During the pre-season campaign ahead of the 2008/09 A-League season, the Wellington Phoenix found themselves short of a fullback…
During the pre-season campaign ahead of the 2008/09 A-League season, the Wellington Phoenix found themselves short of a fullback when the club’s regular left-back Tony Lochhead was invited to trial with Middlesbrough. The SOS went out to a little-known semi-professional player from Melbourne club Green Gully in the Victorian Premier League, who turned out for the Phoenix in their remaining two Pre-season Cup matches and did enough to earn a short-term contract with the club as injury cover. Six years later, Manny Muscat will become just the second player in the history of the club to play 150 A-League matches for Wellington Phoenix FC.
When Muscat first arrived, it would be fair to say no-one had heard of him. The surname was familiar, but it was soon established that he was no relation to his namesake Kevin from Melbourne Victory. He made his first A-League appearance in the opening game of the 2008/09 season and had a home debut a week later on a wet and difficult night against Victory. The visitors ran the Phoenix defence ragged and Muscat was replaced with quarter of an hour to go, having been tormented by Carlos Hernandez, Danny Allsopp and Ney Fabiano. He started just one of the next eight matches and it appeared his stay in Wellington would be a short one.
Instead, Muscat regained his place in the side and played the last eleven games of the season, a period during which the Phoenix solidified noticeably and apart from a 6-1 aberration away to Adelaide, conceded just ten goals in ten games. A contract extension for the 2009/10 season was placed in front of him and duly signed and Manny Muscat’s Phoenix career was up and running. He also became an international footballer in May 2009 when he was called into the Maltese squad. He has since played eight times for the Malta national side.
He began the following season as first-choice right-back and was typically workmanlike for the first half of the season. But as 2009 came to a close, there came a turning point in Muscat’s career. On New Year’s Eve he started in a defensive midfield role against the Central Coast Mariners and was man-of-the-match in a 2-0 win in Gosford. From then on, he became a fixture alongside Vince Lia and Tim Brown in the Phoenix’s engine-room and was a key part of their run to within one game of the 2009/10 Grand Final.
Over the next three seasons, Muscat showed his versatility by playing a mixture of midfield roles and on either side of the back four. He was equally able to slot in at left-back when Lochhead was unavailable and filled the troublesome right-back position often, as well as playing in what had become his preferred role in front of the Phoenix’s back four. It got to the point where Muscat knew he would play every week; it was just a matter of where.
Almost from the start, Muscat was the target of good-natured banter from his team-mates about his inability to score an A-League goal. The duck was broken in round 18 of the 2011/12 season away to Newcastle, when (in his 85th A-League match) he cut in from the right with ball at feet, turned inside a defender and curled a superb shot with his supposedly weaker left foot into the far corner of the goal. The explosion of pure joy which spread across his face as the ball nestled in the back of the net was one of the best television moments of the season. He doubled his tally with a carbon copy of that goal in the play-off heartbreaker against the Glory in Perth later that season, but has failed to trouble the scorers since.
During that 2011/12 season, Muscat’s wife Rebecca was due to give birth to the couple’s first child on the day of a home clash with Melbourne Heart, and was in Australia for the birth. So important though was Muscat to the club and so strong was his own desire to play that he flew into Wellington on the day of the game, helped his side to a 3-1 win and hopped on a plane back across the Tasman early the next day. He played the next game too (a 2-1 away win over Adelaide) as baby Neveah refused to enter the world. When she did finally arrive, he missed the next match which, almost inevitably, the Phoenix lost.
One of the most impressive things about Muscat is that he’s not just a destructive tackler who breaks up would-be attacks and then hurriedly offloads the ball to a team-mate or just hoofs it forward. He can play with the ball at his feet too, able to quickly transition the Phoenix from defence to attack by dispossessing an opponent and playing a short or long pass which sets his team in forward motion.
Muscat and referees have never been too far away from one another. His no-nonsense approach can draw attention from officials – not always unfairly – and he picks up bookings at the rate of around one every three games. In each of the last five seasons, he’s served at least one suspension for reaching the yellow-card limit, but it’s worth noting the newly disciplined Muscat of 2014/15 – in six full matches, his name has appeared in the referee’s notebook just once.
Earlier this year, Muscat achieved another career highlight by earning selection in the A-League All Stars team to face Juventus. An excellent display that night was capped off when he secured Patrice Evra’s shirt at the end of the game, which the former Manchester United star also signed for him.
The spotlight that comes with professional sport has never sat comfortably on Muscat. He’s not the biggest fan of media interviews, but when he does succumb to the various requests for his opinions, his concise, yet perceptive answers leave you with absolutely no doubt that he is a superb reader of a game of football. Paul Ifill told me recently that Muscat is the one player he’s played with at the Phoenix who can read the game like a Premier League player.
Muscat’s latest contract has him in Wellington until the end of the next A-League season, by which time he’ll still only be 31. It may be though that the pull of life outside the game may become too strong. Many footballers struggle with careers after football, often ending their playing days with little or no idea about how they’ll fill the rest of their lives. There’s no such issue for Muscat; he has existing interests in building and property development and has an extremely shrewd business mind. When you talk to him about his life outside football, he answers with passion and a glint in his eye. You sense that he almost can’t wait to stop playing so he can get his teeth stuck into his career beyond the game.
During his time in Wellington, he’s been working away in the background ensuring that when he finally hangs up his boots, his future – and that of his family – will be in safe hands. He’ll no doubt bring the same qualities to that career – professionalism, attention to detail and a search for excellence – that have made him such a valuable and vastly under-rated footballer. You’d certainly trust Muscat to build a solid house for you.
It’s fitting that Muscat joins skipper Andrew Durante as the second member of the Phoenix 150-club. The two are practically inseparable off the pitch, whether it’s driving to and from training together, enjoying a coffee at Mojo or spending time with their wives and young families. As Ifill says, “If you’re mates with Dura, you’re mates with Manny, and vice-versa”. It’s hardly surprising their combination in the Phoenix defence has been so good for so long.
At the start of the current A-League season, Muscat sat on 143 A-League matches. His resilience, consistency and value to the side meant it was almost inevitable that it would take just seven matches of the new season for him to bring up this milestone. When fit and available, he plays; it’s as simple as that. That’s because Ernie Merrick knows what he’ll get from the man in the number 2 shirt – an unequivocal, no-holds-barred, skilful and utterly unwavering performance every single time. And you can’t ask for more than that.
2008/09: 14 appearances (14 starts), 0 goals
2009/10: 26 appearances (25 starts), 0 goals
2010/11: 28 appearances (28 starts), 0 goals
2011/12: 27 appearances (27 starts), 2 goals
2012/13: 24 appearances (24 starts), 0 goals
2013/14: 24 appearances (24 starts), 0 goals
2014/15: 6 appearances (6 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 149 appearances (148 starts), 2 goals