Herbert can't ignore Morgan's strong words

BILLY HARRIS
Last updated 11:01 16/12/2012

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OPINION: You don't get a dog and bark yourself, so the saying goes.

On the surface, that appears to be what Phoenix part-owner Gareth Morgan is doing. He's employed Ricki Herbert as coach, told him what a fantastic job he's doing, and now he's telling him how to do his job.

"Play more attractive football or else," is the guts of the message Morgan sent Herbert, justifiably feeling that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Morgan is no doubt as dismayed as the steadily dwindling fan base by the mediocre fare being dished up by Herbert and his team, and as boss, it's his job to sort it out.

Now that the club's owners have had more time to study the spreadsheets, they might have started asking themselves whether Herbert, in his sixth year as coach, is on track to deliver a team capable of seriously challenging for the A-League title.

In their first five years, the Phoenix took 167 points out of a possible 378, a mediocre 1.32 points a game. If you remove the first two "teething" seasons from the equation, the Nix averaged 1.44 points a game. This season, with a seemingly stronger squad of players, their average with more than a third of the regular season gone, is 1.2 points a game. With a tough game today in Adelaide, that figure is likely to get worse.

So statistically, the side are not progressing.

In some countries overseas, the result is all that matters to the fans. It doesn't matter how you win, just that you win. But in New Zealand, where football is less than life-and-death, fans want to be entertained, and goals are the main measure of entertainment.

In that area too, the Phoenix are coming up short. Before this season, the Nix scored 158 goals in 126 games, at a less than net-busting 1.25 goals a game. This season, despite an attacking lineup designed to give the scorekeeper RSI, they're on a similar average of 1.3.

So not enough points, and not much entertainment, and it's costing the Nix at the gate.

The supporters aren't being fooled by the spin about making the playoffs the last three seasons. Three mid-table finishes wouldn't have been satisfactory to the Mount Wellington side that Herbert played for in his day, and it's not good enough today if the Phoenix have real ambition.

Fortunately for the fans, Gareth Morgan isn't happy to settle for a life in mid-table, and now he's turning up the blowtorch in an attempt to get more bang from his bucks.

So what does Herbert do about it? Does the answer lie in developing players from a very young age to play the possession-based game that most successful teams use nowadays?

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In the long term that'd help, but it's not essential. Most of the world's best clubs, with the exception of Barcelona, buy the great majority of their players. They grow their own, but few make it through to the first team.

The alternative is to buy players, and fortunately the Nix need only three or four to become a good side. Defensively, they're strong. They have one of the best strikers in the league in Jeremy Brockie. A front three of Brockie, an in-form Paul Ifill, and either Stein Huysegems or Ben Totori would score regularly with the support of a creative, penetrative midfield. Which is where Morgan and co need to splash the cash. Manny Muscat, Alex Smith and Vince Lia are a competitive unit, but only Muscat is league-winning quality. If the Phoenix owners could find two top midfielders to make the team play, they're in business. It would require a major outlay to secure such players, but the owners know that building a team capable of challenging for the title won't come cheap.

While they've got their chequebook out, they might want to shop for fullbacks who can not only defend, but get forward and do damage like Adelaide's Cassio.

And get Marco Rojas back - and Kosta Barbarouses. That'd get the turnstiles clicking.

Billy Harris is a former All White.

- Sunday Star Times

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