The last 18 months have witnessed a remarkable transformation in the career of Shane Smeltz. Almost every accolade within his grasp has come the way of the German-born New Zealand striker, culminating this week in him being named the Johnny Warren medalist as the best player in the Australian A-League.
Playing for Wellington Phoenix, the A-League's only New Zealand-based club, Smeltz also took home the Golden Boot award with 12 goals in the 21-match season. In doing so he became the first Kiwi to ever claim such a prize in 30 years of Australian national competition. Smeltz even managed to scoop the Goal of the Year award for a remarkable solo effort scored against premiers Melbourne Victory.
Success for Smeltz was not just confined to the domestic stage either, with the 27-year-old's goals helping New Zealand dispense with their Oceanian rivals to qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 and secure a play-off with an Asian opponent for a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
As recently as two years ago, Smeltz was kicking around in the lower leagues of English football with varying degrees of success, appearing for the likes of AFC Wimbledon and Halifax Town. Then in May 2007 New Zealand stunned the crowd at Wrexham's Racecourse Ground by drawing 2-2 with Wales, thanks in no small part to a first-half brace from Smeltz. The match identified by Smeltz as a "turning point" in his career.
Smeltz joined Wellington Phoenix almost immediately, ending a sometimes turbulent period of his career that included eight clubs in as many years across three different countries. It is in the homely environs of the Kiwi capital that Smeltz has found his greatest success to date, scoring an impressive 21 goals in 39 matches across two seasons for the Phoenix. The club has been hugely competitive in the Australian competition, achieving greater success than previous New Zealand clubs, thanks in no small part to Smeltz's goal return.
The Phoenix are guided by Ricki Herbert, who doubles as Smeltz's national team coach and holds the distinction of being a member of the New Zealand team that competed at the 1982 FIFA World Cup. "Ricki Herbert has been fantastic for me personally and of course in my development as a footballer," said Smeltz of one of his mentor. "He has shown a lot of belief in me, and I think you need that as a player if you are to do well."
Despite offers from Europe, Smeltz is set to play for new A-League club Gold Coast United alongside returning Socceroo and former PSV Eindhoven star midfielder Jason Culina. Intriguingly, it will be another homecoming of sorts for Smeltz, who spent a good deal of his childhood growing up in the Australian surfing capital.
Bright future for All-Whites
After a moderate start to his national team career, Smeltz has bloomed on the international stage, and with eight goals to date in qualifying for South Africa 2010 he is amongst the most prolific scorers in the qualifying process. When Smeltz scored against New Caledonia last September, it marked the sixth international in a row in which he found the net, equalling a 30-year-old national team record.
His tally during this run is now ten goals, which takes his running total to an impressive return of 11 goals in 21 outings. "It's just the confidence thing and I'm comfortable with the players around me," said Smeltz after equaling the record. "I'm in a good environment and people believe in me, so as long as that continues, my form will continue as well."
The recent retirement of New Zealand's record goalscorer Vaughan Coveny, has allowed Smeltz to form a formidable partnership with Celtic's Chris Killen. It is a coupling on which the Kiwi's will base their attack for a tilt at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009, where the Kiwi sharpshooter will be able to test himself against Asian title holders Iraq, hosts South Africa and European champions Spain.
There is also the small matter of facing the fifth-ranked Asian nation in a play-off later this year to earn a second visit to South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. "We are looking forward to the Confederations Cup," enthused Smeltz. "They are all big games and hopefully we can learn from the experience, become stronger and take it into the World Cup qualifiers."