Evolution of the Kiwis
For too long, football-lovers in New Zealand have accepted mediocrity. But with Phoenix evolving and building for the future, things are changing across the Tasman.
Constructive criticism is a healthy thing, and right now Ricki Herbert has been getting plenty of it as the New Zealand football community debates the value of his work with Wellington Phoenix. Whether it's come from fans, the media or even his employers, Herbert's coaching performance is becoming the subject of unprecedented scrutiny.
In general terms, this is a good thing. One of my long-held frustrations with the game across the Tasman has been the absence of a genuine footballing culture. Perhaps this has something to do with a lack of ambition.
For far too long, football-lovers in New Zealand have blithely accepted mediocrity. It's a culture that has allowed players, coaches and administrators to escape responsibility.
The fourth estate might have changed this unfortunate dynamic long before now, but the media, too, has generally avoided its responsibility.
Journalists who understand the game have historically struggled for a platform, while those who don't know the game and do have the platform either ignore it, or take cheap shots when it's down.
The narrative - and New Zealand football does have a compelling story to tell - has too often been buried in the confusion.
But the arrival of the Phoenix, and the scarcely believable achievement from the All Whites in becoming the only undefeated team at the last World Cup, seems to have changed all that. The bar's been raised, and that's providing the spark for the game to grow up.
There's now a lot more enthusiasm, and determination, to find the road map to take football to where it needs to go.
At the heart of this process is Herbert, who as coach of both the national team, and the nation's only professional club, has emerged as the most powerful man in the game. Which, of course, means he's got a target on his back. And lately, there have been plenty of arrows fired in his direction.
Personally, I've never been one for making coaches heroes, or villains, with nothing in-between. A good performance, or a good result, is the product of a multitude of factors. Sadly, in the internet age, there is a bloodlust for blame. If something goes wrong, someone has to pay.
The challenge for Herbert is to separate the good criticism from the bad.
There are those who just want his head on a plate, while others simply want to help him steer the Phoenix in a new direction. It's easy to say, and difficult to do, but he needs to make sure he doesn't let the ragged edge of the discussion draw him into a defensive shell.
It's better if he remains open-minded to the constructive, legitimate, part of the debate. The signs are he's figured that out.
So what does the game across the Tasman need, and want, from the Phoenix?
Essentially, to have them playing more sophisticated football, with more Kiwis involved. The assumption being this is the best way forward to engage the football community in a far deeper, more meaningful, way.
If the business of the Phoenix is to become sustainable in the long-term, then those paying the bills need more paying spectators, more sponsors, more viewers and more publicity. Theoretically, an exciting, homegrown, team creates the opportunity for that.
Guess what? It's already happening. Slowly, yes, but it's happening all the same. Against Central Coast Mariners, there were seven Kiwis in the starting eleven. Only twice before (against Perth Glory and Adelaide United during the 2008-09 season), have the Phoenix fielded the same percentage of homegrown talent.
Perhaps more importantly, two teenagers - Louis Fenton and Tyler Boyd - were among the standouts. Historically, there's been a legitimate gripe that not enough young Kiwis have been given their chance.
Credit Herbert, then, for starting to change that perception. And when you consider Tom Biss and Luke Rowe have also been given Hyundai A-League debuts this season, then it's clear things are moving in the right direction.
There's also been progress in style. Mariners coach Graham Arnold was effusive in his praise of Wellington's performance against his league-leaders.
''They played the best football I've ever seen from a Phoenix side, there wasn't much long ball, it was all about playing out from the back,'' he told us.
The return from injury of a non-Kiwi, Dani Sanchez, is a factor, but it's still another encouraging sign.
Behind the scenes, structures are being put in place to support the vision. The Phoenix academy, now numbering eight players, will double in size over the next six months.
Down the track, we can expect some sort of merger with ASB Premiership side Team Wellington to create a 'reserve' side, while satellite academies in Christchurch and Auckland are also part of the long-term planning.
Big-picture issues such as clearing the path for the Phoenix to participate in a qualifying process for the FIFA World Cup, and developing a meaningful relationship with the Oceania Football Confederation, remain a work in progress.
The point is this. People are demanding more from Herbert, and Wellington Phoenix, and within the framework of constructive criticism that's fair enough. But it also needs to be acknowledged that Herbert, and the Phoenix, are listening, and acting.
Right now Wellington are one win outside the top six, with more games at home than away over the second half of the season. Short-term, there's no reason to despair. Long-term, there's a lot to be excited about. Stay tuned.