If evidence was needed of the significant transformation in Ben Sigmund’s game, it came in his most recent performance. With the Phoenix 1-0 down against Newcastle and chasing the game, an attacking ball was played by the Jets into the front third. Sigmund brought the ball down on his chest, beat a would-be tackler and then played a short, accurate pass to Roly Bonevacia. From there came Nathan Burns’s equaliser. Sigmund also played the pass to Bonevacia which led to Roy Krishna’s decisive third goal. The Phoenix were on their way to another three points.
In the past, Sigmund would have booted or headed that ball upfield. Cleared his lines. Made sure. If in doubt, get it out. All good mantras for defenders when danger is threatening, but not the best way to turn defence into attack. It might be drawing a slightly long bow to call him a ball-playing centre-back, but his first instinct now is to pass when in possession. It turns out, he’s not too bad at it. The effect Ernie Merrick has had on Sigmund is, quite simply, remarkable – but more on that soon.
As Sigmund prepares to become the Phoenix’s third sesqui-centurion, it’s easy to forget how close football came to losing him. In his early twenties, he nearly gave the game away, preferring instead to play social rugby with his mates at the Sumner club. A call-up to the All Whites in 2007 was the catalyst for him to give professional football one last shot. Following a standout display in their 2-2 draw with Wales, Sigmund – who was at that time playing as an amateur for Auckland City – harassed and harangued national coach Ricki Herbert for a shot with the Phoenix. Herbert finally yielded and signed him on a one-year contract (as probably the club’s lowest-paid player) in April 2008. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s been anything but smooth sailing all the way to 150. When Sigmund arrived for pre-season training in mid-2008, he wasn’t even allowed to join the first-team squad. Instead, he was put through a rigorous fitness regime to drop some weight and lift his aerobic capacity. Furthermore, there were already three centre-backs ahead of him in the queue – new skipper Andrew Durante and experienced Aussies Jon McKain and Karl Dodd. Indeed, it wasn’t until round four that he finally made his A-League debut as a late substitute in a goal-less draw against the Central Coast Mariners. A week later, he again featured from the bench, this time for just five minutes, in the 1-0 loss away at Perth.
The big break was to come the following weekend against Sydney FC. With Durante ill and McKain unavailable, Sigmund partnered Dodd in central defence and was a stand-out in a 2-1 home win. It was the first real demonstration of what the Phoenix had gained by signing Sigmund – a lion-hearted defender who paid no heed to the reputations of the likes of Brosque, Corica, Aloisi and Bridge and simply set about nullifying their impact. Goals to Shane Smeltz and Tim Brown gave the Phoenix a famous victory that day and Sigmund’s Phoenix career was up and running.
In November 2008, he signed a fresh two-year contract and featured in all but six matches in his debut season – not bad for a guy who was supposedly there just to make up the numbers. The 2009/10 season started with Sigmund in central defence alongside Durante with McKain in a defensive midfield role. In the first game of the new campaign, he scored his first Phoenix goal against the Newcastle Jets in a 3-2 away loss.
On the 14th of November 2009, Sigmund was a key figure on the most marvellous, memorable night Westpac Stadium has ever seen as the All Whites beat Bahrain 1-0 to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup. On the right side of a back three with skipper Ryan Nelsen and veteran Ivan Vicelich alongside, Sigmund was typically courageous, and it was his foray down the right wing with ball at feet that led to the corner from which Rory Fallon scored. As the clock wound down and the Bahrainis mounted wave after wave of attack, Sigmund was called on time and again to repel them. At fulltime, New Zealand’s goal remained unbreached and the All Whites were going to South Africa.
Things could hardly have been better; Sigmund was off to a World Cup and was living the dream as a Phoenix footballer. But he was about to enter one of the most challenging times in his life, both professionally and personally.
Following the excitement of the Bahrain game, Sigmund returned to the Phoenix to recommence A-League battle. Shortly afterwards, Melbourne Victory came to town, with a late goal from Roddy Vargas denying the Phoenix a win. But what transpired afterwards dealt a hammer blow to Sigmund’s season, with TV replays catching him connecting with a punch to the jaw of Victory defender Adrian Leijer during a penalty area scuffle. Sigmund was suspended for three matches and by the time he returned, McKain had entrenched himself alongside Durante in central defence. There was no room for Sigmund who hardly featured for the rest of the season as the Phoenix went within one game of the Grand Final.
At around the same time, the All Whites were preparing for the World Cup and accomplished defenders Tommy Smith and Winston Reid had entered the fray. The arrival of such top quality players was a severe threat to Sigmund’s place in the national side and while he started the final warm-up match against Australia in Melbourne before the side jetted off to South Africa, Reid and Smith were chosen ahead of him at the World Cup. Sigmund spent all three games watching from the bench, never once taking the field.
