Gao back on crusade with Phoenix

CHINESE footballer Leilei Gao is back on the Hyundai A-League crusade after signing a one-year deal with Wellington Phoenix FC for the 2008/09 season.

The former New Zealand Knights attacking midfielder was instrumental in the Auckland-based club-s fine run toward the end of the Hyundai A-League 2006/07 season.

With Phoenix head coach Ricki Herbert installed as caretaker coach of the ill-fated club in December 2006, the Knights played five matches – winning three, drawing one and losing one.

Gao played seven matches in the Hyundai A-League 2006/07 season after being loaned short-term to the Knights by Beijing Guoan. He scored a goal in just his second match for the club, against Adelaide United.

When the Knights folded, the 27-year-old joined Finnish Premier Division club MyPa and was the first Chinese footballer to play in the Veikkausliiga.

Phoenix chief executive Tony Pignata said Gao had been a target of Herbert for the club-s debut season in the Hyundai A-League.

“Ricki-s a big fan of Leilei, having worked with him at the Knights, and he was keen to sign him up for season one. Unfortunately the circumstances weren-t right at the time.

“So when the opportunity came up for us to sign him for our second season, we jumped at it.

“Leilei will be a huge asset in the midfield. He-s going to give us the extra speed we need and he-s also a dead-ball specialist. He-s the sort of creative, attacking link-man we-ve been looking for. ”

Gao said he was excited about coming to Wellington.

“I really enjoyed my time in New Zealand, particularly playing for Ricki. The Phoenix are going really well and I-m looking forward to being part of a big season for the club.”

Gao joins fellow midfielder Leo Bertos and defenders Andrew Durante and Jon McKain as new signings for the Phoenix for the 2008/09 season.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix are continuing their search for a specialist right back and a strike partner for prolific season one scorer Shane Smeltz.

Pignata said the club had identified a number of players in both positions that could fit the bill.

“We-ve got some options, so it-s a case of sitting down and working through those.”

Date of birth: July 15, 1980 in Beijing, China (27 years)
Height, weight: 1.80m, 75kg
Playing position: Midfielder

Club history: 2007 MyPa (Finland), 2006/07 New Zealand Knights (loan), 1999-2006 Beijing Guoan

Hyundai A-League statistics: Seven matches (one goal) for New Zealand Knights (debut v Newcastle Jets, North Harbour Stadium, December 3, 2006).

Biography: An attacking midfielder, Gao has the ability to create and score goals. Gao first came to prominence in the Chinese Jia A and was a regular starter for Beijing Guoan for seven seasons. He was loaned to the now-defunct New Zealand Knights in December 2006. Despite efforts by the Phoenix to sign Gao for the Hyundai A-League 2007/08 season, he joined MyPa in the Finnish Premier Division and was the first Chinese player to play in the Finnish Veikkausliiga.