The only way is up, says Pignata

CAPITALISING on football’s current momentum and building a larger club membership base is crucial to Wellington Phoenix remaining a force in the game in the long term, says departing club chief executive Tony Pignata.

CAPITALISING on football-s current momentum and building a larger club membership base is crucial to Wellington Phoenix remaining a force in the game in the long term, says departing club chief executive Tony Pignata.

The 45-year-old Australian, who has led the Phoenix since their inaugural season in the Hyundai A-League in 2007/08, finishes in his role on Friday having overseen the club-s development to become a major player in the New Zealand sporting landscape.

Pignata is proud of the club-s achievements to date, with football in New Zealand now “at the crest of a wave” of popularity following the Phoenix-s phenomenal success last season and the New Zealand national team-s qualification for the World Cup starting this weekend.

Making the Hyundai A-League playoffs every season is now the minimum target for the Phoenix, Pignata says, and ambitions are targeted around winning the premiership sooner rather than later.

But Pignata, who hails from sports-mad Melbourne and will return there this weekend to rejoin his family, stresses there are key factors that underpin those ambitions.

“The club needs to take that next step. Crucial to that is the continued support of the fans – we need people becoming members of the club. The culture here in New Zealand is that fans can sometimes be ‘fairweather friends-, that is to say they-ll only support a team when things are at a high or only intermittently during the season.

“Look at the Aussie rules clubs in Melbourne – many of them have membership numbers in excess of 30,000 people. (Hyundai A-League club) Melbourne Victory has 20,000 members and that-s why they continue to be such a successful club on and off the pitch. Their members support the club, irrespective of whether they go to every game during the season or only a few. We need to have that mindset here.”

Phoenix members from last season have a few more days to renew for season 2010/11 before the general public has the chance to pledge support. Renewals to date are extremely promising.

“More than 1000 members have come back onboard so far, which is more than double where we were at the same time last year,” says Pignata. “But we need 3000-4000 more members and to be increasing that number every season. If we can get that then it will help the club in a variety of ways, most notably in terms of going out and attracting top players to come here and thereby enhancing our aims to win the premiership.

“The membership pack this season is fantastic. For example, $295 for an adult for 15 games is value for money whether you go to eight games, 10 games or all 15. Membership is the lifeblood of the club and we want the club to be around for a long time.

“Our license to participate in the Hyundai A-League for the next five years was ratified by Fifa in Johannesburg a couple of days ago and that-s great news. But we don-t want to be here for just the next five years – we want to be here for the next 55 years and beyond.

“A large membership base and big crowds are integral to that long-term ambition. We-ve shown there-s massive support for the club and the game here in New Zealand – the near-sellout at Westpac Stadium for our playoff win against the Newcastle Jets proved that. Now we need to ensure that-s happening consistently.”

The Phoenix have played a major role in restoring the credibility of football in New Zealand, with the All Whites- participation at the World Cup confirmation of the massive strides made by the code.

“The club and the governing body (New Zealand Football) have to harness the momentum and keep it going,” says Pignata. “Momentum can be easily lost, what happened after the 1982 World Cup is proof of that, and the people in charge of the game must drive it to the next level.

“There-ll be kids out there now wanting to get out in the backyard and play football. We need those kids to aspire to be playing at the highest levels. As a club we want to see New Zealand talent coming through and hopefully coming to play for the Phoenix and the All Whites.”

While there is plenty of work still to be done, Pignata says he leaves the Phoenix in great shape on and off the field.

“It-s been an amazing three years and I leave with some terrific memories. I-m staggered when I think back on how far the club and football in New Zealand has come.

“The club will always be part of me wherever I am and whatever I-m doing. The city of Wellington has embraced the Phoenix and the club has great people involved, from administration, players and coaches to the most important people of all – the fans.”