My love for the Phoenix has risen from the ashes

The Dominion Post - - Opinion - Dave Arm­strong Voy­ager Me­dia Awards Columnist of the Year, Hu­mour/Satire

It started as a mis­take. There was an earl­y­sea­son Phoenix clash that I wanted to at­tend. I was rush­ing off to a meet­ing, so I asked my wife to book me a ticket. When I re­turned, I dis­cov­ered she had bought me a sea­son ticket. ‘‘You went quite a bit last sea­son, so it’s not re­ally that much more ex­pen­sive,’’ she cor­rectly ex­plained. So, for a sea­son, I sat in a very nice seat, with a ter­ri­ble beer, and watched just about ev­ery Phoenix home game. It was a par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant way to wrap up the week­end.

It was back in the Terry Serepisos/Ricki Her­bert days and, though the Nix lost some games that sea­son, they also won a few. Sure, it was frus­trat­ing watch­ing ex­cit­ing lo­cal play­ers like Marco Ro­jas and Kosta Bar­barouses only get a lit­tle game time, but over­all the Nix played well.

Then things got worse. Serepisos went bank­rupt and the new own­ers, who knew lit­tle about foot­ball, tried to get Her­bert to change his style and play Barcelona-type tiki-taka. That’s like telling Steve Hansen to start wear­ing more Ly­cra.

Things got even worse af­ter that, though Ernie Mer­rick gave us hope. He had great form and found ini­tial suc­cess. He was a ca­pa­ble coach, but he seemed frus­trated – some­times by the play­ers, but of­ten by man­age­ment. He didn’t seem to have the money to do what he wanted, and even­tu­ally left.

Per­haps the prob­lem with the Phoenix wasn’t so much with the play­ers or the coach but with the own­er­ship and man­age­ment? Un­der Dar­ije Kalezic, the Phoenix im­ploded, Kalezic fell out with his as­sis­tant, play­ers left, and the re­sults were ap­palling. It was left to care­taker Chris Greenacre to pick up the pieces and try and make his young shell-shocked charges at least en­joy play­ing, which he did ad­mirably, but it was too late.

Mean­while, Ernie Mer­rick coached New­cas­tle – by no means a su­per-club with mil­lions of dol­lars to slosh around – to only their sec­ond A-League grand fi­nal.

By this time, I was plead­ing with my wife not to buy me a sea­son ticket. Not a prob­lem. If there was a game on TV, I was ban­ished to the bed­room to watch it. Even guys I played soc­cer with seemed more in­ter­ested in the lower di­vi­sions of the Scot­tish league.

When Mark Ru­dan was ap­pointed as new coach, I was im­pressed with his pedi­gree but, like many, I won­dered how long he would last be­fore re­sign­ing in frus­tra­tion.

There are two sorts of lead­ers, in sport but also in other worlds. There are the showy quickchang­ers who come in and re­or­gan­ise a whole lot of staff and man­age­ment, Marie Kondo-style. Then there are the slow burn­ers who take a bit of time. Rather than ex­pen­sively de­clut­ter staff, they work with what they’ve got.

I pre­fer the sec­ond type, and Ru­dan seems to be­long to that school. It was telling that one of his first moves was to re­tain the widely re­spected Greenacre as as­sis­tant. He then made some strate­gic sign­ings – most no­tably Steven Tay­lor and Filip Kurto. But rather than clean out the sta­ble – which he wouldn’t have had the bud­get to do any­way – he has worked with the squad he has.

It’s great to see largely home­grown play­ers like Roy Krishna, Lib­er­ato Ca­cace, Sarpreet Singh, Alex Rufer, Tom Doyle and Louis Fen­ton all ex­cel this sea­son. It’s been quite a strange ex­pe­ri­ence watch­ing the Phoenix score a win­ner in the last few min­utes of a game, given the club has a glo­ri­ous tra­di­tion of con­ced­ing a los­ing goal in in­jury time.

The Phoenix at present lie fifth and are en­joy­ing a record streak of eight un­beaten games. But the cheer­ing shouldn’t start quite yet. What we should cheer about is the con­fi­dence in the play­ers – es­pe­cially younger lo­cal ones – that has been shown by Ru­dan. It’s also great to see him prais­ing his ded­i­cated sup­port team, who must be gain­ing the same self-be­lief as the play­ers.

In the mean­time, the Phoenix man­age­ment should re­alise that Ru­dan could be­come a marked man. Aus­tralian clubs with more money and bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties will be im­pressed with his re­sults, so I hope they are do­ing ev­ery­thing to keep him happy and here. But let’s hope they also re­mem­ber it’s not only about money.

The Phoenix’s prob­lems are far from over. But if at­ten­dances can hit 10,000 more of­ten, and more for­mer sea­son ticket hold­ers like me come back, Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion Aus­tralia will surely have to ac­cept the Phoenix as a per­ma­nent fix­ture in the A-League, es­pe­cially if the on-field re­sults are good.

As for me, I might just get on the net and buy a ticket to the next home game. To be hon­est, I’d pre­fer to just rock up on the day, but with cur­rent crowd num­bers I am in­formed that I might have to wait a very long time to get a ticket. What a fan­tas­tic prob­lem for a foot­ball club to have.

It’s been a strange ex­pe­ri­ence watch­ing the Phoenix score a win­ner in the last few min­utes, given their glo­ri­ous tra­di­tion of con­ced­ing a los­ing goal in in­jury time.

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