There was a time, not so many years ago, before the “C” word sent the world in general and sport in particular into hibernation, when a lot of football pundits were questioning the Wellington Phoenix’s value to the A-League.
There appeared to be a school of thought that the Phoenix didn’t “contribute” to the league. Their TV deal with Sky Sports was questioned, as was their lack of quality on the pitch, their engagement with their fans, their ability to attract players who could make a difference.
On Sunday, Wellington hosted Adelaide United at Sky Stadium.
After two seasons of nomadic existence and great sacrifice, the Phoenix were finally back to playing a regular schedule. They had managed a few “homecomings” during the pandemic-wrecked seasons preceding this one, and the fans lapped it up, bulging out of the most beautifully positioned stadium in the league to welcome back a team that had made Wollongong their home for two years.
While Sunday’s crowd wasn’t a sellout in the manner of those aforementioned games, the crowd was large and enthusiastic. I had the unique experience of watching the game in Australia while conversing via text with someone who was waiting to catch the Cook Strait ferry.
A photo showing the ferry queue brought a smile to my face, not only for the lady in the picture but because right there in the background was the very stadium I was watching the game from. Maybe that’s why the traffic was unusually heavy for a Wellington Sunday, was the consensus when I pointed this out.
The game itself was a good one, and Wellington did remarkably well to adjust to the 25th minute red-carding of their new Brazilian midfielder Yan Sasse, who was perhaps unfortunate to be sent off when he slipped lunging for the ball, and both feet left the ground in a collision with Adelaide’s Javi Lopez.
The Reds’ most potent attacking weapon of recent times, Craig Goodwin, was left on the bench by coach Carl Veart, and the Phoenix repelled Adelaide’s attacking pressure while living on their nerves.
In the 57th minute, two significant substitutions determined the eventual fate of the game. Ben Waine for Wellington, and Adelaide club captain Goodwin took to the lush green Sky Stadium pitch.
It was Waine who scored the opening goal in the 75th minute, following up a Kosta Barbarouses shot that Adelaide keeper Joe Gauci could only push away. And it was Goodwin who orchestrated most of Adelaide’s forward momentum, playing Zac Clough in for a one-on-one moment in the 91st minute that Phoenix keeper Oli Sail managed to save, while “taking one for the team” in the region Richie Benaud once described as “lower plenty”.
With Sail down and writhing in the kind of pain most men snigger at while empathising completely, the NZ commentator observed wryly, “I don’t know what the physio can do for Sail at the moment, except offer words of sympathy and encouragement.”
Once Sail had recaptured his… breath, Goodwin swung in the resultant corner for Ben Halloran to score the equaliser that Adelaide probably deserved but which seemed cruel on the home side, who had shown admirable steel and resilience since Sasse’s red card.
But really, what more would we expect from a side who have endured what they have in the last two seasons?
Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay has worked minor miracles with the club and there now seems to be a sense of possible achievement from a team whose very place at the A League table was at risk only three years ago. Their fans are enthusiasts and the TV coverage – at least the broadcast I watched – was top notch, with a wry sense of Kiwi humour thrown in to elevate the proceedings.
From a wider perspective, the A-League needs to have success stories from their so-called outposts beyond Sydney and Melbourne. While half the league’s clubs are now drawn from the two major cities, clubs like Wellington and Adelaide can be major contributors to a season many are hoping will redress the balance of the last two.
There is no doubt that the Phoenix have won the admiration of fans from all clubs for sticking it out in the last 24 months. Indeed, making the finals last campaign while playing 99 per cent of their matches away from home was indicative of the mythical bird after which the club is named.
With a full schedule of home games in 2022-23, Talay’s team can make serious inroads into the league and quell any questioning of their place at the A-League banquet.
They play in a beautiful part of the world (I’ve got the pictures to prove it). Now, the hope is they can embed the beautiful game in their own harbour city, and the sight of shirtless Phoenix fans from the 80th minute onwards becomes a common sight this season.