Boock: Meddling Morgan puts Nix in freefall

12:09, Jan 27 2013
Sunday Star-Times columnist Richard Boock says sometimes being a small island at the bottom of the world is a good thing.

The Peter principle: The state of affairs in which people prosper on the basis of competence until, eventually, they reach their level of incompetence.

Seems to apply to business magnates just as much as anyone if Phoenix part-owner Gareth Morgan's efforts over the past couple of months are any guide. Not only does he appear to have a problem with domestic cats, but also with best practice for sports team owners.

Just to recap. Ever since Morgan's frankly hilarious revelation that his team was to adopt the "total football" philosophy of the 1970s Dutch national side, the Phoenix have plumbed the depths of the A-League. From an outfit that qualified for the past three playoffs under Ricki Herbert's safety first system, they've descended into an unrecognisable rabble; shipping seven goals last week against Sydney. It's as if sacrificing substance for style hasn't done them any favours.

It's remarkable, really. I mean that, at a time when the New Zealand cricketers would happily celebrate the ugliest of wins like a World Cup triumph, Morgan is effectively claiming aesthetics are a bigger priority for his team than results. He's also defied some of the great lessons in sporting history by suggesting the best defensive teams never win anything. Fans of four-time World Cup winners Italy would be amused to hear that.

If a presentation was to be made on "what not to do as a pro sports team owner", Morgan's example this season would be front and centre. It was funny enough when he started rebuking the local media for not being sufficiently sycophantic in their reporting, and threatening to take games away from Wellington unless more people attended. As a Twitter pal mentioned, it was like he was channelling Basil Fawlty, berating folk for daring to complain.

Still, Morgan's most recent strategy, attacking his own fans' views as "pathetic", and "unsophisticated", and suggesting many didn't understand the game, was staggeringly funny even by his standards. Forget the pot and the kettle for a moment, the idea he thinks anything positive will come from slagging off his own customer base is standup comedy material. What will he do next to fans? Threaten to lock them out?

True enough, Morgan is entitled to behave how he wants with the Phoenix. It's his money, why shouldn't he take an active role? Can't argue with that. On the other hand, if he wants it to be successful, best practice demands he appoints capable people; experts in the field, and allows them to get on with it. His responsibilities should be restricted to top-end governance, like creating a framework in which the Phoenix can thrive.


And it's not as if he has to look far for glowing examples. The New Zealand Breakers, riding on a wave of success made possible by owners Paul and Liz Blackwell, are continuing to impress as the most efficient and well-run sporting franchise in the country. With the Blackwells' strong behind-the-scenes backing, the Breakers have cultivated good players, good staff and good support, not to mention a magnificent record.

No doubt, in an ideal world, the Phoenix would also be sitting on top of their trans-Tasman league, playing a seductive brand of football and winning everything in sight. In the real world, though? Beggars can't be choosers. Style doesn't cut the mustard if it comes at the expense of winning. Adopting the best strategy to beat any given opponent on the day must be a team's No 1 priority. Ugly wins will always trump pretty losses.

We know Morgan's mistaken about defensive teams not winning anything. He's also dreaming if he thinks attacking teams win everything. Good sides simply aren't that one-dimensional. The best combinations are those that can cut their cloth to suit, playing an expansive game when needed; adopting an ultra defensive game when circumstances dictate. Above all, the best combinations value winning over everything else.

These are strange times for the Phoenix faithful. It's one thing for owners to ask their fans for a bit of patience. It's quite another to rubbish their opinions and tell them sit tight for a couple of years or so while you tinker with the side for the hell of it. No pain, no gain, indeed.

In terms of a business parallel, it's a bit like the corner grocer putting the "closed" sign up on his door, complete with the accompanying note: "Back in 2016".

Sunday Star Times