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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Coming back from the brink: An ode to Wellington's sacrifice and success

In 2015, the Wellington Phoenix were fighting for their survival. The rest of the competition stood up for the New Zealanders to help them extend their license in the #SaveTheNix campaign. Seven years later, after two years of sacrifice for the good of the league and overcoming multiple setbacks, the Phoenix have returned the favour on the way to earning a hard-fought return to finals football.

Phoenix players show their appreciation to travelling supporters after beating the Western Sydney Wanderers to qualify for the finals. (Wellington Phoenix)

After the eventual license extension and years in the wilderness, Wellington and its fanbase, starving for success, finally seemed to rediscover its mojo with the shrewd appointments of Mark Rudan and his eventual replacement Ufuk Talay.

Both coaches brought different game plans that galvanised the squad, with exciting players that lit up the competition mixed in. The Phoenix even managed to make the finals for two consecutive years.

The New Zealanders had finally found their groove until COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works. The shutdown of the competition and the pandemic threatened the long-term existence of the A-Leagues during a critical time of broadcast rights negotiations.

Restarting the 2019/20 season was a logistical nightmare, and with the Australian and New Zealand border shut, something had to give. After surviving five years earlier, the Phoenix players and staff sacrificed everything. They left their homes, families, and friends to enter a hub in Sydney during the most uncertain period of recent world history.

After a successful season, the Phoenix competed in the finals, but little did they know there was still a long, painful road ahead.

The Phoenix began season 2020/21 based in Sydney and adopted Wollongong as a home away from home. For a while, they were everyone's second team, with local Wollongong Wolves supporters joining forces with Mexican and Israeli locals who turned up in flocks to support then Phoenix stars Ulises Dávila

and Tomer Hemed.

Despite the off-field fun, the Phoenix struggled for consistency and missed out on the finals by a solitary point in heartbreaking fashion. Still, it was an admirable campaign for a side playing out of a hub. At the same time, the circumstances afforded the rest of the competition the home-ground and home-city luxury.

Wellington's undoubted highlight of season 2020/21, and an all-around feel-good story, was when it made its triumphant return to New Zealand for two games. The homecoming gave fans hope that their team may be on its way back. Unfortunately, it was not to be, and the trouble soon began again.

Season 2021/22 would not see the Phoenix return home, and it would prove to be an even more difficult season off the field and, at times, even on it.

Being locked out of New Zealand was bad enough. But the situation was compounded when the star attacking duo of Dávila and Hemed defected to A-League Men rivals Macarthur and the Western Sydney Wanderers. The Phoenix were dealt another blow when returning defender Steven Taylor announced his retirement just days after being named club captain.

Gary Hooper returned to the club to replace Hemed. But the Phoenix could not adequately replace Dávila and Taylor with short notice in a COVID-19 affected world. Their predicament became a hard sell for overseas-based players.

The novelty had faded for the Phoenix in Australia, with crowds dwindling and only the resolute "Little Corner of Yellow" being the sole positive in the stands. Even they were eventually locked out of a game when the Phoenix could not secure a matchday sponsor. Wellington sadly played a match behind closed doors to save costs.

The season did not start well on the field, with star shot-stopper Oli Sail missing multiple weeks with a hip injury. The Phoenix were condemned to crushing losses to Newcastle (4-0), Adelaide (4-0), and Melbourne Victory (4-1) in the first couple of months.

Past Wellington teams may not have found a way out of a hole that seemingly grew each week. But Ufuk Talay's side displayed strong character to reach an Australia Cup Semi-Final and claw back results while waiting for reinforcements.

Gael Sandoval and Scott Wootton joined the side during the mid-season transfer window. The Phoenix finally replaced the holes left by Dávila and Taylor, leading to an upturn in results.

Being on the road for two years is not easy, and the strain started affecting the team whilst the season began to wrap up. Heavy defeats crept their way back in again. The Phoenix went down 4-0 to the Jets, followed by a humiliating 6-0 loss to reigning champions Melbourne City.

The good news finally came when the Phoenix was again due to return home and play in front of their supporters for the first time in a year, but fortune was still not kind to the Kiwis.

The heartache was not over for Wellington, and unlike 2021, there was no happy homecoming. The Phoenix was hit hard on their return, succumbing to a 4-0 loss to a rampant Mariners side.

Once again, Talay's men refused to give up on their season, though. Two gutsy wins against the Wanderers, one in Auckland and one in Parramatta, confirmed a finals spot for New Zealand's battlers.

Never has a side that looked so down and out many times in the same season managed to make finals. But adversity is nothing new for the Phoenix, who have dealt with it expertly for two seasons.

Incredibly, they enter the finals with a -15 goal difference, and technically they are the only Sydney based team that has made it! It speaks volumes about the club's character to outdo Sydney FC, Macarthur, and the Wanderers. Those clubs do not only call Sydney their permanent home but possess some of the deepest pockets in the competition.

Whether it is fighting for its long-term future, being forced to relocate for two seasons, or losing star players, the Phoenix keep riding the bumps with a grin. A finals spot in 2021/22 is a just reward for the hardship the players, staff, families, and fans have endured these past few years.

Regardless of how Wellington's season concludes, Australian football must be thankful for their sacrifice. The club now leaves no doubt that it belongs in the league.

After long stints apart that threatened both the club and the competition, the Phoenix will return home next season more united than ever. Their fanbase will be eager to embrace its heroes and watch them represent New Zealand in their own country, week in, week out.

For more articles on the Wellington Phoenix like this one, click here.


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