I’ve heard them all. All the criticisms, all the questionable logic and all the jokes.

Rather stubbornly I have never believed any of it, preferring to embrace the Wellington Phoenix’s presence in the A-League.

As idealistic as it may sound, any serious and well established national football competition in Australia must include New Zealand representation. It was a belief that those charged with establishing the A-League knew all too well. 

As such, the New Zealand Knights were born and they played, rather unsuccessfully, out of North Harbour Stadium in Auckland. History now tells us it was an abject failure. 

Frankly, the squad was inept and with average crowds under 4,000 in its two seasons of A-League play, it was clear that the team inspired only a small few to hitch their wagons to the new franchise and the competition itself.

Thus, the Wellington Phoenix were born and survive to this day. New Zealand’s national capital accommodates around 418,000 residents. A population smaller than Newcastle (445,000 approx) and slightly larger than the Central Coast region that provides the supporter base for the Mariners.

Westpac Stadium plays host to their matches and the rather quirkily named ‘Cake Tin’ can hold 34,500 people when bursting at the seams. Not that the Phoenix have not seen such numbers very often in the 12 A-League seasons in which they have competed.

However, most people probably forget the 32,792 fans that jammed the place on March 7th 2010, when the men in yellow took on, and defeated, the Newcastle Jets in the A-League Finals. Last Saturday, we were all reminded of it, when 10,186 people flocked to the venue to see their boys attempt to keep alive an unbeaten run that had extended to seven matches. They did.

It was a clear and simple reminder that football in Wellington is alive and well and the city wasn’t let down, as the Phoenix produced a stunning, Roy Krishna inspired second half comeback that saw them overcome a two goal half time deficit.

It was rousing stuff and as fun to watch for the neutral observer as the club member or Wellington fan. They now sit comfortably inside the top six and sniff semi-final play for the first time since 2014-15, where the side made a straight sets exit in the Elimination Final.

Prior to that, there had been glory days with successful campaigns across 2009-10 to 2011-12. However, since then things have looked bleak and the cupboard is bare.

In fact, barring that rather brisk finals appearance, five of the last six seasons have bordered on diabolical.

10th, 9th, 9th, 7th and 9th place finishes surround that one appearance and have fuelled much of the anti-Wellington sentiment among many A-League fans.

When competitive, the Phoenix had averaged somewhere around 9,000-11,000 attendees at home matches. By 2017-18, that figure had dropped to around 5,500 and how those brave souls were still doing it I’m not entirely sure.

The FFA applied the heat some three years back before agreeing to a ten-year extension of the licence granted to Wellington. The first segment of that deal still has a full season to run and improvements in attendance and financial payments to the league were crucial parts of it. 

As recently as May 2018 conjecture over the club’s future still circled, as a Sydney consortium made enquiries regarding a potential purchase of the Phoenix’s licence. With the expansion process in full swing and the contenders on the campaign trail, the consensus appeared to be, ‘add three teams and get rid of Wellington.’

The oversight in this thinking was that no one bothered to tell Mark Rudan. The 43 year-old Phoenix manager has arrived in the shaky isles and turned a forlorn cause into an exciting and competitive club. His success was based on a culture change and a collective belief in the team’s ability to achieve.

The Sydney born mentor had been developing his managerial style at NPL level with Sydney United 58, as well as working with the Australian under-20’s squad as an assistant. His impact has been instant, stunning and from an FFA perspective, much needed.

Rudan strikes me as the kind of man who picks up a stick and draws a clear line in the sand as he strolls along a beach. His players have responded in kind, the fans are returning en masse, and the heat has well and truly been deflected to a trio of clubs destined to fight for the wooden spoon.

It is well deserved and reflects the simple reality that the Wellington Phoenix have more than a part to play in the A-League. Half a decade of misery had made them appear obsolete to many, yet how quickly on-field performance can restore value and positivity.

It is great to have the Phoenix back and now, the semi-finals await.

Categories: Opinion | A-League

wellington phoenix, mark rudan, a-league

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