The Welly Nix Brought The Good Vibes When We Needed Them Most

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Tūtira mai ngā iwi. Tātou tātou e. Whaia te maramatanga me te aroha - e ngā iwi. Kia ko tapatahi kia kotahi rā. Tātou tātou e.

Football doesn’t quite feel so important at the moment. Despite the famous Bill Shankly line, we’ve always known that there are much bigger things than organised sport, and in the last few days those convenient illusions have been shattered. But sport does have a crucial place in our society as a beacon for unfiltered connection and healing. Football more than any other. The football field is where the best aspects of humanity are on display for all to see, where religion and race and politics are irrelevant compared to the joy of human participation. It’s a universal language.

Mark Rudan spoke for less than five minute in his press conference and only ever addressed the game itself in passing. Instead his emotional words were meant for a community deep in the grieving process. To say that we didn’t know such hatred existed in our nation would be a lie. Those of us not too wilfully blind could always see that this ugliness was festering beneath the surface – we just didn’t know it could express itself so terribly. Now our national identity has been challenged and it’s up to us where we draw the line for intolerance. I’m not talking about major acts of despicable terrorism, we can’t control those we can only pray for Never Again, but the little things that push that line of tolerance/intolerance past the point where people feel unsafe in their own cities. Spiteful words uttered at those in hijab on the streets. Distasteful jokes about other cultures. That insidious and subconscious assumption that a New Zealander is supposed to look a certain way. Faux intellectual thinkpieces in national publications seeking to legitimise the politics of hatred and division. There’s just no excuse anymore. There never should have been.

As a pakeha man, my way of life was not threatened by the acts on Friday afternoon. As a pakeha man, I stand in solidarity with the Muslim community of Aotearoa. If you call this country home then it is your home, regardless, and you are my compatriot. As a pakeha man, I acknowledge that the number one threat to our way of life in this country and across the western world is the rising threat of white nationalist/supremacist/neo-nazi movements. Ban all military grade weaponry. Flush out those who’d spread hate online and give them real life consequences that match the inverse consequences their targets suffer. Give nothing to those who’d seek to divide us.

Hatred feeds upon hatred in a downward spiral of terror. It’s our duty to meet that hatred with love and tolerance, not for those view but for those that such views seek to dehumanise. With that in mind, the scenes prior to kickoff at Westpac Stadium were beautiful and heart-breaking and a lovely encapsulation of the spirit of Aotearoa. The Phoenix players handled the situation excellently and the Western Sydney players were their equals in that matter.

A word of recognition for Roy Krishna and Kosta Barbarouses for their goal celebrations this week too. As profound a tribute as you could see on the footy field. Simple, elegant, compassionate. He’s having a brilliant season, Kosta, and I’ve never loved him more than in that moment.

And then the game started with its blessed distraction. Sarpreet Singh was out suspended and so with Steven Taylor still possibly a week away from returning, there was only one change to the lineup: Alex Rufer returning from his own suspension to replace Singh. Max Burgess, after an excellent game in central midfield, moved into Singh’s AM role. Everything else was as expected, including the back three of Michal Kopczynski, Andy Durante, and Antony Golec.

Western Sydney are clinging onto the edge of the playoff picture but realistically it’s only a matter of time until they lose that grip. They’re not making the semis. Meanwhile the Nix can make a proper go at fourth place with a few wins and after that 8-2 win last time out they’ve got the confidence to get that done. A while back it looked like the Phoenix’s attack had been figured out. Three goals in six games and they’d sunk all the way back to within one more bad week of falling out of the top six. But then they went and scored eleven goals in three halves of football.

Yeah mate, the Nix turned up to play in their first game at Westpac Stadium since 26 January. And Western Sydney made it pretty bloody easy for them, to be honest. With a 3-4-3 shape, they needed to be quick and clinical in possession from the back and they weren’t, instead getting constantly exposed by the pace and energy of Roy Krishna and David Williams, both of whom scored superb goals in the first half while Mandi whipped in a stunner of a free kick in between. It could have been more. The Nix were sharp as diamonds in what was without doubt the best half of footy that they’ve played at home this season (and third best overall after the first half away to Sydney in the 3-0 win and the first half last week against CCM).

It was almost the best possible incarnation of this team. The fullbacks had some issues up against aggressive wingbacks but they held their own and ensured there was space for Krishna further forwards. The lack of pace at the back continues to be a drama whoever plays but the midfield shielded them well. Alex Rufer was a commanding presence, getting his ninth yellow card along the way. Max Burgess once again looked great and this time in a more attacking role.

