It's natural to remember a season largely through the filter of its conclusion. But in 2020 – this year of all years – anything that feels natural should probably be discounted or at least approached with caution.
This season, the Wellington Phoenix played some of the best football in the 13-year life of the club and history will show they finished higher up the A-League ladder then ever before. Even so, there's more than just a dash of disappointment over how it all ended and what might have been.
What the Phoenix achieved in 2019/20 is even more extraordinary given what rookie coach Ufuk Talay had to work with when he arrived in Wellington. Just seven players were contracted and among those gone were the club's record goal-scorer Roy Krishna, his 2018/19 partner-in-crime David Williams, reigning goalkeeper of the year Filip Kurto and club skipper for 11 seasons Andrew Durante.
Against that backdrop, Talay set about rebuilding his roster and it's here we place the first massive tick alongside his name. Talay's recruitment was exceptional. Almost every player he brought to the club made an impact, with all five imports (four of whom he signed) becoming rusted-on starters and key contributors.
Mexican Ulises Davila was a revelation, lighting up the A-League with a brilliant skill-set and impressive goal-scoring record. Talay placed faith in Gary Hooper despite a worrying injury history and the veteran striker went on to become one of the more dangerous front-men in the competition. Fellow Englishman David Ball was industrious and important and Matti Steinmann added solidity and surety to midfield.
But the local acquisitions were just as notable. Goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic was a great get, while fellow Kiwis Callum McCowatt, Tim Payne and Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi all added to the side's strength and depth. Among the Aussies, midfielder Cam Devlin was superb, veteran defender Luke Devere ably replaced Durante at centre-back and attacker Reno Piscopo was another bright addition.
Things certainly didn't go to plan from the start, though. After four games, the Nix were rock-bottom having suffered four straight defeats and Talay's maiden season looked headed for disaster. Certainly no pundit had Wellington finishing in the top three, hardly any had them challenging for the top six and the vast majority saw them taking the wooden spoon.
Wellington snared their first point away at Melbourne Victory and the season turned with a home win over Brisbane in round six and an equally crucial victory in Adelaide a week later. Three games unbeaten became six and then nine and all of a sudden the Phoenix were in the top-four in mid-January and stayed there pretty much until season's end. In the month between mid-February and mid-March, they were irresistible, winning four straight matches and putting the likes of Melbourne Victory and Western United to the sword. The Nix were third with games in hand and headed for a top-two finish.
An attempt to continue the season saw the team fly to Sydney but the only significant thing that happened during their short stay was Tim Payne and Oli Sail's ill-fated golf-cart joyride which saw Payne arrested and both players suspended for four matches.
When the season did finally resume, the Nix jetted out of Wellington in June for two weeks of quarantine and two months together in search of A-League glory. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be.
What happened after Covid must be acknowledged; seven games for only one win and more worryingly, just five goals, two of those from the penalty spot. Quite why the goals dried up remains somewhat of a mystery, but the loss of Hooper was certainly a factor, particularly in the Elimination Final defeat. Wellington fired off 32 shots at Perth's goal without scoring, so creating chances wasn't the issue. Putting them in the net clearly was.
The side's form dip was most noticeable in Davila's performances. Having been his team's talisman, he was out-of-sorts after the competition resumed and didn't reach the heights that saw him a candidate for the Johnny Warren Medal earlier in the season.
The cohesive passing and fluid attack, hallmarks of the Phoenix's season, were down a few notches and never fully recaptured. Third place was achieved, but the loss to Perth in the first round of the finals brought a feeling of frustration over what might have been rather than celebration at what had been done.
No-one from the club ever used the circumstances they found themselves in as an excuse, but the fact remains it's not natural for a team to spend nine weeks together, practically in isolation. Lockdown fatigue, homesickness, an inability to escape from the bubble and the tedium of being away for so long must have contributed in some way, shape or form.
While the meek finish will leave fans wondering, "what if", the reality is this season was a success. Slated by most to prop up the table, the Phoenix finished third and from early December were never in the bottom half. More importantly, the style of football Talay encouraged turned stern critics into gushing admirers.
The Phoenix – seen by many for so long as an inconvenience and even an imposter in the competition – became the poster boys for what the A-League could be all about; free-flowing, exciting, possession-based football that got results. They also managed to fulfil another important part of their brief by promoting Kiwi talent with Libby Cacace's rise through the club's academy system to become one of the country's brightest prospects a blueprint for what the future direction of the club should be.
The trick now is to build on the success and really give the A-League a decent crack. The Phoenix are still yet to make a Grand Final, let alone win any silverware and they may see this season as their best chance to have done so. But there's no point looking back now; 2019/20 has to be a launching pad for the years ahead. With their place in the competition now assured, it's time for the Phoenix to become a regular playoff participant and genuine championship contender.