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What we learned from the Football United tour

Wellington+Phoenix+v+West+Ham+United+Football+o5JY4ufkJ1wxAll square, then. Two wins to the Premier League, two wins to the A-League, and the feel-good Football United tour to New Zealand draws to a close. Newcastle impressed, Sydney improved, Wellington stunned and West Ham – well, West Ham showed up, at least. But what can we really take from a quadrangular pre-season tournament in little old New Zealand? I’ll take a look:

‘Friendlies’ have different meanings in Australia and England

A tired journalist might fall back on the line that one side ‘wanted it more’, but that was demonstrably the case on Wednesday night when Wellington scored their historic win over West Ham in Auckland. While promoters would rather use the term ‘exhibition’, West Ham had to remind their excitable hosts that it was only the pre-season and they had kindly volunteered their very expensive shinbones for a pair of friendly matches. Ironically, Winston Reid’s tirade at the referee after Sydney FC’s third goal at Westpac Stadium wasn’t the type of behaviour you’d expect to see from a man who was in town for just a few friendlies, but by then they’d been beaten by two teams from Australasia, so the All Whites captain could be forgiven for expressing a moment or two of frustration.

The clock is ticking on Auckland and Dunedin as A-League destinations…

Mid-week football is mid-week football but Auckland and Dunedin are really pushing their luck if they want to host more A-League football in the future. A crowd of under 10,000 at the country’s most excellent but misplaced facility is simply not good enough, even if it was a freezing Tuesday in July and the southerners had no home team to support. Auckland’s population will mean it continues to host Phoenix matches (but it shouldn’t), and Wednesday’s turnout ought to finally quieten those who still harbour hopes that an A-League franchise could return to New Zealand’s biggest city.

…but there’s still hope for Wellington

They’ve endured a tough couple of years in the capital. Without finals football or, really, anything resembling a finals run to speak of, Phoenix crowds have shrunk very much to the hard-core. It was a relief, then, to see the sun shine on Saturday and the thousands of fans who subsequently flocked to the Cake Tin for the double header. The Phoenix can only hope that at least some liked what they saw, and will come again in October. It was nice to be reminded that when all the stars align, Westpac Stadium can indeed generate an atmosphere.

Michael McGlinchey’s contractual status is a joke

‘Free McGlinchey’, the Yellow Fever sang. The All Whites midfielder stood with his ‘teammates’ in a Phoenix tracksuit watching West Ham versus Sydney but his name was, along with Andy Carroll, perhaps the most notable omission from any of the tour’s match-day squads. Ernie Merrick used his press conferences to lash out at the FFA’s failure to organise McGlinchey’s contractual status, and so he should. Given the way Albert Riera and Alex Rodriguez played in Wellington’s engine room, and the recent signing of Dutchman Roly Bonevacia, McGlinchey might yet come to rue the lost opportunity to shine against a couple of Premier League sides – that is, of course, if his transfer is ever finalised.

We may never see Paul Ifill in the A-League again

Football fans willing to fork out for a tour pass were happy to see and hear Paul Ifill again during the tour but it wasn’t quite in the way they’d hoped. Ifill fronted Sky Sports’ coverage of the event and was a welcome addition to the commentary box, but is still to have played since injuring himself late last year against the Sky Blues. It was heartening to hear him tell viewers that he still holds hopes of playing A-League football again and that it will be ‘Phoenix or nothing’, but Ernie Merrick has quietly gone about building a squad which doesn’t rely on the recovery of his all-time leading scorer. Still, the muffled cry of delight you could hear through the microphone when Andrew Durante nodded home against West Ham indicates that Ifill’s passion for the club might be such that the sun has yet to set on his glittering Phoenix career.

Merrick has uncovered a few more gems in Thomas Doyle and Alex Gorrin

One of the biggest changes in the Phoenix’s culture since Welnix took charge has been the way the club has been able to promote young talent. While this has had both its positives and negatives so far under Ernie Merrick, last week proved that the club has found a few more fresh faces; though from markedly different pathways. Thomas Doyle shone in the previously shallow left-back position and Alejandro Gorrin – now to be known as Alex Rodriguez (not A-Rod, please) – capped a fine debut with a smartly taken goal against West Ham. The domestic ASB Premiership and Sunderland’s youth academy are, quite literally, worlds apart but last week there appeared to be some kind of neat symmetry between the two.


I have no idea how Sydney FC will play this year

Tuesday saw one of Sydney FC’s more forgettable performances, registering just a handful of shots in a 4-0 drubbing against Newcastle. But, come Saturday, the Sky Blues seemed an altogether different prospect, looking dangerous on the counter-attack to put away a disappointing West Ham. Corey Gameiro could have scored more than his brace, Alex Brosque looked sharp in attack and all this without even mentioning the name ‘Shane Smeltz’. It remains to be seen which of Graham Arnold’s sides will front up during the regular season, but if referees continue to overlook handballs like Terry Antonis’ before Gameiro scored their third at the Cake Tin, then fans could be forgiven a dash of optimism as the regular season draw nearer.


Half-time entertainment is hit-and-miss, but mostly miss

It speaks volumes about the quality of entertainment during the break at a Phoenix game that Nixie performing the chicken dance has become a mainstay. Wellington’s mascot was at it again on Sunday and the Topp Twins were in attendance to keep fans occupied while the teams were in the sheds. It’s not quite as good as the classic fan-shot-from-the-halfway-line and not as frighteningly bad as a performance by Dane Rumble was in 2012 but it was a welcome middle ground. The sooner fans are left in charge of half time entertainment in the A-League, the better.

We’re no closer to knowing where West Ham and Newcastle will finish this EPL season

It’s fair to say that the two underdogs cared more about the results of the tournament than their older brothers did. For the Premier League outfits, perhaps the trip down under was more of an exercise in match fitness and shirt sales than of anything else, and it’s easy to forget that both West Ham and Newcastle played two matches within four days of flying halfway across the world. At the end of the day, while the Magpies won both their games and the Hammers suffered back-to-back losses, but there’s almost no reason to believe that this will translate to Premier League performances when the competition begins next month.

Pay-per-view football should not become a thing

Nobody’s arguing that it’s cheap to fly a pair of Premier League sides across the globe, but the decision to offer Football United tour matches on a pay-per-view platform was, no matter what the cost, unwise. Given that football struggles to attract interest in the New Zealand sporting market – one in which rugby league, rugby union and the Commonwealth Games have been dominating recently – pricing fans out of the tour was in bad taste. Ticket holders, for example, shouldn’t have been forced to fork out or fly across the country to watch the country’s only professional side mid-week.

This might have been a one-off

Before he relinquished ownership in 2012, Terry Serepisos actually promised Phoenix fans that they’d see an EPL team in Wellington and he (sort of) lived up to his promise last weekend. However, as mentioned above, this was a very costly exercise for the Phoenix and one which the financial cost might be tough to bear. If a crowd of 30,000 isn’t enough to break even, then promoters would be wise to exercise caution in organising another tour like this in the near future. The next step would be to lure one of the Premier League’s ‘big four’ – or is it five, now? – down under, but then the price tag is only going to grow. Football fans in New Zealand might have to wait a while before another week like this.

Photo Credit: Phil Walter/Getty

About the author

avatarJoe is a sports journalist for Goal Weekly, and a writer for Ultimate A-League.

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  • The Godfather of 31 C Dixon

    Impressive piece of Journalism. Well constructed article with plenty of points to ponder