Many of the Wellingtonians who have played for the Phoenix talk fondly of the opportunity the club has given them to play professional football in their home town.
Tim Brown, Vaughan Coveny and Kosta Barbarouses all did so from season one of the club’s existence and while Leo Bertos played against the Phoenix before he played for them, the attraction of home was too strong to resist. As he sits on the cusp of becoming the club’s latest centurion, his longevity is testament to a talented and loyal Wellington boy who has contributed hugely to the success and culture of Wellington Phoenix FC and New Zealand football in general.
Bertos was born in Wellington just before Christmas in 1981. He was educated at Wellington College in the second half of the nineties, a school with some illustrious sporting alumni, including Onny Parun, Marc Ellis, James Franklin, George Bridgewater and Bertos’s long-time All Whites team-mates Simon Elliott and Tim Brown. But the school was famous for its rugby players too; at a joint Phoenix/Hurricanes promotion in 2010, it was revealed that former All Blacks front-rower Neemia Tialata would often steal Bertos’s lunch money.
From the age of sixteen he played for Wellington Olympic but as the new Millennium ticked over, the still teenaged Bertos headed to the Northern Hemisphere to further his football education. He spent six years in England, playing for variety of lower league clubs, most notably Rochdale United for who he played 82 times, scoring thirteen goals, including the one which ensured their survival in the Football League in 2003/04. In 2006, he relocated to Australasia and played 35 A-League games over two seasons with Perth where he was a popular member of the side with Glory fans.
When the Phoenix were formed in 2007, it seemed almost inevitable Bertos would soon return to his home town and ahead of the 2008/09 season, he put pen to paper and signed a two-year deal with the A-League’s newest club. He debuted in the first match of the 2008/09 season – inheriting the number seven shirt from inaugural skipper Ross Aloisi – and has basically been a first-choice in the starting eleven ever since.
Bertos’s impact was immediate. Home fans loved his willingness to take on opposition defenders with ball at feet, his mazy dribbling and precise set piece delivery. He’s provided the final pass for numerous goals in his time with the club; in fact, no one has chalked up more assists for the Wellington Phoenix than he has. At the end of his maiden season in Wellington, Bertos was named the club’s Player of the Season.
An oddity of 2007/08 and 2008/09 was that Bertos played in six matches between the Phoenix and Perth – three for each club – and was never on the winning side. I pointed that out to him on the eve of the round two clash between the two in August 2009. “That’s gonna change”, he replied with a wry smile.
And change it did. With five minutes left and the scores locked at 1-1, Bertos’s charge forward was halted by Adriano Pellegrino around 35 yards out. Most observers considered it to be a “sensible” foul, stopping the flying winger before he got too close to goal. But Bertos picked himself up, addressed the resulting free-kick, took a ten-yard run-up and absolutely put his foot through it. A deflection off Jacob Burns was key, but the ball flew into the net, giving Perth ‘keeper Tando Velaphi absolutely no chance. After a split-second to take in what had just happened, the crowd went collectively bonkers as Bertos was engulfed by his team-mates.
That goal kick-started a very special twelve months for Bertos. He featured in every A-League game of the 2009/10 season, playing a huge part in the Phoenix’s run to the Preliminary Final. But his most memorable footballing contribution that year (and perhaps of his entire career) came on the 14th of November 2009 when the All Whites faced Bahrain in Wellington for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
As the first half drew to a close, a charging run by Ben Sigmund won the All Whites a right-wing corner. Bertos had been on set-pieces all night and as the big men gathered in the penalty area, he sized up the situation before producing a perfect delivery onto the head of Rory Fallon. We all know what happened next.
But Bertos’s performance in the away leg in Manama a month earlier was almost as important. Forced into an unfamiliar wing-back role in Ricki Herbert’s new 3-4-3 formation, Bertos put in a superb defensive shift to deny Bahrain’s left-sided attackers any opportunities to penetrate down that flank. New Zealand’s eventual World Cup qualification owed much to the defensive qualities shown by Bertos across the 180 minutes of the tie, during which the All Whites did not concede a goal. In South Africa, he played the same role in all three matches and did so with distinction against experienced, attack-minded opposition.
Not surprisingly, Herbert has made Bertos a regular for country as well as club. Only Shane Smeltz has started more internationals during Herbert’s reign as All Whites coach. After debuting against Iran in 2003, Bertos’s next All Whites match (probably against China in a couple of weeks) will see him earn his fiftieth full cap, but astonishingly, he has yet to score an international goal.
