OPINION: I have seen some horrible things on a football training field - punches and tantrums thrown, nasty episodes of bullying and grown men in tears.
But most chilling of all was the photograph of Gareth Morgan taking part in a Wellington Phoenix practice last week.
Morgan is a brilliant economist and generous philanthropist and deserves praise for investing cash in the Phoenix.
But he doesn't belong anywhere near the training pitch. Whatever he is trying to achieve isn't working. His meddling is damaging the team he part owns.
Ownership gives him and his Welnix partners the right to do whatever they like with their club. But that doesn't mean that those are the right things to do.
The Phoenix are in full-blown crisis. The coach has been emasculated by owners who have issued a directive on how the Phoenix should play despite having no knowledge of the game. The players are confused and fearful for their future. The tactics are all over the place.
The team is now bottom of the league and, worse, is displaying a level of incompetence that strongly suggests that is where it belongs.
Take, for example, the woeful home performance against Western Sydney on Sunday.
The Phoenix fizzed around like flies in a bottle in the first half, expending a lot of energy for no return.
The key players - Andrew Durante, Dani Sanchez and Jeremy Brockie - were invisible.
In the second half the Wanderers slowly strangled the life of out the Phoenix who lacked the energy, ideas or spirit to fight back. The 2-0 loss was like a mercy killing of a sick animal.
One incident summed up the team's malaise. Centreback Ben Sigmund inexplicably hesitated and fluffed a routine clearance, gifting Wanderers striker Labinot Haliti the easiest goal of his career.
This was genuinely shocking. Sigmund has been exceptional for the past two seasons and had grown into a mature, dependable, rock-solid defender.
His form has dipped of late and the indecision he showed on Sunday speaks volumes for how adrift things have become at a club once renowned for disciplined defence.
At the core of the problem is a misguided attempt to reinvent the Phoenix as an attractive, footballing side which keeps the ball, passes a lot, scores loads of goals and develops homegrown talent.
This is not being driven by coach Ricki Herbert, or his staff, or by the fans, but instead by the consortium which rescued the club last season from the disarray of the Terry Serepisos era.
The attempt to transform the Phoenix into the Barcelona of the South Seas is laudable, I suppose, in the same way as it is difficult to argue with a desire to cure cancer or reduce Third World debt.
But it is impossible to make it happen at the flick of the owners' fingers, particularly when it goes against the grain of the club's spirit. At their best the Phoenix are a gritty, direct, battling side, founded on stout defence and with enough flair to surprise at the other end of the park. Even Serepisos, not the sharpest suit on the rack, knew enough not to jeopardise that formula.
It is shameful that those essential elements of the Phoenix's character have been allowed to dissipate and be replaced with a spineless namby-pamby-ness.
Football is a great game because of its simplicity. You don't have to have even kicked a ball to understand and enjoy it or to fall in love with a club and decide to buy it.
But that simplicity is underpinned by a complexity that even football experts, those steeped in the game for life, struggle to fully master.
You have to feel sorry for Herbert who, despite having a good coaching record in the A-League, has been rendered powerless to impose tactics that will get results.
He is compliant with the owners' wishes because he clearly has little option but to publicly support their whims. He is clearly held in such low regard that, despite being the football expert, he is not running the show.
This season is looming as a train wreck. There appears to be a willingness to sacrifice short-term results - otherwise known as winning - for an ephemeral, long-term pipe dream.
But winning matters to the fans and it certainly matters to the players as well, who look shell-shocked to find themselves in such a parlous position.
It is time to allow Herbert to get on with the job he is paid to do and should be accountable for - to put out a winning side and then to build on that over time.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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