Morgan plays down role but won't change style

SIMON PLUMB
Last updated 05:01 27/01/2013
Phoenix owner Gareth Morgan gets involved at training.
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
NOT PRETTY: Phoenix owner Gareth Morgan gets involved at training.

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Controversy has a Wellington Phoenix season ticket. But even by the high standards racked up in this club's short and colourful history, this month has been a doozy.

Over the last 16 days, club co-owner and self-appointed spokesman Gareth Morgan has been at the centre of a number of fiery public debates.

During that time, Morgan has been accused of ruthlessly interfering with the Phoenix's tactics, seen his side suffer a record 7-1 defeat that's left them dead last in the A-League - and all following a much-publicised, and now infamous call, for a change in playing style.

Heating the cauldron, Morgan has also criticised sections of the Phoenix fan-base as "pathetic" and "unsophisticated" - all while juggling international reaction on his proposal to eradicate the unregistered cat population, in an attempt to conserve New Zealand's native birdlife.

Phoenix captain Andrew Durante has been reported saying he refuses to pay any more mind to Morgan's public comments.

Even the Phoenix's most partisan, subjective disciples are having their patience tested.

This was not what was expected when the Welnix consortium took over from a bankrupt Terry Serepisos in September 2011. A new regime of stability and credibility was on the horizon.

Instead, 16 months on, the soap opera's ratings continue to be off the charts - perhaps even more so.

Morgan's shoot-from-the-hip style, and his audience's sensitivity, have played feature roles over the last few days.

But, cat campaign aside (and Morgan admits that issue "hasn't helped" the Phoenix), Morgan believes the Phoenix drama snowballed after facts about his level of influence were lost.

In a 40-minute interview with the Sunday Star-Times on Friday, following another week of turmoil and high-flying fan emotion, Morgan agreed to offer insight into how the Phoenix operates behind-the-scenes.

He outlined the club's internal governance structure, the kind of operation Welnix inherited, how decisions are made and by whom, who controls the team and, why he will continue to speak "Gareth Morgan-style".

Crucially, Morgan began by re-emphasising the much-mentioned decision to change the Phoenix's playing style - which got the snowball rolling - was not a decision he made, but one reached by consensus.

And there is perhaps one element to this that has been overlooked.

Specifically, when the Welnix consortium took over, Ricki Herbert contributed a strategic plan for what he believed was needed to carry the quality of the on-field product, and inevitably results, forward. The board spent that time doing a similar thing, but concentrated their strategic plan on how to turn around the flawed business model.

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One common denominator which fell out of this process was improved on-field success. Morgan insists the coaching staff and the board both proposed a more attacking style of play was the way to achieve their shared long term goal.

Some might say it should have been Herbert who made that public.

He didn't. Instead, Morgan revealed it in a radio talkback interview because, he says, "it came up in conversation" while discussing the franchise's long-term philosophy. It wasn't planned as a grand unveiling.

"Let's be clear. The style change is a consensus decision involving the board and coaching staff. I just communicated it," Morgan told the Star-Times from China.

"It sort of came out in conversation during an interview, and all hell broke loose.

"We all asked ourselves if long-term, making an A-League grand final was important. We all agreed, that's not enough, we want to win the title - regularly.

"I'm not in any rush to reverse those comments, I think it's good for the public to know the club's long-term philosophy.

"But no one in the club can just stand there and make key football-related decisions on an impulse or on a whim - and that's where a lot of this controversy has stemmed from."

Morgan says the Welnix ownership has made wholesale internal changes to the club's internal structure. One thing they've introduced is rather basic. A set of accounts.

"When we took over, no one really knew what it was we were taking on, we kind of had to guess because there weren't really any books to go off," he said.

A raft of internal committees have also been created, covering football, football development, marketing and finance. Any decision on football-related issues, Morgan says, must be approved by either the football or development committee.

That encompasses everything from player transfers to coaching appointments, video analysis, sports science and other investments.

"Those committees are now the link between the day-to-day running of the club and what the owners want," he said.

"They are a blend of active Welnix members and other independent members. They also bring in outside experts if they feel they need them.

"All decisions with the club, whether on-field-related or not, go through these committees, absolutely. It's very structured.

