Paul Ifill, the best player in the short but colourful history of the Wellington Phoenix, was in hospital last night with a suspected rupture of his Achilles tendon.
The relief of the Phoenix's drought-breaking 1-0 win over Sydney FC was tempered with sadness as the talisman was stretchered off the field early in the second half.
The 34-year-old attempted to turn then sprint while on attack and despite no contact went down as if he'd been shot, in agony as he slammed his hand on the Westpac Stadium turf.
It was a horrible sight and the crowd of 6813 gave the club's record goalscorer a touching sendoff as he was carried into the tunnel.
The popular Englishman - who has scored 33 goals since signing with the Phoenix in 2009 - has been a wonderful ambassador for the club.
His young family have also taken to Wellington and Ifill has spoken of his desire to stay in New Zealand after he hangs up the boots.
But he was already injury prone before this latest setback and, given he comes off contract at the end of the season, may have played his last game in a Phoenix shirt - or as a professional footballer full stop.
If fears of a rupture are correct, then, at the very least, Ifill's season is done.
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant recently returned from an Achilles rupture after an eight month rehabilitation - which was considered a quick recovery.
"Very sad. Our doctor says it looks like a pretty bad rupture of the Achilles, he's actually gone straight to hospital," said Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick. "If that's a complete or severe rupture of the Achilles, that takes a long while to come back.
"It's so sad because to me that's the best I've seen Paul play since I've been at this club, I thought he was outstanding. So I hope it's not as bad as first thought, it hasn't been thoroughly checked out yet."
Merrick said Ifill's injury had taken the edge off Phoenix celebrations.
"A little bit, yeah. It's always sad, 34-years of age, playing as well as he did, getting a severe injury like that. It's a tough time to receive that type of injury so hopefully he'll come good but I don't know exactly what the diagnosis is. It is a big blow. It looked pretty bad when he went down so we got the doctor on quickly with the physio and rushed him off to hospital. All I can do is hope that things work out for him."
Merrick had already been looking at signing a striker or attacking midfielder in the January transfer window.
In-form All White Aaron Clapham - who scored another brace for Canterbury United yesterday - would seem a possibility.
It was heartening to see Carlos Hernandez return from a quad injury and get through most of the match.
He worked hard and provided the key assist to unlock the Sydney defence for Stein Huysegems' goal.
A happy and creative Hernandez will be vital in Ifill's absence and Merrick said his playmaker's mood would improve further when his family arrive from Costa Rica tomorrow.
"It was a mountain out of a molehill," Merrick said of reports Hernandez was unhappy at the delays in getting his family to Wellington.
"He played a key role tonight and his family arrive on Christmas Eve, which we'd always worked towards, getting them out before Christmas. So everyone's happy all-round."
- Fairfax Media
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