By Andrew French
So, why am I putting this out into the digital ether? Well, I suspect the Phoenix are entering a seminal moment in their brief history.
To some, this may seem a strange thing to say in light of the certainty of the newly secured 10 year (4+3+3) A-League license. To others, this conclusion may seem a logical endpoint of on-field struggles that have dogged the Phoenix club most of its tenure on the A-League. But what prompted me to put pen to virtual paper was not one of these issues that threaten the viability of the club – something far more abstract – who ‘we’ are.
Rewind a couple of months to the heart of the off-season, Ernie Merrick, manager of the Phoenix first team, is busying himself with recruitment to bolster his playing roster for the 16/17 A-League season. Nothing unusual there – every manager of every professional team the world over does the same every off-season and player transfer window.
The A-League is a little different to most leagues though as, aside from having a salary cap, it has more than a few quirks, one of which is not breaking for FIFA mandated international windows, and more interestingly, a limit on foreign players. Again, not wholly unique but certainly unusual. Many, including myself, would call this limitation on imported player a laudable goal to grow local playing stocks.
What is unique in an import-limited league however is that the Phoenix are based in a different country (NZ) to the rest of the competition. Moreover the Phoenix are afforded more latitude than the other, Australian sides in that they are allowed to consider both NZ and Australian players as non-imports while other teams in the league may only consider Australians as domestic players. Many would argue this gives Merrick and the Phoenix an advantage with a greater playing pool to choose from – a point which I would certainly not argue against.
But, when Merrick used his final import spot to recruit a vastly experienced Italian defender – Marco Rossi – to cover a perceived deficiency in defence, all agreed it was a good recruitment.
Likewise when four young Australians were contracted as domestic players – Adam Parkhouse, Ben Litfin, Ryan Lowry and Jacob Tratt – to fill out the squad, no-one raised an eyebrow. After all, why should they? All 4 Australians have good pedigree and are definitely deserving of an opportunity at a higher level having had outstanding seasons in their local state leagues and all but Lowry having been involved in professional clubs before.
At an individual level these recruitments make perfect sense – an overseas player bringing in high-level club experience that only players from overseas have experienced; and four ‘local’ players who have shown themselves to have the potential to become A-League players.
However, more than a few people raised perfectly valid questions as to why there were not players from local NZ leagues or the Phoenix academy that were deemed good enough to fill the four places these Australians were offered.
Myself, initially I dismissed the omission of NZ recruits as a short term anomaly – a blip – that these Australian recruitments were just to plug a gap until local academy graduates etc were ready to make the step up to first team football in the A-League in the next year or two.
Unfortunately, Merrick confirmed in an article on the official A-League site (http://www.a-league.com.au/article/wellington-phoenix-sign-gold-coast-goal-machine-ben-litfin/19agjd67d2rmk1kb2fw7e163c8) that this was not the case.
“First and foremost it has always been the club’s intention to give young New Zealanders an opportunity to play professional football.
I will continue to take that approach but I need to find a balance between New Zealand Football’s demands for players in the international window when our Kiwi players are required for the All Whites and the need to field a competitive team.”
This is an understandable and pragmatic stance for the Phoenix manager to take – after all the Phoenix, as the only professional team in NZ, carries the burden of providing a large part of the national team while attempting to field competitive sides during it’s season. Conversely, Australian national players may be spread over 9 A-League teams (and overseas teams also).
During this last international window, Merrick’s Phoenix side was scheduled to play their first game of the season with potentially up to 7 players missing from his starting XI to be in the USA with the NZ national team. As it happens, he lost 6 (one to injury) leaving a much depleted squad to succumb to the most affluent club in the league who were missing only one player. In addition, the NZ players returning to the Phoenix to face Perth away did so barely in time to play and looked noticeably off the pace.
In the next window in November, Merrick will still lose six players to the All Whites (with Tom Doyle also still injured), and in March faces the likelihood that not only might he lose this same six but potentially Doyle also plus striker Roy Krishna (who will turn out for Fiji).
To underline this point, Yellow Fever Official StatsMan Dale Warburton ran the numbers and discovered, not surprisingly, that the Phoenix were on average likely to drop nearly two extra points in the 6 games surrounding and during any given two-game window compared to their average (5pts vs 7.7pts) so of course Merrick wants to mitigate this loss of personnel. But at what cost?
Cost. Now I’m guessing that anyone who’s gotten this far is either a Phoenix fan (or related to me) so I’m quite sure you already have a feeling about what I’m talking about.
Cost – that there won’t be locally-produced Kiwi players pulling on the Phoenix shirt.
But why does this concern me or you? Are we a bit xenophobic? Do we just not like Australians..? Probably not, even though I’m a born-and-bred Kiwi and Wellingtonian, I’m half-Australian by blood. And, based on the warm reception travelling fans receive over here, I sincerely doubt you’re prejudiced either. We also readily accept Aussie players into the ranks and some e.g. Andrew Durante have become cult heroes.
So, why the angst that a few more might be included potentially at the cost of some locals we probably don’t know?