2012 has seen a significant change in Bertos’s brief in both a Phoenix and New Zealand shirt. The problem position for both sides for some years has been right-back and during the Phoenix’s pre-season campaign, Bertos was the latest to be given a chance to make the spot his own. The early signs are promising. His forays up and down the right have been given a new dimension as he is now able to receive the ball and begin his runs with plenty of unoccupied grass in front of him, rather than the more restricted space he was afforded as a winger in front third. Defensively he’s acquitted himself well, and despite admitting to not yet feeling completely at home at fullback, it would appear Bertos has found a new home, and one he may well see out his career in.
It’s not necessarily important for a footballer to be a decent bloke. However, it certainly makes them a lot easier to like, and Bertos is one of the nicest men, let alone footballers, I have ever met. He is unfailingly generous with his time, stopping to sign autographs (always just his first name with the #7 alongside), posing for photos with kids and chatting to older fans. He appears completely unaffected by the very public spotlight football has thrust him into. Quite simply, no-one has a bad word to say about him. Even my eight year-old daughter is smitten, and blushes whenever she sees him on TV.
And so, as Bertos prepares to bring up his century of appearances in the yellow and black, his is a legacy of exciting wing play, sportsmanship (he’s apparently been booked ten times, but it’s hard to remember any of them) and always putting what is right for the team at the forefront of his mind. He is unselfishness personified and for that reason fits perfectly into a team culture where week after week, the players mesh themselves into a whole which is far greater than the sum of their parts. But for one game at least, Leo Bertos deserves to bask in just a little more of the spotlight than his team-mates as he brings up this very significant milestone.
2008/09: 16 appearances (14 starts), 2 goals
2009/10: 30 appearances (25 starts), 2 goals
2010/11: 22 appearances (18 starts), 3 goals
2011/12: 28 appearances (25 starts), 1 goal
2012/13: 3 appearances (3 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 99 appearances (85 starts), 8 goals
When the Wellington Phoenix issued a press release in August 2008 announcing the signing of Manny Muscat, most fans went straight to Google. The surname was familiar – his namesake Kevin was well-known to A-League fans – but once it was discovered the two were unrelated, there was precious little else that was known about the club’s latest signing.
Four years on, as Muscat prepared to play his hundredth game for the club, coach Ricki Herbert described him as his best ever signing, bar none. Few would argue as they reflect on a player who has become as integral to the football club as Paul Ifill or Andrew Durante.
Muscat came to the Phoenix in ’08 as pre-season cover for Tony Lochhead who’d earned a trial with Middlesbrough. He made his first A-League appearance in the opening game of the 2008/09 season and had a home debut a week later against Melbourne Victory. On a wet night, Victory ran the Phoenix ragged and Muscat failed to cope with the combined threats of Carlos Hernandez, Danny Allsopp and Ney Fabiano and was substituted with fifteen minutes to go. He started just one of the next eight matches and it appeared his stay in Wellington would be a short one.
Instead, Muscat regained the right-back spot in early November, at which point the Phoenix were rock bottom with just two wins from their first ten matches. It was here he started to show what he was really made of, playing the last eleven games of the season, a period during which the Phoenix solidified noticeably and apart from an 6-1 aberration away to Adelaide, conceded just ten goals in ten games.
Muscat began the following season as first-choice right-back and was typically workmanlike for the first half of the season. But as the Christmas presents were opened, the Phoenix were again bottom and looked a million miles away from a first ever playoff appearance.
If there’s a turning point in Manny Muscat’s football career, it’s New Year’s Eve 2009. Away to the Mariners, Herbert selected him in a defensive midfield role. Fans were puzzled – Muscat in midfield? His CV at Green Gully in the Victorian Premier League hinted at some experience there, but Phoenix supporters only knew him as a fullback. Opinions were about to be changed forever.
So effective was Muscat in the 2-0 win over the Mariners to close out 2009 that he was employed there for the rest of the season. His move to midfield coincided with an astonishing run of eight wins in ten matches which took the Phoenix to within one game of the Grand Final. Muscat had found his footballing calling and had quickly become one of the most effective defensive midfielders in the A-League. He became a full Maltese international in 2009 and has played eight times for Malta.
Muscat reverted briefly to a fullback role at the start of the 2010/11 season but was quickly re-instated into midfield after a handful of matches. The Phoenix again reached the playoffs. In 2011/12, Muscat answered a defensive SOS and reverted full-time to the troublesome right-back role at the request of his coach. He was equally able to slot in at left-back in periods of injury to Tony Lochhead. Muscat had become simply irreplaceable.
