Nix welcome Auckland rivalry
Wellington Phoenix were officially playing at “home” when they hosted Melbourne City and Perth Glory in a double header at Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium, some 600km away from the capital, last weekend.
The Phoenix are eyeing another A-League Men match there against Sydney FC in March, but they will be stepping into enemy territory when they return to the venue next season.
The Phoenix have been New Zealand’s only professional football club since 2007 but that will no longer be the case, following confirmation that Auckland will be returning under a new entity bankrolled by American billionaire Bill Foley.
Auckland will field a team in the A-League Men as soon as next season (2024-25), but it will be another 12 months before they join the A-League Women.
So what will expansion into Auckland, the country’s largest city, mean for the Phoenix, who have had a monopoly over professional football in New Zealand?
They will have to up their game to ensure they remain the go-to New Zealand destination for aspiring professional footballers.
Despite making strong starts to their respective campaigns this season, the reality is the Phoenix have never won the A-League Men or Women, and Auckland’s arrival is only going to make it harder for them to compete for silverware.
The Phoenix will have a fight on their hands to secure the best local talent, to retain their large fanbase outside Wellington, and, perhaps most crucially, to attract precious sponsorship dollars.
However, they have a lot to gain from Auckland, too, and are welcoming the competition from the north.
As we have seen in Australia, local derbies are easily the highest attended matches and Wellington versus Auckland will be a new level for football in New Zealand, and should bring the crowds to Sky Stadium and Mt Smart Stadium.
“It’s healthy,” Phoenix coach Giancarlo Italiano said. “The competition drives expectations and standards.
“But the main thing is identity and any good club has a strong sense of self, and it’s very important we stick to what we are doing at the moment.”
Crucially for the Phoenix, they have a head start on Auckland and the biggest advantage they hold over their new rivals
is their academy programme, which has been in operation for 10 years.
Auckland will look to develop an academy of their own, but that will not happen overnight.
It is no coincidence that the Phoenix have placed a greater emphasis on developing young players from their own academy this season, who they hope to sell to overseas clubs in the future, as they have previously with Liberato Cacace, Sarpreet Singh and Ben Waine.
Money will not be an issue for Auckland. Foley has a net worth of $2.7 billion. He has already stated that Auckland will be among the top spenders, promising to sign two marquee players and to utilise all five import spots.
“I can tell you this, we will be successful,” Foley boldly declared during his first public appearance as Auckland owner. “We are not in this to be bottom of the league, we are in this to win it.”
The Phoenix have already moved quickly to safeguard their squad by locking in the bulk of their best young players to long-term deals, including Aucklanders Alex Paulsen and Ben Old.
One key area where Auckland’s presence could hurt the Phoenix is on the commercial side.
The Phoenix’s current commercial manager is based in Auckland and some of their biggest sponsorship deals were made under the proviso that they would take a couple of matches to Auckland every season, like we saw last weekend.
It’s now likely they will look to other parts of the country, like Christchurch.
In a strange way, having Auckland come in and splash the cash on marquees and senior All Whites could be a good thing for the Phoenix, as it would create a clear point of difference between the two clubs and leave them to focus on developing young players, a model for which they are already reaping the rewards.
It’s also worth remembering that money doesn’t always equal success either, especially in a salary-capped league. Central Coast Mariners were the lowest spenders in the A-League Men last season and still won the championship.