Have you ever wondered why the Toronto franchises of the Raptors, the Blue Jays, and the Maple Leafs are all participants in American sports leagues? The same comparisons can be drawn with Australia and New Zealand.
When the A-League was officially established in 2004, the New Zealand Knights gained access and were touted as a promising market to tap into. Once they collapsed, a new license was awarded to the Wellington Phoenix over two years later, which has seen the club reach the finals eight times in their 16-season existence.
Questions were asked about the future of the Phoenix almost a decade ago, but 2023 has proven to be a turning point for a club unfamiliar with success and the limelight.
Hosting an outstanding FIFA Women’s World Cup and the announcement of Auckland as the newest member of Australia’s first tier, New Zealand football has never found itself in a more exciting position.
On the field, the men’s side currently sit in first place after 10 rounds to cement their status as the most surprising outperformers. As for the women, their story is arguably considered the most remarkable given the circumstances.
Arriving as a fresh face to the Liberty A-League for the 2021/22 campaign, Wellington could only manage five wins in their first two seasons in what was a very inexperienced squad.
Now, with their feet firmly planted on the ground, the Nix are taking the league by storm through their entertaining brand of football – rewarded with a spot in third place for their efforts thus far.
Implementing the tactics and a cohesive team environment is English-born manager Paul Temple who has done nothing but impress with his coaching ideology.
Speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, Temple explained his involvement with the Phoenix setup spanning almost eight years ago, which helped him settle and adapt.
“I was approached back in 2016 to become the academy director whilst I was living in Auckland at the time,” Temple told The Inner Sanctum.
“Being the only professional club in the country was too good of an opportunity to turn down, so my family followed me a few months later and we relocated ourselves to Wellington where I’ve been here ever since.
“It was around April at the end of last season that the board approached me for the coaching position to take charge of the women’s team and from the end of May I was chosen for the vacant role.”
Already acclimatised to the structure behind the scenes involving the youth academies and the hierarchy, Temple was fortunate enough to be exposed to the club’s culture before he accepted his current job.
The 41-year-old openly shared his first impressions when he first arrived at the Phoenix all those years ago.
“I was super impressed with the people involved within the club and I think straight away that was the biggest factor that reassured me,” he said.
“At that point in 2016, there was no academy or a women’s team to work with, so Ernie Merrick was the manager at the time and was an incredible person; very kind and welcoming, so I learned a lot from him.
“Over time we’ve built adequate facilities and grown the academies from where they once were in 2016, and now we sit here at this magnificent NZCIS (The New Zealand Campus of Innovation and Sport) multi-million dollar facility, so we have all the resources at our disposal which we’re extremely grateful for.”
Last week’s 2-0 victory at home to the Newcastle Jets cemented Wellington’s fifth win after nine matches, equalling their total wins in their first two seasons combined.
Spearheaded by the Venezuelan brilliance of Mariana Speckmaier and the longest-serving player of the club, Mackenzie Barry, are just some of the names who are leading the Phoenix.
Even though the wheels admittedly fell off during the latter stages of some contests due to inexperience last season, the Phoenix led in a handful of games and stayed competitive throughout, showing that talent and ability were never an issue.
How much has this current crop of players grown from a maturity aspect in Temple’s view?
“The team is definitely in a state of change,” Temple admitted.
“When you go through massive change as a team and in this instance as a club, you’re bound to come across scenarios which are not perfect, meaning it’s our responsibility to work our way through it as there’s a lot to manage.
“There’s been a change in management like myself and the rest of the staff, a change in personnel in the playing group with about half of the squad brand new since the first season, we’ve got new cultures and Visa players from overseas, and also add in the new playing style which is thrown into the pot.
“It’s amazing how well the players have adapted to so much change all at one time because usually it can be challenging adjusting to one new piece of change in a short period of time.
“We’ve been able to play well on the pitch and pick up some positive results from the patterns of play that are really starting to shine which is fantastic to see the progress occur so quickly.”
