After the world’s longest offseason, the new A-League season finally begins in less than two weeks, and with it comes an eleventh franchise, an expansion team, the dastardly and nefarious Western United. Those devilish scoundrels, those enemies of the righteous and true. Thieves and liars the lot of them. And for their first dip into A-League football they’ll travel across the ditch to face none other than the Wellington Phoenix – a fixture that was leaked waaaay before the proper schedule ever emerged, the A-League certainly milking the hype cow for that one.
It’s a sure way to feel grounded as a new franchise to emerge with a fully formed rivalry. It must be nice for them, considering the Wellington Phoenix have had to live with an on-going existential threat since day one with the Good Old Boys of Aussie footy getting to shout into microphones “what is the purpose of a New Zealand team in this Australian competition!” any time that the Nix have a poor result. Now here’s Western United cruising on into town with an instant tethering thanks to having already pissed off another fanbase. I s’pose in a way this budding rivalry legitimises the Nix as well, to be fair – we’ve chinese-finger-trapped ourselves to these jokers out of spite. Now if they could just hurry up and get this independent A-league all settled and lock down the Welly Nix’s long term future…
It all started with Mark Rudan. Even just half a season into a two year contract as manager of the Wellington Phoenix, with the club finally trending in the upwards direction, he was refusing to commit to seeing out the duration of that contract. Soon enough it became clear that Rudan would be a one-and-done gaffer, and before long he confirmed it with some sincere apologies and the admittance that living apart from his family in Sydney was just too hard for him. He also had an eight-week get out clause in his contract for some inexplicable reason which meant it really was as simple as him saying he was leaving and that was that.
Except that Mark Rudan went and moved to Melbourne instead. The word was that his family were more open to the idea of living in Melly as opposed to Welly since they have a few existing connections there but, yeah, that was definitely one that a few Nix fans took personally – vindicating the suspicion that Rudan had betrayed the club and its people. Though that perhaps wasn’t as bad as the fact that long before Western United announced their manager they were already announcing signings. Specifically one guy in particular. As early as the start of April it was reported that Phoenix import goalkeeper Filip Kurto was signing with Western United. Rudan himself wasn’t confirmed until May 23. Western Utd went on to also poach two more off-contract Nixers: Max Burgess and Andrew Durante.
So was he tapping up Phoenix players to move to Western United whilst still coaching the Phoenix? In his own words he reckons… yeah, he kinda did…
“At the start, the club announced two assistant coaches, two fantastic coaches, more than competent to lead this team [John Anastasiadis and John Hutchinson]. They're both head coaches in their own right and they led the process but, in terms of the timing, was I asked? In terms of the players? Yes I was. No different to when other coaches ask for my opinion on players that I coach. So, it was very, very clear at the start that I hadn't signed anything and understood that the club was going through their own process of trying to find a new coach. I was just one of those, but my understanding is that the same question was applied to all coaches that they were looking at in terms of the players.”
Rudan flatly denied approaching any players himself to see if they wanted to follow him to Western United but he then went ahead and suggested that they might have come to him of their own volition. It’s a pretty delicate situation but it’s extremely hard to stretch your mind far enough to believe that Rudes didn’t understand what was going on. He’s not that naïve. Even if they were asking the same question of other coaches, even if we believe his appointment came way further down the line, he still had to know the Western United folks weren’t trying to sell mixtapes and t-shirts or spread the Good Book when they called to ask about existing Phoenix players. Sneaking out of his own contact was one thing but poaching players as well? Now the flames had been truly ignited.
But here’s where I step in with a bucket of cold water and simmer all that heat downwards because I still can’t quite take this sudden bitter rivalry completely seriously. It was disappointing how Rudan left but I don’t have any reason not to believe that his family were the main reason he left and moving to Melbourne doesn’t change that if they’ve gone with him (otherwise he coulda just waited another year for the South West Sydney expansion team gig). This guy is a professional football manager, he was going to get a job somewhere else soon enough. The Phoenix shouldn’t have agreed to that inconceivable out-clause in his contract if they didn’t want to end up in this situation… and it’s the same deal with the players who left because it’s not like any of them were tied up and blindfolded and chucked on a plane to Melbourne against their will. What’s more is it’s not like any were irreplaceable either.
Filip Kurto went with a better offer and the Nix pulled off a stunner in replacing him with an All Whites international in Stefan Marinovic. Bit lucky that it worked out that way but you can’t ever bank on the imports hanging around long term – we’re just lucky we got that second year trigger in Steven Taylor’s contract. Andrew Durante simply wanted to return to Australia after a decade in Aotearoa during which nobody could doubt his dedication. If he’s not the greatest Phoenix player ever then he’s in the top two. Plus if we’re being totally honest then maybe it’s fair to say that his levels were dropping with age and that even though his off-field contribution was immeasurable… his footy might have been past its use by date. He had a great bounce-back season under Rudan but tailed off towards the end of the campaign. I guess we’ll know one way or the other what he’s got left in the tank as his WU season progresses.
As for Max Burgess, he was a one and done Aussie fella, graduating from the NPL, who came here looking for an opportunity, found it, and leveraged it back into a move back to the motherland. Who’s gonna say that ain’t fair enough? It’s an issue the Nix often have with Aussie players but look at it this way: he earned that move to Western Utd through some excellent performances for the Nix which helped get the yellow and black back into the playoffs. We got our money’s worth and then some in that single season – this dude was keeping Sarpreet Singh out of the starting XI by the end of it.
Considering most people were appreciative of the direction Rudan had the club trending in during his time… I don’t really see the damage. The immense player turnover might have been affected by Rudan’s departure but with all those single-year contracts it was probably happening anyway which meant we’d be in a similar situation of hitting the reset button either way. Sarpreet Singh wasn’t gonna turn down Bayern Munich for another year with Mark Rudan, come on. So in comes Ufuk Talay who for all we know might be a better manager (and who’s a close friend of Rudan’s going waaay back… though I notice they didn’t catch up for a yarn after Rudes popped by the Nix’s FFA Cup game for a geeze a few weeks back). It all seems very No Harm No Foul to me. If it weren’t for Roy Krishna’s departure then I’d argue the squad now is a stronger one than a year ago. I’m failing to see where the unforgivable crime was committed.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter, because football rivalries are great and irrespective of how they’re born they soon enough take on a life of their own anyway. The reasons for the Western United distaste might be a little too shallow to swim in but a good old fashioned rival is about exactly what the Nix need these days and same as with the dudes we lost to Wests: all’s well that ends well. Uffie Talay knows what I’m talking about. His first presser as Nix gaffer he was asked about the budding enmity between the two clubs and here’s what he said: “That’s great. I’m looking forward to it”.
So are the rest of us, Uffie. So are the rest of us.
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