tuesday night in January, Roly Bonevacia opened the scoring in the first half before late goals from Jacob Tratt (his first in the Hyundai A-League) and former Victory favourite Kosta Barbarouses inflated the scoreline to 3-0. And lightning was to strike twice when the two sides met again, this time in Melbourne in round 25. Bonevacia was again to the fore, scoring two long-range stunners in the first half, before Shane Smeltz tapped in a third to complete a second 3-0 win over Victory, and make up, in some way, for what had happened earlier in the season.
Lowlight: Ernie Merrick's resignation
The 0-2 loss at Adelaide in round eight which left Phoenix rock-bottom of the table was the last straw for the affable Scotsman, who announced to the players afterwards he'd be leaving the club after just over three seasons in charge. It emerged he'd tendered his resignation to Chairman Rob Morrison earlier in the season, but it was declined. This time, it wasn't. It was an emotional time for everyone involved with the club and Merrick was rightly lauded for the attacking style of play he had brought to the Phoenix and the laconic, easy-going way in which he'd conducted himself during his time in New Zealand.
What they need:
The first agenda item is confirming the coach for next season with the end of May the stated time-frame. Once the new boss is in place, he can start working through the off-contract players and starting to fill gaps. With Roly Bonevacia likely to depart and fellow midfielder Alex Rodriguez also off-contract, visa spots may open. Foundation player Vince Lia also seems likely to leave, so shoring up the defensive midfield spots is a priority. The search for a right fullback will begin again with Jacob Tratt's sudden departure and there's also doubt around the futures of goalkeepers Glen Moss and Lewis Italiano. In short, there's plenty of work to do at Nix HQ!
Acquisitions for next season:
Losses for next season:
Jacob Tratt, Shane Smeltz
Outlook for 2017/18:
Wellington should do a lot better than they have these past two seasons. The squad they assembled at the start of 2016/17 was as strong as any in the 10-year life of the club, making the inability to return to finals football particularly galling for fans, the players and the club's board. The right coaching appointment is vital, as is the off-season recruitment undertaken by the new boss. The murmurings of discontent at crowds and TV ratings will continue until the Phoenix start winning again and certainly they don't seem a million miles away from finding the finals formula. The 2017/18 campaign is as big as any the club has ever faced; they simply must get it right.