Furthermore, just one week before the team departed for South Africa, Sigmund’s wife Deanna had given birth to the couple’s first child, Cameron, after just 24 weeks of pregnancy. The little man weighed just 715 grams and Deanna’s engagement ring could fit easily around his wrist. Cameron spent four months in the wonderful Neonatal Unit at Wellington Hospital and is now a normal four-year old with a cheeky grin and his parents’ zest for life. But 2010 had been an extremely taxing year mentally for Sigmund, both on and off the field.
McKain departed in the off-season so the 2010/11 A-League campaign started with Sigmund firmly cemented alongside Durante at the heart of the Phoenix’s defence. In early December 2010, the Phoenix played an A-League match for the first time in Sigmund’s hometown of Christchurch, which coincidentally was also his fiftieth A-League start. A massive crowd turned out to watch them play Adelaide and they were to witness one of the most remarkable climaxes to a game in the club’s history. With time up and the scores locked at 1-1, the Phoenix won a left-wing corner. Marco Rojas provided the precise delivery and Sigmund rose to nod home the winner as AMI Stadium erupted with joy. You couldn’t have written a better script.
The Phoenix made the playoffs again that season, but were eliminated in their first match away to Adelaide United. Four days later – on the 22nd of February 2011 – the Phoenix awards function was scheduled. As the club’s staff prepared the venue for the night’s celebrations, the February quake rocked Christchurch to its core. Just hours later, Sigmund won the club’s Player of the Year award and gave an immensely emotional acceptance speech. The catastrophic events of the day and his tumultuous year both on and off the field combined to bring him close to tears.
A year later, the annual awards function became a Ben Sigmund benefit. He not only became the first player to win back-to-back Player of the Year awards, but also won the media, supporters, and player’s player of the year prizes. A couple of weeks earlier, his headed goal against Sydney FC at home in the first elimination final had helped set up a sudden death playoff match away against Perth. With the Phoenix 2-1 up and less than half an hour to play, Sigmund’s hamstring gave way and he trudged gloomily to the sidelines. With ice packed around his thigh, he watched Perth equalise, and then win the game in extra-time. His main job from then on was to console his distraught best mate Tim Brown who had worn the Phoenix shirt for the final time.
Sigmund had become basically undroppable. When he was fit, he played, but he never took his spot for granted, consistently putting in performances which more than justified his selection. However, Ricki Herbert’s departure from the Phoenix in February 2013 and Ernie Merrick’s arrival later that year could perhaps have spelt the end of Sigmund’s mortgage on the centre-back position. Privately, Sigmund wondered if he was the sort of player Merrick would embrace into his attacking, possession-based style. Would he be on the outer in favour of a more technically gifted defender, even if that player couldn’t possibly match his commitment to the cause?
Instead, Merrick has been the catalyst for an extraordinary transformation so late in Sigmund’s career. The new coach saw all the intrinsic qualities he wanted in a first-choice centre-back and set about teaching him the fundamentals of his new system. Sigmund completely bought into Merrick’s mantra and has publicly credited him for a new-found enthusiasm for football. He rarely bangs the ball long now (except when absolutely necessary) and plays as many five- to ten-yard passes as anyone else in the team.
At the end of September, Sigmund called time on his All Whites career, having earned 32 caps for his country. With his latest Phoenix contract up at the end of the current campaign, it’s hoped a new deal may be forthcoming for at least one more season. Merrick is keen to make this happen and negotiations have begun in earnest. Sigmund though has already thought about life beyond football. He has a huge enthusiasm for helping others – particularly young people – and wants to use his profile and influence to make a difference and change people’s lives for the better. He has a big interest in life-coaching and helping young players find balance in their lives as they come to terms with the various on- and off-field demands of being a professional footballer. An autobiography is also in the pipeline and is likely to be just like the man himself – honest, straight-up and entertaining.
When he runs out at Eden Park on Saturday for the 150th time in a Phoenix shirt, he’ll have exactly the same mind-set as he has for the previous 149 matches in the yellow and black; to leave no ounce of energy untapped in his quest to defend the Phoenix goal and drive those around him to their peak possible performance. He has become a cornerstone of the football club and a cult hero for its fans. For a guy who won a contract with Wellington Phoenix Football Club through sheer persistence, it’s fitting Ben Sigmund should join the 150-club by virtue of playing every game with exactly the same tenacity and determination that brought him to the club in the first place.
2008/09: 15 appearances (13 starts), 0 goals
2009/10: 20 appearances (19 starts), 1 goal
2010/11: 28 appearances (28 starts), 2 goals
2011/12: 28 appearances (28 starts), 3 goals
2012/13: 24 appearances (24 starts), 1 goal
2013/14: 25 appearances (25 starts), 0 goals
2014/15: 9 appearances (9 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 149 appearances (146 starts), 7 goals