When the Wellington Phoenix issued a press release in August 2008 announcing the signing of Manny Muscat, most fans went straight to Google.
The surname was familiar – his namesake Kevin was well-known to A-League fans – but once it was discovered the two were unrelated, there was precious little else that was known about the club-s latest signing.
Four years on, as Muscat prepared to play his hundredth game for the club, coach Ricki Herbert described him as his best ever signing, bar none. Few would argue as they reflect on a player who has become as integral to the football club as Paul Ifill or Andrew Durante.
Muscat came to the Phoenix in -08 as pre-season cover for Tony Lochhead who-d earned a trial with Middlesbrough. He made his first A-League appearance in the opening game of the 2008/09 season and had a home debut a week later against Melbourne Victory. On a wet night, Victory ran the Phoenix ragged and Muscat failed to cope with the combined threats of Carlos Hernandez, Danny Allsopp and Ney Fabiano and was substituted with fifteen minutes to go. He started just one of the next eight matches and it appeared his stay in Wellington would be a short one.
Instead, Muscat regained the right-back spot in early November, at which point the Phoenix were rock bottom with just two wins from their first ten matches. It was here he started to show what he was really made of, playing the last eleven games of the season, a period during which the Phoenix solidified noticeably and apart from an 6-1 aberration away to Adelaide, conceded just ten goals in ten games.
Muscat began the following season as first-choice right-back and was typically workmanlike for the first half of the season. But as the Christmas presents were opened, the Phoenix were again bottom and looked a million miles away from a first ever playoff appearance.
If there-s a turning point in Manny Muscat-s football career, it-s New Year-s Eve 2009. Away to the Mariners, Herbert selected him in a defensive midfield role. Fans were puzzled – Muscat in midfield? His CV at Green Gully in the Victorian Premier League hinted at some experience there, but Phoenix supporters only knew him as a fullback. Opinions were about to be changed forever.
So effective was Muscat in the 2-0 win over the Mariners to close out 2009 that he was employed there for the rest of the season. His move to midfield coincided with an astonishing run of eight wins in ten matches which took the Phoenix to within one game of the Grand Final. Muscat had found his footballing calling and had quickly become one of the most effective defensive midfielders in the A-League. He became a full Maltese international in 2009 and has played eight times for Malta.
Muscat reverted briefly to a fullback role at the start of the 2010/11 season but was quickly re-instated into midfield after a handful of matches. The Phoenix again reached the playoffs. In 2011/12, Muscat answered a defensive SOS and reverted full-time to the troublesome right-back role at the request of his coach. He was equally able to slot in at left-back in periods of injury to Tony Lochhead. Muscat had become simply irreplaceable.
Just one thing was missing. Muscat had long been the target of good-natured banter from his team-mates about the inability to break his A-League goal-scoring duck. On the eve of his own century of games for the Phoenix, Tim Brown delivered a great line. “The real story here isn-t my one-hundred games”, he said. “It-s whether Manny Muscat will ever score a goal”.
On 20 January 2012 against the Jets in Newcastle, he did just that. Cutting in from the right with ball at feet, Muscat turned inside a defender and curled a superb shot with his supposed weaker left foot into the far corner of Ben Kennedy-s 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 for a long time.
To a man, every Phoenix player rushed to mob the delighted Muscat after he scored. One of the first on the scene was his skipper and great mate Andrew Durante who seemed almost as thrilled as Muscat himself. Muscat no doubt remind him later that he actually took fewer matches to score than his captain; it was his 85th A-League match while Durante had broken his duck in his 86th. Muscat was to double his tally with a carbon copy of that goal in the play-off heartbreaker against the Glory in Perth later that season.
Not surprisingly, others had cottoned on to Muscat-s talents. Back in Australia, clubs started sniffing around as he came towards the end of his contract. Muscat has strong roots in Australia and with his wife Rebecca pregnant with the couple-s first child, the pull of home must have been hard to resist. Both Melbourne clubs were ready to present him with a contract and sharpened pencil as soon as he said the word.
Instead, the morning after his goal against the Jets, Muscat put pen to paper on a new deal to keep him at the Phoenix until the end of the 2013/14 season. The Yellow Fever breathed a collective sigh of relief at the news their midfielder enforcer would be with them for at least another two seasons.
He almost didn-t make the next game as wife Rebecca was due on the day of the home clash with the Heart, but so important 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 back across the Tasman early the next day. He played the next game too (a 2-1 away win over Adelaide) as baby Muscat refused to enter the world. When she did finally arrive, he missed the next match which, almost inevitably, the Phoenix lost.
Rumour has it one of the stipulations Muscat made ahead of signing his new deal was an assurance that he-d return to midfield. While he was happy to play at fullback to help out his side, Muscat missed the cut and thrust of the battles in the middle of the park and wanted to play there permanently. Ironically, it-s the other man who will reach the centurion milestone with Muscat on Monday night in Melbourne – Leo Bertos – who has replaced him at fullback. Both look set to play out the remainder of their careers in those positions.
One of the most impressive things about Muscat the midfielder is that he-s not just an aggressive tackler who breaks up would-be attacks before they reach dangerous territory and then hurriedly offloads the ball to a team-mate. He can play with the ball at his feet too. This dual skill-set means he can quickly transition the Phoenix from defence to attack by dispossessing an opponent and playing the three or thirty-yard pass which sets his team in forward motion.
The spotlight has never sat comfortably on Muscat. He avoided doing media interviews early in his time in Wellington but as his on-field performances grew increasingly influential, he was requested more and more regularly by journalists. To his credit he has become more comfortable with a microphone in his face and his concise, yet perceptive answers leave you with absolutely no doubt that he is a superb reader of a game of football. He-s polite, generous with his time and has an extremely shrewd business mind. While other players struggle to identify what life will hold after football, Muscat has existing interests in building and property development when he finally hangs up his boots. For now though, that will have to wait.
Manny Muscat will bring membership in the Phoenix-s “hundred-club” to six, and of all its members, his is perhaps the best story of them all. It-s the tale of a player who was completely unknown when he first pulled on a Phoenix shirt, but is now one of the first names Ricki Herbert writes down when selecting his side. The reason for that is simple: he knows what he-ll get from the man in his number two shirt – a wholehearted, no-holds-barred, skilful and utterly committed 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: 4 appearances (4 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 99 appearances (98 starts), 2 goals