OPINION: The Wellington Phoenix have gone to ground in the wake of their most humiliating defeat.
The 7-1 loss to Sydney on Saturday has revealed further cracks in the club, on the field and off.
But no-one is saying much at this point.
It is as if the Phoenix are struggling to pull together a coherent story that justifies or even just simply explains what has happened to a team touted months ago as a championship contender.
It is indeed murky. Until December the Phoenix were having a reasonable season and were well placed to make the playoffs.
Then something odd happened.
The club, via part-owner Gareth Morgan, went public with plans to immediately change the style of football played by the Phoenix.
"The style of football is determined by the club, not the coach," Morgan memorably said in one interview at the time.
Pragmatism, long balls and stout defence were out. Short passing, keeping the ball and entertainment were in.
This change is motivated by two reasons. First, the club believes it needs to play more skilful football if it is one day to win the league. And secondly, the Phoenix need to entertain if they wish to attract larger crowds beyond the core following of 5000 or so hardy souls.
There is nothing wrong with this thinking. It is bold and, with the right investment in top players and talent development, it could eventually work.
But the execution and timing of the shift in direction have been disastrous.
That is why the club is last in the league and reeling from a record defeat at the hands of a team that was just one place higher.
Last week I received a phone call from Rob Morrison, the chairman of the Welnix consortium that owns the club.
Morrison took me to task for suggesting in a column that coach Ricki Herbert had been emasculated by the owners.
He said that was wrong and that Herbert himself was the architect of the plan to introduce a brand of football that could one day deliver them the championship.
Why, then, didn't the club allow the coach to front and carefully explain the change to players and public at an appropriate time? Why the grandstanding by a part-owner?
Morrison also defended Morgan's well publicised presence at a training session. Morgan was there because he liked to see for himself what was going on so that he could help improve the club, Morrison said.
The brutal truth is that the players have reacted badly to these events, and it is not hard to see why.
Most football teams operate on fairly simple lines.
The coach or manager is in charge.
The players know who the key person is who they must impress and please if they are to be selected for the team and rewarded with new contracts or improved terms.
This system comes unstuck if there is a suggestion that the coach is not the one calling the shots and that significant change is in the wind.
The message to players over the past month has been clear.
The type of player we've hired up to now (ie you lot) will no longer cut the mustard. There will be wholesale change next season.
The owners are going to call the shots on strategy, tactics and personnel. And by the way, we are changing tactics midseason and we want you to play in a manner that many of you are probably not capable of.
For the players this has proved to be a recipe for confusion, insecurity and doubt.
It is hard to see how they could avoid viewing Herbert as anything but a lame duck.
Everything he stands for as a coach - caution, an emphasis on defence, looking after his trusted players, even the journeymen, and instilling a fighting spirit - has been cast to the wind.
So what happens next?
Immediate, drastic change is unlikely.
I suspect and hope that the owners will instead step back and let the coach and team try to repair themselves and salvage their pride with no-nonsense football and results. Fans expect nothing less.
It will be a lonely and precarious time for Herbert as he tries to steer the ship from the rocks.
Longer term though, massive change is still coming. The Welnix consortium are seasoned, hard-nosed businessmen. They won't back down.
Let's hope they have learned a thing or two from the past month about how to run a winning football club.
- The Dominion Post
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