A year to remember

A LOT can happen in a year – just ask anyone involved with Wellington Phoenix FC.

A LOT can happen in a year – just ask anyone involved with Wellington Phoenix FC

Twelve months ago to the day (Wednesday), professional football in New Zealand was rescued when Wellington property developer Terry Serepisos and Century City Football secured a three-year sub-licence to run a team in the Hyundai A-League – Australasia-s premier professional football competition.

After the Football Kingz (2005/06) and the New Zealand Knights (2006/07) imploded, it looked certain that Football Federation Australia would pull the pin on a professional New Zealand-based club in the Hyundai A-League.

But a small group of people passionate about football in New Zealand kept hopes alive, working tirelessly to convince the FFA that a professional club could survive across the ditch. However, those hopes began to fade as the enormity of the task became apparent.

Enter Serepisos.

With his considerable financial and business clout, the Wellington property developer became New Zealand football-s “White Knight” when he stumped up a huge sum of money to secure the capital-s only fully professional sporting franchise outside rugby. Serepisos had single-handedly thrown football in New Zealand a lifeline.

But there was a staggering amount of work to do. The then unnamed club had no players, no management staff, no sponsors no training ground or gear, no playing venue and no fan base. Then there was the need to turn around perceptions following the fallout of the Kingz and Knights.

There was, however, the unwavering determination of Serepisos and coach Ricki Herbert – the first signing by the club – to make it work. And work it has.

A year on, Wellington Phoenix FC has – like its mythical namesake – truly risen from the ashes. No one would have predicted the club would achieve so much in its first year, especially given what had happened in Auckland. But the change of landscape worked wonders – Wellington embraced the new team.

A total of 116,833 people passed through the turnstiles at the Phoenix-s 10 home games at Westpac Stadium, with the club twice breaking record attendances for professional football matches in New Zealand. In Yellow Fever the Phoenix have the league-s best supporters- group.

Then there was the David Beckham phenomenon.

Serepisos had pulled off the seemingly impossible when football-s global superstar swept into the Kiwi capital with his Los Angeles Galaxy teammates. The nation was swept up in a football frenzy. Becks-appeal saw almost 32,000 people – a record for any football match in New Zealand – pile into Westpac Stadium to watch the Phoenix take on the brilliant Briton and his American pals.

Football was well and truly back on the New Zealand sporting radar.

Serepisos is still staggered by how well things have gone for the Phoenix in their first year.

“It-s been a lot bigger than I ever thought it would be and I-m immensely proud of what the club has achieved on and off the playing field. The fact that the city has embraced it the way it has and the exposure the city has gained from it is incredible.”

Despite the considerable expense he had taken on, Serepisos had no regrets about taking ownership of the club.

“I-ve got no regrets whatsoever. It was never about the money – it was about ensuring New Zealand had a credible, professional football team and that Wellington would benefit significantly as a result. Those were my goals all along, and we-ve certainly achieved them.

“What-s all the more amazing to me is that all of this happened in just one year. Personally, I-d like to thank everybody who has been part of this and to thank the people of Wellington for making it possible.”

Serepisos said he was in the football game for the long haul.

“Absolutely. We-re building something here and that will take time. I-m definitely in this long-term.”

Chief executive Tony Pignata said the Phoenix had exceeded expectations.

“All the comments coming from the FFA have been universally positive. We had an annual review in Sydney last week and the FFA was rapt with everything.

“Sure, we were a little bit disappointed about where we finished on the ladder – we felt we played better than that. But, nevertheless, year one was about laying the foundations and we did that. Year two will be about ensuring we perform even better on and off the field.”

As they do for any sporting organisation, it was the fans that made the difference.

“The people of Wellington need to be congratulated for their support. Yellow Fever has been superb in creating an incredible atmosphere at games – crowds of 14,000 sing and chant and sound more like 30,000. On the membership front we had more than 2500, which was far more than anyone was expecting us to get. Hopefully we can double that figure in season two because more members mean a more viable and stable club.”

Pignata said the Phoenix had buried the stigma associated with past New Zealand-based Hyundai A-League clubs.

“We dispelled any hint of doubt that we could do it. We-re not going to be compared to the New Zealand Knights any more – we-re going to be compared to what we did in our first season. It-s notable that the Phoenix will be the first and only New Zealand-based club to have a second season in the league. I think that speaks volumes about how things have gone for us and about what the future holds.”