Wellington Phoenix have been denied a ten-year licence despite support from other clubs
3 November ~ While most of New Zealand’s sporting attention was focused on the Rugby World Cup final last week, its football community was gearing up for a longer and potentially more rancorous battle with neighbours Australia. Last Monday Football Federation Australia (FFA) announced that Wellington Phoenix had been denied a new ten-year licence to compete in the A-League, a decision furious Phoenix captain Andrew Durante said would “destroy football” in New Zealand.
Instead the Phoenix were offered the chance to apply for a four-year licence, widely interpreted as a passive-aggressive invitation to fold the club and allow a new Australian team, probably based in southern Sydney, to take their place. At the time of writing the Phoenix had made no decision on whether to apply for the reduced period, although before the FFA’s announcement general manager David Dome said nothing less than ten years would do “given the amount of investment that’s required to run a professional sports club”.
A lot is at stake on both sides of the Tasman. The A-League has had a patchy record at best in attempting to expand beyond the eight clubs that launched the competition in 2005. Two Queensland clubs have come and gone, while the Phoenix replaced the New Zealand Knights after their two massively underwhelming seasons in Auckland. The second Melbourne team, now City (nee Heart), has failed to capture the public’s imagination despite the backing of Manchester City’s global operation. Of the newcomers only Western Sydney Wanderers have proved an almost unqualified success, thanks to hard work at the grassroots and a genuinely spiky rivalry with Sydney FC.
It seems the blossoming of the Wanderers is at least partly responsible for the FFA changing its expansion philosophy. Having insisted on a New Zealand franchise from the start of the A-League and then pursued teams in smaller markets such as Townsville in Queensland, the new focus is on the biggest cities. FFA chief executive David Gallop says he is “on the record that growth in big metropolitan areas is the right move for us in terms of building metrics around the game”.
Gallop says the Phoenix have failed on the “metrics” of crowds, TV ratings and memberships. And it’s not hard to argue that the Wellington club have failed to build on the heady days of 2010, when almost 33,000 watched a finals game against Newcastle. The first two league games this season have drawn barely 6,000 to the “Cake Tin” (the affectionate nickname belies its unhelpful shape and size).
But as Phoenix fans have been quick to point out, they are far from alone in struggling with stagnant crowds, and the FFA has recently had to step in to support several clubs with grievous financial and management problems. "That's the strange bit I don't really understand,” said club legend Paul Ifill, once of Millwall. “The FFA are very happy to put their hand in their pocket and prop up their clubs, the Newcastle Jets over the years, Adelaide, Central Coast, no problem.”
By contrast the Phoenix are now stable off the field, and have few enemies. It’s true that New Zealand’s membership of the Oceania confederation causes some complications – the Phoenix almost certainly would be unable to represent the A-League if they finished high enough to qualify for the Asian Champions League. And their presence naturally means a lot of extra travel for A-League teams (the so-called “distance derby” with Perth is supposedly the furthest any team has to travel for a domestic professional game in the world).
But everyone knew all that ten years ago, and the Phoenix have plenty of counter-balancing qualities. As the country’s only professional team they are a key element in what has become a successful production line of young players (“You cannot overstate it,” Ifill said). Under popular coach Ernie Merrick, only the second in the club’s history, they have developed a sprightly brand of football with a largely local team. That is one reason many fans, coaches, players and owners of other A-League clubs have condemned the FFA’s call, rallying behind the #savethenix campaign.
But perhaps more important, in Australia at least, is the realisation that constant chopping and changing of clubs is a terrible look for the league. Rather than cutting off an established but low-key club in exchange for the unknown quantity of a new team, it needs to be consolidating, building on solid foundations and expanding in due course. Until last Monday most fans seemed to think that was the rough plan. Now – unless a concerted campaign can reinvigorate support for the Nix and change Gallop’s thinking – it’s all up in the air again. Mike Ticher