Phoenix show there's hope for Kiwi football yet

BIG FUTURE: Louis Fenton was a standout performer for the Phoenix against Sydney FC.
BIG FUTURE: Louis Fenton was a standout performer for the Phoenix against Sydney FC.

Football and New Zealand used to go together like spaghetti and chocolate.

The Yellow Fever, those unfortunate fans who followed the Wellington Phoenix, were aptly named.

Headaches, inflammation and sore joints were classic symptoms after watching the Phoenix stumble about for 90 minutes. Football in this country was both inept and joyless.

The only guy worth watching was Paul Ifill, an unfit 30-something who used to play for Millwall, a football club more renowned for its appalling history of hooliganism.

Yet in New Zealand football Ifill was a visionary. His first touch was light-years ahead of anyone else's on the team and he was able to identify something called a pass, a rare phenomenon in the world of New Zealand football.

New Zealanders liked to point out they were the only unbeaten team at the last World Cup but of course they didn't win a thing. Their only aim was to stop the other team playing.

In fairness to coach Ricki Herbert it was probably a realistic aim, but it wasn't likely to encourage any young kids to take up the so-called beautiful game. The All Whites specialty was drawing ugly.

But the times they are a-changing. The Phoenix's first two games of the season indicate that an Age of Enlightenment could be about to start in New Zealand football. They have pace, ambition and a young kid who may just be the future.

Yes, the two best players in the Phoenix's opening game were both foreigners. Holding midfielder Manny Muscat is Maltese and centre forward Stein Huysegems is Belgian.

But if they can help the development of local players, then the import duty is worthwhile.

The stand-out local player has been the 19-year-old Louis Fenton. He scored with a terrific header in his first game. Fans will have enjoyed the spectacular nature of the goal and so they should.

Professional football is about entertainment. But others will have noted how intelligently and how far Fenton ran, late on in the game, to make the header.

The kid has two good feet, he has pace, tremendous work ethic and defensive intelligence. In the Phoenix's second game the side was really struggling to contain Melbourne down their left flank.

Ifill was clearly not back to full fitness, the right central midfielder was not dropping in to cover him and Melbourne Heart were pouring into the hole.

After 35 minutes the Phoenix asked Fenton to switch sides and went a long way towards solving the problem.

It seemed like a symbolic moment, the young Kiwi kid helping out the old British pro. This is the process that Wellington want to drive in this country. They want to develop their way of playing football. They want the youth academy to be a core part of the club.

General manager David Dome says: "The Melbourne Heart were interested in Louis for their academy. Without our own youth academy we couldn't have kept him from them. But we can now start training the kids the Phoenix way. You are starting to see it on the field. I am a big believer in culture. We couldn't play like Barcelona, but we do want players who can play across the park."

Gareth Morgan, one of the Phoenix's co-owners, has been a driving force behind the school of excellence and probably a bit else besides.

The owners were not happy at last season's crowds and so you can imagine this conversation with Herbert.

Owner: "I am not investing all this money to watch rubbish like that."

Herbert: "We got to the final. You want to win, don't you?"

Owner: "Barcelona and Manchester United win playing beautiful soccer."

Herbert: "I'm sorry, have you seen the meat pies I have in my squad?"

Owner: "Go out and get some new players, then."

Herbert: "With what?"

Owner: "If Arsene Wenger can find bargains, so can you. Here's a bit of cash."

Herbert: "See you in three months' time."

That may be a fantasy conversation but it reflects a real sentiment. The new Phoenix is as much about football development in this country as playing in the A-League.

The owners will lose money this year. They want that philanthropy to be rewarded by attractive football and the development of young New Zealanders.

It is questionable whether a professional soccer club in this country can turn a profit. It is competing against a myriad of other sports.

Wellington already has the Hurricanes and the Lions, a cricket team and a netball team. Football requires a crowd of 10,500 just to pay for the costs of the stadium.

Wages, transport, accommodation, training facilities, the academy, living expenses: all have to be covered by sponsorship and TV revenue.

The A-league is currently negotiating a new television deal, but it will need to be worth an awful lot of money if the Phoenix are going to achieve their ambition of breaking even next season.

I don't see that happening - but I do see some real progress on the football field.

Dome says: "We do want to be a national product. We would like to hold more games in other cities like Christchurch, Auckland, Waikato, Taranaki, New Plymouth, Nelson.

We will never be the New Zealand Phoenix. We are Wellington based and proud of it, but we do want to be a part of New Zealand."

Fairfax Media