The Wellington Phoenix are coming to the end of their third extended stint in Australia since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting border restrictions which made playing out of New Zealand untenable.
They’ve played 59 of their last 63 matches in all competitions on Australian soil, including 25 of the 29 where they were supposed to be the home team.
Their four matches in New Zealand took place in May last year and April this year and they have one more in sight before their two-year ordeal is over – a potential semifinal next Wednesday at Sky Stadium in Wellington.
Because remarkably, after all they’ve had to deal with, they made the top six and qualified for the A-League Men finals series, where they will play Western United in an elimination final on Saturday night in Melbourne.
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Win that, and they’ll be on their way home to play Melbourne City in the first leg of a home-and-away tie, which would be the biggest football match hosted in New Zealand in years.
Vice-captain Oli Sail says getting to this point was “a big psychological and emotional roller-coaster”.
To start with, Phoenix players and staff headed away for their third big stint in Australia, after finishing the 2019-20 season in Sydney and spending the 2020-21 season in Wollongong. Hopes that trans-Tasman travel would be a reality by the end of January were then crushed by the Omicron variant.
Only five Phoenix players and staff have avoided having Covid-19 this season. The virus wreaked havoc with the fixture list, as did postponements due to bad weather. As a result, the Phoenix had a run of five matches in the space of 14 days, then another of seven in the space of 22.
Potentially as a result of the busy schedule, they’ve also had a lengthy list of injuries, and over the past month, they’ve been surviving more than thriving, grinding out the wins they needed with increasingly makeshift lineups and a more defensive approach than usual.
“The beauty of having such a young squad is that they’re blissfully unaware and somewhat naive about the situation around them,” says Sail, who is only 26, but is older than two-thirds of his team-mates.
“They don’t comprehend a lot of the external pressures, which is brilliant because that’s something that [coach Ufuk Talay] likes to focus on.
“He talks about the fact that the pressure is only internal and that makes dealing with everything quite a bit easier, because this group has an amazing ability to brush things off and just move on and just focus on the next task and I think that’s allowed us to achieve what we’ve achieved.”
Given how good they’ve gone, does Talay ever wonder where the Phoenix might have been without Covid-19?
While they’ve battled their way into the finals series this season, they’ve only briefly and sporadically caught fire on the pitch, albeit for understandable reasons.
The blows began in pre-season, when captain Steven Taylor announced his shock retirement, continued when they had to wait until mid-January for key foreign signings Gael Sandoval and Scott Wootton, and reached their peak when captain Alex Rufer suffered a season-ending knee injury in March.
That they’ve become used to coping with adversity no doubt helped, in a season where every team had to cope with Covid-19 cases, postponements, and the resulting messy schedule – factors that went a long way to levelling the playing field in the Phoenix’s favour.
But before the pandemic started, in Talay’s first season at the club, the Phoenix were playing as well as they ever have and looked like a genuine title contender, reaching a level they haven’t since.
When that campaign resumed after a four-month hiatus early in the pandemic, they weren’t the same team and were eliminated in the first round of the finals. Their fighting spirit was evident the following season, when they finished with an 11-game unbeaten run and missed the playoffs only on goal difference, but that campaign and this one have been severely compromised.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” was Talay’s response when asked if he ever wonders what might have been. “Yes or no, I don’t know. Would it have been good? Maybe. Would it have been bad? Not sure.”
What’s been the hardest thing about the Phoenix’s situation over the past two years?
Phoenix football operations manager Shaun Gill speaks from experience when he says it’s being away from family and unable to help when things go wrong.
“With the football stuff you muddle your way through, and you work your way through, and you put your plans in place, and you just deal with what needs to happen. But those moments where it’s not going quite to plan at home, that’s the toughest challenge for me.
“I think some of the stuff that people don’t see, the behind the scenes stuff [is tough]. It’s grandparents passing away, or it’s a family pet dying or something like that – issues back at home that you’re just not there to be a part of. I think that’s where most of the players and staff probably feel that they’re so far away, in those moments.”
There’s a degree to which the lives of the Phoenix players and staff over the past two years are impossible to explain to those who haven’t been through a similar experience.
Sail says that assessment is “spot on” because “it’s so hard to define”.
“You find yourself in moments where it doesn’t seem to affect you at all, and playing games in front of no-one has almost become second nature to us now, so little things like that don’t necessarily affect us every week but when you compound it, it does start to weigh on you.”
While there have been high mental, physical, and financial costs to pay, the Phoenix are arguably set to emerge from their two-year odyssey in a stronger position than they were when it began.
Partly because structural changes to the A-Leagues have taken away the need for them to have their participation licence renewed by Football Australia, which had at times been a hard taskmaster, but also because they’ve made the sacrifices they’ve had to with few complaints and everyone involved has grown closer.
“I remember the period there where we were ‘squatting on the licence’ and there were calls for the club to be basically kicked out of the league,” says Gill, “but I think in the last two and a half years, the club has won a lot of friends across this side of the Tasman.
“I think that was probably evident in the Melbourne Victory fans coming out the other night with the Melbourne City game [where a Phoenix win would have handed Victory the Premiers Plate]
“That wasn’t necessarily just because they wanted to come support us, but you do get that sense over here that we’re probably starting to become most Australians’ second favourite team after their own.
“I think this period has made the club stronger and probably put us in a better light across the side of the Tasman.”
The Phoenix started the week being cheered on by Victory supporters (to no avail) then spent the rest of it training at the facilities at Macquarie University usually occupied by perennial front-runners Sydney FC, who finished outside the top six.
Even with a return to normalcy just a few matches away, new obstacles were still being thrown in their path – in this case their usual base this season, Valentine Sports Park, was in need of repair work that couldn’t be put off any longer.
Finding a new training venue at short notice was just the latest in a long list of logistical challenges Gill has had to overcome in his organisational role.
He picked out a ‘home’ loss to the Wanderers in round three this season as a particularly low point – because it felt far from a home game with the Red and Black Army filling the stands and singing loudly and left him thinking: “Oh my god, here we go again”.
Things came full circle when the Phoenix played Western Sydney last Thursday and claimed the three points they needed to secure their top six place without relying on other results.
“There was a sense of relief that we actually got that result and managed to get into the playoffs, but also a great sense of achievement,” says Gill.
“To have that final whistle go and know that we were in the playoffs, it was great for us, but it was also great for everyone back in New Zealand that’s been through what they have been through with us away in Australia.”
In a season of peaks and troughs, it was the highest point yet. But with their injury worries largely behind them and an opponent in Western United who they’ve lost to just once in nine meetings, there’s plenty of reason to think they could yet go higher.