Trading places At Sir John Kirwan's urging, political writer John Armstrong delves into sport as Wynne Gray dips into politics.

Okay, Gareth Morgan. It pains me to say it, but you were right after all. It is just the way you went about it which still grates even though many months have passed since you rubbished a fair chunk of fans of the Wellington Phoenix.

You were correct in arguing improving standards of play in the Hyundai A-League meant that sooner rather than later the Phoenix would have to switch from "kick and chase" to a more "possession-based" style of soccer where players pass the ball backwards and forwards to one another until they spot some gap in their opponents' defence.

It just seemed that experimenting with such a fundamental tactical change mid-season and without the players capable of playing that sort of game was not a terribly bright idea. More so given the-then coach, Ricki Herbert, did not subscribe to possession soccer and had anyway lost the confidence of his existing players.

In questioning Morgan's sudden conversion to something he mislabelled as "total football", Phoenix fans were described as "pathetic".


We may be pathetically grateful that Morgan and other members of the consortium which now owns the single New Zealand-based A-League franchise continue to pour money into this bottomless pit.

But we are not pathetic, though powerless maybe. You know you are at the bottom of the food chain when you look at the fast food on offer at Wellington's Westpac stadium. The chips - overpriced and underdone - are as limp and mushy as David Shearer's brief leadership of the Labour Party. The hotdogs look like reconstituted particle board - and taste little better.

Mike Moore used to say the voters were always right even when they were wrong. The same applies to fans. They do not like being told they know nothing about soccer even if they know nothing about soccer.

That was last season. Morgan has since gone strangely quiet on the subject of the Phoenix. With the club's owners wielding their new broom, it is what happens on the pitch that will do the talking this season.

Quite a lot of talking. Only the dire Melbourne Heart sit between the Phoenix and the bottom of the A-League table. The record of no wins, four draws and four losses has the Phoenix marooned in last season's wooden spoon territory. To repeat that feat for the second year running just does not bear thinking about.

No one is. There is instead a palpable sense of renewed purpose and direction which was missing from the latter part of Herbert's reign.

Much of this is down to the appointment of Ernie Merrick, who coached the Melbourne Victory to two A-League titles. This level-headed Scot seems to have the knack of getting the best out of established players while not being afraid to blood emerging talent.

Although this season's results so far might suggest otherwise, the Phoenix have become noticeably more resilient under Merrick's watch, fighting back and taking control of the game after going behind when the team would have previously wilted. Above all, ball retention has lifted markedly. The real measure is the Australian television commentators whose patronising tone has shifted to one of respect.


It is pretty clear that Merrick and the club's owners are working to a longer-term plan in terms of squad development, blending experience and youth rather than punting on building a winning team through hiring journeymen from offshore on short-term contracts.

The hardcore fans can probably live with waiting for Merrick's work to bear real fruit. It is the less dedicated soccer followers that the club must worry about. There is an unfortunate truism which afflicts all sports other than rugby union and netball. New Zealanders love winners. But when the winning stops, they stop watching. Given the costs of running a professional team - especially one required to fly to Australia every other week - it does not take a chartered accountant to work out that current crowd numbers at home games do not bode well for the club's long-term future. But I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong, Gareth.