CONTROVERSY! As The Welly Nix Lose Their Fourth In A Row

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What can you even say about that? No, the Wellington Phoenix didn’t lose because of a shocking refereeing decision. That’s way too reductive to say. But it sure doesn’t help when a team which has struggled to score goals this season, without a point from their opening three games, away to the top team on the ladder, goes from 2-1 down to 3-1 down in a circumstance like that. To call that decision comical would be like saying that new Joker movie is comical - just because it’s full of clowns doesn’t make it funny (I kinda hated that movie, to be honest). Inconceivable would be a more appropriate word. The whole thing was bonkers.

Most of the headlines are gonna focus on another controversial VAR decision but the VAR was a supporting act in this staged tragedy because even the initial decision was ridiculous. Louis Fenton was stunned to see a penalty awarded for a cross he copped smack bang in his chest and it shouldn’t have needed video replays to avoid that error. Those replays did suggest it could have grazed his arm afterwards but not sure if that was conclusive myself (Fenton claimed it only ever hit his chest) and anyway it wouldn’t have mattered under, you know... the rules of the sport. But the video refs love that whole ‘clear and conclusive’ angle and somehow this wasn’t that. Apparently. I dunno. I’m sure the ref’s office will apologise for it and then everybody can accept it and move on... lol.

Seriously though, how you gonna give a penalty for this?

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It’s not evidence of a conspiracy against the Wellington Phoenix (there’s a media bias, perhaps, but not a conspiracy).

It’s not evidence that the VAR needs to be abolished (it was a bad decision, made by a human being, to validate a bad decision, made by a human being – the method needs work but this doesn’t reflect upon the merit).

It’s also not an excuse for the Phoenix losing the game as they were already trailing and in a vulnerable position and the consequences of this defeat are compounded by three games they lost in which they can’t blame the officiating.

But it was bad. It was really bad. You didn’t watch that as a Phoenix fan without either your jaw hitting the ground or a nearby projective hitting a vulnerable surface. By the way, the final dose of irony? In getting that screenshot of the Fenton *handball* from the A-League website I had to sit through a McDonalds sponsored PSA thanking refereeing officials for all they do to keep the game fair. It’s not like that isn’t true (although Maccas can wear one for all they do to support childhood obesity next) but jeez that’s awkward.

As for Louis Fenton’s delightfully profane post-match interview? Well what do Fox Sports expect when they chase the drama like that? Fenton coulda been more diplomatic but that’s not what they were looking for when they hunted him down and put a microphone in his face. And rookie broadcaster Archie Thompson could barely spit his question out in the first place, let alone handle the situation. Lucky for him that Louis stepped up and crushed a walk-off home run so he didn’t have to splutter out a response.

Louis Ferenc Puskas Fenton. As Ali G would say: Mad respeck.

Argh okay, so what else did we have here? Quite a bit but the end result is that the Nix have lost four games out of four and are bottom of the table and it’s all getting rather frisky. Uffie made his first couple of unforced changes to the starting team with Callum McCowatt and Jaushua Sotirio dropping out for Reno Piscopo and Gary Hooper. One of those changes was a little more understandable than the other considering that McCowatt has been one of the better performers so far... but nobody is safe after three straight defeats and McCowatt’s a young guy who might benefit from every now and then coming off the bench to keep him hungry in the same way that Sarpreet Singh often did. Reno Piscopo looked sharp last week off the bench. As it happened McCowatt was subbed on for Piscopo at half-time anyway, with Sotirio and Hooper also swapping – a double sub at HT? Uffie’s been proactive with his subs in every one of these games so far.

Gary Hooper looked great. He also looked mud. It was a weird one where every time he got the ball he had a sharp touch or some clever little move but at the same time his fitness was clearly down on the rest of them and 45 minutes was probably about fair for him – you get the feeling if this team was winning he’d not have been elevated to start so soon. His goal was decent too. Doing what good strikers do and lurking in the right place at the right time. It’s what he was signed for and he’s already begun to deliver.

Now... if David Ball could do the same then that’d be nice. Last week I wrote that he seemed like the big zero in the goals column was holding him back... this week he doesn’t get that excuse because he was plain old bad. Hey, we all had rough days at the office. But David Ball had a couple times where his pace let him down, a couple where his touch let him down, a couple where his decision making let him down... he’s got to be performing at a higher level as an import in this team. There have been promising moments for sure but it’s the same as the rest of the team where eventually we need to see some end product. Gary Hooper’s played less than ninety minutes and already delivered a goal and won a penalty. Ulises Davila has steadily grown into a real attacking threat. Matti Steinmann was a boss in the midfield from tag eins.

