Wellington Phoenix return to familiar territory

HAMISH BIDWELL
Last updated 05:00 28/01/2013
Mark Paston and Emile Heskey
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ

USING HIS HEAD: Former Liverpool and England striker Emile Heskey rises to head in Newcastle’s equaliser.

Coming in off the long run

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Route-one football, graft and some long bows drawn afterwards - this was the Wellington Phoenix of old.

Many had wondered when they would rise again, having spent weeks grounded by self-inflicted wounds.

They're still a long way from taking full flight, following yesterday's 1-1 draw with the Newcastle Jets at Westpac Stadium, but at least they've got some of their chirp back.

The return of Manny Muscat from suspension livened up the midfield, while Paul Ifill's first start after a month out with injury made them more of a threat going forward.

Central defender Ben Sigmund was the pick of the bunch though, full of energy and endeavour allied with the handy ability to hoof the ball into useful areas.

They were as ugly as anything along the way, too. Wasteful as well. But then that's the team Wellingtonians know and love.

And then there was coach Ricki Herbert. He'd probably be looking for a job somewhere else, but he remains a messianic figure here, and he summed up a match between two even, workmanlike sides as only he can.

"I kind of thought there was only one team in the game today.

"I didn't think we looked threatened at all," Herbert said.

The only thing that cost the Phoenix all three points, in Herbert's view, was a 72nd-minute Tony Lochhead challenge, which earned the defender a sending off for a second yellow card.

Newcastle's Emile Heskey headed home from the resultant freekick, to cancel out Louis Fenton's 21st-minute tap-in.

"To defend like that, get a player sent off and not deal with a cross. I'm not sure they [Newcastle] offered a lot more but, yeah, I think we probably threw away two [points] than got one."

Herbert described Lochhead's tackle on Newcastle substitute James Virgili as "a brain explosion" and his automatic one-match ban should mean a debut for new signing Ian Hogg in Saturday's "home" clash with Perth Glory at Eden Park.

The Phoenix had some good moments yesterday, and Lochhead's tackle from behind changed the complexion of the match.

But the flipside is Newcastle had their own left back, Samuel Gallaway, sent off in the 54th-minute and have an appalling record against the Phoenix.

Prior to yesterday they had lost their past six games against the Phoenix, home or away, and had suffered eight consecutive defeats in games at Westpac since their sole A-League win in Wellington in 2007.

A point for them in those circumstances was a fine effort and, if you look at it dispassionately, exactly what they deserved.

For the Phoenix, a point was hardly a poor outcome either, considering the slide they've been on.

They've still only won one out of their past seven but, after four defeats on the bounce, it was encouraging to see them back to something like their combative best. Results over the weekend were kind to them and while they remain last, they're only two points adrift on ninth-placed Perth and three behind Sydney FC (8th) and Brisbane (7th).

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"Sydney got beat, [sixth-placed] Melbourne Heart got beat, Perth got beat, so you keep inching a little bit closer.

"Hopefully today we've stemmed it, if you want to look at it that way, but we've got to go on and get points," said Herbert.

And after all the talk about fans and their intellect this week, 6429 turned up and gave the Phoenix everything they had.

"You can only applaud them for coming along. I thought they were terrific today," Herbert said.

Yellow Fever greeted their heroes with a massive banner declaring: Phoenix Don't Stop Believin'. A smaller one read: We Still Love You.

It was commendable stuff from people labelled "pathetic" and "unsophisticated" by Phoenix part-owner Gareth Morgan.

- The Dominion Post

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