Phoenix rudderless, confused, directionless

FRED WOODCOCK
Last updated 12:29 22/01/2013
Leo Bertos
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DOWN AND OUT: Midfielder Leo Bertos reacts after one of the seven goals the Wellington Phoenix allowed in their 7-1 loss to Sydney FC.

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OPINION: Gareth Morgan and Mike Hesson should get together for a coffee and discuss the merits of timing.

Hesson's decision to tell Ross Taylor he would be ditched as New Zealand cricket captain just four days out from a test match was bizarre, but Morgan's public assertion to Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert and his players that they should forget, mid-season, what they've known and developed for five years and attempt to play like Barcelona for the rest of the A-League season was equally preposterous.

Morgan's desire is laudable. We'd all like to see the Phoenix play a better brand of football, pass other teams off the park, bang in three goals and draw in another 5000 punters because of it.

But the timing of his comments and the way the co-owner went about it - some players read about it in the newspaper - was not the call of the astute man he obviously is.

Essentially, the Phoenix don't know what they are doing. They have been asked to go against what they know and what has been moderately successful for them, at the drop of a hat.

Herbert has maintained, publicly at least, that he agrees with Morgan and wants to implement the new strategy. There have even been suggestions it was his idea, though Morgan has not portrayed that. Truth is, playing a possession-based passing game is as foreign to Herbert as it is his players.

So the players are being told on one hand to play a certain way, but their instincts as professional sportspeople tell them they just need to win, no matter what, and the way they have won in the past is not the way they are playing football now.

They appear rudderless, the midfield looks confused and directionless, and defenders like Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund are being made to look second-rate - they are not, but they are lacking support. The attackers have lost confidence.

Wouldn't it have made more sense to make this seismic shift in philosophy in the off-season?

They could then take time to look at their roster, decide which players fit the bill, which ones need to go, and bring in players to both the first team and the academy who suit the new style.

They could also assess whether Herbert is good enough to implement the new system. If they decide he's not suited, they have time to go searching for someone who is. The A-League off-season is long and it would have given them a chance.

Now, they are staring down their worst season yet and a huge loss in credibility, both on and off the pitch.

Instead of building on a solid foundation next season, they will be re-starting from scratch and, at this stage, it looks like there will be much rubble to clear first.

The club has never been in a worse position.

But to heap their current status all on Welnix, as some are doing, is wrong.

It would also not be holding Herbert and his players to account. The signs were on the wall even before Morgan's directive and they have to shoulder responsibility.

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You cannot simply write a season off as a "blip" season, as Herbert did even before the halfway mark, and expect to have a job at the end of it. His team should be fighting for wins and it can't be a good look when players read such defeatist talk.

I'm not accusing them of lying down, but performances during the past month, culminating in Saturday's club-worst 7-1 loss to Sydney, suggest there are underlying issues other than just a team struggling to implement a new playing style.

Herbert and the Phoenix are known as fighters, and it would be no surprise if they bounce back in the next month. But given the way they are being pulled in opposite directions - owners and coach saying one thing, players wanting to do the other - it's hard to see them turning around the season enough to make a serious impact.

Sure, they could sneak into sixth or even fifth, but they'd still have to win four playoff matches on the road, and they find it hard enough to win one.

It's simply not good enough for a team which many of us thought good enough to be top-four material, or even better, at season's outset. And forget excuses such as "the league has improved" or "the club doesn't have the same sort of money as others".

They shouldn't wash.

If the league has improved, and it has, every club needs to improve, not just stagnate and settle for a blip season.

There is a A$3 million salary cap, remember, so budgets don't differ hugely. And anyway, Central Coast are doing fine without spending big.

Morgan's other bizarre piece of timing was coming out last week on radio and saying Herbert will be the coach for the next two years.

Shouldn't that be discussed at season's end? His team is last when they should have been challenging for the title. They haven't seriously threatened the title into their sixth season.

If this was a professional football club in any other part of the world, Herbert would be fighting for his job. Instead, he's been told he's got one for another two years. Herbert might be the right man to go forward, but he might not be. There needs to be rigorous and informed debate at board level.

And as for the fact nobody from the ownership, coaching or playing staff was available to justify and front up over Saturday's debacle to The Dominion Post on Sunday - the team's local newspaper which is widely read by the same fringe punters they are trying so desperately get through the turnstiles? Ridiculous.

- Fairfax Media

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