What's going on with the Phoenix?

SAM BOYER
Last updated 15:01 26/01/2013
Phoenix 1
ROSS/GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ
BUDGET BARCELONA: The Phoenix players have lost five of their last six games and are at the bottom of the A-League.
Phoenix 2
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
BIG WEEK AHEAD: Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert.

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New owners, new money, new strikers: it was all looking good for the Wellington Phoenix. Then someone decided they should have new tactics too. Now they're bottom of the league and look like a club in disarray, with players accusing the bosses, and the bosses accusing the fans. So what went wrong and why? Sam Boyer reports.

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According to legend, every time the phoenix dies it spectacularly rises again from the ashes in a fresh, revitalised form. The Wellington Phoenix will be praying that imagery holds true for next season. Because this one is fast becoming a writeoff.

The club is in disarray after part-owner Gareth Morgan broadcast a supposed change in the team tactics mid-season. In order to attract more fans and therefore revenue, the team needed to start playing more attractive, possession-based football, he declared.

Since Morgan's interview aired, the Phoenix have won just one game from six. They are bottom of the A-League and hit a new low last weekend when they were massacred 7-1 by second-to- bottom club Sydney FC.

The players appear confused on the pitch, messages from the office don't seem to be getting through and several frustrated senior players have spoken out revealing their surprise at the owner's December directive.

This week, Morgan - fresh from his assault on the nation's cat owners - created further disorder by branding his team's fans "pathetic" and "unsophisticated", and blamed head coach Ricki Herbert for the players' failure to adopt what Dutch football star Ruud Gullit once called "sexy football".

Morgan insists the decision to get sexy wasn't made mid-season, and it wasn't made by him alone.

It was a pre-season collaboration among the Phoenix "football committee" including the owners, Herbert, and ex-All White Noah Hickey and Mark Chote from an "advisory group".

The style was adopted from the opening round of the competition and was an ongoing process, he says. The problem: someone forgot to tell the players.

It appears the new style was indeed forced on the players mid- season, in haste. And, it turns out, in disastrous fashion.

Several players have disputed Morgan's version of events. Captain Andrew Durante, senior players Paul Ifill and Leo Bertos, and leading goal-scorer Jeremy Brockie, last week branded the change in tactics a new and troubling experiment.

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The style directive came from the top, came mid-season and has them struggling to cope. It's not a matter of simply saying you'll play a certain way, and then adopting that style, Bertos told The Dominion Post last week.

"We've tried to do that, but it hasn't been working out as we would have liked. We haven't been winning - or playing what people might call better football."

Ifill agreed: "You've got to earn the right to play so-called total football; you can't just go in there and be Barcelona from the first minute. It's impossible."

Durante, speaking to football website FourFourTwo last Monday, said the "bombshell" took the team by surprise and, as a result, performances had suffered.

"I think before this whole formation thing and new style of football got going, we were travelling OK.

"I think this bombshell has maybe rattled a few people. It's a whole new style . . ."

Morgan, speaking to The Dominion Post from China this week, insisted the style change was agreed upon early. Any delay in that message reaching the players lies with the coaching staff.

"If it wasn't [decided] pre- season, then it would be very early-season, because it was quite a few months ago now.

"As to how that's being communicated . . . I'm not the person to talk about it, that's a Ricki issue.

"I don't connect with the players on that sort of stuff. That's between coaching staff and players. We're just making a policy decision up at this level."

But somewhere between the "football committee" and the dressing room, the mandate appears to have got lost. Either Herbert never knew about it, or he decided not to adopt it.

"The first we heard anything about it was reading an article," Brockie told FourFourTwo. "One of the owners [Morgan] came out and said he'd like us to play a bit more possession-based and prettier football.

"Obviously once that came out, Ricki sat us down and talked with us."

THE uncertainty and discontent within the club and its fans is a far cry from the optimism of September 2011, when Morgan and his fellow investors in the Welnix group stepped in to take control of the Phoenix after founding owner Terry Serepisos was declared bankrupt.

Fans rejoiced, and expectations were high that the club was in safe hands. It still is, Morgan says, but those fans need to look to the future, wait and hope.

The sexy football is "medium- term strategy" and may take two or three years to turn around. Fans who can't appreciate that are pathetic and unsophisticated, he says.

In an interview with Radio Sport, recorded before the record loss in Sydney and aired on Thursday, he let rip at fans for wanting "instant gratification".

"The bigger picture is far, far more important than the short term. All some people do is look at the league tables and that's all there is to the game for them. Well, they're pathetic really.