Well, we know why, don’t we? Because that’s not ‘our’ club. It’s not who ‘we’ are. It’s not ‘us’.
John Eales (Wallaby 1991-2001) put it most succinctly when he said “Sporting teams and sporting cultures also fulfil one of the most basic of human needs – the longing to belong… They provide an emotional connection between people and the sport”
It is this ‘belonging’ we feel when we become a fan of a club like the Phoenix. We identify with the club as an entity – as a representation of us and who we think we are. And who walks onto the field affects that connection – the closer every part of the club is to what we relate to – to how we see ourselves – the closer and more passionate we feel about the club. So, fewer of those we relate to – from our country, junior club or city – the more the club’s persona shifts – possibly away from who we see ourselves as.
So why should this be a big deal? It may be a blessing in disguise, helping the club evolve into a stronger entity. Yes, entirely true. But I don’t believe it will – for more than a few reasons.
First of all, we need to acknowledge that the Phoenix is not a club by birth. It was born a franchise as most A-League clubs are – an artificial construct; Pinocchio, who wants to be a real boy.
And there is no factual difference between a franchise and club except identity – so what makes a club real is completely esoteric and intangible. It’s the feeling that surrounds it, a weird meld of what happens on the field, the passion of the fans drawn to it, the sense of who it represents.
For examples of this we can look as far afield as England where clubs such as FC United of Manchester have sprung up. Local Mancunians saw their club evolve away from them to the point so created another in their image rather than embrace the economic behemoth of Adidas Chevrolet Manchester United. So too with Wimbledon FC. When the club owners & English FA decided to transplant the club from its traditional home to Milton Keynes (Dons), AFC Wimbledon sprung up in its place and progressed from non-league football and is now satisfyingly sitting alongside MK Dons in League One.
But we don’t need to look that far for examples. There have been more than a couple of franchise flops in A-League history – Gold Coast, Townsville & Auckland all saw franchises start but not take root – all failed to create a sense of identity within the community they were based and subsequently disappeared.
Conversely, the franchises which did evolve – most recently, Western Sydney and Wellington, both did so courtesy of their respective sense of identity and that they, the Wanderers and Phoenix represented their community.
Nothing underlines this sense of the Phoenix’s identity more than the SaveTheNix campaign.
In the 15/16 season, the final year of the Phoenix’s licence with the FFA, the FFA commenced a PR campaign to, at the least pressure the Phoenix into contract concessions for a further licence, if not actually remove them from the A-League. But what occurred was a significant backlash, not only from those connected to the club but from fans and even officials from other A-League clubs.
In context, these are people who have no stake in the club, who would at best be considered neutral, if not hostile to a competitor like the Phoenix. And yet, they gathered and spoke out for the Phoenix to continue in the A-League. This groundswell of support (with canny negotiations from the Phoenix owners) was enough to see the licence extended.
For a club to exist, it is enough that people self-identify with that club. But when it can engender support from those who have no relationship with the club, and may even have a vested interest in seeing it fail, we can be sure that its identity is firmly established and an accepted part of the football community as a whole.
So, where does that leave the Phoenix? Rock and a hard place are two things that come to mind. The best case (albeit naive) scenario is that the Phoenix, their reserves and academy are able to develop local fill-ins capable of seamlessly slotting into the A-League when the Phoenix All Whites are called away – and who are happy biding their time playing for the reserves for a year or so – and for the Phoenix development machine to keep cranking these sorts of players out every year as the previous crop is raised to the first team or elsewhere in the professional circuit. This isn’t totally impossible as some clubs manage to do this at even the highest level – eg Southampton in the Premier League. But this scenario is unlikely. More likely is that either an approach like Merrick’s or a compromise between the two will have to come into effect – unless something else changes.
While there are changes in the wind for greater club say in the governance of the A-League, that would be at least a couple of years before any meaningful change could be enacted, and there’s certainly no guarantee that observing international windows would be on the agenda regardless.
Ironically, the saviour here may be the FFA’s own prodigal son and poster child, Tim Cahill. The FFA have invested a massive amount of money into bringing him back to play in Australia and raise the profile of domestic football. And Timmy, bless his Nike TC-monogrammed socks, is not backwards about coming forwards to criticise the lack of a break in the A-League for an international window. So far, the FFA have given Cahill pretty much everything he wants (with good reason) so it may be that the FFA acquiesce to his request in order to keep him happy for a further year.
But in every respect that is a decision that belongs purely to the FFA, an organisation that has shown itself to be at least ambiguous if not hostile to the continuation of the Phoenix.
So, the Wellington club can expect no favours, and must make the decisions within their purview to carry on as best they can. And while there is no break for international windows in the A-League, the Phoenix must pick a direction to take – one which risks the identity they have so carefully cultivated or on-field success they dearly need.
 See https://twitter.com/Dale_Warburton/status/787767476104761344 and D.W.’s replies to this tweet.
[Andrew French has been a Yellow Fever and Phoenix member for the past nine years. For more of his sage opinions on the game, you shouls listen to him on the Phoenix City podcast here, and follow him on Twitter here.]
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.