Biggest crowd ever at a local-league game see Herbert's side surprise the champions

This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald on August 27, 2007. It is the first Wellington Phoenix match report.

Wellington 2
Melbourne 2

At 0-2 after an hour against defending A-League champions Melbourne Victory, the sceptics were getting ready to rubbish the Wellington Phoenix as nothing better than the New Zealand Knights reincarnated.

Thirty minutes on, at 2-2 and with two late near-misses, the record 14,421 fans at Westpac Stadium - and many more away from it - were convinced this team are a cut above their predecessors and are capable of making an impact in season three of the league.

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Stage fright and nerves were all too apparent in the opening minutes as the Phoenix stuttered their way through the uncertainty many had feared would eventuate.

Seventeen minutes in - when Victory captain Kevin Muscat booted home a penalty after Brazilian defender Cleberson had been struck on the hand by a shot from Danny Allsopp - those anxieties quickly mounted.

Stage fright and nerves were all too apparent in the opening minutes as the Phoenix stuttered their way through the uncertainty many had feared would eventuate.

Allsopp had another chance when, five minutes later, he pounced on a weak Steven Old back pass but fired over Glen Moss' goal.

The pressure continued to build as the visitors sensed they could tear the hesitant Phoenix apart. But in failing to turn half-chances into goals, they let the home side play their way back into the match.


Wellington Phoenix captain Ross Aloisi and striker Daniel celebrate Shane Smeltz's goal. Photo / Mark Mitchell

That fight-back would have been more profitable had Daniel converted from the spot after Allsopp handled in trying to clear the only corner the Phoenix won in the first half.

Instead, Daniel pounded the ball on to the underside of the crossbar and then headed the rebound over the goal.

The visitors again held sway early in the second half, and when Allsopp capped a good move with an easy finish for 2-0, the fans feared the worst.

But, no. This was a team who had decided the best means of defence was to attack. In a stirring rally, they stretched the Victory to breaking point. With Felipe on to join Daniel and Cleberson, the Brazilian trio made the stage their own.

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In the 80th minute a Michael Ferrante corner was back-headed by a Victory player to Daniel who, at the far post, headed home.


Phoenix captain Ross Aloisi (right) and Melbourne Victory's Carlos Hernandez contest a high ball. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Four minutes later Tony Lochhead, overlapping on the left, fired a great long ball to the far post from where Shane Smeltz headed over rangy goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos and into the Victory goal.

In stoppage time they should have won it. Substitute Royce Brownlie hit the post and despaired as the ball rolled away. Then, with the gaping goal in front of him, Smeltz headed over.

There were jittery moments for sure. But they were, in the end, overshadowed by the positives as Ricki Herbert's side showed enough to suggest they will be in this journey for a long time.

"We have got a special mentality, a never-say-die attitude,'' captain Ross Aloisi said after his first serious outing with his new club. "You can't take anything away from Melbourne. They are the champions.''

The positives in the end outweighed the negatives and left the biggest crowd ever to turn out for a local-league soccer match in this country well satisfied and ready to come back for more.

Herbert, too, took real encouragement from the manner in which his players refused to lie down.

But, in a reality check, he admitted the team have to be better organised, especially on defence.

The positives in the end outweighed the negatives and left the biggest crowd ever to turn out for a local-league soccer match in this country well satisfied and ready to come back for more.


Phoenix supporters jubilant after their side scored against Melbourne Victory. Photo / Mark Mitchell