28/02/2024

The Wellington fans will welcome back the 'Nix' full-time for 2022/23. (Photo: Wellington Phoenix)

The 2022/23 A-Leagues seasons have been a long time coming for the fans, players, coaches and staff of the Wellington Phoenix.

Two years on the road have taken their physical, mental, and emotional toll. Neither the men’s or women’s side was able to be permanently based in their home country as New Zealand’s borders remained shut.

The ‘Nix’ were able to return for two A-League Men fixtures at the tail-end of the 2021/22 season. While it meant the world, it wasn’t quite the same as a full home and away season.

It was bittersweet for midfielder Clayton Lewis, who was out injured at the time with a long-term ankle issue.

Joining the club in 2020 after returning to New Zealand from overseas and playing for Northern League club Auckland City, he still hasn’t been able to play in front of home fans in the A-League Men.

Speaking to The Inner Sanctum at the A-Leagues season launch on Tuesday, the 25-year-old spoke about the prospect of finally getting the opportunity he’s dreamed of.

“To be home for the first time for me, it’s a big thing for me,” Lewis said.

“I get to play in my hometown week in, week out. It’s a massive thing to play in front of my family and friends, so I can’t wait to have home fans there again, they’re amazing.”

“I think the whole hype around the town [is different]. Being over in Sydney, no one ever talks about the Wellington Phoenix.

“So to be able to travel around Wellington and seeing billboards of us and hearing people talk about wanting to come to the games this year, I think it’s going to be amazing.”

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Just like his miss last season, Lewis is going to have to wait that little bit longer to play in New Zealand.

In the Australia Cup loss to Macarthur, he suffered a grade two tear to his hamstring, leaving him left to rehab while every other player is finishing their pre-season preparation.

He may have to wait for as long as the Round 5 meeting with the Bulls, but is aiming to get back as soon as possible.

“It’s been three weeks, and I’m probably still a couple of weeks away from being back fully,” Lewis said.

“I may miss one or two games. It’s better now than in the middle of the season. Silver lining, it made my ankle a bit better now.

“Hopefully come start of the season we’re ready to go and we can build on some of the results.”

After returning from a spell in England with Scunthorpe United, which didn’t play out how he wanted it to, Lewis is eager to finally play in front of a true home crowd.

His contract was mutually terminated after three seasons and just 19 appearances, where he saw minimal game time.

The chance to play at home this year is something that’s kept him sticking with Wellington to see the club through to greater success than just making finals.

“Coming home for me was a big thing, I wanted to play for the Wellington Phoenix,” Lewis said.

“I think Ufie [coach Ufuk Talay] gave me a chance, and I kept my spot. I think he’s probably the coach that gave me that confidence again. Credit to him as well… I was a 10 and now I’m a six, so he obviously saw something I didn’t see.

“I’m enjoying playing under him, and hopefully it’s something I get to do for many more years.

At the moment, I want to focus on the Phoenix and doing as well as we can. Our goal is to do better what we did what we did last year.”

Across the ditch for the first time

Wellington’s women’s side played its first season in the A-League Women in 2021/22, albeit under probably the most difficult circumstances of any new team in any league across the world.

They were solely based in New South Wales across the length of the season, playing home games in Wollongong. It was a challenging experience for many reasons.

In a squad built primarily of promising, young talent, they were learning more every day about themselves, their role in the team, and professional football.

One of those young players was Alyssa Whinham. The 18-year-old, made famous for her stunning first A-League goal and subsequent celebration, has been on the rise since debuting.

Whinham celebrates her first A-League goal. (Photo: Wellington Phoenix)

Having earned her first Football Ferns call-up after making her way up the junior national team system, she looks back on the experience fondly.

“For a lot of us, it was the first time we’d been out of home,” Whinham told The Inner Sanctum.

“We had such a young team, so it was a pretty big deal. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we definitely learnt a lot about each other, and we got really close as a team.

“Most importantly on the field, because we were so close off the field, you could see it slowly building on field.

“We learnt from so much from each other, from Gemma [Lewis] and all the coaching staff and the experience in a professional environment.”

The return to Wellington coincides with the build-up to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Starting in July, it’s the first time the event has been hosted in either Australia or New Zealand, and the excitement is palpable.

With her Ferns dream firmly in sight, Whinham is aiming to pull on the kit come then. Performing the best she can from November, when the season starts, is the best way to make her case for selection.

“When it first got announced we were co-hosting it, I never even expected that it would be a realistic thing,” she said.

“I remember watching the announcement, and being like ‘I can’t wait to just get down there and watch it’. It’s pretty cool that it could be realistic [to play for New Zealand at the World Cup]… and hopefully that’s the dream.”

The Wellington Phoenix kick off their season in the A-League Men at home, hosting Adelaide United on Sunday, October 9. In the A-League Women, they host Melbourne City on Sunday, November 20.

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