Mark Rudan's return spices up Wellington Phoenix A-League opener
Wellington's Westpac Stadium will host the figurative birth of Western United and the rebirth of the Phoenix on Sunday in an enticing A-League opening round fixture.
For the new Victorian side, a busy 10 months of off-field effort will finally come to fruition when they play their first official game after Western United were announced as the league's 11th franchise back in December.
Since then, they've worked tirelessly to build a squad for their maiden campaign.
For Wellington, a new era begins under new coach Ufuk Talay and captain Steven Taylor. Yet for all of the firsts, Sunday is mostly about one thing: the return of Mark Rudan.
Rudan walked out on the Phoenix in May after a breakout campaign to become Western's inaugural coach -- jilting fans and causing a player shake-up, as key planks of the Wellington side that Rudan took to the finals are gone.
Rudan lured club captain Andrew Durante, goalkeeper of the year Filip Kurto and Max Burgess to Victoria, leaving Talay with a big patch-up job.
Talay has brought in some experience -- notably midfield pair Ulises Davila and Matti Steinmann -- but will rely on kids this campaign.
Australian young guns Reno Piscopo, Jaushua Sotirio and Walter Scott are all in line to start on Sunday.
By contrast, the league's youngest club might field the oldest team. Rudan has drafted experience through his squad, with 37-year-old Durante and 36-year-old Scott McDonald key men at either end of the field.
Then there's late addition Besart Berisha - the league's all-time record scorer - who at 34 has his best years behind him, but most likely still plenty of good days ahead.
For all the talking points, the chief plot-line is how Rudan will be received by his once-adoring fans.
"I'm big and ugly enough to take all the punches," Rudan said, anticipating boos from the Wellington crowd. "Every good story has a villain and a hero. I guess I'm the villain for one side.
"There's a bit of animosity there right now but we had a damn good year [last] year. We need to build rivalries ... Wellington Phoenix has never really had a rival. Now it's there."
Talay, a friend of Rudan's, said Phoenix fans should expect a slightly different brand of football under his tenure.
"His coaching style is different to me and beliefs are different to me in what he wants a game to look like," he said. "Rudes came in and got the club in a good space and good mentality, and I'm just trying to continue that."