Leo loving the Hyundai A-League

When Leo Bertos left Wellington for the bright lights of Britain as a wide-eyed 17-year-old he never imagined that 10 years later he would be playing professional football in his home city.

When Leo Bertos left Wellington for the bright lights of Britain as a wide-eyed 17-year-old he never imagined that 10 years later he would be playing professional football in his home city.

Bertos headed north after finishing school to pursue his dream of being a professional player, something back then he could never have accomplished in New Zealand.

But now, thanks to the advent of the Hyundai A-League and owner Terry Serepisos, Bertos is doing just that with the Wellington Phoenix and loving it.

"I went never thinking that I would return (to Wellington) to play professionally. I knew I would come back one day but not for football. It's pretty amazing that there is a professional set-up here," said the talented midfielder.

"It's going to help the development of the game and for kids coming through, like I was, they don't have to go over to Europe or other places to play football professionally because they can do that here in their own backyard and that's a good thing."

Bertos, whose father George is Greek, was brought up on a diet of football from an early age.

"They pretty much threw a ball at me before I could walk," he said with a smile.

Some of his earliest footballing memories are of watching his favourite teams Liverpool and AC Milan on TV with his father and grandfather Leo - both of whom he credits for his success today - and hoping one day to emulate players like England's John Barnes and North Queensland Fury import Robbie Fowler, Ian Rush of Wales, and Dutchmen Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten.

"I really liked how they played the game and I like to play the game like that myself," he said.

"That's probably what, not necessarily made me want to play football, but made me want to try and enjoy the game like they seemed to."

Bertos says his experience in the cut-throat world of British football, where he played for Barnsley, Rochdale, Chester City, York City, Scarborough and Worksop over a six-year period before joining Perth Glory, was a huge learning curve and one that taught him some valuable lessons about life as a professional sportsman.

"It's pressure to perform. You've got to show what you've got and do the best you can day in day out not just in the games at the weekend but at training as well."

That work ethic remains strong in the 27-year-old midfielder as he embarks on his second season with the Phoenix - and the continuing 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign with the All Whites.

Bertos, last season's Phoenix player of the year, has shown again in the opening round of the Hyundai A-League 2009/10 season his ability as a provider.

His pinpoint deliveries from free-kicks or on the counter-attack are well noted and he set up both of Wellington's goals in their first-up loss to the Newcastle Jets.

If there's one area of his game he would like to see improve it's his goal scoring.

"I guess throughout my career I've scored a few goals until I came to the A-League," he said with a wry grin. "It just doesn't seem to be happening. It's something that I've been working on."

"My job is to put opportunities there for the other guys, the strikers, to score. I'm happy doing that but of course I would like to be scoring pretty regularly."

Two goals definitely in his sights are getting the Phoenix to the Hyundai A-League finals for the first time and the All Whites to the World Cup for the first time since 1982 - when current Phoenix and All Whites coach Ricki Herbert was in the national squad.

The All Whites, who Bertos has played for since 2003, will face either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia in the Asia-Oceania World Cup play-offs in October and November.

"(The 1982 side) were pretty much written off but they got through so there's a chance there for us. I don't see why can't get a couple of results and get through."