The Wellington Phoenix's first win of the A-League season has been marred by what appears to be a serious Achilles injury to club talisman Paul Ifill.
The 1-0 defeat of Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium tonight snapped a club record 11 game winless streak but the relief was tempered with sadness as Ifill was stretchered off the field early in the second half.
The 34-year-old attempted to turn then sprint while on attack and despite no contact went down as if he'd been shot, in agony as he slammed his hand on the turf.
It was a horrible sight and the crowd of 6813 gave the club's record goalscorer a touching send-off as he was carried into the tunnel.
Ifill - who has scored 33 goals since signing in 2009 - is probably the greatest player in the Phoenix's short history and the affable Englishman has been a wonderful ambassador for the club.
But he was already injury prone before this latest setback and comes off contract at the end of the season.
It understandably took the wind out of the Phoenix's sails for a spell and they should be proud that they were able to refocus and complete the job for an overdue win.
It was coach Ernie Merrick's first win at the Phoenix and he also deserves credit for remaining calm and positive throughout the tortuous run of cock-ups and near misses, reasoning that the law of averages would eventually apply.
Stein Huysegems - who had scored just twice this season and had been guilty of botching some gilt-edged chances - scored the winner in the 33rd minute.
The former Belgium international ran onto a gorgeous, threaded Carlos Hernandez through ball, rounded goalkeeper Vedran Janjetovic and hit the target with his preferred left boot from an acute angle.
Huysegems was euphoric and as he sprinted towards the Phoenix dugout it appeared he was going to capture Merrick in a bear hug before instead embracing his team-mates.
It had looked like more of the same as both teams wasted some great goalscoring opportunities in the first half.
Sydney - perhaps arrogantly - decided to rest both marquees Alessandro Del Piero and Brett Emerton and the Sky Blues just aren't the same threat without their superstar Italian.
The Phoenix weren't overly troubled in the second half and the home fans were able to whip their shirts off after 80 minutes for the first time this season.
Ifill's injury means Merrick will have to step up his search for a striker or attacking midfielder with in-form All White Aaron Clapham - who scored another brace for Canterbury United yesterday - a possibility.
It was heartening to see Hernandez - who is unhappy that his family is yet to join him in Wellington - return from a quad injury and get through most of the match.
He worked hard and provided the key pass to unlock the Sydney defence.
A happy Hernandez will be vital if the Ifill injury is as bad as it seemed.
The ninth-placed Phoenix will like their chances of now starting a winning streak, with an away trip to last-placed Melbourne Heart next up on December 27.
AT A GLANCE
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Stein Huysegems) Sydney FC 0 HT: 1-0
- © Fairfax NZ News
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