12 August ~ It has been an eventful off-season for the Wellington Phoenix ( or "The Nix" as the marketing people want us to call them). Five of the squad were in South Africa for the World Cup, which, as anyone who has recently opened a newspaper in New Zealand is aware, saw them finish the tournament unbeaten. Ricky Herbert, who somehow manages to coach both teams outstandingly, sparked nationwide anxiety by calling a press conference to make an announcement about his future. It turned out that he just wanted to confirm that he was staying put.
Owner Terry Serepisos, meanwhile, made a staggeringly wooden appearance in the local version of The Apprentice, survived what one paper described as "well documented financial problems", and lost his place on the Rich List. On the field, the Phoenix have looked good in pre-season, especially when beating Boca Juniors 2-1. This result helped maintain the momentum the sport has made in New Zealand since the World Cup. The match attracted a healthy five-figure crowd to the Cake Tin (or Westpac Stadium as the marketing people want us to call it). The handful of new signings seem to be astute, with former Central Coast Mariner Dylan Macallister looking particularly impressive.
The A-League campaign starts tomorrow night with a home game against the Gold Coast United and, in theory, it's the perfect way to start the season. The same fixture last year ended with the Phoenix winning 6-0, their record score by far. They went on to complete a rare double with a 1-0 win in Queensland. In their opener last week, Coast struggled to hold newcomers Brisbane Roar to a 0-0 draw, in a performance that featured the astonishing sight of a one-man midfield. It was described by Phoenix captain Tim Brown as "unimpressive" and he was probably being diplomatic. Shane Smeltz, one of two Kiwi internationals in their line-up, has now only scored once in his last ten games. Mind you, that was against Italy in the World Cup.
Fans are confident. In an online poll, Gold Coast were voted as least likely to cause the Phoenix problems this season and locals are expecting a good win in front of a sizeable crowd – estimates of between 10,000 and 15,000 are being bandied about. The Phoenix exceeded all expectations last season by finishing one game short of the Grand Final and plenty of fans, still smarting from Sydney's goal-that-wasn't-a-goal that helped knock them out, genuinely believe they can go all the way this time around. Dave Roberts