New Zealand’s Voice of Football Jason Pine talks about Vince Lia’s 100 games for the Phoenix.
Sixty-eight players have worn the Wellington Phoenix shirt into A-League battle. Just three have been there from day one and still remain. And only one has ever worn the number seventeen on his back. This Saturday night, Vince Lia brings up a century of matches for the club he-s represented with pride for five and half A-League seasons.
Lia arrived at the Phoenix in May 2007 after two seasons with Melbourne Victory. His opportunities had been limited in the championship-winning side of 2006/07, where he started just three matches. The decision to relocate across the Tasman was based on a desire to gain more game time and as he prepares to join the other seven members of the Phoenix-s hundred-club, he-ll no doubt consider the decision to be a sound one.
Lia was seen in a Phoenix shirt for the first time in the final 2007/08 pre-season cup match against Newcastle, but he suffered a quad injury which kept him out selection reckoning for the first seven games of the regular season. His A-League debut for the Phoenix finally came in the away loss to the Jets in round eight. From there on, he was a fixture in the side, missing just one game through suspension. The high point of his season came against his former club when he scored his first ever A-League goal in the 1-1 draw against the Victory at the Telstra Dome in round 14.
In the off-season, talk grew of Lia filling what had become a troublesome position in their inaugural season – right-back. It was decided he-d be given an opportunity to stake a claim for the position during the 2008/09 pre-season cup. Unfortunately, those plans were cruelly resigned to the back-burner as Lia injured his ACL joint in the very first pre-season game against Central Coast and was ruled out for the entire season as he underwent a knee reconstruction.
In 2009/10, Lia returned with a vengeance and enjoyed perhaps his best season, which also coincided with his side-s most successful campaign. He was a standout as the Phoenix went within one game of the Grand Final. Lia-s combination with Tim Brown and Manny Muscat in the Phoenix-s midfield was one of the keys to the Phoenix-s success as they won eight and drew one of the eleven games leading to the eventual Preliminary Final loss to Sydney FC.
A Lia-Brown-Muscat triumvirate doesn-t conjure images of eye-catching skills, mazy dribbling and defence-splitting passes. What it does bring to mind – and what it consistently delivered – was a trio of players who knew exactly what was required of them to allow their team to achieve success. If the midfield is the engine room of a football side it needs players who will remain mobile, competitive and industrious for ninety minutes. As a team within a team, these three allowed Paul Ifill to wreak havoc in the attacking third, safe in the knowledge that if he lost the ball, there was a three-man wall behind him ready to stifle any would-be counter-attacks, regain possession of the football and give it back to him.
Lia was again a fixture in the side in 2010/11, before a hamstring injury near the end of the season meant he could only watch on as the Phoenix narrowly lost their first playoff match away to Adelaide United. His bad luck continued at the start of the 2011/12 season, when a meniscus tear in his left knee in the round one draw with Gold Coast United saw him miss the next five matches. Again he returned and again he featured prominently, even starting a couple of matches at right-back before reverting to his customary role in the middle of the park. His early contribution in the current season was again stymied by injury (this time a left ankle) but he was back for the 3-0 win at Newcastle in round seven and has started every game since.
Lia-s no-nonsense tackling and physical style of play have seen him on regular speaking terms with A-League referees. He picks up yellow cards at the rate of around one every three games; in fact he and Muscat seem to be involved in an on-going competition to collect the most bookings. As things stand, both have been scribbled into the notebook on 31 occasions. Having said that, Lia has only been sent off once, when he picked up two yellows against the North Queensland Fury in the round eight match in Wellington in 2010/11.
It-d be fair to say goal-scoring is one thing missing from Lia-s footballing CV. After taking just seven Phoenix games to open his goal-scoring account, he wasn-t on the score-sheet again for over three years. It certainly wasn-t for the lack of trying as he refused to let his lack of goals discourage him from letting fly from distance. My radio comments man David Chote always leans back in his chair and lets out a wry chuckle with a shake of his head when a shot from Lia flies wide of the mark.
However, the goal which doubled Lia-s Phoenix tally was certainly worth waiting for. With an hour gone, and the Phoenix 2-0 up in the home clash against Perth in January 2011, Marco Rojas found Lia just inside the penalty area with a pass from the left wing. With a deft touch, Lia flicked the ball up before firing a superb right-footed volley past the despairing dive of Tando Velaphi. As the crowd-s mood switched quickly from surprise to elation, Lia was swamped by the very team-mates who had spent most the season reminding him just how long it had been since he-d last found the back of the net.
Earlier this year, there was talk Lia might make be available for the All Whites upon gaining New Zealand residency after five years in the country. However the fact he-d represented Australia in underage competition while not in possession of a New Zealand passport put paid to those aspirations. Lia had represented Australia at under-17 and under-20 level, and was a member of the 2003 and 2005 under-20 sides that attended World Cups in the UAE and the Netherlands respectively.
Lia is a polarising figure with Phoenix fans. Some bemoan a lack of sophistication and flair and point to players like Marcos Flores as a demonstration of everything Lia is not. But Lia-s backers love his energy, combative nature and “No-I-in-team” mentality. They-d also draw attention to a range of passing that has steadily improved to the point where raking forty- and fifty-yard cross-field balls to team-mates are not at all unusual. If you mentioned criticism of his style to Lia, he-d likely just shrug his shoulders and get on with doing what he always has – pressuring opponents, tracking opposition runners and squeezing every drop of energy from his aching muscles late in games.
Vince Lia is one of the most laid-back individuals in the Phoenix squad. Away from the football field he-ll usually be found with a couple of team-mates at Café Lafarre, where he probably knows all the staff by name, such are the frequency of his visits. He-s never sought the limelight on or off the field, but is polite with fans and generous with his time when dealing with the younger members of the club-s fan-base.
Wellington Phoenix FC wasn-t built on flair and flashiness. It sits on a firm foundation of commitment and hard work. All that-s asked of the players as they exit the tunnel onto the A-League-s playing arenas is a pledge to do everything in their power to make life difficult for their opponents and to produce a collective effort in the quest for competition points. When Vinnie Lia-s team-mates catch a glimpse of the number seventeen shirt in the heat of battle, they know its owner will be doing exactly that.
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 15 games (11 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 99 games (90 starts), 2 goals