Isuzu UTE A-League season preview: Wellington Phoenix

Enjoy KEEPUP’s season countdown with our club-by-club previews. Scroll down to the foot of the page to access your club’s article.

Wellington Phoenix are on the road again, returning to Wollongong for the start of the 2021/22 Isuzu UTE A-League season. It’s a home away from home for the ‘Nix, heading into a third season with head coach Ufuk Talay steering the ship.

With a quartet of key figures departing the club in the off-season, new responsibilities rest on the shoulders of Wellington’s younger brigade – and a returning star with experience bagging goals at the highest level of domestic football.

Major ins: Gary Hooper. Nicholas Pennington, Luka Prso

Major outs: Ulises Dávila, Tomer Hemed, Steven Taylor, Cameron Devlin

Head coach: Ufuk Talay

‘Nix record: 27 games, 12 wins, five draws, 10 losses

Nothing came easy for Ufuk Talay in his first two seasons as ‘Nix boss, and he’s guaranteed to face even more challenges in his third campaign at the helm of the yellow and black as he prepares his side for another stint based on Australian shores.

In his first campaign at the helm Talay took Wellington to a club-record third-place finish. The following season the Phoenix were relocated to Wollongong and results suffered, however a barnstorming end to the season saw the ‘Nix finish one spot outside the top six on an impressive run of form.

Under Talay the ‘Nix have shown resilience, strength and immense character in the face of adversity across two demanding seasons in which nothing was given, and every goal, clean sheet, and point was hard-earned. As a new season dawns the Phoenix players turn to Talay once more to lead them into battle.

Ufuk Talay takes his Phoenix players through their pre-season paces

Can’t take your eyes off: Gary Hooper

‘Hoops’ returns for a second stint in yellow and black in the 2021/22 Isuzu UTE A-League season. 

After recovering from an off-season injury setback the former Norwich City and Celtic striker will hope to showcase the form he displayed in the back end of his first Phoenix stint in 2019/20.

Hooper paid the price for arriving at the ‘Nix after the start of that particular season, getting off to a slow start which garnered just two goals from 11 games. But the Englishman hit his stride in the latter stages of the campaign, scoring six goals from his following 10 outings. 

Phoenix fans will hope to see Hooper combining with 20-year-old striking sensation Ben Waine in the final third this season.

Hooper prepares for the 2021/22 Isuzu UTE A-League season at a Phoenix pre-season training session

Reasons to be cheerful: Those who boarded the ‘Waine train’ last season, be sure to keep your ticket stubs on hand – it’s about to leave the station once again.

Ben Waine is Wellington’s 20-year-old spearhead looking to take his game to the next level this season after impressing through the 2020/21 campaign, scoring seven goals – including four in consecutive games. 

The club locked Waine down on a three-year deal in July, meaning Phoenix fans can expect to see plenty more smiles – and hopefully goals – from their young striker for years to come.

From one end of the pitch to the other, Phoenix fans will be eager to see charismatic gloveman Oliver Sail return to action this season. The 25-year-old kept Stefan Marinovic on the pine in 2020/21 with a string of superb performances, and will go into a fresh campaign ready to impress all over again.

Ben Waine will aim to take his game to the next level in 2021/22

… and reasons to be fearful: Hindered by the uncertainty of the evolving COVID climate in both Australia and New Zealand, Talay has struggled to bring new recruits through the door. Gary Hooper’s return is a significant coup for the club, however an injury set-back in the off-season could hinder the Englishman’s start to the season. 

The loss of Dávila, Tomer Hemed, Cameron Devlin and Steven Taylor leaves Wellington bereft of quality in defence, midfield and attack. The departing quartet were four of Wellington’s most important players in 2020/21, and their collective absence will be sorely felt in the new campaign.

Fans’ eye: Jess Pritchard

Why we believe: the club is more than just a team, they are a family – and one I love being a part of. 

I have made so many lifelong friends through this club, having been a part of the club for 11 years now.

This club has been a huge positive impact on my life. It’s given me friendships that I’m very grateful for, so many smiles and adventures over the years… and I couldn’t ask for a better club to follow.

Who we believe: the fans will love Ben Waine this season, he’s an exciting young talent who proved a lot last season. He is full of potential. 

I look forward to seeing how he has developed over the off-season and continuing through this next season. I believe that Ben has a big career ahead of him especially if he keeps going in the direction he’s going.

The magic of match day: starts with the fans. The energy and the joy on the fans’ faces as they walk into the stadium is amazing whether it’s their first time or 500th time attending. 

I love being a part of the crowd and cheering on the boys. Having a team mascot in the name of Nixie also brings so much magic to match day; the smiles he brings to children and adult faces when he greets them on the concourse is magical in its self. I sure know seeing Nixie and getting a hug gives me a huge smile. 

The magic doesn’t stop there the atmosphere at the post-match pub to celebrate the achievements with the players and staff truly tops it all off.

If I could change one thing about the club…. I’d want the Phoenix to be able to play back in NZ again. I miss being able to cheer on the boys loud and proud in a live match day experience. All the fans are missing it too. I cannot wait for the boys to be back playing on home turf once again.

Good luck to the boys, I know you will do us proud. We are cheering you on loud and proud back in NZ and cannot wait to welcome you home in front of your fans once again soon.


By Tom Smithies and Matt Comito

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