My love for the Phoenix has risen from the ashes
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.