Imagine if you’d suggested seven years ago that not one, but two English Premier League clubs would not only visit New Zealand, but play two games each, including a double-header on the same day at Westpac Stadium. Most people would have laughed or at the very least walked away shaking their heads and tapping their foreheads. But what might have seemed fanciful – even impossible – reasonably recently is about to become a reality. West Ham United and Newcastle United are winging their way to New Zealand for an historic week of football.
Both of these English sides have proud histories, massive profile and enormous global supporter bases. West Ham were one of the first English sides I ever watched live on TV, when in the early hours of a May morning in 1980 I saw Trevor Brooking head the Hammers to an FA Cup final victory over Arsenal. Meantime, Newcastle have forged a well-earned reputation for eye-catching football with their fanatical supporters famous the world over.
The inclusion of Sydney FC in this four-way football feast also gives us the chance to see two of our highest profile All Whites going head-to-head. Shane Smeltz is now in the sky blue of Sydney FC and his battle with West Ham’s Winston Reid will be eagerly anticipated when the two sides clash in Wellington. While last season was a frustrating one for Smeltz, largely due to nagging injuries, his A-League record is still one of the best and he’ll look to not only add to his 77 A-League goals in the season ahead, but also again go past Archie Thompson as the competition’s all-time leading marksman.
The 2014 World Cup may have captured our imagination over the past month, but the memory of Reid’s goal against Slovakia in Rustenburg four years ago is still as strong as ever and provided the catalyst for his move to London. A difficult initiation has been followed by a period during which he has established himself as arguably the club’s best defender, prompting significant interest from some of England’s biggest clubs.
Here in Wellington, Ernie Merrick-s men have been hard at work. The thing you notice when you watch the Phoenix play or train at the moment is the extra zip and zing in everything they do. The infusion of new players has created an increased competition for places which is always going to add some extra bite to proceedings. In particular, Merrick has some decisions to make around his strike-force. Newly arrived former Socceroo Nathan Burns will fill one of the attacking spots, with Tyler Boyd, Jeremy Brockie, Kenny Cunningham and Roy Krishna all striving to join him in the first-choice starting eleven.
It’s been brilliant to see Albert Riera back on the grass too. We all know the story of the back-packing Spaniard who became such an integral part of the Phoenix side in his debut season that he was named the club’s Player of the Year despite missing half of the season with a groin injury. Watching him sitting in front of the Phoenix back-four in pre-season matches, breaking up attacks, ever-available for passes from team-mates and distributing the ball effectively and often has reinforced just what a loss he was in the second half of the 2013/14 campaign. His selection in the A-League All-Stars side to face Juventus next month is further proof of how highly regarded he is in Australasian football. Welcome back Albert Riera and here’s to an injury-free season ahead.
It seems hardly a day goes by without exciting A-League player news being revealed. All ten clubs have been busy with their recruitment with all signs pointing to yet another increase in quality in season ten of the competition. By the time Sydney FC returns to Wellington in January, the 2014/15 league table will have started to take shape, but you’d be brave to predict now who the top six will be when the playoffs begin in nine months- time.
But that is all ahead of us. What is here now is a unique footballing week. Two English Premier League sides playing against our home-town team and one of our fiercest A-League rivals. Surely most of us could never have imagined such a scenario a few short years ago.