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Smeltz shining for rising Phoenix

In just over a year, Shane Smeltz has gone from the anonymity of English football's lower echelons to being the biggest star of New Zealand football and the face of the Wellington Phoenix.

The 26-year-old striker has carried on where he left off last season by scoring three goals in the opening two matches of the new campaign to top the A-League charts even though Wellington are still looking for their first victory.

Thriving in adversity is nothing new for Smeltz. Last season as the Phoenix propped up the table, his tally of nine goals from 19 matches was second to only Joel Griffiths, of the triumphant Newcastle Jets.

Smeltz's head-turning performances for club and country - he scored both goals in the All Whites' 2-2 away draw against a Wales side including Ryan Giggs - saw him voted New Zealand footballer of 2007, edging out Blackburn Rovers' Ryan Nelsen and Celtic striker Chris Killen.

He didn't exactly hit the heights of British football, but Smeltz knows that his difficult two years playing for England's bottom feeders helped mould him into one of the A-League's most prolific strikers.

Mansfield Town, AFC Wimbledon and Halifax Town were the clubs that hosted Smeltz as he matured as a player and developed a toughness that serves him well as the New Zealand franchise looks for success against the odds.

'The lower leagues in England are a lot more physical,' he said. 'In the A-League, the emphasis is on retaining the ball, working as a team and employing tactical aspects. It suits me a lot better here, for sure.'

Smeltz may have cut his professional teeth in England where his mother was born but he has connections to at least three other countries. He was born in Germany to New Zealand parents and grew up in Australia, attending the Queensland Academy of Sport's football program.

He played for Gold Coast City before his potential was recognised by then Brisbane Strikers coach John Kosmina who signed up an 18-year-old Smeltz to play in the National Soccer League.

Smeltz's connections to Australia's sunshine state and his record as a proven goalscorer are likely to make him a target when new clubs from the Gold Coast and North Queensland are expected to join an expanded A-League next season.

His contract in Wellington expires next June and the Phoenix face a nervous battle to re-sign their most reliable performer who was voted the club's player of the 2007-2008 season.

Smeltz underlined his value in Round 2 of the A-League on August 23rd when he scored both goals - a sharp header followed by a crisply taken penalty - as Wellington lost to Melbourne Victory in heavy rain at Westpac Stadium. It was a replay of the A-League Pre-Season Cup final a couple of weeks earlier, won by Melbourne after a penalty shoot-out.

If the Phoenix are to fulfill predictions of an improved campaign, Smeltz will again have to shoulder much of the burden and hope that Wellington's reinforced defence - led by new Aussie imports Andrew Durante and Jon McKain - will gel sooner rather than later.

Q: Shane, you must have been delighted with your first season in the A-League. What are your targets for your second campaign with Wellington?

A: As a team we want to improve on what we did last season. There are certain things we're focused on as a group and if we achieve them then we'll have a far better season as a squad and as individuals. Personally I enjoyed some good form last season and I want to continue that by helping the side reach the top four.

What's it like to be a Kiwi, playing back home in professional football after so many years abroad?

It's fantastic. There are a lot of positives here - a great lifestyle and you get looked after really well. The football here is getting better all the time, so it's good to be back. It's interesting to see how the game has grown in New Zealand. People on the street are recognising the players, turning up to games and getting really excited about football.

Why is the NZ A-League franchise working better in Wellington than it did in Auckland?

I think basically the support is a lot better. Wellington is a lot closer-knit than Auckland and the club has been well supported since day one. There's a great set-up at the club and everything is done professionally. Things are looking really good and I think the success the club is enjoying would only be possible in Wellington.

What are your impressions of the standard of the A-League, compared to the lower divisions in England?

The technical side of the football is a lot better here. The lower leagues in England are a lot more physical. In the A-League the emphasis is on retaining the ball, working as a team and employing tactical aspects. It suits me a lot better here, for sure.

What did it mean to you to win NZ player of the year in 2007 ahead of players like Chris Killen and Ryan Nelson?

It was a huge moment for me in my career so far. Obviously I have great respect for Ryan and Chris - they're massive players for New Zealand - but to win that award playing in New Zealand was fantastic.

Where do you see your international future and the progression of the All Whites?

The team has a lot to focus on in the coming months and years. I think we've got a excellent group at the moment and we all know what we want to achieve and we're striving to make that happen. Hopefully we can all stay together, stay injury-free and achieve our goals.

•  Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and two editions of SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.

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