There's a famous story about Liberato Cacace's dad they still tell around Wellington.
Antonio and Luisa Cacace own La Bella Italia, a popular restaurant in Petone, just a short drive from Sky Stadium. Among the regular customers in recent years were Phoenix players Andrew Durante and Vince Lia and Antonio would often tell them about his son, a promising young footballer who might one day join them in the professional ranks.
Durante and Lia would listen politely – as they no doubt did to every proud parent who told them about their talented child and his dreams of becoming a pro – and think nothing more of it. But as it turned out, Antonio Cacace's pride wasn't misplaced - his son Libby was the real deal.
Cacace became the Phoenix's youngest player in February 2018, coming off the bench at Sydney FC to join Durante on the left side of Wellington's back four, a position he had never played before. Cacace was only 17, still in Year 12 at St Patrick's College and would arrive at Phoenix trainings in his school uniform. He became the club's youngest scorer the following season during an 8-2 rout of the Central Coast Mariners, and earlier this year – while still a teenager – brought up 50 games for the club, marking the occasion with another goal.
Cacace was a regular under Mark Rudan in 2018/19, but his rise this season has been so meteoric that he's now clearly the best fullback in the A-League. He has simply gone to another level, especially on attack where his trademark forward runs have Phoenix fans leaning forward in their seats and opposition defenders backing off with growing and justified trepidation.
"Uffie (Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay) always tells me I'm a defender first when he sees me bombing down the left," laughs Cacace.
"He tells me to pick my moments to go forward and that's what I've been doing. I'm glad I can be a threat by freeing up other people to hurt the opposition."
It's often Cacace himself inflicting the damage. Late in January's clash with Western Sydney, he received the ball just inside the opposition half, wide on the left. Having pushed it past a tiring defender and collected on the other side, Cacace put on the after-burners to leave two more players trailing helplessly in his wake before cutting inside and finding the net to seal a 2-0 win. It was a great goal, but no longer a great surprise.
The previous season Cacace had set off on a similar, marauding run from a far deeper position against Melbourne Victory at Eden Park and in footballing parlance "broke the ankles" of Japanese superstar Keisuke Honda on his way into enemy territory.
Talay knows full well what a talent Cacace is and what a waste it would be to hand him an overly defensive brief.
"He's a massive player for us in the way we play, with the width he gives us and his energy," said Talay.
"He's a very dynamic player. He's done exceptionally well this season and gone to another level."
Phoenix captain Steven Taylor – the veteran of over 200 Premier League matches – has watched Cacace develop over the past two seasons and observed the growing impact he's had.
"Even when it gets tough you've got Libby grasping the game by himself with the individual class he possesses," said Taylor.
"The defenders from the other side are always talking after the game about what he brings to our side. But he's very humble and grounded. He stays behind, does his extras and wants to get better."
Cacace didn't really need his dad's help to catch the eye of those in high places. He played all three matches at the 2017 Under-17 World Cup in India and made his full All Whites debut against Taiwan in a four-nation tournament in India the following year. When Danny Hay selected his first side as national coach at the back end of 2019, Cacace was at left back, a position he could dominate for the next decade and beyond in the national side.
Cacace was also a standout at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup in Poland as New Zealand made the knockout rounds before being cruelly eliminated by Colombia on penalties. He set up New Zealand's goal in the 1-1 draw and calmly converted his spot-kick in the shootout, before drawing the ire of opposition fans by placing a finger to his lips in the universal signal for "shush". The boy had found a bit of a swagger.
Cacace is in his last week as a Phoenix player, with multiple overseas clubs expressing interest in securing his signature. It seems likely he'll join Belgian side Sint-Truiden, coming under the tutelage of former Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat and Luciano Trani, previously an assistant coach at the Phoenix. Familiar faces will help his assimilation into a foreign land, but Cacace's football will be more than enough to endear him to his new teammates and fans.
John Grimaud became Cacace's agent after the Under-20 World Cup and is confident about what the future might hold.
"You need to be careful because there is still such a long way to go but from our experiences Libby can have a very successful career in Europe if he can continue the trajectory he is on at the moment," said Grimaud.
"He has an abundance of weapons that can hurt any opposition. His physical attributes are there for all to see but his ability to make things happen in the final third is what sets him apart from other players.
"For such a young player he is so mature in his decision-making, always finding a solution to help the team. He never seems to be under pressure to make a pass or forces things to happen when he is on the ball.
"He will still be making the same runs in the 92nd minute of a game with the same intensity. That's not luck; it comes from a strong work ethic which can be traced back through his family.
"These are outstanding qualities for someone so young and when you add these to his defensive traits and being left-footed he becomes an attractive commodity for many clubs around the world."