On the eve of their elimination final against Adelaide United Wellington Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert has paid tribute to the character of his players.
Written off in most quarters as playoff contenders, the Phoenix stormed into the final playoff spot by winning four of their last five games, with the 12 points accumulated putting them six clear of seventh placed Newcastle Jets.
Watching his players give everything they had in that final push made Herbert proud, and as he looked ahead to Friday night at Hindmarsh Stadium he tried to put what the Phoenix had achieved into perspective.
“We-ve had some difficult times this season, especially when playing away from home, and could easily have fallen away.
“Going into the final weeks I don-t think many people saw us as potential contenders.
“Melbourne Heart, who had made some big signings for their first season in the competition, always looked likely to make the six. Newcastle Jets, who received a massive financial boost just before the run in, had games in hand on everyone else and were looked upon as likely to make the playoffs.
“But the way our players knuckled down and got the required results shows just what they are made of.
“Everyone at the club rolled up their sleeves through some difficult times and got us into the finals.”
Given the demands on some of the Phoenix players over the past three seasons no-one could have complained had they been found wanting in the run up to the playoffs.
The All Whites in the Phoenix squad haven-t had a break in the past three years with a schedule that had them playing A-League, Confederations Cup, A-League, World Cup finals and A-League.
“We-ve never used that as an excuse and never will,” Herbert said.
“But when you look at the demands placed on those players and see how they came back at the end of this season speaks volumes for their character and durability.”
The Hyundai A-League has traditionally been a competition that is difficult to predict.
If evidence was needed to prove that point one only has to look at this year-s league. The top three teams this season, Brisbane Roar, Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United, were the bottom three last year.
The three teams that qualified for a second successive season – Gold Coast United, Melbourne Victory and the Phoenix – occupied fourth, fifth and sixth places.
“That is what makes the A-League so fascinating,” Herbert said.
“Everyone at a club — fans, players, owners and coaches – goes into the season feeling they are capable of winning it.
“We-ve been in the finals for the past two seasons, and if we don-t win the league this year then we will be aiming to do that next year.”
Herbert is only too aware of the task facing his team on Friday night.
Adelaide has a strong home record while the Phoenix has won only two games on the road this season.
“No one understands the benefit of home advantage more than us. We have only lost two games in 35 at Westpac Stadium and those were against the top two teams in the competition – Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners.
“It seems Australian clubs are struggling just as much as we are when crossing the Tasman.
“The main thing is we are in the playoffs and will give it our best.”
While Herbert won-t name his team till after training in Adelaide on Thursday he has been given a boost by the return from injury of Paul Ifill and Vince Lia, along with captain Andrew Durante coming back into the squad from a two-match suspension.
“Getting those players back has to be good for everyone and who knows what part those guys will play, either from the start or on the bench.”