Michael Cockerill: Who can save the Phoenix? Wellington on borrowed time in A-League
OPINION: Who can save the Wellington Phoenix? Not Rob Morrison, I fear. The chairman of a club which almost passed into history last season is showing few signs of learning from the bruising experience.
The Phoenix aren't on death row. Yet. A four-year extension of their license has three more seasons, after this one, to run. But built into the agreement are a series of benchmarks agreed to with Football Federation Australia. The most significant ones - crowds, memberships and ratings - haven't gone close to meeting the mark.
So whether it's a slow death, or a quick one, the Phoenix seem to be on borrowed time in terms of the FFA's thinking. The body language, the inferences, coming out of Whitlam Square every time Wellington are mentioned reveals the truth. The FFA are still willing to kill off the club. Maybe it's simply a question of when.
That's no environment to build a football club. But Morrison doesn't seem to be too fussed. Perhaps he's been lulled into a false sense of security because he's part of a group of four club owners discussing the future of a semi-autonomous A-League with the FFA. The inner sanctum.
The sense is, though, that the FFA are happy to have him inside the tent because he's a banker, knows about numbers, and he's cautious. The same qualities the FFA see in themselves. A kindred spirit. But a guarantee? I doubt it.
In the context of a future for Wellington, it's those exact same qualities which are bringing the club undone. Too conservative, by far.
There's another hope, of course. It was the other club owners who saved the Phoenix last season, and if they do get their hands on the levers of power, they could well give the club a long-term future. One club owner said this week he supported the idea of a team in Auckland to help the Phoenix because 'if you're going to have New Zealand in the league then do it properly'. Perhaps there's the path to salvation. But right now the FFA still has control.
So Morrison's continued unwillingess to embrace the top-end projects which could well deliver the 'metrics' the FFA is obsessed with remains his Achilles heel. There are others in the Welnix group who recognise this, principally Gareth Morgan and perhaps Henry Tait.
For whatever reason, they've been unable to get Morrison on board in matters like a genuine marquee star, a major marketing campaign, and even the boutique stadium project at Petone. Indeed it's believed they've had to fund some of Wellington's recent recruits out of their own pocket because Morrison runs such a tight budget. Then there's the question of whether a number of recent departures from the front office reflect growing frustration with the way the club is evolving.
Some of this is bound to effect what's become an under-performing team - again. It's hard enough as it is being Wellington Phoenix - no other club travels as much, partly because Morrison sells four 'home' games per season to other centres in New Zealand. That provides a guaranteed break-even, but it adds to the general weariness - both mental and physical - of a group of players who don't spend enough time sleeping in their own beds. Not to mention the cost to building a strong level of support in what is supposed to be their home city. No wonder memberships are the lowest in the league. Morrison could address this, but won't.
Perhaps the most significant effect on the team, however, is the least recognised. An excuse mentality. For too long, the players have left the field after losing blaming everyone and everything but themselves. You see it during matches, the heads dropping. But this is the ongoing cultural issue which really needs to be addressed.
Why haven't Wellington won a trophy? Not necessarily because they haven't been good enough - two seasons ago with Nathan Burns on fire they were in pole position for the Premier's Plate before they collapsed. Truth is, the team hasn't been anywhere near hard-nosed enough.
Until the Phoenix develop a ruthless streak, they won't win anything. Sure, it's a tough gig being a Phoenix player on many levels, but there are plenty of hopeful, ambitious, young Kiwi players who'd kill for the chance. The challenge for the team is to embrace to challenge, not run away from it.
And so we come to this. What is, in effect, Wellington's grand final. Lose at Homebush on Sunday night to Western Sydney Wanderers, and it's season over. Not mathematically, but realistically. It's the moment of truth. Somewhere, somehow, the Phoenix need to change the way they think.