In his trademark black dress shirt, Wellington Phoenix coach Mark Rudan was soaked to the skin.

It was the 85th minute of the match between the Phoenix and Wanderers in Sydney 12 days ago. The Phoenix, playing a team they hadn't beaten for almost three years, had twice given up leads.

While his counterpart, former Liverpool defender Markus Babbel, sat inert and silent in the Western Sydney dugout, Rudan prowled the sideline in the rain, cajoling, encouraging, driving his players forward.

Striker Roy Krishna scored a brilliant goal minutes later and when the final whistle confirmed a 3-2 win, a defiant Rudan raised his fist, then launched a few choice words towards the Wanderers coaching bench.


That vignette encapsulated Rudan's impact at the Wellington club. Not only has he helped transform the also-rans into contenders, he's also reshaped the fabric of the club, bringing passion, belief, an intense will to win and some good old-fashioned mongrel to an organisation that had almost lost its identity.

Rudan doesn't mince words when asked what he encountered when he arrived at the Phoenix last year.

With this season's remarkable progress - they are fifth on the A-League ladder after a club record eight-game unbeaten run - it's easy to forget the mess he walked into last June.

They had just finished their worst campaign, released a stack of players and had fans deserting them in droves. There was a skeleton back room staff, their media profile had suffered immensely and Rudan was their fifth coach in three years, after Ernie Merrick, Des Buckingham, Darije Kalezic and Chris Greenacre (caretaker).

"I saw a club that was broken; people who were down and low in confidence," Rudan told the Herald on Sunday. "They needed someone to lead them. They wanted change. It was a matter of building their confidence and getting them to believe; changing the mentality, then the behaviours and the habits to be successful."

Roy Krishna's nine goals this season included the winner at Western Sydney. Photo / Photosport
Roy Krishna's nine goals this season included the winner at Western Sydney. Photo / Photosport

The former Sydney FC defender made all kinds of promises when he arrived, and so far, he has delivered. There's a backbone and spirit in the Phoenix that hasn't been there for years, and the kind of defensive grit vital in all successful teams. He has developed a system that suits his squad and blended worldly veterans with eager Kiwi youngsters.

Tonight's clash with the Melbourne Victory marks the halfway stage of the season, and the Phoenix already have more wins (six) and points (22) than the whole of last season. They're a much tougher proposition on the road (one defeat from six matches) and have restored pride among the fan base, with the home crowd last week topping 10,000 for the first time in two-and-a-half years.

Rudan set the tone in one of his first addresses to the squad, when the players were still getting to know the 43-year-old Sydneysider.


"It's quite simple," Rudan told his players. "Do you want to be successful? If so, this is the path you take. If you're happy to go down the path of where it's been in the past, then go for it. But understand you will fall away from this group very quickly.

"I need you guys to buy into this and really believe ... we want to make change. It's a mentality shift as much as anything else. Everything else - behaviours, habits, professionalism, work ethic - comes under that."

Rudan grew up in Sydney's "wild" west, where his mother and father both worked two jobs to support the household.

"It was tough there, you had to fend for yourself," said Rudan. "It taught me certain things I still have today - fighting for yourself and trying to make something of yourself."

Rudan lists two major influences on his formative playing career, the first his under-14 coach Maurice Sullivan, a Sydney Croatia legend.

Rudan recalls: "After a game, we got hammered and he stood up in front of the team and said 'this is poor, really poor, but all of you should look up to this one person - no matter what happens, he always gives everything of himself'. I didn't know who he was talking about but then he mentioned my name and I was quite surprised. After that, he bought me a lemonade and a hot dog and sat down with me on the hill. He said: 'You've got a future in the game if you apply yourself. You've got the right qualities.' I never forget that chat - it was so powerful for me."

Mark Rudan during a Wellington Phoenix training session. Photo / Getty Images
Mark Rudan during a Wellington Phoenix training session. Photo / Getty Images

The next turning point came when Australian Institute of Sport head coach Ron Smith offered him a berth at the AIS.

"I wasn't selected to the state or national teams but he saw something in me," said Rudan. "He gave me a scholarship there, with Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Robbie Middleby and others. He also converted me into a defender, telling me my future was at the back."

Rudan's career encompassed more than 350 matches for nine clubs in six countries (Australia, Germany, China, Malaysia, Japan and Switzerland) across 17 years.

A big break came with a move to German second division club Alemannia Aachen as a 25-year-old but it unravelled in bizarre fashion, with German police investigating fraudulent activity around his transfer and the Aachen treasurer later convicted.

Rudan was cleared of any wrongdoing but the ructions which made headlines in Australia and Europe made it difficult for him to settle and he left after a year. But his time there sparked his coaching dreams.

"In Germany, I started my little black book, writing down training sessions," said Rudan. "It grew bigger as the years went on. I loved the tactical side of it and was always listening to the coaches, their messages, after a win, after a loss."

Rudan cut his coaching teeth at Sydney United, winning two national premiership titles in the Australian second tier.

Rudan has brought a hard, no-nonsense approach to the Phoenix, illustrated with many examples, from the gruelling pre-season bloc in Australia (which included a 24-hour army-led boot camp, with no food or sleep) to his swift axing of former Socceroo Mitch Nichols this week (contract terminated immediately) when in the past plenty of big-name signings were allowed to coast through seasons.

But Rudan laughs at suggestions he is ruthless.

"I don't know," said Rudan. "Perceptions are funny. I'm pretty strong in my messages and [single-minded about] where we can go as a club. You have to go down a path; if you start allowing too many options, sometimes people take the safer route or the easier option.

"I've made it clear that in order for us to get to where we need to go, we need to do it this way. It's going to be a tough road and there are no shortcuts.

"We had to hit certain targets, along with body weight or skinfolds, the way we train, nothing comes easy in life and you need to work hard at it. There are certain non-negotiables but it's not a dictatorship, it's not my way or the highway."

Rudan has a softer side, taking the team out for dinner and drinks in late November after a run of three defeats, when he sensed the mounting pressure on their shoulders, ahead of a crucial match against league leaders Perth. He judged the situation well and the team hasn't lost since.

"I spend a lot of time with my players and I've got a good rapport with them. My job is to kind of parent them. You give them a lot of love when they need it and you are pretty stern when they need it as well.

"I am who I am, and it was the way I was brought up. You can talk tactics, formations, building a club, but at this level, being able to assess and manage people is a big part of my job, too - knowing who needs a hand over the shoulder and who needs a stern talking to."