Eighty-nine players have worn the Wellington Phoenix shirt into A-League battle in the past eight seasons. Players have come and gone, the odd one has left and come back, many have delivered on their promise, while others have not.
In the front and back office, there’s been an ownership change, and turnover in most of the management and administrative positions within the organisation.
In amongst it all, there’s been one constant; one person who has been at the club from its inception, who has seen the highs and lows, the victories and defeats, and ridden the rollercoaster of professional football in Wellington from day one until the present day.
The players’ shirt numbers at Wellington Phoenix have changed hands often. There have been seven wearers of the number 4 shirt, and six players have worn 15, 19 and 21. But one jersey has remained with the same owner since they were first handed out in mid-2007. And this weekend, Vince Lia – the club’s #17 since day one – brings up 150 games for the Wellington Phoenix.
If you needed any demonstration of Lia’s value to the Phoenix, it came in his 149th appearance for the side. With the scores locked at 0-0 in an absolute arm-wrestle against Adelaide United, Lia was introduced with 20 minutes to go, allowing Roly Bonevacia to be released into an advanced role. With the Dutchman liberated and Lia anchoring midfield alongside Albert Riera, the Phoenix scored two late goals to move to the top of the A-League ladder. The same thing happened against Newcastle back in early December, when Lia’s arrival at 0-1 down saw a subtle change of formation, three quick-fire goals and three points.
That’s the thing about Lia, though – his contributions often go un-noticed and his part in the smooth running of the Phoenix engine-room is frequently over-looked. It’s sometimes not until you look at a game for a second time that you realise the impact he’s had.
Paul Ifill called him the “king of the assist to the assist”, as it was often Lia who won the ball in a midfield exchange, released an attacking player who provided the final pass for a goal, or goalscoring opportunity. That sort of thing hardly ever gets picked up by the casual observer, but is always hugely regarded within a team environment. Lia won’t go on mazy sixty-yard dribbles, smash in a goal from thirty yards or bend a free-kick around a defensive wall, but what he offers is no less important than the players who do those things.
When Ernie Merrick arrived at the club at the start of last season, he immediately preached a possession-based, attacking style of football which appeared to be at odds with what Lia had specialised in under former coach Ricki Herbert – a no-nonsense, tough tackling physicality in the heat of midfield battles, based more on substance than style. But Lia has undergone a transformation under Merrick that few would have believed possible. So much so that he started every game of last season (the only player to do so) and picked up the much-coveted Player’s Player of the Year award at the end of season prize-giving.
Another change in Lia’s game that some who watched him when he first arrived would scarcely believe is how anonymous he’s become in the eyes of match officials. His tenacity and combativeness have always seen him find his way regularly into referees’ notebooks – in fact, in the 2009/10 season, he was shown nine yellow cards. But consider this; in his first 100 games for the Phoenix, Lia was booked 31 times. In the last 50, he’s received just six yellows.
This season has brought about another change in Lia’s role at the club. With Alex Rodriguez, Albert Riera and Roly Bonevacia often preferred in midfield, he’s started from the bench more often than he has in the past. If anything though, he’s added even more value in his cameos as a substitute, as mentioned above. It would be unthinkable for him to be omitted from a match-day squad when fit.
And through it all, his attitude has never wavered. Sometimes when a player isn’t in the starting eleven, they’ll sulk, withdraw from the culture of the playing group and add little value at all. By stark contrast, Lia provides the perfect demonstration of what a professional footballer should do, whether it’s game nine or 149, whether you’re starting or not. Prepare well, be ready to contribute in whichever way is deemed necessary and have a positive impact when you do get onto the pitch.
That’s why Lia has survived – and thrived – under Ernie Merrick. That’s why he was offered a fresh contract a year ago, which’ll keep him in Wellington until at least the end of the 2015/16 A-League season. And that’s why it’d come as no surprise if he eventually plays for a decade or more in Wellington colours.
As Lia prepares to join Andrew Durante, Manny Muscat and Ben Sigmund in the Phoenix’s exclusive 150-club, he’ll do so with little fanfare and no fuss. Even if he knew the milestone was coming, he wouldn’t tell you – in fact, his great mate and skipper Durante (who knows everything about the club) didn’t even know until he was told earlier this week. But that is Vinnie Lia personified – no nonsense, no big shows of flashiness, never ever bigger than the team. He’ll just do what he’s always done – give everything for the football club, wearing that now famous number 17 shirt.
2007/08 13 games (13 starts), 1 goal
2008/09 0 games (0 starts), 0 goals
2009/10 26 games (23 starts), 0 goals
2010/11 24 games (23 starts), 1 goal
2011/12 21 games (20 starts), 0 goals
2012/13 23 games (19 starts), 0 goals
2013/14 27 games (27 starts), 0 goals
2014/15 15 games (9 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 149 games (134 starts), 2 goals
Folllow Jason Pine on Twitter @pineyzb