In the six-and-a-bit seasons of the football club, 77 players have worn the Wellington Phoenix shirt into battle. As he prepares to play his 100th A-League match for the club, it would be hard to mount an argument against Paul Ifill being right at the top of the pile. Over the past four seasons, he-s thrilled crowds on both sides of the Tasman with his spectacular goals, mazy dribbling, audacious passing and the rare footballing X-factor that has allowed him, time and time again, to make things happen in the attacking third.
When Ifill-s signing was announced in mid-July 2009, most Phoenix fans rushed off to Google. What they found was a player with solid English pedigree – nearly 350 games for Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and most notably Millwall, including an appearance in the 2004 FA Cup final against Manchester United. He-d also represented Barbados ten times, scoring six goals.
Ifill has since admitted to doubts after first signing with the Phoenix. He checked the TAB odds and found his new team as rank outsiders for the A-League title. But those understandable reservations were put to one side as he packed up his young family and set off on a new footballing adventure.
Ifill-s first off-field experiences in Wellington were also interesting. Just days after arriving in the capital, he was accosted on Courtenay Place by a clearly agitated and obviously less-than-sane middle-aged woman who accused him of sizing her up as the target of an attack. Instead it was Ifill who was the subject of a physical and verbal assault as he made a quick retreat.
Once he settled in though, it was obvious the Phoenix had found a gem. Ifill immediately endeared himself to the fans by scoring in his first home match – a 2-1 win over Perth Glory – and from that moment on, he set about carving himself deep into Phoenix folklore. Ifill started all 30 of the Phoenix-s matches in the 2009/10 season, scoring a club-record 13 goals and providing the major impetus behind the side-s run to their first ever playoff appearance.
Perhaps the most memorable game in Ifill-s first season was the astonishing 6-0 home victory over Gold Coast United at Labour Weekend. The Phoenix came into the game with just one win from their first ten matches and languishing in eighth place on the A-League ladder. Fans couldn-t possibly have imagined what would happen next. Quite simply, Ifill took Gold Coast United apart that day, having a hand in the first four goals before scoring the fifth himself in one of the most memorable individual performances in Phoenix history. When he departed with his side 5-0 up, the ovation was that of a crowd who knew they-d been fortunate indeed to witness an absolute A-League master-class.
After guiding the side to their highest ever regular season finish, Ifill set about stamping his mark on the post-season as well. In the penalty shoot-out against Perth Glory, he put his hand up to take the Phoenix-s first spot-kick, converting it with a superbly struck shot into the roof of the net. Perth-s next two penalties were saved and the Phoenix advanced victorious.
Two weeks later, the Newcastle Jets came to town to find Westpac Stadium heaving as thirty-five thousand enraptured supporters watched the two sides slug it out. Ifill had a number of chances, including one deep into added time when he rounded goalkeeper Ben Kennedy but wasn-t able to angle his shot into the back of the net. Distraught and close to exhaustion as injury time beckoned, he admitted later he thought coach Ricki Herbert would substitute him. Instead, Ifill produced yet another moment of magic, receiving the ball in the inside-right position, jinking left and right past a couple of would-be defenders before drilling an unstoppable shot across Kennedy and into the bottom corner. The enduring memory of the aftermath to that goal is of Ifill sprinting the length of the field to celebrate with an instantly shirtless Yellow Fever, with most of his team-mates too fatigued to chase him.
At the end of the 2009/10 season, it was a widely held view that Ifill was the A-League-s best player and should win the Johnny Warren Medal. He didn-t – it went instead to his now team-mate Carlos Hernandez – but he had marked himself out as one of the most dangerous and entertaining players in the competition.
Certainly he was the Phoenix-s go-to man, and that continued in 2010/11 when Ifill again shone. He scored in each of the first two matches and even though opposition players had now been forewarned of his ability, Ifill continued to give opposition defenders a torrid time. His best moments usually originated when he received the ball in wide positions and then ran at uncertain defenders who, even though they knew what he was likely to do, were powerless to do anything about it. Just when it appeared he was about to be dispossessed, a drop of the shoulder and twist of body position would take both he and the ball past defenders who were often left sprawling on the turf behind him.
Ifill-s first goal of the 2011/12 season – an early strike against Sydney FC in a 2-1 win at Westpac Stadium drew him level with Shane Smeltz as the club-s all-time leading goalscorer on 21, and when he opened the scoring against Brisbane in Dunedin in mid-December, he went to the top of the list, where he-s remained ever since. Sydney again felt Ifill-s sting in the first round of the playoffs when he won and converted a late penalty to give the Phoenix a 3-2 win.
The Sky Blues have proved a happy opponent for Ifill; he-s netted five times against them and five times against the Mariners, but it-s Melbourne Heart who must hate the sight of him the most, having six times picked one of his strikes out of their net. In fact, the only side Ifill hasn-t scored against is Western Sydney Wanderers.
Last season was Ifill-s unhappiest at the Phoenix. As injuries dogged him, both his form and confidence took a significant hit, and the flow-on effect on the team was marked. When your best player isn-t playing well, everything becomes a lot harder and so proved to be the case. The goals completely dried up for Ifill and astonishingly, it wasn-t until the penultimate game of the season that he scored from open play. For a player who had always scored for fun, the season became increasingly more frustrating, to the point where Ifill even considered his future as a professional footballer. The trademark smile was gone, replaced with puffed-out cheeks and slumped shoulders.
A change of coach gave Ifill a new lease of footballing life. He worked extremely hard during the off-season, famously shedding seven kilograms and looking as fit as he ever had during his time in Wellington. He bought into Ernie Merrick-s philosophies and allowed the bad habits that had crept into his game to be identified and rectified. His introduction at half-time in the round two match against Western Sydney was the game-s pivotal moment as he set up Jeremy Brockie-s equaliser and provided constant headaches for the Wanderers- defence. In his most recent appearance, just days ago against Melbourne Victory, he showed class and composure in the penalty area to score his 32nd goal for the club in his 99th game. He also featured for the A-League All-Stars against Manchester United in July.
Ifill is as impressive off the field as he is on it. His media interviews are never boring as he mixes articulate, well-considered and colourful answers in equal measure. He is extremely generous with his time in dealing with fans and is also a go-to guy when the club wishes to impress a sponsor, with a unique ability to fall easily into conversation with corporates and everyday football fans alike. His soon-to-be wife Elle is a popular real estate agent and the couple and their two young daughters are firmly ensconced in Wellington, which they now call home.
When the history of Wellington Phoenix Football Club is written, there-ll be a few candidates for the photo on the cover. As things stand, there-s no contest – no player has had fans leaning forward in, and leaping out of their seats more often than Paul Ifill has. He is the most exciting attacking player ever to wear the Phoenix shirt and as he joins the 100-club this weekend, those fans will be hoping there-s more to come before he rides off into the footballing sunset, leaving a string of defenders trailing helplessly in his wake.
Correct as at 7 November 2013
2009/10 30 games (30 starts), 13 goals
2010/11 21 games (20 starts), 7 goals
2011/12 22 games (19 starts), 8 goals
2012/13 22 games (20 starts), 3 goals
2013/14 4 games (1 start), 1 goal
TOTAL: 99 games (90 starts), 32 goals