15/04/2024

The Phoenix finished last in their inaugural A-League Women season, but there is a lot more to the story of an ultimately positive campaign. (Image: Wellington Phoenix; Design: Will Cuckson)

Despite some evident growing pains in their first campaign, the Wellington Phoenix can hold their head up high in the 2021/22 A-League Women season.

Wellington Phoenix entered the A-League Women competition for the first time in their history in season 2021/22. Despite evident growing pains, Gemma Lewis’ side gave a good account of themselves with a lot of excitement about what there is to come in the future.

Finishing position: 10th (Two wins, one draw, 11 losses)

The highs

The Phoenix entered the league as an unknown quantity with a young inexperienced squad. The A-League Women competition took note when they competed against the Western Sydney Wanderers and earned a point in a scoreless draw in the first official club game.

Unfortunately for Lewis’ side, what followed that match was not as pleasant. They were made to wait for their first victory, for 11 long, and at times painful, match days to be exact.

When the first win came, it was a spectacle to behold, with the young Nix side coming of age to put traditional A-League Women powerhouse Canberra United to the sword in a 3-0 win.

Once belief was instilled in the Phoenix, they became a hard team to match up again, going on to claim another victory against the struggling Wanderers in Round 13.

Despite the result not being enough for the Nix to avoid the wooden spoon, it was a historic, character building moment for a young side that went about its football the right way. They showed obvious signs of improvement as individuals and as a collective unit week by week.

Wellington players celebrating Kate Taylor’s goal against the Western Sydney Wanderers. (Image: Wellington Phoenix)

The lows

It was never going to be smooth sailing for the Nix in their first season, and despite getting a point out of their opening match, the going got tough and the young core were eventually better for it. The hard knocks began in the second game, with the Nix conceding five goals to a well-drilled Newcastle Jets side.

The darkest hours for the Nix came in first half displays against Sydney FC and Melbourne City, season 2021/22’s top two sides.

In Round 5, the Nix got taught a footballing lesson by Sydney, who scored five first half goals in what felt like a training session in Wollongong. The match finished 5-0, with the Sky Blues noticeably taking their foot off the gas in the second interval.

Just the following week, the last straw well and truly broke. The Nix found themselves 3-0 down at half time at AAMI Park, being completely outworked, outplayed and outclassed by Melbourne City.

Whatever Lewis told her charges at the break certainly left an impact, as the Nix went out looking extremely competitive and fully engaged in the second half, unlucky not to pull back a goal.

Despite going down to City on the day, the Nix were on a mission from that point on for the rest of the season. Wellington was no longer the easy beat, immediately starting by gaining and eventually surrendering a 2-0 lead vs Brisbane after the City game.

Although it culminated in a heartbreaking loss, the belief was certainty there, and it kept building as the season went on.

Wellington had its hands full when playing against Sydney FC. (Image: Wellington Phoenix)

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MVP

A few players could make a case to be the Phoenix’s most valuable player in season 2021/22 for different reasons, but it is hard to look past goalkeeper and captain Lily Alfeld.

Coming into the season, the Kiwi shot stopper was well known in A-League Women circles for her heroics that consistently kept Perth Glory in games they had no right to be in during the previous campaign. At the Nix that skill was required, as well as her leadership qualities.

At only 26 years of age, Alfeld did an incredible job between the sticks as usual, but what was of paramount importance was her ability to remain calm and guide her younger teammates when things were not going their way.

It is easy to feel dejected and apathetic when you are on the wrong side of results most weeks, but Alfeld remained positive and a bright example for her teammates.

Her outstanding performances were recognised by her country when she was selected for the New Zealand squad for the SheBelieves Cup.

Lily Alfeld is a constant issue for opposition forwards. (Image: Wellington Phoenix)

Another worthy recipient would have been Grace Jale who, at only 22 years of age, was a touch of class and final third quality for the Nix. She scored six goals in the competition, including major contributions in both wins.

The ever-present centre back duo of Kate Taylor and Mackenzie Barry also deserve recognition for their strong play and organisation in the heart of defence.

Development of young players like Jale, Taylor and Barr to become dependable cornerstones of the team will be the next step forward for the Phoenix in their journey for A-League Women success.

Breakout player

How can you look at Alyssa Whinham’s story and not smile? The young midfielder was originally informed by coach Gemma Lewis that she would not be a part of the squad, and by the end of the season she was a key member.

Lewis even went out of her way to recommend Whinham to other A-League Women clubs, but a move never eventuated. She was eventually handed a lifeline by Lewis with one of the last spots on the squad.

The midfielder played like she had a point to prove, featuring in all 14 matches, starting 12 of them. It’s an impressive statistic for a player unwanted by any club just months earlier.

Whinham’s big moment came in January when she scored against the Brisbane Roar and produced one of the most wholesome reactions in A-Leagues history.

She continued her strong forward play and was a constant handful for opposition players with her pace and trickery. Whinham was awarded the A-League Women’s Young Player of the Month honour in January.

The final word

The Wellington Phoenix women’s team went from an unlikely concept to completing an A-League Women season in the span of six months. Their immediate inclusion would have been hard to foresee if the Women’s World Cup was not in close proximity.

Nix fans treated the first season as a free kick, with no expectations, just wanting to see fight and development from their side and that is exactly what they got, especially in the second half of the season.

The Nix were obviously short in quality and experience, especially against the top side, but one thing that could not be questioned was their commitment, playing out a a full A-League Women season in Australia.

A source of frustration for the Nix fans was the cap on players from New Zealand. Allowing a side from a different country in the competition must also allow that side to prioritise its own development, not limit it.

The Wellington men’s side has shown that they do not mind taking risks on undervalued Australian assets such as Reno Piscopo, Cam Devlin, Jaushua Sotirio and coach Mark Rudan.

The abundance of Australian players in an Australian league means the Phoenix will always have a strong Australian representation, cap or no cap.

The fear that Wellington may end up becoming the Football Ferns B side is an unreasonable and unfair one, especially since we have seen an Australian example which went ahead unrivalled in Melbourne City.

If that was to occur, strong performances would lead to Ferns players earning overseas moves like the majority of City’s Matildas earned after their strong performances in the competition.

Overall, despite on and off the field frustrations with growing pains and with Football Australia’s and the APL’s administration, Nix fans would be proud of how their club conducted itself in its first A-League Women Season.

The focus now switches to maintaining their core, recruitment – in particular filling their New Zealander cap with top quality players – and improving on their maiden season’s performances and results.

The Wellington Phoenix Women endeared themselves to Australian based Nix supporters, ‘The Little Corner of Yellow’. (Image: Wellington Phoenix)

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