OPINION: The Wellington Phoenix and their fans are enduring a Clayton's season - the sort you have when you are not really having a season.
The club has taken a breather from the real work of winning games, scrapping for points, backing each other and striving to be the best they can be.
Instead, the team has been gripped by a failure of nerve and belief and distracted by internal wrangling.
The players may not have consciously given up, but their body language and lack of form suggests that last year they lost confidence in coach Ricki Herbert.
As the axe loomed, the ever-cautious Herbert took the sensible option this week. He quit and, in doing so, extricated himself with some dignity from an impossible situation. This way he gets to stem the damage to his reputation and draw a line under his responsibility for a humiliating campaign.
Herbert has been a decent enough coach of the Phoenix, but in the end failed to keep pace with the rising quality of the A-League or the demands and manoeuvring of the club's owners.
He survived for longer than most in an unforgiving job and gave the fans some good moments.
Nothing, however, can gloss over one glaring fact. In the past four months the Phoenix have deteriorated into the worst team in the A-League by some margin and deserve to be last.
The Phoenix's bad case of leaky-goal syndrome has proved terminal to their playoff fantasy.
Watching them huff and puff against Newcastle on Wednesday night underlined their status as easy prey to even midtable opposition. It goes without saying that Herbert must bear most responsibility for this decline.
The squad lacks quality and too often the tactics have been inconsistent and ineffective. The Phoenix fighting spirit and defensive strength have flagged. The team looks unhappy and disjointed.
All these will be sheeted home to Herbert. But that doesn't mean he was solely to blame.
Only a handful of players - Jeremy Brockie, Mark Paston, Louis Fenton and perhaps Manny Muscat - have consistently played to their potential.
Others in key roles - for example, both fullbacks - simply aren't good enough.
And then there is the influence of the owners and the board. There is no doubt this has been unhelpful for Herbert.
The turning point came late last year when part-owner Gareth Morgan announced a change in the Phoenix's playing style.
Herbert's low-risk, bread-and-butter approach was to be replaced with a feast of short-passing, attacking, attractive football.
Herbert must have been gagging on this news and should have pushed back against Morgan's interference. He should have made it clear he called the shots on the football field and that any change in style was a complex, long-term project that he would drive.
Instead, Herbert appeared to acquiesce and the season unravelled as his players realised the coach was a lame-duck who would not go into bat for them.
That really lies at the core of what has happened with the Phoenix this year.
Herbert in the end lost the dressing room. The evidence for that could clearly be seen each week on the pitch.
Herbert will now focus on the All Whites' World Cup campaign while retaining an advisory role at the Phoenix. His influence will be minimal.
The Phoenix have much rebuilding to do. They need new ideas, not more of the same.
There are glimmers of hope, both off and on the field.
In Brockie they have an unorthodox striker who is a brilliant talent at A-League level while youngsters Tyler Boyd and Fenton have big futures.
Off the field, owners Welnix showed resolve this week by engineering Herbert's departure.
These pragmatic, ambitious businessmen hate coming last and losing face.
They now have a much clearer sense of what it takes to build a successful football club - a coach with a winning record who they trust, an injection of top talent, and a genuine commitment to a long-term plan to win the league.
- The Dominion Post
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