He’s had to wait his chance this season with 14 subs appearances and eight of those for fewer than five minutes of action. But there’s virtue in biding your time and, honestly, I can’t see how Sarpreet Singh gets back into the starting team next week. Burgess might not play this well forever but it’s worth riding the hot hand (/left foot) for a couple more weeks. He’s stronger on the ball than Singh and maybe doesn’t have the same level of finesse but he’s aggressive and he’ll take a risk – exactly what Singh needs to do more of. A week or two coming off the bench and absorbing that example won’t go astray and it could just mean that Singh is peaking come playoff time.

The second half wasn’t at the same level and it wasn’t helped by some odd refereeing. The penalty was an acceptable decision, the foul began outside the box but continued into the area and from what I understand of the rules, that’s a spottie. It’s just that by the time the jokers had gotten around to looking at it they were all set up to take the free kick when the ref had to run halfway across the field to review it himself. Like, what’s going on here? When the Premier League introduce the VAR next season it’s going to be like the rugby/cricket model of TMO where there’s a specific video ref who makes the decision. This stupid Aussie model of reviewing it to see if it’s worth reviewing it before getting the ref to duck off to a screen on halfway is a bloody wreck and an unnecessary waste of time. Have an open line of communication with the ref, sure. But this double review process is a bore.

As for the Roy Krishna red card, I mean… his elbow was up there. There was blood on Llorente’s lip. Krishna didn’t do it on purpose and he immediately kicked the ball out to check on the bloke when he realised he was hurt but he still left the arm up so I can understand a free kick for sure. Possibly a double standard with one or two other similar situations being ignored previously but then only Krishna’s elbow drew blood. And none of them were deliberate. Whether Roy deserved a yellow or not I can go either way on. He didn’t get a straight red, remember. He was walked because he was already sitting on a silly yellow. So it goes.

What sucks is that he’s now gonna miss next week’s crucial game against Newcastle Jets, which could all but guarantee the Nix in the top six with a win. For real, a win would mean an eleven point gap between them and the Jets and in that case one more win across the final four games – or the Jets dropping even a single game (including draws) – would be enough to make it permanent. Of course, top six isn’t good enough. We’re going top four or bust.

But we’ve gotta play that one without Roy which should mean Cillian Sheridan finally getting a chance to play some extended minutes, at least. The Sherriff has been a cameo player for the last two months and that early promise he showed just hasn’t been allowed to grow thanks to the magical form of Krishna and Williams. The most frustrating thing about the last two games has been Sheridan only getting a combined twenty minutes of action despite big half-time leads in both. We’re simply not seeing what he can do and the bloke really needs a goal.

Speaking of goals, Adam Le Fondre didn’t score this week so Roy Krishna is one clear at the top of the golden boot standings with 15. Kosta Barbarouses and Andy Keogh are also in range with 13 goals. Shane Smeltz is the only Phoenix player to have won the golden boot before. Safe to say this is a race I’m heavily emotionally invested in.

Necessary reminder: Roy Krishna is one of the many players who have yet to re-sign with the club for next season and while people are worrying about Mark Rudan’s future here, at the moment even if he stays he won’t have a team to work with.

Gianni Stensness got a couple minutes off the bench and Callan Elliot was about to be introduced in stoppage time before Roy Krishna got sent off and Ryan Lowry came on instead. Also this week, with the WeeNix finishing up their season, Ben Waine has been promoted to the senior squad. He was one of the best academy performers all season with his creative work on the left wing (along with defender Ronan Wynne and midfielder Sam Sutton, IMO) and this is another welcome use of the reserves from Rudy. However not sure how Nathan Burns is feeling these days. Assuming he was injured but since the turn of the new year he’s played 54 minutes in one appearance. You hardly even remember he’s still at the club at this point.

The Phoenix have not been good at keeping clean sheets this season, only four in 22 games and two of those were scoreless draws, but they have been good at consolidating fine performances like the first half effort in this one for comfortable enough wins. It had a lot in common with the first Sydney game. 3-0 up at the break after a masterclass of high-paced, high-pressing, counter-attacking footy, which turned more conservative in the second half for a 3-1 win. Hey, it’s all they need. The first half was incredible and the second half was professional. As professional as you can be when you give away a penalty and cop a red card, I guess. Far from perfect. But they did enough to win and that’s what matters.

There’s no game next week so we can chill with where we’re at for a while. The Phoenix have beaten two teams in the bottom three so assuming that they’ve suddenly fixed all their problems is short-sighted, but they’re in a great place right now. And it was a welcome relief from the last few days to be able to witness a quality, proficient victory like that. Kia kaha.

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