So when Ufuk gave me that chance to play against Western United in MW16, I took my chance – and that’s what football is about, you get given opportunities and you’ve just got to take them and make the most of them.
In his second season with the Phoenix and fresh from signing his first professional contract, 19-year-old defender Sam Sutton was a revelation for the Club during the 2020/21 A-League season; the Club remaining unbeaten in all of his 10 starts at left back.
Not content with his string of solid performances in the yellow and black, Sutton is keen to continue improving his game – both by working hard and learning from other players whenever he can. We catch up with Sam as he talks through the highs and lows of last season’s campaign, his journey to the Tokyo Olympics with the OlyWhites and his thoughts on next season with the Phoenix.
Looking back on last season, Coach Talay gave you an opportunity to start against Western United in MW16 and you never looked back. How was that journey been for you from the start of the season to the end?
Yeah at the start of the season, obviously I didn’t play a lot at all, which was tough for me – but coming into the professional environment I was told “it’s not always uphill and it’s not always going to go the way you want” so I knew it was how you [positively] react to things when they’re not going your way that’s important.
So when Ufuk gave me that chance to play against Western United in MW16 [a 3-2 win in which Sutton assisted the match-winning goal in extra time] I took my chance which is the main thing – and that’s what football is about, you get given opportunities and you’ve just got to take them and make the most of them.
So from then on the boys started playing quite well [that win being the first of the Club’s 11 match unbeaten streak] and we managed to turn some results around; even though we couldn’t make the top six in the end, we ended on a high – both personally and as a team.
Hopefully we can hit the ground running and build off that run next season.
I think with the team that we had last season, we were all aware that no matter who was on the field we were going to give it our all. So for me [making that Starting XI] it was just about doing my job and doing everything that I’ve been picking up from watching James McGarry on the sidelines, seeing how I could add things from his game into me, and then how I could add my own little flair too.
Obviously I was able to get some chemistry on the field playing with Josh Laws and Tim Payne at the left centre back position – we built some good comradery there and in the end there wasn’t as much on-field communication needed (as we did at the start) because that chemistry and that familiarity was there. And then in front of me, whether it was Reno [Piscopo]. Bally or Ulises [Davila], the chemistry became better the more I played with them.
The main thing is that Ufuk is great at bringing in players who are going to work and be a good fit for the team, so it doesn’t really matter who starts because we know the team chemistry is going to be there for us.
What were some highlights from last season that particularly stood out to you?
There’s two moments that stood out for me really. One was the last-minute assist to Waino [Ben Waine] for the goal against Western United, that was surreal. Last season it was just me and him flatting together in Wollongong at the time, we’ve been close mates for the past four years coming out the Phoenix Academy together – so it was one of those stories you couldn’t even write about, it was just amazing.
And the other highlight was coming back to New Zealand and playing the home matches – especially the one in Wellington and playing in front of all my family and friends, the crowd was just massive and I’ve never experienced anything like that before in my life.
So those two were definitely the highlights and I hope we can create a few more next season!
How much of a boost was it for you and the team when Steven Taylor returned to the squad in March?
It was massive for us.
Tayls is definitely a prominent figure on our team, both on and off the field and everyone knows what type of personality he has; he’s a real down-to-earth guy despite how massive his career has been, he’s a real humble guy and he’s a great laugh too – so it was good to have him around the changing rooms, him and Bally and hilarious together, keeping us laughing and always keeping us on our toes.
And then I think on the pitch, we’re all aware of the presence and the experience he brings to the team; it helps us a lot just having someone like that out there to help the team and lead the team – one of his best characteristics is his leadership, and for me as a young player I look up to him and the way he leads the team.
And hopefully when I’m an older player I can play the role that he does for a team and mould my game to how his is, both on and off the pitch. He’s a really awesome personality.
And after the season finished, you started on your new adventure – this time in Tokyo with the OlyWhites?
After the season finished I came back to Wellington straight away, as soon as I could. I had a week off, then it was straight back into it – heading to NZ National team training camp in Auckland. I was there for four weeks or so before going off to Tokyo.
Reflecting back on Tokyo, it was an amazing experience. From the football side of things, I think it was good for me to be involved because there was a lot of experience there – especially with Chris Wood and Winston Reid being in the squad. I was just trying to learn as much as possible from them, and you could tell right away from their first training the quality and the professionalism that they bought with them.
So the main thing was just to learn from them and ask as many questions as I could, so that when I came back to the Phoenix next season I was a better player than when I left, and I was ready to contribute even more to the team.
The training over In Tokyo were very intense, but that’s what you’d expect when you have players in the team with such high standards. It was great to get these intense training and get the fitness up and have opportunities to improve.
Overall the experience itself was awesome. It was a shame we weren’t in the Olympic Village, instead he all stayed in a hotel with the other teams in our [football] pool, but it was still a cool experience and the team and the staff there had great chemistry.
We made the most of it and I’ll always look back fondly on the experience.
And coming from Tokyo, you’ve now traded one forced isolation for another! How are you keeping active during this time?
Yep! I got back to New Zealand after Tokyo and did two weeks in MIQ, and now I’m back into Level 4 isolation in Wellington thanks to the lockdown – so I feel like the quarantine is still following me around!
Our Sports Scientist [Weijie Lim] he’s been working hard in the background and giving us specific personal programs to do – that’s all about keeping the fitness up, working on our football technical skills and our gym work to keep us busy.
I’m currently sharing a bubble with one of the reserve team players in the Phoenix, so we’re able to train together which is great. I’ve been doing lots of running, keeping fit – so that when we get back into it I’ll be ready to go.
What’s your goals for next season with the Phoenix, and what are your thoughts on the return of two teammates from the 2019/20 season in Gary Hooper and Callan Elliot?
It’s really exciting to have both Hoops [Gary Hooper] and [Callan] Elliot back, and our new signing Nick Pennington also looks like a good player – so it’ll be great to meet him after he is able to join the team.
Callan is a really close mate of mine, so getting him back was a bonus off the field for me as well, and Hooper – he’s such a great player and personality as well and I enjoyed playing with him before during the 2019/20 season.
In terms of team goals, we all want to make the playoffs – we very narrowly missed out on it last season so I’d love to be involved in some Finals football next season.
Personally for me, my goal is to play as many games as I can and become that starter that I was in that second half of last season. I think myself and James McGarry have a good, competitive battle going on against each other – we’re both aware of it and it’s nothing but healthy for both of us.
I want to keep learning keep progressing and hopefully I can solidify my starting role and help the team get into the top six – and even higher.