Considered a breath of fresh air to the competition largely due to the exciting football that is sweeping the Phoenix, there is almost a sense of fearlessness within the team who seem unafraid of any opposition.
The level of high-quality football being produced has not been an overnight thing, and Temple described the style of play that has been gradually implemented within the system.
“We want our football to be fun to play and exciting to watch,” said Temple.
“For us, it’s important for the fans to get behind us and enjoy watching the Phoenix which means performing with high energy, demonstrating attack-minded football, energetic forward runs, precise passing, and bravery to consistently play the same way.
“Those are some of the foundations that we feel as though are critical to match up against anyone in the league.
“Because we finished bottom of the table last season, we didn’t want to approach this new campaign with the attitude of ‘these sort of teams we’ll play our football against them but then these clubs we won’t because it’s too difficult; instead our aim was to come up with a long-term strategy to give us an identity to work with on the pitch.”
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Throughout the off-season, clubs such as Brisbane Roar have been open to sharing the cultural changes they’ve made to the women’s program, which includes aligning it with the men’s system.
Asked whether any changes immediately stood out to be rectified, Temple insisted it’s a club effort.
“I wouldn’t say I’m specifically responsible for that particular area, but I do think as a club we’ve made a massive shift in focus on fundamental aspects,” he said.
“In the first two seasons before I arrived, New Zealand Football had a huge say in what the playing squad and staff should look like. That involved handing youngsters an opportunity to develop and experience first-team action, especially leading into the Women’s World Cup.
“Now that the World Cup has finished, the club has taken onboard full ownership of the team in terms of fully embracing that one-club philosophy where we’re doing things collectively and ensuring that everyone is working in the same building.
“Both the men’s and women’s squads are sharing facilities and gym equipment, rehabbing together after sustaining injuries, and we train an hour apart which is great because our sessions overlap and both teams will see each other on the field.
“We’re still in the process of growing and improving in that respect, but it’s been a massive step in the right direction and the team has felt that connection with the wider club for sure.”
Social media activity is an important tool to utilise in today’s modern world of technology to bond with football supporters who crave exclusive access.
Not often do managers in any capacity of the game intend to openly express their ideas and opinions on public platforms, with Temple one of the few exceptions as he justified the significance of connecting with the Wellington fanbase on socials.
“I just think that people who follow the team will consume their information in different ways,” Temple said.
“We organise weekly press conferences before a game where journalists will ask questions, but not everyone is going to go on YouTube to seek out that press conference and listen to everything I say.
“If I can provide an oversight on social media into how I’m feeling or how the team is coping after the game, then it’s different from a press conference or a post-match interview which is where I see the benefit of online platforms because it enables me to connect with people who follow the team in that specific way.
“It’s another outlet in which I can convey my messages and get people to understand where our minds are currently at in a particular moment as well as some insight into the recent matches we played.
“We’ve got a fantastic fanbase and we want to keep growing that because we want people and Kiwis overseas to follow the Phoenix. If we can get a whole bunch of Australians whose second favourite team is Wellington because of the way we want to play then that’s always a good thing.”
Uncertainty and the lack of expectation heading into the 2023/24 season has all of a sudden flipped on its head as the Phoenix are now genuine challengers to achieve their first-ever finals appearance.
It was such a surprise that Temple didn’t know what to expect, given the fluctuating movements both on and off the pitch.
“Interestingly, we didn’t have any goals set for the season in terms of where we wanted to be in certain stages.
“I guess because of all of the changes that I spoke about, we were pretty unsure as to where we would end up, as you just don’t know how long those changes are going to take to kick in.
“In the end, I didn’t want to set the expectations too low or too high; it was really just a case of reaffirming the point of trying to attack in every match and be positive in the way we play to give ourselves the best possible chance of succeeding.
“Once we play every team once, then it will help shed light on a rough idea of how competitive we can be as we’ve proven to ourselves in the first nine games that we do have what it takes.
“I hope that come the end of the season, people start to fear the Phoenix and dread having to play against in the playoffs which is where we want to be.”