Wellington Phoenix Head Coach Ufuk Talay says his squad have arrived in Wollongong with the attitude and ambition required to build on the success of last season, using the City in New South Wales as their home for the 2020/21 A-League campaign.
Talay's Phoenix achieved a third-place finish in the 2019/20 season; they spent a vast majority of his inaugural campaign as Head Coach on the road as a consequence of the COVID-19 shutdown and subsequent league restart, but they're yet to undergo their biggest test to date.
After a successful three-week pre-season camp on the grounds of the University of Wollongong (UOW), the Phoenix announced the City would play host to the club for the entirety of the 2020/21 A-League campaign, with all Wellington home games to be played at Wollongong's WIN Stadium throughout the season.
As Talay heads into a second campaign as Wellington Head Coach - which is already shaping to be just as peculiar as the first - the 44-year-old says there'll be no change in approach from his side as they aim to build on the solid foundations laid out the season before.
"We’re away from home, we’re not in Wellington, it’s a bit disappointing on that side of things," Talay said.
"The world keeps changing very quickly, it’s very fluid.
"The disappointing side is we won’t be able to play our games in front of our fans this season.
"But everyone’s here and everyone has come with the right attitude and right ambition to be successful again this season.
"There’s a great football community here as well… and I hope that they will be coming out to support us.
"The success we had last season, we want to continue on that."
But continuing to build on past performances is a notoriously difficult task, made all the more challenging by the absence of Wellington's home fans for the entirety of the 2020/21 campaign.
Although those fans may be out of sight, Phoenix midfielder Alex Rufer says they will never be out of mind as the Wellington players and coaches alike prepare to put it all on the line for the badge, for their fans and for their families as their Wollongong adventure commences.
"I think it's really important that we stay as in touch with our fans as we can, although it seems like we’re a world a way and might be for some time," Rufer said.
"But our fans are the most important thing to the club, they’re extremely important to us and we hold them very dear to our hearts.
"For as long as we’re away we’re still going to be playing every game for them, not only for our fans but our families.
Everyone has made big sacrifices to come here, and we want to do as best as we can and make our families and our fans proud.
Rufer continued: "To be honest the mentality is still similar (to last season).
"We were away a lot last season with COVID and having to play over here.
"I know it’s going to be a lot longer now but the players were prepared to do this, have sacrificed a lot and now that we’re here it’s business as usual, we’re going to continue on as we have been.
"We’ve got high standards here so we want to do as best as we can this season and try and finish as high as we can.
"It’s not going to be easy, but nothing’s easy and we’re prepared to put in the hard yards."
It's a stark change of environment for the majority of the Phoenix squad but not for midfielder Cameron Devlin, who is relishing the chance to get back in touch with his roots whilst living in his family home, an hours drive out of Wollongong.
"I’m from The Shire in Cronulla so I’m living at home with my family," Devlin said.
"For me, being in Wellington last year it’s really good to be home, I’ve got a big family so it’s a lot of fun being home with my mum and dad and my siblings.
"I’ve been to Wollongong a few times living in the Shire so I’ve shown [my teammates] around a bit.
"It’s really good, the weather has been unreal and to be honest now that we’re getting into the swing of things with games and whatnot in preseason I’m absolutely loving it.
"I was living with a couple of the boys in Wellington which was good fun, a good experience for me living out of home in a different country with new people and a new club as well was really good.
"I feel like I settled in really well, I love being in Wellington and love living there.
"But being home, obviously being with my family, for me I love my family, love my siblings and love being at home close to my mates as well, that’s been really good.
"It’s a bit strange playing for Wellington but living in Sydney, but it is what it is, we’ve got to adapt to the weird times everyone is going through.
"I’m loving being back home and to drive down to Wollongong every day is not bad, I’m very happy."
As Talay, Rufer and Devlin continue their journeys with the 'Nix, new signings Clayton Lewis and Josh Laws are preparing for their debut seasons at the club in which they will not play a minute of football on home soil.
But Lewis, 23, and 22-year-old Laws both remain upbeat about the challenges that lay ahead for themselves and their team in what will be an unprecedented adventure for the Phoenix throughout the 2020/21 season.
"It’s a nice change," Laws said.
"I was in Germany for eight years, it’s a nice place but it’s definitely nicer to be able to go for a coffee at the beach when it’s only a five-minute drive at the moment.
"It’s definitely an upgrade to that extent, the weather is nice as well.
"It seems like a very relaxed city, I quite like that, it’s quite a relaxed vibe so I’m quite looking forward to after training going down to the beach, reading a book and having a coffee with the boys as well.
"I’m looking forward to that kind of lifestyle, to be honest."
Unlike Laws, who joins the Phoenix after a significant stint in Germany at Fortuna Dusseldorf’s youth development system, Lewis is feeling quite at home in his new surroundings, as he likens the environment to that of his home in New Zealand.
"To be fair it’s not too much of a difference to Wellington," Lewis said.
"It’s still windy, probably a bit more sun here.
"I’m loving it, I just moved into my new place right by the beach so it’s obviously really nice.
"To be able to walk around the city and see some of the stuff around here is really nice.
"Being from Wellington it was always one of my dreams to come back and play for the Phoenix at some stage.
"To still be only 23 and be able to do that now, I’m really happy.
"It’s hard not being able to play in front of the Wellington Phoenix fans at home, but they can hopefully watch on TV and hopefully see what I’m about and I can give them something to cheer about this season."
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