Just one thing was missing. Muscat had long been the target of good-natured banter from his team-mates about the inability to break his A-League goal-scoring duck. On the eve of his own century of games for the Phoenix, Tim Brown delivered a great line. “The real story here isn’t my one-hundred games”, he said. “It’s whether Manny Muscat will ever score a goal”.
On 20 January 2012 against the Jets in Newcastle, he did just that. Cutting in from the right with ball at feet, Muscat turned inside a defender and curled a superb shot with his supposed weaker left foot into the far corner of Ben Kennedy’s goal. The explosion of pure joy which spread across his face as the ball nestled in the back of the net was one of the best television moments for a long time.
To a man, every Phoenix player rushed to mob the delighted Muscat after he scored. One of the first on the scene was his skipper and great mate Andrew Durante who seemed almost as thrilled as Muscat himself. Muscat no doubt remind him later that he actually took fewer matches to score than his captain; it was his 85th A-League match while Durante had broken his duck in his 86th. Muscat was to double his tally with a carbon copy of that goal in the play-off heartbreaker against the Glory in Perth later that season.
Not surprisingly, others had cottoned on to Muscat’s talents. Back in Australia, clubs started sniffing around as he came towards the end of his contract. Muscat has strong roots in Australia and with his wife Rebecca pregnant with the couple’s first child, the pull of home must have been hard to resist. Both Melbourne clubs were ready to present him with a contract and sharpened pencil as soon as he said the word.
Instead, the morning after his goal against the Jets, Muscat put pen to paper on a new deal to keep him at the Phoenix until the end of the 2013/14 season. The Yellow Fever breathed a collective sigh of relief at the news their midfielder enforcer would be with them for at least another two seasons.
He almost didn’t make the next game as wife Rebecca was due on the day of the home clash with the Heart, but so important was Muscat to the club and so strong was his own desire to play that he flew into Wellington on the day of the game, helped his side to a 3-1 win and hopped back across the Tasman early the next day. He played the next game too (a 2-1 away win over Adelaide) as baby Muscat refused to enter the world. When she did finally arrive, he missed the next match which, almost inevitably, the Phoenix lost.
Rumour has it one of the stipulations Muscat made ahead of signing his new deal was an assurance that he’d return to midfield. While he was happy to play at fullback to help out his side, Muscat missed the cut and thrust of the battles in the middle of the park and wanted to play there permanently. Ironically, it’s the other man who will reach the centurion milestone with Muscat on Monday night in Melbourne – Leo Bertos – who has replaced him at fullback. Both look set to play out the remainder of their careers in those positions.
One of the most impressive things about Muscat the midfielder is that he’s not just an aggressive tackler who breaks up would-be attacks before they reach dangerous territory and then hurriedly offloads the ball to a team-mate. He can play with the ball at his feet too. This dual skill-set means he can quickly transition the Phoenix from defence to attack by dispossessing an opponent and playing the three or thirty-yard pass which sets his team in forward motion.
The spotlight has never sat comfortably on Muscat. He avoided doing media interviews early in his time in Wellington but as his on-field performances grew increasingly influential, he was requested more and more regularly by journalists. To his credit he has become more comfortable with a microphone in his face and his concise, yet perceptive answers leave you with absolutely no doubt that he is a superb reader of a game of football. He’s polite, generous with his time and has an extremely shrewd business mind. While other players struggle to identify what life will hold after football, Muscat has existing interests in building and property development when he finally hangs up his boots. For now though, that will have to wait.
Manny Muscat will bring membership in the Phoenix’s “hundred-club” to six, and of all its members, his is perhaps the best story of them all. It’s the tale of a player who was completely unknown when he first pulled on a Phoenix shirt, but is now one of the first names Ricki Herbert writes down when selecting his side. The reason for that is simple: he knows what he’ll get from the man in his number two shirt – a wholehearted, no-holds-barred, skilful and utterly committed performance every single time. And you can’t ask for more than that.
2008/09: 14 appearances (14 starts), 0 goals
2009/10: 26 appearances (25 starts), 0 goals
2010/11: 28 appearances (28 starts), 0 goals
2011/12: 27 appearances (27 starts), 2 goals
2012/13: 4 appearances (4 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 99 appearances (98 starts), 2 goals