You’d be hard pressed to find a more popular player in the six-year history of Wellington Phoenix Football Club than Ben Sigmund. By Jason Pine.
You-d be hard pressed to find a more popular player in the six-year history of Wellington Phoenix Football Club than Ben Sigmund.
More than anyone else, he is the man supporters can most easily relate to. He-s a typical kiwi bloke who just happens to be an exceptionally committed, wholehearted and talented footballer. You get the feeling that if he wasn-t making life hell for opposition attackers, Sigmund would be in amongst the Yellow Fever with his shirt off.
Following a standout display for the All Whites in their 2-2 draw with Wales in May 2007, Sigmund – who was at that time playing as an amateur for Auckland City – pestered and harassed his national coach Ricki Herbert for a shot at professional football with the Phoenix. Herbert finally relented and signed Sigmund on a one-year contract in April 2008.
When Sigmund arrived for pre-season training ahead of the 2008/09 season, most felt he was a player who might prove useful if injuries struck down the more established defenders in the side. He signed shortly after the acquisition of Andrew Durante and Jon McKain, and joined that duo and Karl Dodd in a centre-back logjam.
Sigmund started three of the four Pre-Season Cup matches, but when the regular season rolled around, he found himself outside the matchday squad for the first three games. His debut finally came as a substitute late in the goal-less draw against the Mariners in round four and he featured again from the bench, this time for just five minutes, in the 1-0 loss away to Perth the following week.
That loss dropped the Phoenix to dead-last on the A-League ladder with just two points from their opening five games. Worse still, the next visitors to Westpac Stadium were Sydney FC who were unbeaten in their opening five matches and had put five goals past Perth two weeks earlier. Phoenix fans arrived for the game to learn that McKain had stayed in Australia to attend a wedding and Durante had been struck down by illness, meaning Sigmund would make his full debut against the significant combined threats of Alex Brosque, Steve Corica, John Aloisi and Mark Bridge.
Brosque scored early but from then on, his impact and those of his attacking colleagues were nullified by Sigmund and Dodd. It was the first real display of what the Phoenix had gained by signing Sigmund – a lion-hearted defender who paid no heed to reputations and simply set about marking opposition centre-forwards out of the game. Goals to Shane Smeltz and Tim Brown gave the Phoenix a famous victory and Sigmund-s Phoenix career was well and truly up and running.
Following that, and even with the return of Durante and McKain, a place in the starting side was regularly found for Sigmund. He played at right fullback for the next month and for the rest of the season was a consistent starter in central defence. In all, he 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, Sigmund scored his first Phoenix goal against the Newcastle Jets in a 3-2 away loss. He held his position for a month, was shunted out to right-back and then found himself out of the side for the away draw with Melbourne Victory. But McKain picked up a long term injury in that game, and the centre-back position was Sigmund-s again.
On the 14th of November 2009, Sigmund was part of the extraordinary events at Westpac Stadium as the All Whites beat Bahrain 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 robust. Late in the first half it was his foray down the right wing that led to the corner from which Rory Fallon scored. As the clock wound down and the Bahrainis became more and more desperate, Sigmund was called on time and again to repel wave after wave of red-shirted attack. At fulltime, the All Whites goal remained unbreached and the All Whites were going to South Africa.
Sigmund-s post-match interview was pure gold. “I-m cramping up like a bastard here”, he said. “I can-t even walk. It was backs against the wall for the last ten minutes, but we knew that was going to happen. To be fair, we had about three or four good chances and they probably had one or two, so I reckon we deserved it.” Indeed they did. Sigmund famously went to his local dairy the next day to buy sausages for a family barbeque and was told by the owner to leave his wallet in his pocket.
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 and his fellow All Whites returned to the Phoenix to recommence A-League battle. Shortly afterwards, Melbourne Victory came to town, coincidentally the night before the World Cup draw was made. A late goal from Roddy Vargas denied the Phoenix a win, but what transpired afterwards dealt a hammer blow to Sigmund-s season. Television replays showed him connecting with a punch to the jaw of Victory defender Adrian Leijer during a penalty area tussle and he was subsequently suspended for three games. By the time he returned, McKain had entrenched himself alongside Durante in central defence, leaving no room for Sigmund. Apart from two games filling in at left-back, he was hardly spotted 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 their number had been swelled by accomplished defenders Tommy Smith and Winston Reid. 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 preferred once the All Whites reached the World Cup. Sigmund spent all three games watching from the bench, never once taking the field.
Back home, things had changed too. Sigmund-s fiancée Deanna was pregnant with the couple-s first child, and was due in October. Instead, baby Cameron was born at 24 weeks, weighing just 715 grams. He was so tiny that Deanna-s engagement ring could fit around his wrist. One week after he was born, Sigmund flew with his team-mates to the World Cup, leaving behind a baby son whose future was far from certain. Cameron spent four months in the wonderful Neonatal Unit at Wellington hospital and is now a normal two-year old boy with a cheeky grin and his father-s love for life. But 2010 had been a trying year for Sigmund, both on and off the field.