"Ricki and his team run the football and football development sides of the business. The administration sides, finance and marketing, are the realm of David Dome [general manager]. Both these guys work with the owner and advisory board members on relevant committees."

The intent of Morgan's outline is clear. The day-to-day running of the club is primarily at the feet of Herbert and Dome.

But what Morgan is also saying is that no individual, including himself, can make a unilateral decision as significant as changing the franchise's playing style. It must be passed by committee.

"There are issues with this team on the field and they are issues for Ricki and the football people. They are nothing to do with the board or any of the directors," he said.

"People keep linking those two things together and I have to keep putting the record straight.  It's not just 'oh s***, let's do this, let's do that and here's the cheque'. That's not our model."

Morgan adds that half of the Welnix board, which is down to eight directors following the death of Lloyd Morrison 11 months ago, are passive partners.

"Four of the Welnix board can be considered 'active' in the club," he said.

"Some directors took it on to support the club and for the sake of Wellington. Others, like myself and Rob Morrison [chairman], are closer to the action and will help execute committee work."

Cue the now-infamous pictures of Morgan at Phoenix training, clipboard clutched to the chest and on the shoulder of an uncomfortable looking Herbert.

Morgan's response remains consistent, that too much has been read into it. He is down there occasionally - "no more than Terry was" - taking notes in a bid to improve club processes and operations.

"Just like you would be doing if you were a decent businessman," he says.

"That particular instance was a reflection of an active director executing work for the development committee."

So what about Morgan's divisive communication style?

He is steadfast. Quite simply, it's not changing.

Nor will any form of gate-keeping, spinning, or as Morgan puts it "PR crap" be employed.

In Morgan's eyes, this part of the saga can be boiled down to a business brain colliding with sporting emotion.

"The sports world is a completely new group for me. People who know me in the business and economics worlds are well used to my straight-shooting," he said.

"The fans might say 'we're not used to being treated like this, we're used to softly-softly, and the fans are the greatest and never wrong'. That's not me.

"We don't have a PR department that massages all these things to make them nice and soft and Rob [Morrison, chairman] and I will communicate with the fans and public honestly and when necessary. We don't need to employ someone to learn lines.

"I will never have PR management and all that crap. I'll just be honest, open and frank, and if it offends people, then let's have a reasoned debate."

Morgan's recent criticism of fans has driven by his perception that some lack patience in allowing the end justify the means.

He says the 7-1 defeat to Sydney is sure to have "fans hurting" but insists was plainly down to a poor performance, not the style shift.

Asked if failure to make this season's A-League playoffs, with the Phoenix having made it the last three years, would be deemed failure, Morgan's response is interesting - and typifies his vision for the Phoenix project.

"I wouldn't care - as long as we can see the team is developing and we are on the road to where we want to go," he said.

"I know we're on that road already, but the short-term is exactly that. Of course, we want to be in the finals, but we have bigger priorities to achieve in the short-term."

For Morgan, that's the very survival of the football club. Clearly, he doesn't believe the Phoenix can currently consider themselves out of those particular woods.

"There are people out there whose only interest is where we are on the league table. I understand that," he said.

"But this club was losing $2m a year when we took over. It's roughly $1m now, but it's still not sustainable.

"There should be no doubt about that. This thing is still not in a position of sustainability. We need to be a little more realistic about what the immediate priorities are.

"We actually want the thing to make a profit so we can pour that money back into the amateur game. People seem to have lost all this."

Morgan does acknowledge his relationship with the public and the Phoenix's commercial viability are inextricably linked however - and could clash spectacularly.

He also acknowledges he needs public support. The club needs a lot more bums on seats than the 6608 who turned out for the last home game.

"If we have a home crowd average of 10,000, and that's just Wellington, not any 'home' games that might be played in Auckland, based on a per-capita basis that would be outstanding," he said.

"I think that's realistic, though that alone would not transform the financial model. We would still need to do other things.

"I want the fans to focus on the football while we, the board, will get the thing into a financially stable fashion.

"If you don't want that kind of accountability, then you need to be owned by an oligarch. We are not oligarchs and have no intention of behaving like them."

But with Morgan refusing to tone-down his style, it could eventually leave fans facing an uncomfortable ultimatum: Take it, or leave it.

Either way, Gareth Morgan the sports practitioner is here to stay.

- Sunday Star Times

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