They had overcome some significant obstacles just to be there but the longest road trip in world club football was a bridge too far for the Wellington Phoenix, whose brave season ended in Perth tonight.
The Glory's rollicking 3-2 extra-time win in the A-League minor semifinal sends them to the preliminary final against either Central Coast or Brisbane while the Phoenix reflect on what might have been.
Locked 2-2 in extra time, the fresh legs of Todd Howarth and Scott Neville combined for a neat one-two and the pacy Howarth put the winning goal past Mark Paston, triggering delirium at nib Stadium.
Ricki Herbert had fresh, attacking legs in Nick Ward and Mirjan Pavlovic on his bench but chose not to use them before Howarth's goal.
He may rue that decision but that should not take away from what was a surprisingly strong season.
At the start of the league, Phoenix fans were just happy that they still had a team to support, after all the uncertainty that surrounded Terry Serepisos' ownership of the club.
A consortium of Wellington businessmen generously stepped in to keep the ball rolling and the Phoenix defied most expectations to finish fourth.
Tonight's loss means the Phoenix are yet to win a finals game in Australia after previous losses in Sydney and Adelaide.
It also means Phoenix foundation player Tim Brown is now retired and will hang up his boots to study in England.
Earlier, Herbert's halftime talk had hit the mark after Bas van den Brink's first A-League goal had given the hosts a 1-0 lead at the break,
The Phoenix struck shortly after the resumption with a wonderful counter attacking goal finished off by Chris Greenacre.
Leo Bertos found acres of space wide on the right and crossed, but rather than trying to score himself, Tim Brown laid an intelligent chest pass off to Greenacre, who rifled home from the edge of the box.
Game on, and Manny Muscat then scored his second Phoenix goal, uncannily similar to his first against Newcastle earlier in the season.
Dani Sanchez switched play to a surging Muscat on the right, and the fullback cut inside his opposite Dean Heffernan with ease before using his left to curl a pin-point shot into the corner of the net.
But at 2-1 up, and with a tiny pocket of Phoenix fans jubilant, the pendulum suddenly swung back in Perth's favour.
Star defender Ben Sigmund limped off the field with an aggravation of his groin injury, forcing Herbert into a defensive reshuffle.
Muscat shifted to centre back, Vince Lia went to right back and Alex Smith slotted into midfield.
It was not the ideal scenario for a team trying to hang onto a lead and sure enough Shane Smeltz, who had botched three earlier chances, had his predicted impact on the game.
The All Whites striker looped a clever ball away from the Phoenix defence and into the path of Billy Mehmet, who picked his spot past Mark Paston for 2-2 as the game ticked into extra time.
A topless, shirt waving Howarth was then the hero.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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