1 Apr 2024

Coach, captain and football boss evaluate Wellington Phoenix women's season

6:58 am on 1 April 2024
Phoenix Isabel Cox (L) with Sydney Charlotte Mclean during the A-League Women

Phoenix Isabel Cox (L) with Sydney Charlotte Mclean during the A-League Women Photo: Marty Melville

The Wellington Phoenix women made a flying start to their third season in the A-League before a mid-season slump saw them finish outside the playoffs once again.

Winning three of their first four matches and scoring 10 goals by round six, the Phoenix were well ahead of where they had been at same stage in the previous two seasons.

However, late December to early March defined their season, when one win in eight games saw hopes of a top-six finish begin to fade.

Taking home games to Porirua Park was a success in the stand and on the hill, as decent crowds made their way to the suburban ground - but the Phoenix's struggles on the road cost them.

Injuries and a player quitting marred a season that - results-wise - would still go down in the record books as the Phoenix women's best so far.

RNZ asked coach Paul Temple, captain Annalie Longo and director of football Shaun Gill for their take on the 2023/24 season, which ended on Saturday.

The coach

Paul Temple.

Paul Temple. Photo: Photosport

Paul Temple was the Wellington Phoenix's third coach in as many seasons.

He had a leg up on his predecessors in that he could sign five visa players for the first time after Football Australia relaxed the restrictions on overseas players imposed on the Phoenix and he made use of this across the park.

Temple's highlights nearly bookend the season.

The first high point was round two: the first away game against Western Sydney Wanderers. This was a 3-0 win and Phoenix academy products were scoring goals.

The other highlight on the road came four weeks before the end of the season with a 3-1 win over Perth.

"We'd been suffering for a long time and the relief when we won that game was an amazing feeling."

When it came to low points, the Unite Round stuck in Temple's mind. The game against the Central Coast Mariners was supposed to be a home game for the Phoenix; instead, they played in suburban Sydney.

"We just really didn't perform how we wanted to and we'd been away in Australia on the Gold Coast after the Brisbane game together for a week.

"It felt like we'd done this amazing preparation leading into that game and we just didn't get going anywhere near what we wanted to.

"That felt to me like that was the lowest point ... in terms of feeling that disappointment and that kind of regret of what could have been," he said of the 2-1 loss.

Although the Phoenix won more games this season than in the two previous seasons combined, Temple couldn't single out why they went on a run of losses that ultimately saw the side miss out on the playoffs for the third straight time.

"There's not really anything specific one thing you could change to all of a sudden get a different formula.

"It was not nice having that kind of record on the road and I think once you get past three or four of those games in a row, it's definitely in your head and you have to try and find a way to move beyond it - and [that] was difficult for us."

Playing eight away games in nine rounds magnified the issue, Temple said.

"It was quite hard mentally to keep pushing through as a team. Circumstances meant we couldn't really break the rhythm so that was a tough one.

"We tried to change so many different things in how we did things or how we approached the game or tactically how we set up our personnel.

"We pretty much tried everything we could think of to break that cycle but it went on far too long for everybody's liking and that probably cost us the place in the playoffs."

After struggling for two seasons to get a win, to get so many wins so early in the season was new territory for the side.

The Phoenix celebrate Mariana Speckmaier’s goal during their A-League women’s win over Western Sydney Wanderers.

The Phoenix celebrate Mariana Speckmaier’s goal during their A-League women’s win over Western Sydney Wanderers. Photo: Photosport

"All of sudden there's a little bit more pressure from expectation ... and it's something we've had to grow to accept and ... to acknowledge that we all want to be winning more games and the expectation now internally and externally is higher.

"Hopefully in future seasons, the Phoenix can continue to push the bar and get better and better at being a winning team and a team that everyone expects to go out and perform and win games."

Players who particularly felt the pressure this season were the visa players.

"They're expected to be top performers ... in the league - they're designated players that everyone looks to.

"That was something they'd never really had before either. In Mariana [Speckmaier] and Hope [Breslin]'s case they'd been bit-part players for their clubs.

"Rylee [Foster] had been a number two goalkeeper for quite a while and all of a sudden they're now in the spotlight and expected to perform, so it's new to them too."

Before Temple became head coach, he studied the A-League. What he saw this season surprised him.

"Generally speaking, there's been an elite few clubs that stay at the top of the table consistently and then there's the rest. Whereas I think this season has been extraordinary with how close it is at the top and the race for the [top] six.

"Even the two teams that have been at the bottom for most of the season [Canberra and Adelaide] have shown that everyone's capable of beating anyone.

"I was surprised at how many games have swung the way you weren't expecting. I'd say this is probably the closest competition that they've ever had in the A-League women in terms of points and teams being so close to each other."

The captain

Annalie Longo of the Phoenix

Annalie Longo of the Phoenix Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Annalie Longo waited a long time to play her first game for the Phoenix before finally taking the field in a dream debut against Brisbane Roar in round three in November - in which she scored a goal and helped the team to their first ever back-to-back wins.

