After more than a year stuck playing in Australia, today the Wellington Phoenix finally made it back. Alex Braae was at Sky Stadium to see sporting perfection unfold.
Slowly marching towards The Old Bailey pub on Lambton Quay, the phalanx of football supporters roared into song. Their voices as one might have been intimidating – they may even have looked intimidating to any away fans in Wellington, but for the lyrics being belted out.
“Hold me in your arms, don’t let me go, I want to stay forever. Closer each day … home and away.”
It was both a lament and a joyful celebration. For 433 long days, the supporters of the Wellington Phoenix haven’t been able to hold their team close. They’ve been stuck playing in Australia, with closed borders making fixtures in the capital impossible.
Now they were finally home, and the fans showed their devotion. Even though the fixture was scheduled with just a few weeks’ notice, they flew from all over the country to be there. In the process, team and crowd combined to rub it in the faces of everyone on both sides of the Tasman who doubted them.
A crowd of 24,105 people was a record for an A-League game this season. It was an all-time record regular season crowd. It demolished the paltry totals Super Rugby Trans-Tasman has been getting. One man who’d been to the Hurricanes the night before described it as “candyfloss”, derisively talking about how the stadium had resorted to a kiss-cam to generate excitement.
Their day started early. Some were out in their shirts in the streets at nine in the morning. A pub crawl was the preferred route for many, especially those who had come from elsewhere. The last stop before the game was the Backbencher. Out the back, in clumps around tables filling up with half-eaten chips and cigarette butts, they talked up their chances. Stickers were handed out, celebrating the Rainbow Fever cause, and commemorating the World Cup triumphs of the All Whites in 1982.
A Northlander had come over from Wollongong, where the Phoenix have been based in the offseason. He made wooden tokens with a loving depiction of “Nixie”, the Phoenix mascot, burned into them. He was accompanied by Tom, also known as Sax Boy, so-called because of the way he plays the crowd through the day.
Even more remarkably, it all took place on a glorious autumn afternoon, with barely a breeze to be felt. And the Phoenix made the most of it all by tearing the visitors apart.
Going into the game, there was no shortage of compelling storylines. How would local wonderkid Ben Waine go in his first really big home game? How would the crowd react to “the snake” – former coach Mark Rudan – who left the Phoenix for Western United and took talismanic defender Andrew Durante with him? Would there be friction over proud Israeli striker Tomer Hemed, whose displays of that pride have caused recent controversy?
It's been a while but I think we all know what the 80th minute means for the @WgtnPhoenixFC fans 🕺💃
— A-League (@ALeague) May 22, 2021
The thing that binds these stories together is that they’re all fundamentally about characters. Of course they’re also professional athletes, even if the pay of the average Phoenix player is pretty similar to that of a policy analyst. But football is a sport that lends itself to simple human expression, and to capturing the spirit of a culture.
So what do the Phoenix capture about Wellington? Beautiful, glorious, triumphant mediocrity. Outsiders don’t always understand the deeply rooted inferiority complex Wellingtonians have about sport, and how much the expectation of defeat is part of the psyche. It perhaps explains why Phoenix fan culture is so eccentric, with a thin layer of irony wrapped around their traditions, like the massed ripping-off of shirts if their team is leading coming into the final stretch.
To many observers, this has been a highly competitive and successful season for the Phoenix – certainly one of the better ones in recent memory. And yet looking at the points table, the best case scenario is scraping into the playoffs, no doubt to lose in the first round. But they’d look bloody good doing it.
And the fight for survival has defined who the Phoenix are, and the place they hold in the hearts of Wellingtonians. The club really should have folded when it turned out founder Terry Serepisos was in some irregular financial circumstances. The Australian Football authorities tried for years to kick the Phoenix out, convinced they’d never be worth the bother. They could easily have gone into hiatus rather than base themselves in Australia.
So now, every season, every goal, every day of existence is a gift. Good fortune certainly played a part in the first goal. Clayton Lewis, an honest trier from St Pat’s College who couldn’t quite make it work in the third tier of English football, fired a speculative shot from a distance. It hit a defender, wrong-footed the goalkeeper, and bobbled over the line.
An emotional Andrew Durante thanks the @WgtnPhoenixFC fans post-game 👏
— A-League (@ALeague) May 22, 2021
With the lead established, the Phoenix began to play with more comfort. But the tension in the crowd remained. Surely, a team with the word Wellington in their name would find a way to screw it all up.
Early in the second half, the dam burst. Reno Piscopo surged into the box, found space, and smashed it home. He led his teammates on a wild sprint towards the corner flag, just in front of the bay where the Yellow Fever, the most long-serving and loyal Phoenix fans stand every game. They screamed at a sea of yellow and black, and the sea screamed back.
In the end, the storylines resolved themselves. Tomer Hemed was given a warm ovation as he was subbed off after the game was won. Durante – on the verge of retirement after a career that included eleven years in Wellington – was booed every time he touched the ball. But as he completed a slow lap of honour afterwards, the Yellow Fever sang a song of appreciation for him. Only Mark Rudan finished the game unforgiven, walking off to the sound of hissing.
The Phoenix players spent a long time signing autographs for the faithful afterwards – they may even still be there now, such was the demand. It capped the rarest of evenings that sports fans might get to experience – an event that makes good on absolutely everything that was promised.
With a crowd that size, there’s no doubt casuals will have been converted. Because when you feel the collective intake of breath as a shot is lined up, and are hit by the percussive roar of a goal, how could you not fall in love with the beautiful game?
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