It’s taken almost twelve years, but finally a New Zealand team has maintained a top-two position in an Australian national football league ladder.
After rising into second place on this season’s ladder recently, the Wellington Phoenix are currently enjoying their best Hyundai A-league season yet, after joining the competition in 2007.
It’s effectively the best position a New Zealand-based team has been in since the Auckland-based Football Kingz first represented the country in the old National Soccer League (NSL) in 1999.
The Football Kingz, who had Oceania player of the century Wynton Rufer as player-coach in their initial NSL season, finished mid-table in their first two NSL seasons 1999/2000 and 2000/01, before enduring bottom-three placings in their remaining three seasons 2001/02 to 2003/04.
Technically, the Football Kingz did once briefly hit the top of a NSL ladder,but that was after just two matches of the 2002/03 season. The Kingz then went on a six-match winless streak, dropping down to tenth on the NSL ladder after eight rounds, where they hovered until the end of that season.
Foundation A-League club New Zealand Knights (2005/06 to 2006/07) battled on for two seasons with very limited success. In fact, in losing all matches from rounds four to fourteen in the first A-League season 2005/06, the Knights set an A-League record of most consecutive losing games (11) – a dubious record that still stands.
And in not winning from round three 2005/06 to round two 2006/07, the Knights’ winless streak of 19 also remains an all-time A-League record.
In their two seasons, the New Zealand Knights won just six matches – amazingly half of these victories occurred in the club’s last five games. Not so amazingly is that this was the short period that current Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert took the helm at the Knights, after Barry Campbell had departed the Knights’ head coaching post with five matches remaining in in 2006/07.
Even though it took 23 years after the start of the NSL in 1977 for a New Zealand club to join the national league, the Kiwi influence was there in the national league from the beginning.
Foundation NSL club Brisbane Lions recruited three players from New Zealand for its 1977 campaign, Phil Dando, Roy Drinkwater and Ian Park.
In the NSL’s first five seasons 1977 to 1981, 17 players from New Zealand played in the national league, although it’s interesting to note that most of these players had previously come from England.
The large number of New Zealand players in the early NSL years formed the basis of the 1982 New Zealand FIFA World Cup squad, the country’s first appearance in the World Cup.
Several New Zealand players helped clubs reach NSL Championship glory.
Vaughan Coveny, who amassed 111 goals in 364 NSL matches, assisted South Melbourne to three grand finals, including two victories in 1998 and 1999.
Striker Fred De Jong played three seasons for Marconi from 1988 to 1990, and has the impressive record of playing in grand finals in each of these NSL seasons, including winning grand final teams in 1988 and 1989.
Another New Zealander with major NSL honours is Robbie Ironside, whose 218 NSL games included assisting Sydney Olympic to its first NSL Championship in 1990.
The Kiwis’ football focus this year is the fine run of the Phoenix.
If Wellington were to retain its top-two placing at the end of the season, a Major Semi Final appearance awaits – with A-League Grand Final hosting rights for the winner.
It would be the first time any Australian-based national football competition would hold its grand final in New Zealand.
The Wellington locals love to come out for big games, with almost 33,000 attending the 2010 minor semi final against the Jets, and nearly 32,000 for an exhibition match against Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007.
Based on the large and passionate support that the Phoenix has shown it can get in big matches, a grand final at Westpac Stadium would be a massive event, and would be sure to sell out the 35,000-seat venue.
And based on some of the fine football played by the Phoenix so far this season, a grand final victory in 2012 is certainly not out of the question.
Follow Andrew Howe’s Aussie football stats updates on Twitter @AndyHowe_statto