The Football Fern had sat out the entire 2022/23 A-League season with an ACL injury. A hip injury followed by muscle weakness and a "niggly and frustrating" Achilles injury limited the captain to 13 games this season.

While the midfielder was making an impact on the field, she was also having to defend the team's culture off it. Vice-captain Chloe Knott departed, citing concerns about the women's contracts and saying that her values no longer aligned with the club or current management.

So, how did Longo sum up her first season in yellow and black?

Proud. A dream come true. Heartbreaking.

The 32-year-old's range of emotion mirrored the team's trajectory.

"I feel like we were really pushing for that top six finish and to finish in the way that it has there is a bit of disappointment ... in terms of not going that one step further, which I think we were more than capable of.

"It's been a real struggle for me. It's obviously mentally very tough and sometimes you feel like when you're not on the field and playing that you can't really help the team.

"I'd loved to have been out there helping the girls and I'd loved to have been a part of pushing for that top six so it has been really hard the last few weeks."

Longo believed the team played a style of football that the fans could get behind, singling out Temple in particular.

"[Temple] really instilled in the players the belief and the trust of wanting to play what is deemed small ball and keep possession, and try and create more goal-scoring opportunities. So I think you saw that in the shift of the team [from last season].

"There was a really good foundation laid in those first two years. I think it is just progressing on from that and I think the professionalism has stepped up a notch as well and that will continue to improve and build as the club becomes more involved in women's football."

What stood out for Longo this season was the commitment and "sheer determination" her team mates showed in some games when they succeeded against the odds.

Longo was unsure if she would be back for another season with the Phoenix. Her first focus was getting fit to chase a place in the Football Ferns side for the Olympics.

The director of football

Phoenix football operations manager Shaun Gill.

Phoenix director of football Shaun Gill. Photo: Photosport

Shaun Gill gave the season a grade of C-minus.

"If the idea was to make the top six - which was our goal for the season - to miss out on that has been disappointing but there are some positives to take out of the season," he said.

Finishing higher than last for the first time was a tick in Gill's book. So was the wins per game average going up. As was the drop in the goals conceded and the increase in goals scored.

Gill was pleased with the quality of the visa players especially the scoring output of American Mariana Speckmaier.

"That's a pretty good return. I am sure she will be disappointed with a couple of opportunities she didn't put away during the season but to come away with 10 goals in a 22-game season, you'd take that as a striker."

Seven players are already on contract for next season which gave the team a foundation to build on.

"You always want to have a little bit of change to freshen things up a little bit so we will definitely look to bring some new players into the squad to maybe bolster any areas where we were a little bit light."

Hope Breslin (L) celebrates her goal with Mariana Speckmaier (R) during the A-League Women match between the Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory in Auckland at Go Media Stadium Mt Smart in Auckland, New Zealand on Saturday November 25, 2023. Photo credit: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Hope Breslin (L) celebrates her goal with Mariana Speckmaier (R) during the A-League Women match between the Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory Photo: Andrew Cornaga/www.photosport.nz

Gill also identified an area where the team had let the season slip.

"I think there were a few challenges as far as the way the season panned out. There were a lot of home games early doors and we did well there collecting points.

"Unfortunately, we had to go on the road a lot and the road form was definitely not as good as the home form.

"I think the number of games in a row away and the extent of that potentially made it a lot harder than what it should have been."

Gill said they had fed back to the A-League about wanting to get a better split of home and away fixtures, but it was not that easy.

"The biggest issue for all of us is that we don't own the stadiums that we play in, so we are largely dictated to by the stadium availability.

"Whilst everyone is in agreeance that [alternating] home and away is ideally the best format, it's not always possible based on various venue availability in different states and within New Zealand itself."

The Phoenix shifted the women's home games from Sky Stadium to the smaller Porirua Park this season - a move Gill said was "a real success".

"Crowds there were good, the atmosphere was really great [and] I know the players enjoyed playing there. You felt like you were right on the game when you're in the crowd and the players could feel that energy."

Phoenix Michaela Robertson (C with Sydney Jordan Thompson (L) during the A-League Women - Wellington Phoenix FC v Sydney FC at Porirua Park. 17 March 2024. © Copyright image by Marty Melville / www.photosport.nz

Phoenix player Michaela Robertson during the A-League Women at Porirua Park. Photo: Marty Melville

Looking ahead to next season Gill said they were working on how to get better results on the road and whether they needed to change the way they trained when they were headed across the Tasman compared to when they were in New Zealand's capital.

The exit of Chloe Knott also gave the Phoenix plenty to think about.

Gill said they approached netball and other female sports for guidance on how to help their athletes off the field especially as the club realised their players were not full-time athletes.

"We can't buy houses and we can't buy cars, but we can understand and we can try and help ... especially with scheduling. So that's probably the big learning for us to come out of the season - to really understand what the players are going through off the pitch."

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