The Wellington Phoenix are gearing up for an assault on the A-League finals for the first time in four seasons, with seven must-win games ahead of them to ensure a place in the top six is locked up.
Sky Sports New Zealand’s football commentator Jason Pine joined Evenings on FNR, and looked ahead to Saturday night’s clash with the Central Coast Mariners.
“The Phoenix know that if they can get the three points and a win by two goals, they’ll leap into fourth place,” Pine said.
“I think the players are just looking forward to getting back out there after having a week off last week, trying to win this game tomorrow night and then looking forward to the last half a dozen games with the very real prospect of returning to finals football for the first time in four seasons.”
Perennial cellar-dwellers in the A-League, Wellington have defied expectations to be on the brink of a finals birth this season, something that even Pine admitted was an unforeseen possibility.
“I tend to be a little bit more parochial on this side of the ditch than some others, but even I said I would find it very difficult to pick the Phoenix in the six,” Pine said
“It’s been a really, really positive time on this side of the Tasman,
“They’ve had their games against Sydney FC, they’ve had their games against Melbourne Victory, they play the teams around them who are all battling for that fourth spot – Adelaide United, Melbourne City as well as Newcastle again – as well as the bottom three,
“They still believe that they can get fourth and host a finals game which was just beyond all expectation at the start of October.”
The team from across the ditch have seen a heavy increase in attendances, with a big contribution from Auckland’s Eden Park which welcomed 23,648 spectators to their clash with Melbourne Victory in February, an all-time record for the club in non-finals action.
Despite this success, Pine believes that it is perhaps still too soon to experiment with an Auckland based franchise in the A-League.
“I think it would a brave move by whoever is running the A-League – whether it is Football Federation Australia or a new independent body – to expand into Auckland,” Pine said.
“Having said that, Auckland is a big market,
“It’s the biggest untapped market – as far as population is concerned – that doesn’t have an A-League team.”
The future of coach Mark Rudan has headlined news for some time with persistent links showing him to be a front-runner for the Western United role, as factors such as family being to play their part.
“He was pretty clear that if they (his family) weren’t going to move over here then he wouldn’t be able to stay for the second year of his contract,” Pine said.
“The club needs to find a way to move his wife Sylvia and his two boys to Wellington,
“It seems so obvious, that if that’s a non-negotiable, then they have to do everything they can – if they do want to keep Mark Rudan as their coach – they have to do everything they can to make that happen,
“Mark Rudan did say that they are working hard in terms of negotiating a deal,
“Depending on which reports you read, he’s either 100% leaving, 100% staying or somewhere in between depending on what day it is and which media outlet you’re reading or listening to.”
Whilst admitting that Rudan’s influence has been pivotal to the club’s achievements on the pitch, Pine was also adamant that if he were to part ways with Wellington, it would not be a massive blow.
“Mark Rudan has come in and been a game-changer for the club, he’s been more than a breath of fresh air,” Pine said.
“He has done a wonderful job, but nobody is irreplaceable,
“I’ve already heard of a couple of very, very strong candidates who have expressed interest in the job at Wellington should Mark Rudan leave.”
The Phoenix face the Central Coast Mariners at Central Coast Stadium on Saturday night, looking up the table and aiming to end the round in fourth place.