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Elrich resurrects career at Phoenix

After a couple of major career setbacks, former Socceroo midfielder Ahmad Elrich has chosen the unlikely destination of New Zealand to rebuild his footballing career.

Discarded by English Premier League club Fulham and finally getting back to full fitness after a serious knee injury while on national duty, the 26-year-old is the first marquee player of new A-League franchise, the Wellington Phoenix.

The so-called Shaky Isles are the latest port of call for a career that took Elrich from Sydney's west to west London, with stops in the Korean Republic and Norway along the way.

With exceptional pace and an ability to be either a winger or playmaker, Elrich represented Australia at the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship and the 2004 Olympics. He's also earned 17 senior caps since 2004, scoring five goals.

He was unlucky to be overlooked by Guus Hiddink in the 2006 World Cup squad after some eye-catching performances in Australian colours, including scoring the winning goal as a substitute in a 2005 friendly victory over now Asian champions, Iraq. And it was in an Asian Cup qualifier in Kuwait last September that Elrich suffered a major knee injury, effectively ruling him out of Fulham's 2006-2007 season.

In two years at Craven Cottage, Elrich played just six league games. He also had a two month loan spell at Lynn Oslo in Norway - where he'd had trials earlier in his career.

The signs were ominous when Elrich wasn't assigned a squad shirt number for the 2007-2008 season. And in early September, Fulham released the former Parramatta Power favourite, with one year remaining on his contract.

Barely two and a half weeks later, he was unveiled as Wellington Phoenix's marquee player in a team captained by Ross Aloisi - John's elder brother - and coached by New Zealand national manager, Ricki Herbert.

Two years earlier, Elrich was also in a footballing limbo after a dispute with his Korean club, Busan I'cons. At one point, he refused to rejoin his teammates in the K-League after returning to his Sydney home.

But a career at the Phoenix - New Zealand's new club in the A-League after the demise of the Auckland-based Knights - marks a new beginning. And unlike their ill-fated predecessors from the north, the Phoenix are attracting respectable crowds and stubbornly refusing to become the championship's whipping boys. An impressive away victory over Sydney FC is among their first season highlights.

Elrich was eased into action in round-8 but is likely to have an important role to play as the Phoenix push for a spot in the A-League's top 4.

'Ahmad is a better player now than he was,' Wellington captain Ross Aloisi said. 'He understands the game a lot more, he's older. He'll bring a lot to this team when he gets himself up to full fitness.

He remains one of Australia's unique talents - partly because of his cultural and religious background. Elrich was born into a Lebanese-Muslim family in Sydney - his mother Wadad wears the traditional hijab - and he was once approached to play for Lebanon's biggest club, Nejmeh, with a fast-track to a possible Lebanese international career.

But, without a second thought, Elrich chose the nation of his birth. In his interview with ESPNsoccernet, Elrich talks of his desire to return to the Australian squad and explains why he chose to rebuild his career from New Zealand. With the Socceroos likely to call on more A-League players for a busy World Cup qualifying campaign next year, Elrich could be well placed to make an international comeback.

Q: Ahmad, after being released by Fulham, several A-League clubs were interested in you. Why did you choose Wellington Phoenix instead of one of the Australian-based A-League clubs?
After meeting coach Ricki Herbert, owner Terry Serepisos and chief executive Tony Pignata, I knew that this was the club for me. I was impressed with what those key people had to say and I liked what I saw. It was an instinct thing, I felt in my heart that the Phoenix was the right club for me to come to.

Wellington are doing a lot better than many people expected. What's been your experience like so far?
It's been fantastic: it really feels like I've been here for a long time. The boys have made me feel really welcome, the training staff have been fantastic and the management in the office have been awesome. It's just made it a real easy transition for me. We've got a good bunch of people here and, while the last couple of results have gone against us, I'm sure we'll bounce back.

You've overcome a serious knee injury to make a competitive comeback. Where are you physically at the moment in your recovery and do you have the same speed as before?
I'm probably two or three kilos overweight but I'm feeling really good and, yes, I do think I'm as fast as I've ever been. It was great to have 45 minutes for the Phoenix against the Newcastle Jets, and the more game time I get the sharper I'll become.

What happened at Fulham before the injury? Why were your opportunities so limited?
Firstly, I was always involved. I played 11 matches including Cup games and Premiership games. Sure, I was on the bench a lot of the time but I think that, coming from Australia, there were players who had been there longer and were more established and experienced. So it was about me biding my time and waiting for an opportunity. Then I got injured at the start of the following season and that was pretty much it, I was out for the season. It's a shame because I think I could've mixed it with them.

For the games that you did play, what was your best memory or experience from the Premier League?
The stand-out for me was playing against Liverpool in my starting debut for Fulham - it was the game of my career against the Champions League champions. We won 2-0 at home, it was incredible.

What are your ambitions with the Socceroos? And how disappointed were you to miss out on the 2006 World Cup?
I was extremely disappointed, that was why I went on loan to Norway for six weeks - to get match time under my belt. I also took a big pay cut... that was how much I wanted to be part of the team. But these things happen. Life's unfair sometimes and you can't afford to dwell on those sorts of things, it's about how you pick yourself up. I love playing for my country and my ambition is to get fit, do well for the Phoenix and get back in the Socceroos.

Memorably, you scored a crucial goal as Australia beat now Asian champions Iraq in a friendly a couple of years ago. How could your style fit in to the current Socceroo set up?
I'm the type of player that likes to get forward and get in behind teams. I like crossing quality balls to strikers and, obviously, getting up there and scoring a few goals myself. When I get on I like to put defenders on the back foot and make them worry about me, rather than me worrying about them.

You can now add New Zealand to the list of foreign destinations you've lived - along with Korea, England and Norway. How does Wellington compare to your hometown of Sydney?
Wellington's an absolutely beautiful city, it's amazing. It reminds me a bit of Lebanon, it's got the hills and the water down below. The people in Wellington are fantastic and friendly. The only real downside is the weather, especially the wind. Obviously Sydney's home, I love Sydney and I'll always live there, but if Wellington had the same weather as Sydney it'd probably be the number two destination.

If you can do well for the Phoenix in the A-League, could we see Ahmad Elrich trying again to make it in Europe?
Of course. Every player wants to test himself and wants to play at the highest possible level. I'm sure Ricki will help me achieve that and the club will benefit from it to. But if it doesn't happen then well, at least I tried.


Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a co-host of Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter


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