Wellington Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay says his relationship with captain Alex Rufer is “as normal”, despite the player being replaced in each of the last two matches.
After being substituted in the 66th minute against Sydney FC in round five, Rufer was dragged at halftime during Saturday’s 4-0 loss to Adelaide.
It’s an unusual situation and it’s hard to recall past Phoenix skippers being removed at such an early juncture, aside from injury or fitness reasons.
Post-match, Talay described it as a tactical switch, but the coach later admitted it was also a “statement” to senior players about performance expectations, with Jaushua Sotirio also replaced.
“Alex wasn’t the only one taken off – there was another two players that I took off at halftime (Sotirio and Callan Elliott),” said Talay. “I have expectations on certain players that have been with me since day one and I have certain expectations on certain players doing certain things.
“It was a tactical change and [the substitutes] gave us a lot of energy, something we lacked. At the same time it was a bit of a statement to the players that, for me, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re not delivering what I need from you then the next guy will step in and do a job.”
Rufer was made captain this season, with goalkeeper Oli Sail named vice captain, following the departure of Steven Taylor. The 25-year-old barely played in the second half of last season, with only two starts in the last 11 matches as Cameron Devlin and Clayton Lewis were preferred.
But Rufer was expected to be a mainstay this time around, with the departure of Devlin and other experienced names, but has completed only three of Wellington’s six league games.
He’s been solid but often conservative in his play, yet to provide the offensive spark needed in such a vital position as the link to release the front four, or offer the necessary consistency.
“I understand that younger players are going to be inconsistent and make mistakes,” said Talay. “But I expect certain players to just stand up and lead the team.”
However Talay said the coach-captain connection remains strong.
“My relationship with every player is the same whether they’re captain or they’re not captain,” said Talay. “My door is always open for players to come and talk to me if there’s any issues, so for me it’s as normal.”
The immediate focus for the Phoenix is tonight’s FFA Cup quarter-final against Melbourne City (9:30pm NZT), after the tie was postponed last month due to a Covid outbreak in the City camp.
City haven’t played for more than two weeks and coach Patrick Kisnorbo said on Tuesday that all but five of their squad have had the virus and it was impossible to predict a starting XI, as players have returned to training at different stages.
However Talay is confident that the match will proceed.
“We got some information from the FFA that the game is good to go,” said Talay. “We need to play these games otherwise there’s going to be a massive backlog.”
The two Phoenix players who returned positive Covid tests last week remain unavailable as they recover, while the squad are doing all they can to stay safe, as cases continue to mount in Australia.
“It’s hard to take precautions other than what we can control,” said Talay. “We still need to travel and play games.
“The players are trying to be smart in the decisions that they make. We just tell [them] to use common sense. We’re trying to let the boys live their lives as normally as they possibly can.”
Striker Gary Hooper is back in the mix, after missing the Adelaide game due to South Australia border requirements, as the Phoenix aim to reach the FFA Cup semifinals for the first time.
“We’ll go there and try to win this game and continue on,” said Talay. “We’ve got a very young inexperienced squad, playing against last season’s champions. So what a great opportunity to go there, play some football and show what they can do.”
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