The Phoenix that Rose and Fell

Josh Bamber

The Phoenix - in happier times - celebrating one of Golden Boot-winner Roy Krishna's goals. Source: Photosport
The Phoenix – in happier times – celebrating one of Golden Boot-winner Roy Krishna’s goals. Source: Photosport

Sport regularly divides people, with a number of teams and sports, and issues around them causing riffs in public opinion. The Wellington Phoenix Football Club is no exception to this.

Since its inception in 2007, the Phoenix have divided New Zealand sports fans. Rugby fans in particular have been turning their nose up at the next New Zealand side to take on an Australian league, the A – League.

You see, the Phoenix are considered to have risen out of the ashes of the New Zealand Knights, the Auckland based franchise that had recently folded after four years at the bottom of the league. The Phoenix allowed for a shift to Wellington, and also meant that there was a chance to rejuvenate the football as a professional game in the country. A country that has unfortunately long relied on overseas leagues to provide opportunity for New Zealand and Pasifika players.

The introduction of the Phoenix signalled a change in football’s position in New Zealand’s sporting infrastructure. A handful of successful seasons coincided with an undefeated Men’s World Cup appearance, the hosting of the U20 World Cup as well as the Football Ferns solidifying their spot as a top 20 team in the world. All these factors helped consolidate a strong following for football throughout New Zealand, especially in Canterbury.

But recent seasons for the Phoenix have not been so kind to the team, the last time they made the playoffs being way back in 2015. Hence, with a new coach at the helm and a fresh set of players, many were optimistic of the Nix’s chances as strong contenders once again. With only two years left on their licensing deal, the Phoenix needed to show they could turn it around.

And they did. Even the most die-hard Phoenix fans would have been pleasantly surprised by the team’s performance in the 2018/19 season. The Phoenix were finally playing an attractive style of football again, one that saw them regularly compete with the league’s best.

Mark Rudan, their new coach, had created a team that had reinvigorated a club and its support after three years of miserable performances and waning attendances.

The Phoenix became a must-watch club once again. This was illustrated in their Round 19 match-up against the Melbourne Victory. Held at Eden Park in Auckland, which is both the home of the failed New Zealand Knights and of New Zealand Rugby, the Nix’ were able to attract 23,648 people. This was significantly more than the 5,000 people who turned up for the last game the Phoenix played in Auckland only one season prior.

The Phoenix’s third draw of the season against one of the strongest teams in the league signalled just how far the Phoenix had risen. The ashes of previous seasons seemed like a distant memory as the team was finally proving that they weren’t dead yet.

However, it didn’t take a long time for the team to wobble as their seamless journey began to show some cracks.

While the rumours of Rudan’s departure didn’t seem to affect the team, confirmation of such impending news saw the Nix’ forced back in to their old ways, with the away struggles of yesteryear rearing their ugly head once again.

They became producing a series of disappointing displays that did not represent the strong year they had just had. A solitary win against Melbourne City in their final home game was the last victory in the final four games of the season. A disappointing end to the season was topped off with the Nix’ getting outclassed in the playoffs by the Melbourne Victory.

This leaves the team in a dangerous position considering there is only one year left on their license with the FFA. A year which saw the Nix’ improve immensely has been curtailed by a series of events that could arguably see them finally come to an end.  

While attendances and performances have greatly improved, the uncertainty caused by Rudan’s departure and the vast majority of the squad going off-contract means that the Phoenix could be back to where they started.  At this stage, it would take a huge effort to resuscitate the club, and potentially football as we know it in New Zealand.