Life has always been an exercise in ups and downs. Two years ago, Wellington Phoenix defender Tim Payne experienced the latter.
As the Phoenix relocated across the Tasman in an initially unsuccessful attempt to complete the Covid-halted 2019/20 A-League football season, Payne broke quarantine and curfew, commandeering a golf cart with teammate Oli Sail for an ill-advised late-night joy ride. The hijinks ended with a visit to the local police station, a fine and a four-match ban. In the immediate aftermath, Payne cut a forlorn figure, but owned his actions and vowed to do better.
Fast forward two years and the evidence of his personal and professional growth is clear. Payne has now played 65 times for Wellington and is one of the side's leaders. He's been a regular feature this A-League season, missing only the matches that took place while he was helping the All Whites to victory in the Oceania World Cup qualifying tournament. He's a lock in Danny Hay's New Zealand side for next month's intercontinental playoff against Costa Rica and a crucial player in the Phoenix's hopes of progressing deep into the playoffs.
"I don't like to reflect back too much. I like to keep looking forward," says Payne.
"It happened, and I think I've dealt with it pretty well and moved on. It's obviously still disappointing and a little bit of a taint on my name but I think I've shown people – and particularly younger people – that you sometimes mess up and it's how you react that matters. I've tried to do all the right things since then.
"I've had quite a few setbacks, some self-inflicted and others which were out of my control. If I step back and think about it, I guess I'd be quietly positive about how I responded," he said.
Adversity has been a catch cry for the Wellington Phoenix this season, too. If being forced to spend another full season based in Australia wasn't bad enough, they were hit with Covid, injuries to key players, ongoing issues with access to international players and a schedule which at one stage saw them play 12 games in seven weeks.
Under those circumstances, a place in the top six seemed almost fanciful. And yet, the Phoenix will play finals football for a third time in the last four years and continue their footballing adventure for at least one more game.
"Even after a couple of our heavy defeats, it was about getting back on the horse and trying to pick up three points in the next game," Payne said.
"The beauty of football is it gives you another opportunity the next weekend. We just stuck to our processes and how Uffie (coach Ufuk Talay) wanted us to play. At times, the top six seemed more unlikely than at other times, but we just worried about each game as it came."
The Phoenix eventually finished sixth, feeding them into a knockout clash against third-placed Western United on Saturday night. Wellington have historically had the better of one of the A-League's newer sides, winning six of their previous eight meetings, while losing just once.
Payne has played in all eight of those games, but says history will count for nothing.
"You can't look at regular season form or experience against them. It's knockout football and a lot changes in a one-off game when anything can happen. We've played well against them previously, but the slate is clean and we're ready to go for it."
This season marks a seventh finals appearance in the club's 15-year history, the last three of which have ended in the first playoff match. In 2014/15, Melbourne City were 2-0 victors in Wellington, while Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory halted their progress in 2018/19 and 2019/20.
A win in this match would bring the added bonus of a return to Wellington. The semifinals are two-legged affairs, meaning the Phoenix would host Melbourne City on Wednesday night at Sky Stadium before the return match in Melbourne a few days later.
"We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but we'd love to bring finals football back to Wellington and the Yellow Fever faithful," said Payne.
"It would be fantastic for them and us. Having a playoff game back in New Zealand would be the icing on the cake. Hopefully, we can do that."
A-League men's Elimination Final
Wellington Phoenix v Western United
Saturday 14 May, AAMI Park, Melbourne, kick-off 9.45pm