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Bertos backs Phoenix for play-off spot

All Whites midfielder Leo Bertos believes the Wellington Phoenix will make the A-League play-offs this year and is keen for the whole country to get in behind New Zealand's fledgling football club.

The former Perth Glory star will be in Christchurch tomorrow for the Phoenix's pre-season game against a Mainland representative team.

Bertos one of several big off-season signings by his hometown club says the Nix want to establish "the brand all over the country".

"We're called the Wellington Phoenix, but it's a national team. We're representing New Zealand, we're the only professional football club here. We want to get the name out there and build that support."

The 26-year-old admits he is "living my dream" and says it is somewhat "surreal" to find himself playing professionally in Wellington after being forced to take his talents offshore.

He is still taken aback at the Phoenix fever simmering on the streets of the capital. "It's a bit weird. It was always rugby, rugby, rugby, or cricket (in the past). Now people say they can't wait for the Phoenix's season to start. It's good, I'm sure it will continue as long as the team does well and hopefully brings the city some trophies."

Bertos left Wellington in 2001 and spent five years in England's lower leagues with Barnsley, Rochdale, York City and Scarborough among his collection of clubs.

But his efforts for the All Whites put him in the A-League shop window and his career took off when he went to Perth in 2006.

He made 35 appearances over two seasons with the Glory, impressing with his pace on the flanks and his pinpoint crossing ability.

Bertos believes the A-League, with its less frenetic pace than the winter-based helter-skelter UK game, suits his style better and he likens the standard to the "lower to middle" levels of England's second-tier Championship.

So having won over the Glory fans why did he choose to join a Phoenix outfit which won the wooden spoon in its inaugural A-League season?

"I had a great time at Perth, it's a beautiful city, I made a lot of friends there and it was a hard decision to leave. They wanted me to stay, but I was coming home. All my family and friends are (in Wellington). I knew what the club would be like, it's very professionally run. I knew it would be a good decision, football-wise,to come back.

"After being here for a few weeks, I'm very happy I've made this decision. It's the right one for me. It's a very exciting team."

Bertos shares a Greek heritage with Phoenix owner Terry Serepisos but had never met him before joining the club. "But our two families knew each other, a wee bit."

He has a lot of respect for the way Serepisos built a club out of nothing last season and looks forward to helping the Phoenix surge up the league ladder.

"I'm very comfortable in saying we should get to the top-four (play-offs) this year. I know everyone says it was a typical New Zealand year last season, finishing last. But I think that's a bit harsh. It was a success just to get the club up and running in such a short time.

"Now, with the players that are still here and the players they've got in ... there's a very high standard."

Bertos believes the Phoenix are laying the foundations to win the A-League title, "if not this year, then next year or the year after that".

He had another reason for wanting to return to Wellington international aspirations.

With 21 caps he is now established as an All Whites regular, and says "this is a big year" for the national team coached by Phoenix mentor Ricki Herbert.

It would be an asset training and playing with fellow All Whites each day in the lead-up to this year's Oceania Nations Cup matches and, "hopefully, the World Cup qualifiers next year".

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