"A lot of them [fans] don't know much about the game anyway and certainly, in my view, think only of themselves, not about the future of the club . . . People have just got to be a little more sophisticated in their interpretation."

The jibe - alienating the very people he is imploring to turn up and support the team - was a low blow for the club's loyal fan club Yellow Fever, spokesman Guy Smith says.

"He was really wrong that he said fans are pathetic because we focus on the table. It's pretty poor from him.

"We've had shit times before and the fans have never been this negative. The fans have got every right to be concerned."

Smith says the problems at the club are evident. And Morgan speaking out doesn't help.

"It makes fans wonder if anyone is really steering the ship. I think he's a pretty activist owner for a guy that doesn't really know what a football looks like."

Another fan, posting on the Yellow Fever web forum entitled "Phoenix Ownership - The travelling circus thread", was even less kind. "Theprof", a Yellow Fever member since the club's creation in 2007, said Morgan was testing some fans' patience: "I'm losing respect for him, I love that he has picked the 'Nix up, but he is starting to look a little bit like a crackpot millionaire who really has no grasp on reality."

It's not just the fans who have felt the sharp edge of Morgan's tongue. He has branded The Dominion Post's coverage of the team's struggles a "hate campaign" and resorted to petty attacks on individual journalists.

FORMER national coach Kevin Fallon, now academy director at college powerhouse Mt Albert Grammar School in Auckland, says Morgan's involvement in pitchside planning is neither a traditional nor a normal approach for an owner.

"I sympathise with Morgan. He's an interested man, he's a shareholder, a stakeholder - but I think he's going about it the wrong way.

"It's like my headmaster wanting to come down and name the captain and wanting to dictate the training . . . He's an expert in his [financial] field. It's just like me turning up and telling him about the stock market and what to invest in the shares."

His enthusiasm is honourable but equally, perhaps, misguided, says Fallon.

"What he's probably trying to do is show how much he cares, but he's probably making it worse because it's pressuring the situation."

And the problems spread far wider than Morgan's distractions. After the 7-1 drubbing by Sydney, there are question marks all over the pitch, Fallon says.

"I think the players, handily, they've utilised this statement and said it's because of the changes [that they're playing poorly] . . . but if there's been a change of style I've not bloody seen it.

"There's a lot wrong structurally within the side," he says, naming the positions that need improvement.

"It's that middle of the defence and them fullbacks, the front of that midfield, and the creative side of the midfield.

"There's a lot of little things: Tyler Boyd and Totori have not quite done it; Brockie's done his little bit but he has gone off the boil. Ifill's hardly fit, let alone ready to score goals yet, though we all know he has got talent.

"I think we lack creativity. [And] the defence needs organising, as well as the goalkeeper, because they've not been playing well. I mean, there's a lot of work to be done, isn't there? "

Even considering all that, however, he says the team can still turn the season around. They are, after all, only five points off a playoff spot.

"They'll be doing their best to try and solve it.

"But it's not an easy thing to solve and now they're on the slide, aren't they? They've got to get out of it very, very quickly."

Former All White and current Phoenix commentator Fred de Jong, who spent time playing in the Dutch league and with three clubs in the Australian league, says the mid-season shakeup may have doomed the side.

"If you want to transform the club, then I would say that's not a mid-season exercise. People change their style or their systems of play all the time. That's not unusual per se.

"[But] to actually go out and publicly state that this is how we're going to do it, and we're going to radically change all this stuff, that's probably the more unusual part."

It is obvious that the new style directive is not being executed, de Jong says.

"I think you can see that not everyone is sort of playing in a co-ordinated, cohesive manner. That's obvious. And that's the issue with the team performance at the moment.

"I think this whole changing the philosophy of the club - because that's what they're doing - [should be] part of an end-of- season review.

"This is not the time or the place to do that. Unless they get some points this week, I think they can say goodbye to it."

But whatever the criticisms, Morgan remains upbeat. Making the playoffs this year is not important, he says. He continues to look at the bigger picture.

"It [the season] is not off the rails at all. It's actually bloody exciting . . . And it has to be.

"We've taken over a major loss- making enterprise and we're trying to make something of it. We're doing the business, that's it. I think the club's got a great future.

"It's extremely exciting and . . . I know Ricki's been very enthusiastic about a lot of the ideas in terms of where we go in the next couple of years."

Contact Sam Boyer
Consumer Affairs reporter
Email: sam.boyer@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @SamJBoyer

- The Dominion Post

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