LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Wellington Phoenix eye Grand Final

Yellow Fever grips NZ capital on the eve of SF clash

Fans prepare for the biggest night in the history of the A-League outsiders

Think A-League and you think Sydney, Melbourne and their fiery battles on and off the pitch. But beyond Australia, in a distant but loyal outpost of the senior soccer division Down Under, Wellington Phoenix have risen from 17 years as also-rans to genuine contenders for the 2024 Grand Final.

New Zealand’s sole representatives in the Aussie-dominated A-League since 2007, ‘The Nix’ nearly went under in 2015 – which was when their local ownership invested in the club’s academy.

The result? A capacity crowd of 34,000 is expected this Saturday night at the Cake Tin, aka Sky Stadium, for the second leg of the semi-final with Melbourne Victory. The Nix are 90 minutes from history, the aggregate score standing at 0-0 and either Sydney FC or Central Coast Mariners awaiting on May 25. Depending on the teams involved, the Grand Final might even be held here in Wellington.

Wellington Regional Stadium/Dave Jagger

“Success this season would mean so much to Nix fans,” says Dave Jagger, a Lancastrian expat gripped by Yellow Fever since his first game several years ago. “Look, this is New Zealand, rugby, the All Blacks and the Hurricanes in Wellington will always be king… but there’s something a little bit special about being a Wellington Phoenix fan, which crept up on me slowly as an expat late adopter of the Yellow Army cause.”

New Zealand’s soccer capital of Wellington is where real fan culture thrives, yellow shirts removed and twirled on 80 minutes every game. As well as the Cake Tin, due to its shape, the Sky Stadium is also known as the Ring of Fire:

“There’s a great sense of camaraderie standing in the Yellow Fever section,” says Dave. “Die-hard fans, drums and constant songs, quite a few British expat voices cracking jokes. You’re rarely ten minutes into the match before there’s chanting about cheating Aussies and a self-deprecating tune about the notorious Wellington weather. It’s a passionate but safe atmosphere, which my five-year-old daughter loves when she’s lucky enough to be taken along.”

Wellington Regional Stadium/Dave Jagger

The Nix are also known to relocate home matches to spread some of that fan culture to soccer-starved parts of New Zealand. During the pandemic, however, Phoenix were uprooted for reasons beyond their control. Travel expenses and lack of revenue put the club in jeopardy again – and again, they rode out the storm:

“After the two Covid-disrupted seasons playing in Wollongong over the ditch, I think a fair few fans worried we may not make it through financially to maintain our place in the league. To have football back in the capital last season was special, to see the performances this season has been a whole other level. It’s not quite Leicester City storming to the Premier League title but it’s in a similar ballpark… And now just two games to potentially go on and make history!”

Up until 2024, Nix history is best described as patchwork. After the hapless New Zealand Knights had struggled through the first two seasons of the A-League franchise, a later bankrupt entrepreneur by the name of Terry Serepisos stepped in to stump up more than a million New Zealand dollars to get Wellington Phoenix off the ground and into the big time.

Welcome to Wellington/Dave Jagger

That was in 2007. By 2011, Serepisos was billions in debt and desperate to offload The Nix, so in stepped a consortium led by Lloyd Morrison, a former Business Leader of the Year, alongside his brother, Rob, and two like-minded Wellington businessmen.

It was a brave move, although one facilitated by the club’s surroundings. The Westpac Stadium, as Sky Stadium was known until 2019, is right on the city’s picturesque waterfront, halfway between the main train station and Wellington Central. An urban buzz of bars, galleries and boutiques lies nearby, as well as the lower station of Wellington Cable Car. This is simply a great location to site a sports arena – as well as a great advertisement for the national capital.

Tragically, Lloyd Morrison would only live to see a few Phoenix games here before he succumbed to leukaemia. His brother and fellow co-owners have carried on his work in his memory.

Wellington Cable Car/Dave Jagger

The team’s post-pandemic return to Sky Stadium in May 2021 attracted 24,000 back to The Cake Tin. Two years later, it hosted nine games for the Women’s World Cup, crowds topping 32,000 for matches involving New Zealand and the quarter-final between Spain and Holland.

And now there’s the biggest night in Phoenix history. “To be fair, we’ve already achieved our highest A League finish,” says Dave, “and have never made the final four before, so it’s a massive success of a season whatever happens from here. The general standard of the A-League really feels like it has grown over the years that I’ve been attending, which I feel the fans appreciate, while also recognising the fighting spirit and tight bond which the current Phoenix squad has. It’s just an exciting time to be a Nix fan”.

There’s also a famous name on the teamsheet. Captain Alex Rufer is the son of another New Zealand international, Shane, and the nephew of the greatest player in the country’s history, Wynton, winner of a European trophy with Werder Bremen in 1992.

Wellington Regional Stadium/Dave Jagger

Man of the match in the first leg of the semi in Melbourne, Alex Rufer also converted the stoppage-time penalty to hold Victory to a draw during the regular season. “I think you’ve got to give a lot of credit to the work new coach Giancarlo ‘Chiefy’ Italiano and his team have done,” says Dave. “We thought we’d be able to rely on Oskar Zawada for goals but he’s had an injury-hit season. So, you really do have to look at how Chiefy has had the boys drilled and choosing a system which worked to our strengths.”

“We’ve been very solid at the back, able to soak up pressure without ever really looking like conceding, generating some really impressive wins and draws away from home. Add to that some top quality young players really showing what they’re made of this season, goalkeeper Alex Paulsen and attacking midfielder Ben Old in particular. Captain Alex Rufer is having a great year in central midfield, Kosta Barbarouses is hitting a fine run of goalscoring form and the excellent signing of Youstin Salas in January added bite to the midfield. It’s all kind of come together really.”

“We were widely tipped to have a poor season, likely to pick up the wooden spoon, after doing limited business in the close season and pretty much topping up the squad with promoting from the youth team. Didn’t someone once say, ‘you can’t win anything with kids’?”

Wellington Phoenix v Melboune Victory, Sky Stadium, Wellington. Saturday, May 18, 6.30pm local time. Tickets here .

The winner of the Victory-Phoenix semi-final tie face either Sydney FC or Central Coast Mariners in the Grand Final on Saturday, May 25, venue TBA.