Men bolster midfield with highly regarded Australian

The Wellington Phoenix have strengthened their midfield for the 2022/23 Isuzu UTE A-League season.

The Phoenix have signed highly regarded Australian midfielder Steven Ugarkovic on a one-year deal to help cover the absence of captain Alex Rufer, who will miss the start of the season with a knee injury.

Ugarkovic, 27, has played 167 A-League matches since making his debut for the Newcastle Jets in 2016. He spent five years with Newcastle and was a key member of the Jets side that went all the way to the grand final in 2018.

The former Australian under-23 international joined Western Sydney last year and featured in all 26 of Wanderers’ matches in the recently completed 2021/22 season, scoring three goals and creating one other.

Steven Ugarkovic Press Conference

“I’ve always liked Steven, even before he signed with Western Sydney,” Phoenix head coach Ufuk Talay said.

“Firstly he’s a good person and secondly he’s a very good footballer that has an abundance of experience within the A-League.

“The two sixes play a very important role in our team and to bring in a player of Steven’s quality alongside Clayton Lewis and Nicholas Pennington is a big boost for us.

“He’s a very big signing for the club and I’m very excited to have a player of his calibre within our squad.”

The chance to play under Talay drew Ugarkovic to the Phoenix.

“The big pull is Uffy as a coach. He’s someone I feel like I can learn under a lot from, on and off the field,” he said.

“His brand of football played an important role in my decision. Playing against Wellington, it’s always hard to break them down. They’re very structured and everyone knows what their job is.

“That’s what I like and that’s what I think I need to go to the next level.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – APRIL 24: Steven Ugarkovic of the Wanderers gets past Finn Surman of the Phoenix during the A-League Mens match between Wellington Phoenix and Western Sydney Wanderers at Eden Park, on April 24, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

He was also drawn to the Phoenix by the 15,245 fans that turned out at Eden Park to watch the match against his former club, Western Sydney, in April.

“To experience that crowd there at Eden Park was incredible.

“I’m looking forward to playing in front of the Phoenix fans because the connection with your supporters is important to me.

“I enjoy getting involved with the fans and I’m not just saying it for the sake of saying it.”

Steven Ugarkovic missed a penalty in the match at Eden Park, meaning the Wellington Phoenix are the only A-League club he hasn’t scored against.

“Let’s hope it stays like that,” he said.

“The missed penalty was just a mishap. The field was very slippery and things like that happen in football so you’ve got to be big enough to get over it.

“I was big enough to step up and take the penalty so I’ve got to be big enough to take the consequences and move on.

“People might say a few things and I’m sure I’ll cop a bit of stick for it when I join the team.”

Ugarkovic will assemble in Wellington early next month for the start of pre-season training.

He will wear the no. 5 shirt for the Phoenix.