Makes you wonder if maybe the best compromise is to start Piscopo on the wing and drop Ball so McCowatt can play up front instead where he can actually offer some pace and incision. But then that’s a waste of an import spot. Goddammit. That’s why Mr Talay’s getting the big bucks, I s’pose.

No such conundrums about Walter Scott though – pretty clear where he sits in the ol’ depth chart. A decent prospect he remains but he’s no Libby Cacace and he got sliced and diced for the equaliser (the marking in the middle was rubbish too to be fair, nobody getting themselves in a position to be able to challenge Connor Metcalfe for the header). Scott, who is actually older than Libby, was also partly responsible for a couple goals last week. The Nix don’t have a deep squad and missing key players is a killer for them so be thankful that this was the last game of Cacace’s suspension because for a guy who is still a teenager it’s remarkable how valuable he’s become.

For spells in this game the Nix were pretty useful. They played deeper than usual, allowing Melbourne City to do what they wanted with it in their own half and shaping up more obviously in three compact lines... yet despite that they were still getting overlapped down both wings over and over again. It was a problem last week and it was a problem this week. Libby Cacace will help but teams are getting at the Nix in this way far too often for one player alone to solve everything. Also with Ball and Hooper up front there’s not a lot of pace involved which doesn’t exactly aid the whole counter attacking thing. However they were 1-0 up for about five minutes there. In fact it was 6 minutes and 33 seconds to be specific which are the only 6 minutes and 33 seconds they’ve led all season.

Aaaaaaand then ex-Nixer Scott Galloway then bashed in a second, Matti Steinmann caught playing too deep (one of his few defensive errors in a game where, especially early on, he made a bunch of pretty crucial interventions), and those 6:33 were suddenly a distant memory, a lost galleon adrift upon the ocean of time, the dull glow of the moon peeking through the clouds, a glimpse of a mythical creature so brief that you’re not quite sure if it ever even happened or if you just imagined it all.

But the Welly Nix have made a habit of finishing games stronger than they start them and at 2-1 they were one mistake or one moment of transcendent brilliance away from snatching something. At 3-1, well, Melly City had a bit of buffer room and could afford to ease off a little and take fewer risks. Hence the Phoenix never quite got sizzling. Only seven total shots and just three of them on target.

Yet there was one beautiful moment near the end when Ben Waine popped up on the end of a sweet ball across the six yard box from David Ball – that’s the one, son – for his first A-League goal. Ben Waine is 18 years old and was nowhere near the first team a year ago... but he was so damn good for the ressies that he’s put his career on the fast track. And he was sharp here again. He’s not only getting charity/desperate minutes., he’s legit making some things happen out there. There was one sequence of skill down the left wing where he put the magic tricks on his marker which was chooooice. And best of all he scores goals. At every level over the last year he has scored goals. Premiership, NZ U20s, now the A-League. That’s a significant moment, not only for him but for the Phoenix Academy and also the Nix’s recent double-down on the youth movement within the top squad.

Also: Steven Taylor’s diving header blocks are back. That man is something else. The third most endearing thing anyone did for the Welly Nix fanbase in this game – second being Ben Waine’s goal and first being Louis Fenton’s post-game interview.

Regardless of how it happened, the Wellington Phoenix have now lost four games from four and next week they face the Melbourne Victory away with the bye to follow that. This is close to becoming a crisis for Ufuk Talay. It’s not like they haven’t had their moments in every one of these games, and they still haven’t lost by more than one goal, but losing can quickly become a habit and Uffie’s gotta stabilise this team quick. It’s the same thing I was saying before about the squad depth. A small squad, a young squad, a rebuilt squad... the margins are slim. Each of those elements were necessary in their own way but they’re vulnerabilities too. If heads drop after these first four defeats then you can go right on ahead and slap that crisis button.

Which is why that penalty decision is a bit of a useful PR tool now. If you’re going to lose, you might as well have a lightning rod like that to draw attention away from your own limitations. The better team won this game. Melbourne City were sharper, more creative, better drilled... they’re a really strong team. And they were missing a couple players too, you know. No Jamie MacLaren, no Harrison Delbridge, no Florin Berenguer. But the Phoenix have the benefit of a howler of a decision to focus on instead and there’s nothing like a bit of shared injustice to bring a fresh squad of players together. Could be a galvanising moment. You never know. Might as well try channel it into something positive.

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