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  • Writer's pictureRob Binns

Wellington Phoenix: Who's staying, who's going, and who could be snapped up?

With the dust having settled on the Wellington Phoenix’s 2023/24 season – and, tragically, on the empty shelves of its trophy cabinet – the club will already be looking to the next campaign. The critical question now is how the club picks itself up off the canvas after a record-breaking season. It will not be easy, but locking down the players who have been instrumental to the success of Phoenix’s unheralded 2023/24 season is an excellent place to start. Having already lost star goalkeeper Alex Paulsen to English Premier League side Bournemouth, Front Page Football takes a look at who’s staying, who else is going, and which Phoenix players will be the subject of covetous glances from clubs with bigger budgets this off-season.

The Wellington Phoenix are looking to build on what was their best ever season in 2023/24. (Image: Adrianne Armida)


Who’s staying?


Fortunately for Giancarlo Italiano’s side, at least a part of the personnel puzzle heading into next season already looks solved, with the club announcing recently that Kosta Barbarouses – Kiwi international and four-time A-League champion – will be sticking around for another year.


Retaining a player who contributed 13 goals and four assists – being involved in over 40% of the Phoenix’s goals – is a masterstroke for Chiefy’s developing outfit (and not bad for a player who, at one point, according to some pundits, needed to be put out to pasture).

Joining Barbarouses as the other players signed until the end of the 2024/25 campaign are the entirety of the Nix’s league-leading defence – Sam Sutton, Finn Surman, Scott Wootton, Isaac Hughes, and Tim Payne – and David Ball, Matthew Sheridan, Mo Al-Taay, and Oskar van Hattum. Club captain Alex Rufer also still has another two years on his contract.


Who’s going?


So – what does that mean for departures?


Well, the Phoenix are reportedly working on new deals with a trio of off-contract players – Bozhidar Kraev, Nicholas Pennington, and backup goalkeeper Jack Duncan – but there are two faces who we know will not be returning next season.


The first is Youstin Salas, the Costa Rica international who arrived in January to bolster Phoenix’s title charge. There are reportedly no plans to transmute the Central American’s loan into a permanent deal in the off-season.


Salas, who won over the Yellow Fever by sporting bright yellow corn rows in his early appearances, passed the initial eye test with his energy, aggression, and work rate. But ultimately, one assist – and just six starts in 10 appearances – was not enough to stake a successful claim for a coveted visa spot.

Of course, the other big miss in 2024/25 will be the Phoenix’s talismanic No. 9: Oskar Zawada.


The Polish striker sent Sky Stadium into raptures when he stroked home a 99th-minute equaliser at the Cake Tin to take the Nix’s Semi-Final second leg into extra time.


It was Zawada’s 22nd goal in 40 appearances, and the striker himself acknowledged its importance in his parting statement on Instagram.


“I have never scored such an important goal at such an exceptional moment as that one,” Zawada wrote.

“It’s still giving me goosebumps whenever I watch it again.”

What’s the overall picture?


Zawada’s departure will undoubtedly be the biggest gut punch to Phoenix fans. Still, it is worth noting that, had his departure come at the end of the season before this one, it would have hurt a lot more. Despite his seven goals in the 2023/24 campaign, Zawada’s latest season was hampered by injury – and his output was less than half that of his debut season in 2022/23.


Still, these words may be regretted if Zawada’s next destination - as is being rumoured - is the Bill Foley-backed expansion club Auckland FC.


Another reason for Nix fans to embrace Zawada’s exit with good grace is the emergence of a crop of fresh attacking talent. Sure, Barbarouses is no spring chicken, but Oskar van Hattum’s three assists – which he capped with his first A-League Men goal against Adelaide United – cause optimism. Meanwhile, exciting young Kiwi forwards Fergus Gillion, Luke Supyk, and Gabriel Sloane-Rodrigues got minutes in 2023/24.


With David Ball having only contributed two assists throughout the 29 games the Phoenix played last season, though – and the future of Kraev, who contributed six goals and two assists, still up in the air – the Phoenix will undoubtedly be looking to bolster their attacking options before the new season kicks off in October.

At the other end of the pitch, the Phoenix’s only question marks – providing they can hang on to Pennington, who deputised in 2023/24 as an ancillary right-back to great effect – are around whether they can hang on to their players. As seen in Alex Paulsen's departure, the cogs in a rearguard that shipped just 26 goals in 27 matches will not go unnoticed by the Nix’s bigger-spending rivals or those overseas, and even the longer contracts – such as Old, signed until 2027 – are only there to guarantee the Nix will receive a fee in the event of a sale (rather than preventing a transfer).


As an example of some interest the Nix may have to fight off, let's take Auckland FC, who – after announcing the signings of five Kiwi internationals, are already making good on their intention to build a squad upon the foundations of Kiwi talent – will be calibrating their crosshairs.

Hughes and Lukas Kelly-Heald still feel too raw to attract attention. But Kiwi players such as Surman and Sutton – homegrown members of that incredible, club-record-smashing defence – could be attainable at the right price.


Surman’s British passport would make him an easier get if a League One club (or, if Ryan Edmondson’s post-Grand Final-winning comments are to be believed, even higher up the English football pyramid) comes calling. Might Plymouth Argyle’s Ben "The Waine Train" Waine be whispering a word in his new manager Wayne Rooney’s ear concerning his former teammate?


Finally, the Nix’s setup for next season looks the most secure in the midfield. Despite missing two crucial late-season penalties, Alex Rufer had his best campaign of professional football to date, and fans will be relieved to have him sticking around for two more seasons.

Ben Old, whose five goals and four assists also stood out in a largely goal-shy Phoenix side, is signed on for another three seasons. Fin Conchie is contracted until 2026, and the Phoenix will feel confident of locking down his fellow central midfield teammate Mohamed Al-Taay – who received his first international call-up for Iraq just over a week ago – to a fresh deal with a year still to run on his contract. Also signed until 2027 are backup goalkeeper Alby Kelly-Heald and young Sloane-Rodrigues.

 

READ MORE A-LEAGUES CONTENT ON FPF

Quick look: The squad status for 2024/25


On the books for 2024/25:


  • Kosta Barbarouses (until June 2025)

  • David Ball (until June 2025)

  • Scott Wootton (until June 2025)

  • Tim Payne (until June 2025)

  • Sam Sutton (until June 2025)

  • Oskar van Hattum (until June 2025)

  • Finn Surman (until June 2025)

  • Mo Al-Taay (until June 2025)

  • Matthew Sheridan (until June 2025)

  • Isaac Hughes (until June 2025)

  • Alex Rufer (until June 2026)

  • Fin Conchie (until June 2026)

  • Luke Supyk (until June 2026)

  • Ben Old (until June 2027)

  • Alby Kelly-Heald (until June 2027)

  • Lukas Kelly-Heald (until June 2027)

  • Gabriel Sloane-Rodrigues (until June 2027)


Off-contract:


  • Nicholas Pennington

  • Bozhidar Kraev

  • Jack Duncan


Leaving the club:


  • Oskar Zawada

  • Youstin “Delfin” Salas


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