Ifill at home with underdogs

Paul Ifill has always been a fan of the underdog so perhaps it comes as no surprise that he has thrived since joining Wellington Phoenix.

Paul Ifill has always been a fan of the underdog so perhaps it comes as no surprise that he has thrived since joining Wellington Phoenix.

Ifill, a Newcastle United fan since the early 90s after dabbling with Tottenham as a child, admits one of his early football memories was cheering on Cameroon against England at the World Cup in 1990.

"I cried when Cameroon got knocked out because I wanted Roger Miller to play in the final," he revealed.

"I always liked the underdogs and the player in each of those teams who seemed to excel. I also remember Hugo Sanchez from Mexico."

Some would perhaps suggest Ifill fills that role at the Phoenix who were written off as playoff contenders by most at the start of the season.

Yet with just six games of the regular season to go the Phoenix sit fifth and are in a good position to make the Hyundai A-League finals series for the first time.

Much of that is down to Ifill's contribution since arriving in July last year.

He quickly became a crowd favourite not just for his goal-scoring - he's bagged eight so far this season - but also for his work-rate and his ability to create goals for his team-mates too.

He says he has not enjoyed his football so much since the FA Cup run he had with Millwall in 2004 where it was beaten by Manchester United at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

"I just think I'm fortunate that I've come to a league that plays this style of football. I'm really fortunate to come to a club that is so well run and has such a good bunch of lads," he said.

"Barring when I started at Millwall, every club I've been to there are cliques and there are a few people you don't get on with but they are your team-mates so you have to."

"Here there is nobody I dislike. Straight away the lads made me feel welcome."

When Ifill and fellow import Chris Greenacre arrived from the UK the burden of expectation to fill the gap left by Shane Smeltz was high - and it didn't go unnoticed by the former Barbadian international.

"You get here and find out the lad that's just left has won the Johnny Warren Medal and is the league's top scorer and then he goes and starts the season on fire, scores nine goals in about four games, and it's, 'oh my God what have I stepped into here?'," he said with a grin.

"But speaking to Chris we always had faith in our own ability. We thought it might take a little bit of time to settle in but we both believed given a little run - and especially myself getting a little bit of fitness - the goals would come."

"Thankfully they have and so far I think we've done well."

"We can always kick on. There's another six games to go and it would be nice to get a few more goals."

Ifill's mum, Christine, would surely agree. She has been able to keep tabs on her son's efforts from half-a-world away via a website set up by Ifill and his girlfriend Elle.

"My mum shaped my career for me," says Ifill, who also excelled at the 400 metres and triple jump as a youngster.

"From an early age she would be driving me around everywhere. She was always there. If she could get out here she'd be coming to games every week. I think she misses watching me play football more than missing me to speak to and see."

Ifill is aware that at 30 he is coming towards the end of a career that has already spanned over a decade.

While his mum has been a vital part of that he also credits Millwall managers Keith Stevens and Mark McGhee and players Dennis Wise and Kevin Muscat as having had a big influence on him as a player.

"(Wise and Muscat) were two players who led by example. If you can't learn off those you can't learn off anybody," he said.

He sees himself in a similar role at the Phoenix, particularly for youngsters Costa Barbarouses and Marco Rojas, and it's one that he relishes.

"Coming from where I've come from and being fortunate to have played for who I've played for and with you've got to try and give something back," he explained.

"I think it's unfortunate that we haven't got a youth team because I'd like to cut my teeth a little bit and do a bit of coaching. I'd love to stay in the afternoon and help out with a bunch of kids."

Ifill is also keen to play a continuing role in New Zealand football.

"To be honest before I came out here I didn't really have too much idea about what I wanted to do (in the future). Seeing the way the game is taking off out here I think it's a good time as any to start thinking about getting involved."

"With New Zealand making the World Cup they are going to put money into it, everyone is going to get behind it, the fans are all excited."

"It's a good time for football in New Zealand and I'd like to be part of that somehow."