The 2010/11 A-League season started with Sigmund a first-choice in the Phoenix starting side. McKain had departed and Sigmund was now cemented alongside Durante at the heart of the Phoenix-s defence. He was occasionally shuffled out to right-back to plug a gap, but was never left out completely. The only games he missed that season were through suspension.
In early December 2010, the Phoenix played an A-League match for the first time in Sigmund-s hometown of Christchurch. It just happened to be his fiftieth A-League start and a massive crowd turned out to watch the Phoenix do battle with Adelaide. While the visitors took the lead in the first half, Sigmund provided the cross for his good mate Tim Brown to tap home just after the break and square the ledger.
Sometimes football-s scriptwriters come up with a scenario so implausible that if you hadn-t seen it happen, you wouldn-t believe it. Deep into added time, the Phoenix won a left-wing corner. Marco Rojas provided the pinpoint delivery and Sigmund rose to nod home the winner as AMI Stadium exploded with joy. The grin on Sigmund-s face was a mile wide afterwards and probably remained so deep into the Canterbury night.
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 festivities, the February quake rocked Christchurch to its core. Consideration was given to calling the prize-giving off, but it went ahead and just hours after hearing of the devastation to his hometown, Sigmund won the club-s Player of the Year award. It was a hugely emotional acceptance speech. The catastrophic events of the day and his tumultuous twelve months both on and off the field combined to bring him close to tears as he stood on the podium and addressed the assembled throng of players, sponsors, staff, media and fans.
Sigmund-s displays in the 2011/12 season were simply an extension of the player he-d become. He was now utterly undroppable. He rarely had a bad game, and missed only one match through suspension after a red card against Melbourne at home in round four. That aside, he was booked just three times across the season, compared to the eight yellow cards he was issued with the season before.
For the third straight season the Phoenix were playoff bound and Sigmund-s headed goal against Sydney FC at home in the first elimination final helped set up a sudden death 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 disconsolately 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 room-mate Tim Brown who had worn the Phoenix shirt for the last time.
The annual awards night was a Ben Sigmund benefit. He not only became the first player to win back-to-back Player of the Year awards, but he won the media, supporters, and player-s player of the year gongs as well. He had become a cornerstone of the football club. His influence was recognised with a fresh contract which he inked in July of this year, keeping him at the football club until the end of the 2014/15 season, at which point he-ll be 34 and the boots may well be hung up for good.
While his fearsome tackling, aerial ability and tight marking are Sigmund-s trademarks, there-s more to him than just brawn. As his career has developed, so too has his ability to provide more than just an impassable obstacle for opposition centre-forwards. His first touch rarely lets him down, he can drive passes over forty yards and more than one opponent has been left in the wake of a mazy run into the attacking third.
But there are many more layers to Ben Sigmund than the heart-on-the-sleeve footballer who turns out on match-days. He-s already thought about life beyond football and what that might look like. He has a huge enthusiasm for helping troubled youth and will shortly become involved in a campaign highlighting the dangers of binge drinking. He wants to use his profile and influence to make a difference and to change people-s lives for the better.
When Brown departed at the end of 2011/12, Sigmund was willing to take on the complicated and often misunderstood Mirjan Pavlovic as his new room-mate. He figured he could perhaps help the quirky Australian striker achieve his playing potential. Sadly, Pavlovic-s premature departure from the club denied him the chance to come under Sigmund-s wing. It would certainly have opened his mind to a different approach to football, and life in general. It might have been just what he needed.
Sigmund has a rare and wonderful ability to relate to all types of people. He-s as comfortable in conversation with the CEO of a major corporate as he is mixing with everyday football fans and especially kids.
As he prepares to run out for the one-hundredth time in Phoenix colours and become the club-s seventh centurion, it-s hard not to think about how close football came to losing Sigmund. In his mid-twenties, he nearly gave the game away, preferring instead to play social rugby with his mates at the Sumner club. Thankfully, the relentless persistence and attitude Sigmund shows on the football field drove him to pursue a professional career, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When his milestone is acknowledged before the home game against Central Coast on December 22, there will be prolonged and tumultuous acclaim from Phoenix fans for the man known universally as Siggy. Quite simply, they love him because he-s a typical kiwi bloke who has shown exactly what can be achieved through sheer hard work. For one-hundred games, Ben Sigmund has given one-hundred percent. And you can-t ask for any more than that.
2008/09 15 games (13 starts), 0 goals
2009/10 20 games (19 starts), 1 goal
2010/11 28 games (28 starts), 2 goals
2011/12 28 games (28 starts), 3 goals
2012/13 8 games (8 starts), 0 goals
TOTAL: 99 games (96 starts), 6 goals