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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

More than football: Wellington Phoenix away days

"Away days" are a staple of the world's football culture, and the A-Leagues are no exception. Many fans relish travelling to their rival's backyard in search of bragging rights. But a trip across the Tasman provides a different experience that fans down under must have on their football bucket lists.

Adelaide United fans away at Wellington Phoenix in 2018. (Goal Weekly)

Coming from Adelaide with a single A-League club in town, Reds fans' most popular away trip has always been to arch-rivals Melbourne Victory. The two clubs share a bitter history. The ‘Original Derby’ is one of the first fixtures both fans want to attend. It usually guarantees fireworks on the pitch and high decibel levels in the stands.

I am always in for a trip to Melbourne, but there is another fixture I hold dear in my heart.

One of the unique things about the A-Leagues is that it includes a single side from a different country; the Wellington Phoenix remain New Zealand’s solitary professional football club. Travelling to New Zealand means entering a whole new country and world regarding football.

University holidays, funds, and the A-League Men fixture conspired in 2018 to make my first visit to ‘Windy Wellington’ a reality. The trip ticked off a bucket list item, an international away day.

Not knowing what to expect, my mate and I were fortunate to have renowned Reds supporters ‘Red Wig’ Steve Cervaro and Con Tsakiris guiding us.

When they mentioned going to the Wellington Phoenix pre-game venue, I won’t lie; I felt uneasy. Walking into The Old Bailey and later The Backbencher, that feeling completely disappeared.

Instead of hostility, we were greeted with open arms and curiosity. To my surprise, the Wellington supporters were keen to get to know us and chat football!

On the day, the match went to plan for the Reds. A 3-1 victory made the trip a worthwhile one. But before the night was over, the uneasy feeling returned when Cervaro and Tsakiris invited us along to Wellington’s post-match function at The Churchill.

Catching up with the opposition before the match is one thing, but gatecrashing their post-match function after beating them in their backyard is another issue!

Uneasily entering the pub, we once again felt welcome seeing the friendly faces of Wellington supporters Steve Lyne and Daniel Phimphisane. Despite the home team’s loss, a fun function proceeded, with players and coaches making appearances with music, drinks, and good food.

Later in the evening, a Phoenix fan that had perhaps consumed one too many drinks approached us. They suggested we had no business being there in an unfriendly manner. That is when Steve Lyne, Wellington's 2018/19 Fan of the Year Award recipient, intervened, shutting down his fellow Phoenix supporter and defusing the situation before it had the chance to escalate.

Lyne explained that he always feels welcomed when he travels to Australia. He and most Phoenix fans want to create a similar environment for fans that make the trek to New Zealand.

"We know what it takes to travel, so we welcome the commitment of those that come here. We want them (opposition fans) to love Wellington and the Phoenix as much as we do. We have formed lifelong friendships with our Aussie mates over the past 15 years through this!" Lyne told Front Page Football recently.

The A-Leagues' wonderful quirk of accommodating a club from a different country got thrown into disarray when COVID-19 hit, and the Phoenix were indefinitely relocated to Australia's East Coast.

Facing the Phoenix away experience in both beachside Wollongong and an eerily empty Kogarah was a far different experience than the hustle and bustle of a Wellington matchday. But it's one that remained just as fulfilling because of the Australian-based fans.

Despite being short in numbers, the self-proclaimed "Little Corner of Yellow" was ever-present for its side in Australia. 2020/21 Wellington Fan of the Year Dean Bartle was one of the Australian-based fans who embodied the supporters' spirit back home.

With the Phoenix low on numbers while based in a different country, Bartle helped club staff with matchday tasks during their time in Australia and has great memories of that period. Particularly as he was experiencing Wellington's inaugural A-League Women season. Bartle stresses the connections he has formed throughout the football world have been his highlight.

"I have made some great friends within the local Phoenix supporters but have also gotten to know a hell of a lot of decent Australian football supporters," Bartle told FPF.

