The Welly Nix x Campbelltown Experiment: Part Two – The Bloody Aftermath

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Part One should have been the end of this article but then Mark Rudan went and said some things. He sat in front of a bunch of microphones and he iterated rather bluntly that he’d made it very clear to the Phoenix how he felt about giving up their home field advantage for a game like this. He said he understood the reasons, with Westpac Stadium unavailable, but that he felt the club, at the time the call was made, perhaps didn’t believe that the team was going to be competitive enough for it to matter. They didn’t believe in his players and they didn’t believe in his project. They didn’t, by extension although he didn’t say this, believe in him.

In light of all the speccies about his future and the shots he fired at NZ Football recently, this was some sizzling heat being breathed all over a routine post-match press conference. Old mate loves to focus on adversity and that’s been a theme from day one… though turning the blowtorch towards his own employers is a new one. Radical Rudes went on to dismiss all that chatter about his future, saying there were ongoing discussions or something equally vague. He also stated that he’d given the boardroom a deadline and them’s fighting words for sure. What kind of deadline? What happens when this deadline expires? What, pray tell, does this deadline refer to?

Those are questions I cannot answer but let me tell you it was music to my ears. Music more of the abrasive, churning, revolutionary punk variety… but that’s okay because I dig that kinda thing. It’s certainly jarring to hear a manager talking like that but point me towards the things he said which aren’t true or fair because there wasn’t a massive lot of it.

Taking a home game to Sydney when you’re playing against a team from Sydney was dumb at the time and just plain ridiculous now. Even worse when there was bugger all local marketing going on and the Nix ended up with less than a quarter of what they got at Eden Park. From what I gather there were third-parties undercutting the costs to ensure there was no chance of losing money but what should Mark Rudan care about that? He’s coaching a football team and trying to get the best out of them. His own club is forfeiting home-field advantage when there were other grounds available in Aotearoa. It’s hard enough when you’re facing those unique obstacles from over the ditch without the club itself getting in its own way. That decision was made with the best intentions, I’ve no doubt… but maybe not the best priorities.

Rudes is right. This is something you only do if you’ve got no trust in the team being competitive enough for it to matter. Coming from inside the club, that’s piss-weak. Of course it was going to be a financial risk to host it in NZ thinking back to when the decision was made… but after the momentum of the crowd in Auckland they’d have gotten a bloody decent figure at Forsyth-Barr, for example. The risk would probably have paid off had they been brave enough to take it. And it’s nice they didn’t lose any precious currency but Dylan Fox wrecked his knee on a pretty sub-standard pitch which had more sand flying around than the opening credit sequence of an episode of Baywatch so I wonder how the players feel about the whole thing? Let’s be honest, they’re siding with Mark Rudan.

(At this point in the argument it’d be disingenuous not to throw the FFA under the bus too, what with all their manufactured pressure about metrics and licences putting the Nix Suits in this state of friskiness to begin with).

But Rudan didn’t stop there and I’m feeling both a little annoyed and a little vindicated about his sneaky jabs at management. Annoyed because I slept on the idea that this was (at least in part) a bargaining ploy from him. Talking of deadlines and ongoing negotiations… that’s a man who doesn’t want to offer his services too easily. Keeping his cards up his sleeve knowing that he’s got options.

And vindicated because the gist of what I wrote in that article was that Rudan isn’t the one who will determine the Phoenix’s viability next season and beyond – that’s down to an upper management team which has been reaping a lot of benefits from the work that Rudan and his players and staff have done without really showing a whole lot of growth themselves. Louis Fenton has re-signed since then (first dude contracted beyond the licence expiry, which must be significant) but that’s still only five players on the books for next season. We just lost a close game in Sydney that might have been a draw in Dunedin (or Christchurch or Hamilton or wherever). The gaffer is not a happy chappy with the way things are being operated and he just let a roomful of journalists know. It’s not a great reflection of things.

A cynical view would be that Rudan is painting a picture which allows him to leave at the end of the season without being the villain. That’s not really where I’m sitting on this though, I’d suggest it’s more like he’s only willing to stay if he’s doing so on his terms. Just as he’s tried to take care of every conceivable detail with his coaching, he wants to see the same level of ambition and commitment from those above him on the food chain. Commitment isn’t much of a problem – if Domey and Morrison weren’t committed then they’d currently be working in far less stressful jobs somewhere else because nobody’s running the Wellington Phoenix if they don’t care.

Ambition… well, that’s more of a debatable one. The Phoenix are on the precipice at the moment. They have a strong squad with an empowering and charismatic manager but they’re in need of a boost to get them not only into the playoffs but up into fourth place where they can host a playoff game (mate, if the bottom line’s an issue then imagine the gate takings from 30,000+ at Westpac!). All but five of those players are off contract at the end of the season and the manager can pretty obviously get another A-League job immediately if he wants it.

Mark Rudan is not immune here. He’s made mistakes, he’ll make plenty more. It’s worth a reminder that his team has only won once in their last seven games as he’s saying this. No doubt there’s a dose of deflection in the mix. There’s a dose of knowing he’s got a lifeline with the expansion teams if this one turns to mud too. There’s also surely a dose of feeling like what has the potential to be a special season could be in danger of being wasted if nothing changes. After all, we do get carried away with the Nix hype these days. The turnaround has been immense from where they started but they’re not even in the top half of the table.

But mostly, again, I think Mark Rudan just wants to see the same level of ambition and commitment that he has for the club (for this season at least) reflected throughout the rest of it. He wasn’t willing to humour any players who didn’t have complete buy-in and he’s not about to let a boardroom which hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent years get a free pass for what his players have achieved.

Whether he’s still at the club next season or not, David Dome and Rob Morrison probably will be and the more accountability there is from top to bottom, the more successful the club will be. Otherwise it’s like a beautiful house with a rotting interior. The Phoenix can continue to grow this thing without Mark Rudan, make no mistake. But they’ll go absolutely nowhere without a smoothly functioning boardroom.

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