Wellington Phoenix overcame a resilient Gold Coast United 2-0 at Westpac Stadium on Sunday to reclaim third spot from Perth Glory.
A 29th minute Andrew Durante goal was the only thing that separated the two sides until substitute Nick Ward doubled the advantage in stoppage time in a Hyundai A-League fixture that had been in doubt following Football Federation Australia’s decision to strip Clive Palmer of his licence in midweek.
The Phoenix were forced into a late defensive reshuffle after Tony Lochhead pulled out sick. Vince Lia dropped to left-back with Alex Smith taking Lia’s place in midfield.
But it was hardly a disruption compared with what the Gold Coast players had endured since Wednesday when their futures were thrown into turmoil.
Joel Porter admitted prior to kick-off that it had been touch and go as to whether the players would see out the season and that focusing on football had been tough with such uncertainty around their futures.
But, as they did in recent draws against Melbourne Victory and Central Coast Mariners, the young team played some attractive football when they were able to get out of their own half. But they spent much of the match stemming wave after wave of Phoenix attack.
It could easily have been 4-1 at the break after an entertaining opening spell.
But the Phoenix had to settle for a solitary Durante goal despite dominating for much of the half and having 14 shots on goal compared to Gold Coast’s one.
The visitors had to weather an early storm as the Phoenix created three good chances in the first 10 minutes. But Paul Ifill (twice) and Dani Sanchez could not make them count.
United goalkeeper Jerrad Tyson then made two excellent saves in the space of a minute as Tim Brown unleashed a fierce shot from the top of the box then Durante headed another effort from close range.
And having soaked up the early pressure the visitors were only denied the lead by the woodwork in the 18th minute as they broke out of their own half and Golgol Mebrahtu, who was industrious until he limped off in the 71st minute, saw his powerful long-range shot come back off Mark Paston’s upright.
The deadlock was eventually broken when Durante claimed only his second goal for the club. Leo Bertos fired a cross into the box which was headed on to the far post by Ben Sigmund and the Phoenix skipper side-footed it home.
It should have been 2-0 three minutes later when Bertos breezed past Zachary Anderson in the box but the midfielder shot straight at the United keeper, who vented his frustration at his young defender.
The Phoenix kept up the pressure in the second half as well. But the Gold Coast defence, marshalled by Dylan McGowan and Daniel Bowles, stood firm. Brown should have done much better when he glanced a Bertos cross well wide of the goal in the 59th minute.
And Anderson put his body on the line when he headed away Ifill’s powerful strike a minute later.
The visitors enjoyed a rare period out of the own half but under pressure from Manny Muscat and Durante, Chris Harold was unable to get a clean shot away when Adama Traore floated a great cross into the box.
At the other end Durante was denied twice. But it was only a matter of time before the home side made one of their many chances count.
It came right at the death when substitute striker Mirjan Pavlovic managed to squander a one-on-one with the keeper twice but Ward pounced and at his second attempt fired it home to seal the win.
Wellington Phoenix 2 (Durante 29, Ward 90)
Gold Coast United 0