After a gruelling 2020-21 campaign that saw the Wellington Phoenix on the road for much of the season, it was much of the same in the 2021-22 season.
Though despite not being able to play games at home in New Zealand until late in the season and COVID running rampant through their camp, they’d be hurdles the Phoenix ultimately jumped through to make the finals.
Starting the season with just one win from their opening six games, signs were ominous for the Nix but they made good ground thereafter to ensure they were a part of finals action.
Though they went out of the finals early, it proved to be a largely encouraging season for the New-Zealand-based outfit.
A major positive for the Phoenix this season was their recruiting. With key players such as Ulises Davila, Stefan Marinovic, Cameron Devlin, Tomer Hemed, and Steven Taylor departing the club during the offseason, the Nix scouting team were once again made to bring in talent to fill the voids.
Signings such as Mexican midfield maestro Gael Sandoval who came on loan and English defender Scott Wooton would pay dividends. After the duo arrived in December and January respectively, Wellington become a far better side.
Additionally, the output from its young brigade was encouraging. Forward Ben Waine and winger Reno Piscopo had impressive seasons, while Finn Surman, Nicholas Pennington, and Sam Sutton also showed promising signs.
Another high point would be their ability to overcome obstacles throughout the season. Whether it was the constant travelling, the COVID breakout or other hurdles that were thrown at the club, the Nix always fought back.
Though Wellington got its season back on track, the opening six weeks of the season was a definite low point, winning just one fixture. Going undefeated in their opening two games, the Nix would lose their next four, losing two games 4-0 during that period.
Losing 4-0 to Adelaide United in game six of the season, it got from bad to worse for the side who had then been out of action for three weeks with COVID running rampant through the club’s camp.
Another disappointment for the Nix was the border closures with New Zealand, forcing the side once again to play their home games in New South Wales. Having finally got back to playing home games in the 2020-21 season in Wellington after more than 300 days, the side suffered the same fate again.
Even worse was their homecoming game in mid-April, with their first game back in Wellington against the Central Coast Mariners, their worst performance of the season. Playing their first match back in Wellington in 330 days and with 18,000 fans welcoming back their side, the stage was set for a happy homecoming, instead what followed was a 4-0 drubbing.
Arriving on loan from Mexican outfit Mazatlán FC, Gael Sandoval was a revelation for the Phoenix this season with the midfielder playing a large part in turning around their fortunes.
Playing his first game in late January against Western United, the 26-year-old wasted little time making an impact, scoring in his first appearance. His first seven games with the club would coincide with the Phoenix’s best run of form of the season, with the midfielder not tasting defeat.
The 26-year-old finished the season with 11-goal contributions, scoring six goals and setting up five. No other player contributed to more goals this season for the Phoenix than him.
A midfield dynamo who was the driving force of the side’s attack, the Nix will be sorely missing him next season as his loan spell comes to a close.
Having made just 16 appearances for the club in the past two seasons, defender Sam Sutton solidified a spot in the first team this campaign, making 22 appearances.
With Steven Taylor retiring at the end of last season, the club looked internally in order to fill the void. The Phoenix decided to give the opportunity to be the club’s number one left-back to the 20-year-old and he repaid the faith with an impressive campaign.
In his first full season at senior level, Sutton looked comfortable in defence and was able to hold on to a starting spot the entire season. Having been a fringe player in recent seasons, the young defender asserted himself in the starting line-up having played less than the full 90 minutes just once this season.
He finished the campaign with three-goal contributions, assisting twice during the season and scoring his first career A-League Men’s goal against the Wanderers late in the season.
Fielding a new-look squad this season, the Phoenix would be pleased with how their season entailed after it looked like it was going to be disastrous early. Though narrowly losing to eventual champions Western United in the first week of the finals was a heartbreaking way to end the season, the club have a lot of positives to take out from it.
Whether Wellington can repeat their efforts next season remains to be seen, with the club set to reshape its squad once again.
Following the loss to United, the club would announce that Jaushua Sotirio, Gael Sandoval (loanee), Gary Hooper, James McGarry, Matthew Bozinovski (loanee), Kurtis Mogg, George Ott, Louis Fenton, and Reno Piscopo won’t be returning to the Phoenix next season.
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