Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne Victory: A-League club set to ...

23 days ago

The Wellington Phoenix can make their first grand final. Photo / Photosport

The Wellington Phoenix are on the verge of a double miracle.

Phoenix - Figure 1
Photo New Zealand Herald

On Saturday night, in one of those “stop the nation” moments that football occasionally provides in this country, they will face Melbourne Victory in front of a sellout 34,500 crowd in the second leg of their A-League semifinal.

A positive result will see them progress to their first grand final, 17 years since their inception in 2007.

To be in that position is remarkable, given the odds at the start of this season.

They had a new man in charge, after the departure of Ufuk Talay, and Giancarlo Italiano had never been a head coach at A-League level.

They had high-profile players move on - including captain Oli Sail - and most of their new recruits were youngsters upgraded from academy contracts.

But they haven’t missed a beat. There was a long period on top of the table and only four defeats across the campaign.

They’ve been defensively amazing, conceding a league-low 26 goals, and efficient and clinical in front of goal.

They’ve put their faith in youth, epitomised by the likes of goalkeeper Alex Paulsen and defender Finn Surman, who have played every minute after only featuring in four matches between them last season.

And it’s been achieved with a modest staffing roster, smaller than almost every other club.

It’s all quite incredible, both head-turning and heart-warming at the same time.

But what is arguably more remarkable - and the second aspect of the 2023-24 miracle - is the backstory.

Because you can’t fully grasp this achievement, without considering where the club has come from.

First-year coach Giancarlo Italiano. Photo / Getty Images

There were the dark days of the final year of the Terry Serepisos era, with unpaid wages and IRD threats, as the owner’s business empire fell apart before a consortium, headed by Rob Morrison, stepped in to take over the licence.

Phoenix - Figure 2
Photo New Zealand Herald

But even worse was the constant battle to stay in the league, as Football Federation Australia (who governed the league until 2021) treated them like an unwanted child.

There were constant debates over licence extensions, along with private and public statements from key FFA figures, commentators and pundits pushing a negative agenda. The nadir came in 2015, when the FFA turned down the Phoenix’s application for a new 10-year licence, at a time when every other club had secure participation agreements until 2034.

FFA chief executive David Gallop said the decision was made in the “best interests of Australian football”.

“FFA has carefully evaluated the role and contribution of the Wellington franchise in terms of game development, player pathway, commercial factors, broadcast rights and the long-term strategic outlook,” said Gallop.

“The application for a 10-year extension does not meet the requirements we see as fundamental to the future growth of the A-League.”

Back then there were discussions in Australia to dump the Phoenix, in favour of a third Sydney team.

That caused considerable angst and even when the Phoenix were eventually granted a new licence there were fish hooks, with a series of off-field metrics.

Just when that finally subsided the Covid pandemic hit, with severe financial pain along with numerous other impacts.

But despite everything, the Phoenix have survived - and thrived. They have the most successful academy system in the league, with products like Macey Fraser, Ben Waine and Libby Cacace, and keep unearthing more.

Phoenix Women star Macey Fraser. Photo / Photosport

They have stable, proactive ownership, without the problems that have plagued many other clubs, and a committed, passionate fanbase. In short, they are a model franchise.

“It’s great for everyone, including fans, who have had to do it tough over a number of years,” chief executive David Dome told the Herald. “The previous [ruling] body wanting to kick us out, Covid rolled in, the financial crisis, all the stuff that the club and the owners have had to fight through and we have come out the other end. It’s so rewarding for everyone.”

That could climax in the ultimate reward on Saturday night, although Victory will provide tough opposition, evidenced by three previous draws this season.

Italiano backs his players to make the most of the occasion, in front of the biggest crowd in club history.

“If you’re not going to enjoy these moments; a full crowd, everyone behind you, the fact that we’ve achieved so much, then you’re not going to enjoy anything in life,” said Italiano. “We’re going to create history no matter what, which is great. I’ve already said to the boys we’ve gone above and beyond what everyone thought and now we just want to enjoy this game.”

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