Leaving Wellington was the best thing Kosta Barbarouses ever did.

A prodigious schoolboy player - former All Whites coach Mick Waitt remembers him standing out from his peers at the age of just 11 - Barbarouses signed a professional contract with the newly-formed Wellington Phoenix in 2007 when 17. Three years and a meagre six starts later, he headed offshore and proceeded to carve out a career that seemed a million miles away from the fringes of the Phoenix matchday squad.

"It was pretty tough actually," remembers Barbarouses. "At the start of every Phoenix season, the coaching staff brought players in who played my position, no matter what I'd done the season before. I thought whenever I had an opportunity I did quite well. It was tough to get going and that's ultimately why I left and, fortunately for me, it worked out really well."

That's an understatement.


Barbarouses won the A-League in his first season with Brisbane Roar before embarking on overseas stints with Russian side Alania Vladikavkaz and Greek giants Panathinaikos.

He returned to the A-League, winning a championship during his three years with Melbourne Victory. The precocious talent who was squeezed out of his hometown by a lack of opportunities had become one of the best players in the A-League.

Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick came knocking earlier this year to bring him home. Despite his frustration at what had transpired before, Barbarouses had no qualms about returning to Wellington and he has been joined by Gui Finkler who he combined so effectively with at the Victory.

"I've moved past that and the club has moved on, too," Barbarouses said. "The club is a much different place from when I was here last. Once I spoke to Ernie and a couple of the boys it made the decision much easier. I wanted to come back when I felt we'd have a good chance to be successful and I could help contribute to that. If that happens, I think it'll be a fantastic thing for me."

But with an enhanced reputation comes greater expectation. Phoenix fans crave a return to the A-League playoffs and expect Barbarouses to play a big part in achieving that. He's no longer a fringe player and, barring injury, will start more games before Christmas than he did in his entire first three years at the club. That responsibility sits comfortably on his shoulders.

"Yes, the pressure is there, but it's only the pressure I put on myself. I feel like I always need to do better. But I think that's what keeps me going and keeps me motivated because, while I feel I can constantly improve, it gives me something to look forward to.

"Ernie's said it's the best pre-season since he's been at the club and it's very good compared to everywhere else that I've been. I think we've got a great squad to do really good things. All the signs are there."

Life has come full circle for Barbarouses. He's settled back into Wellington's eastern suburbs, a decent free-kick from where he grew up with his three brothers, the aircraft leaving Wellington Airport roaring overhead as they played their backyard games.

The boy who left on one of those planes six years ago was just that - a boy. He's now not only a man but, in the eyes of many Phoenix fans, the man to return them to the A-League's top table.