OPINION: Ricki Herbert's resignation as coach of the Phoenix is a sad but necessary step for the Wellington-based football team.
During five-and-a-half years at the helm of the Phoenix, Herbert brought credibility to the game in New Zealand. Where others had failed, he showed a New Zealand-based team could compete against professional sides from Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian cities.
The game in this country is better for his efforts. The player base has been expanded, football's profile has increased and young players who got their start with the Phoenix have gone on to bigger things. Kids juggling balls in the school playground now know a professional football career is as realistic an option as a professional rugby career.
However, this season's results suggest the Phoenix have fallen by the wayside as the standard of the A League has improved. Herbert's men have won just five of their 22 matches and are barely averaging a goal a game.
Worse, the players are lost in no-man's land. They do not know whether to play the conservative, no-frills style of football with which Herbert made his coaching reputation or the attractive possession-based football favoured by economist Gareth Morgan and his fellow owners in the Welnix consortium.
Whether that is the fault of Herbert or the board only those party to discussions between the two know. Public statements on the matter have been confusing and contradictory. The results on the pitch have been just as chaotic.
Herbert's departure will not solve the quandary. The style the owners want the team to play is not a style the current squad is capable of delivering.
Asking the likes of Ben Sigmund and Vince Lia to play delicate one-touch football is like asking a honky tonk band to perform a Mozart concerto. They can't do it. Their strength is physicality and endeavour, not sleight of foot.
However, the Phoenix cannot be transformed into an antipodean Barceloena by board edict. Nor will meeting the owners' desires be simply a matter of adding one or two skilful players to the mix.
The Phoenix have a couple of talented players now and have had others in the past, including two homegrown talents – Kosta Barbarouses and Marco Rojas – but Herbert always struggled to integrate skilled players into his team. It will be the same for his successor.
For one-touch football to work, the players receiving the ball have to be as comfortable with it at their feet as those doing the passing. Very few of the current squad fit that description.
If the new owners are serious about drawing the crowds back to Westpac Stadium, they are going to have to dip deeper into their pockets.
These are exciting times for Phoenix fans, but also fraught ones. The same holds true for Wellingtonians. The Phoenix have added life and colour to the city, not to mention dollars and cents to tills. But the club is stepping into the unknown. Herbert's successors have much to ponder.
- The Dominion Post