What the hell is happening at Wellington Phoenix?

AC Milan have sacked a manager and suffered the ignomy of gifting Beneveto their only point of the season so far – to a last minute goal by the goalkeeper no less.

Crystal Palace, Everton and West Ham all sacked their managers and turned to the old guard of Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce and David Moyes respectively.
But nobody in world football does a crisis quite like Wellington Phoenix.

The assistant manager and star midfielder have walked out on the club. Performances and results are at an all time low. And if the crisis gets worse it could even threaten the very existence of the club.

Oceania’s only professional team is always on unsteady ground. Playing in the Australian A League means it is the only club in the world not able to qualify for continential competition.

And only a couple of years ago it was close to being kicked out of the league entirely. The A League ummed and ahed about granting the club a new license, with low crowds and commercial clout cited as factors.

Phoenix did get their licence for another ten years and this winter launched a beautiful new badge and the club’s first ever official motto – E Rere Te Keo, or the Rising Call.

Since then Phoenix’s brave new dawn has disintegrated at an alarming rate.

The club sits rock bottom of the A League and has only won one game all season under new manager Darije Kalezic.

Now an internal struggle has seen assistant coach Rado Vidosic leave the club midway through the season. To make matters worse he has taken his son, and Phoenix’s second-top scorer, Dario Vidosic with him.

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The clash between assistant and manager was made clear by general manager David Dome, who said: “Over recent weeks it’s become apparent not everyone has been on the same page and the playing group has begun to be affected by this uncertainty.”

In the foreground of internal squabbles a run of ten games has returned just six points and include several lost leads. After losing 3-2 to Melbourne Victory from a position of 2-0 up.

Phoenix had previously lost a three-goal lead in a 3-3 home draw with Brisbane Roar.

After the Melbourne game coach Kalezic blasted the team, saying: “So what happens here now, we don’t have a team will 11 to 15 winners. Because if you have winners, this can never happen.”

Tellingly, Dario Vidosic disagreed. In an interview shortly after he asserted the team were winners without outright contradicting his manager. It seems the cracks were beginning to show early on.

A weak playing squad is now down two players after the club also released ineffectual marquee signing Gui Finkler when he left the stadium after being substituted in the 55th minute of a 4-1 loss to Central Coast Mariners in November.

Crisis? You bet.

Phoenix will be part of the A League until 2026 but as the current crisis escalates the very future of the club is a rumble in the background.

Phoenix do not have the worst crowds in the A League but they also don’t have the comfort of being an Australian team with the protections that brings.

While the likes of Newcastle Jets are given extra leway and time to bail themselves out of poor league finishes and financial disasters, the same courtesy would not be extended to Phoenix, who are very much viewed as an outsider by the ruling FFA.

When the 10-year licence was granted FFA chief executive David Gallop was not particularly welcoming. He spoke of ‘key performance indicators’ that Phoenix had to meet.
“We put in some benchmarks, some hurdles if you like, that will see the Phoenix grow and add value to the A-League,” he said. “It’s taken months of negotiations but I think it’s a win-win for both sides.”

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He also spoke of Phoenix ‘squatting’ on a license. This was two years ago. Since then it is hard ot believe Phoenix have met any of the criteria laid out.

Dwindling attendances as performances plummet and four points between Phoenix and the next worst side in the A League means scrutiny of the club will be intense. Embarrassments like your assistant coach walking out after just 10 games will not go unnoticed in the corridors of the FFA.

Other teams – South Melbourne in particular – are keen to gain an A League place. There is talk of expansion by two teams and more of a second tier in Australian football.

The former could protect Phoenix for now. The latter could spell the end for a team who would likely be first to be relegated.

Phoenix currently travel 5,500 kilometres to play Perth Glory in the ‘Distance Derby’ (they lost 1-0 this year). A second tier with lower crowds and less interesting games would see attendances fall and the viability of a professional team come under scrutiny.

In pre-season Phoenix quashed any fears over a name change to NZ Phoenix and reiterated its strong roots in the most football-oriented city in the country.
The club is a source of pride for Oceania and has been competitive in the A League for several years.

But recent off-field events and poor form are casting a shadow over the club – and it is one they need to pull themselves out of quickly. Not just for a better-looking league table but for the future of the club as a whole.

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