THE smiles are back on the faces of the Wellington Phoenix after a Paul Ifill double sealed a 2-0 win for the hosts against Melbourne Heart tonight.
The Phoenix took to the Westpac Stadium pitch determined to get their Hyundai A-League 2010/11 season back on track after back-to-back losses at their fortress.
Both teams wore black armbands and players and fans observed a moment of silence in honour of the 29 men who lost their lives earlier in the day in the Pike River coal mine disaster.
It was Ifill who provided the tribute with two wonderful goals – the first an instinctive poke past Heart keeper Clint Bolton in the 62nd minute and the second an absolute rip-snorter in the 73rd as the English gun took Tim Brown-s deftly-weighted pass on the edge of the box, jinked back around Aziz Behich and ripped his left-foot strike past the hapless Bolton.
Ifill-s second in particular was a cruel blow for Heart, who has just minutes earlier lost skipper Matt Thompson when he was marched after receiving a second yellow card and had to play the final half-hour with 10 men and chasing the game.
Coach Ricki Herbert gave his squad a shake up against Heart in a bid to rediscover the form that helped the Phoenix to go within one match of the grand final last season. Ifill took the lone striker-s role up front in place of Chris Greenacre, while Manny Muscat shifted into a defensive midfield role where he has proven so adept.
Ifill very nearly got things rolling for the Phoenix in the 16th minute when his shot with only Bolton to beat was parried by the Heart stopper.
Alex Terra provided the main menace for the home defence, but he wasted a prime opportunity to give his side the lead at the break when he shot high after bursting through on goal courtesy of Adrian Zahra-s lovely through ball.
Phoenix keeper Mark Paston pulled off a couple of terrific smothering saves early in the second half before the home side slowly began to assert their dominance and Ifill set things alight with his double in a stellar period – including the opportunity to become the Phoenix-s first-ever hat-trick scorer when he missed a comparatively easy chance in the closing stages.
It-s been a tough period for the Phoenix but they showed against the Heart the sort of guts and grit needed to stay in the title race.
Ifill was delighted with his brace and with the faith shown in him by Herbert.
“I-ve always felt it was coming but it-s been tough times lately. You train as hard as you can but it doesn-t always translate on to the pitch. Ricki showed a lot of faith again sticking with me because I think he could have dropped me long before now. But he stuck me up front on my own and it-s paid dividends and I-m back on the scoresheet, which is nice.
“Still, it-s pretty tough – you miss the first one and think it-s never going to come. I think I put the two hard ones away tonight and missed two sitters, so there-s still plenty to work on.”
The Phoenix will aim to keep the momentum and confidence going when they take on Melbourne Victory at Westpac Stadium on Saturday.
“We-re not out of the woods yet and we need to back it up at the weekend,” said Ifill. “If you don-t back it up again it-s just one win. We went away to Perth and thought we-d turned a bit of a corner (with a 1-0 win) but we hadn-t, so we don-t want to overcook it yet. If we don-t back this up it means very little.”
Herbert will be forced to make a change to his starting XI against the Victory after centre back Ben Sigmund collected his fifth yellow card of the season and will sit out Saturday-s match.