"Us football supporters are often maligned, but I've been lucky to meet folks like you (Antonis) and Steve, Marty, Todd, and The Ladies League; the list goes on and on. Special recognition for the Wollongong Wolves community who came to support us at WIN Stadium and away."

During Wellington's stay in Australia, Bartle could be found on matchday getting opposing club supporters to sign his banner. He also provided them with small, hand-crafted tokens of appreciation. When asked why Wellington fans are so welcoming, Bartle attributes it to the culture of his homeland.

"I think maybe it's ingrained in Kiwi nature to welcome tourists, and we realise it takes a lot of effort and expense to get over to New Zealand. After COVID, we've had bugger all visitors, and to have a tourist come over that also is a football supporter, it is a bonus!" Bartle said.

Myself (right) and Dean Bartle (left) during Adelaide United's visit to Kogorah to take on the Phoenix in the 2021/22 season, along with the wooden creations (far right) he has been generous enough to gift me and many other fans around the league.

With borders eventually opening, New Zealand's only professional club returned to familiar ground permanently. Bartle and the Australian-based "The Little Corner of Yellow" were left facing a bittersweet conundrum.

"I'm thrilled for the home fans," Bartle added.

"We realised that COVID would one day end, so we made sure we filled our boots and got to as many games as we could while they were “stuck” in Australia. It is kind of sad to think we may only see the teams live 3-4 times a season, but the previous two seasons, we made up for it!"

The Wellington Phoenix's A-League Women team show their appreciation for the Australia-based supporter group "Little Corner of Yellow". (Wellington Phoenix)

After a couple of years of frustrations and one-off returns home by the Phoenix split between Wellington and Auckland, a permanent return home is a relief and the restoration of the pre-COVID norm for Lyne.

"It's great to have our team home again (again!). Imagine not having your team playing in your home country for two years, and when they come home for a couple of games, they choose to play half elsewhere to get a payday! They are back in Wellington, where the Phoenix belongs! For the loyal fans, it means everything." Lyne said.

Lyne in Wellington and Bartle in Sydney have the same advice for fans considering booking a football trip to New Zealand; strong encouragement to take the plunge and get in touch!

"Don't hesitate, just go! Get in touch with some of the Phoenix fans on the socials; I'm sure you’ll be looked after," Bartle stated.

Lyne echoed that statement, keen to see more Australian fans in and around the Phoenix circles.

"Come and enjoy the hospitality of the Yellow Fever before and after the game. Contact us before coming if you need any information on anything Wellington; we are happy to help!" He said.

As a fan of the league, I couldn't help but smile to be in New Zealand as an away fan for the Phoenix's first home game after permanently returning home. In particular, when the long-suffering supporters are upbeat, knowing their side is there to stay.

With all the negativity surrounding the world in 2022, and the league, it was great to witness a good group of people receive the break they deserve. Their passion had returned to home soil without the threat of it being cruelly taken away.

Myself and fellow Adelaide United supporter Michael Laoutaris (middle) spending time with local Wellington fan Daniel Phimphisane (left) before the two sides clashed in Round 1 of season 2022/23.

For me, Wellington away is a unique fixture with deep-rooted connections that extend far beyond the football pitch. We live in two countries where football is shunned in favour of different codes of "football". When Australian and New Zealand A-Leagues fans meet up, a unique connection is almost instantly formed. It's created through an appreciation and respect for the miles travelled and hardships faced by football fans in this part of the world.

Whether a windy day in Wellington, a sunny afternoon in Wollongong, or torrential rain in Kogarah, Phoenix away is a fixture unique for everything away from the football field. Any events occurring on it are a bonus.

If you enjoy travelling for football, I highly suggest you book your tickets for when your side visits Wellington and get in contact with the locals for an unforgettable experience. It will make you start planning a return trip before boarding the plane home!

If you enjoyed this article, click here to read Antonis' recent interview with West Adelaide Head Coach Jim Tsekinis.


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