Disappointing is one word you could use to describe the New Zealand contribution to the first two years of the A League. The ill-fated Knights had finished rock bottom twice, with attendances dropping into three figures at times. Their license to compete was eventually rescinded by the FFA in January 2007, leaving the country without a professional football team.
After six uncertain weeks, and after Terry Serepisos invested a cool $1,000,000 to keep New Zealand in the A League, the Wellington Phoenix was born. Ricki Herbert was installed as manager, a squad was assembled and the new team acquitted themselves well in the pre-season cup.
August 26th 2007. 14,421 people, a New Zealand club football record at the time, turned up at the Westpac for the Phoenix’s opening game of the season.
It wouldn’t be an easy start. Melbourne Victory had topped the table the previous season and gone onto claim victory in the playoff finals. They had Archie Thompson and Kevin Muscat, who I remember as a brutally dirty defender for Millwall back in the day. Worst of all they had a winning coach, canny Scotsman Ernie Merrick. Whatever happened to him, eh?On seventeen minutes things went a bit wrong. Danny Allsopp, on the counter-attack, ran onto a long ball. He crossed, aiming for the unmarked Archie Thompson. Cleberson’s arm got in the way, the appeal to the linesman was instant and theatrical. Cleberson furiously booted the ball past the half-way line, but the whistle had already gone. Penalty.
Of course it was Muscat. Boos rang around the ground. Glen Moss guessed the right way but the top corner made it practically unsaveable. One nil.
It should have been level by half time. Allsopp handling the ball defending a corner. Yellow card for Allsopp. Penalty for the Phoenix. Daniel stepped up, shuddered the crossbar and placed the rebound header over the top. Half time blew and the Nix were a goal down, but far from out of the match.
An hour gone and it was two. Joe Keenan cutting in from left back, exchanging a one two with Thompson and gliding with ridiculous ease through the midfield and defence. A well nudged through-ball set up Allsop, who put it around Moss. Two nil.
The Nix kept pressing, urged on by the crowd. With just over ten minutes left they scored their first A League goal. Michael Ferrante’s corner, whipped in from the left, took a gorgeous glancing header off a Victory defender. So good, on the replay, that it’s hard to believe it isn’t a training ground routine. Michael Theo in the Victory goal was flat footed. So was Daniel‘s marker and the wiry haired Brazilian barely needed to get off the ground to head it home.
The first goal for the Phoenix, and a way back into the match. Game on.
It got better. Within five minutes, they were level. Tony Lochhead, controlling a 20 yard throw-in, spotted Shane Smeltz on the run to the far post and sent a beautiful Beckham-esque cross. Smeltz’s header, back across the face of goal, took a deflection off Matthew Kemp and went straight through the arms of a leaping Theo. Check out Joe Keenan’s furious reaction to it on the video. They all count though. Two all.
There was late drama, the post denying Royce Brownlie in stoppage time and Smeltz managing to head the ball wide of an open goal. The final whistle blew. Victory denied, but victory denied.
The newest club had arrived in the A League, pegging back the reigning champions from two goals down. Not a bad start. Not bad at all.
Categories: Throwback Thursday
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.