Is this football or a soap opera?

8:14 am on 25 December 2015

OPINION: Following the A-League often feels like watching an endless TV medical soap.

The Wellington Phoenix pose for a team photo in the A-League football match vs Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium on Sunday 19 December 2015. Copyright Photo by Marty Melville /

The Wellington Phoenix pose for a team photo with a supporters' banner aimed at the FFA unfurled behind them Photo: Photosport

Crisis follows crisis. Everyone - players, coaches, commentators, even fans - race around doing everything possible to detect and support signs of life.

Commentators struggle for interesting things to say about dour performances. Players huff and puff. Fans take off their shirts in arctic conditions. Officials promise a big future.

Everyone puts in the effort but this feels laboured of late.

The league appears to be plateauing.

Wellington Phoenix captain Andrew Durante in action against Sydney FC at Westpac Stadium on Sunday the 19th of December 2015. Copyright Photo by Marty Melville /

Wellington Phoenix captain Andrew Durante Photo: Photosport

For the Wellington Phoenix, most of the action this season has taken place off the pitch.

The licence renewal impasse - which still might prove fatal - overshadowed the first half of the campaign and is likely to loom large over the second.

Bubbling away in the background have been a number of connected issues, including the suspicion that the Australians really don't want or need a resurgent Phoenix in the league, and the limp relationship between the highly-professional Phoenix outfit and the Captain Mainwarings who run New Zealand Football.

Captain Mainwaring

Is Captain Mainwaring involved in New Zealand Football? Photo: Supplied

The controversy over banned A-League fans and the Phoenix's punishing travel schedule to the Outback have also sucked attention from the football.

It makes for an untidy and distracting time for those who hoped the Wellington side would step up this year as genuine A-League contenders.

That hasn't happened and for several reasons is unlikely to this campaign.

The Phoenix are a well-coached side, with strong and stable ownership, and on their rare best days can outwit, if not outplay, the best in the league.

Phoenix head coach Ernie Merrick

Wellington Phoenix head coach Ernie Merrick Photo: Photosport

The smash-and-grab job on Melbourne Victory in Auckland in early December was a highlight and showed both the gutsiness of the team and coach Ernie Merrick's craftiness. The Phoenix's clinical suppression of the Victory's playmakers deep in opposition territory unsettled a classy team.

But the Phoenix are inconsistent, find the travel and heat a bit too much, defend poorly from corners and concede too many late goals. Injuries to key players haven't helped.

A mid-table finish scrapping for fifth or sixth looks likely, as does a short run in the playoffs.

There have been positives. Roy Krishna has been a constant threat. The Fijian star is now physically and mentally stronger and is scoring every second game.

Phoenix striker Roy Krishna

Phoenix striker Roy Krishna Photo: Photosport

Roly Bonevacia is among the best midfielders in the league and Michael McGlinchey, Andrew Durante, Albert Riera and Glen Moss have performed. And in Justin Gulley they might have found a decent fullback, something of a Holy Grail for the side.

The weaknesses defending wide and at set-pieces seem intractable and the Phoenix ultimately probably lack the depth and class to make a real impact this campaign. Too often they look listless.

If the Phoenix are to prove me wrong, Merrick will probably need to sign a striker who can support Krishna up front and score goals.

Roly Bonevacia (right)

Roly Bonevacia (R) is among the best midfielders in the A-League. Photo: Photosport

But who knows? The Phoenix may have the worst of the travel and injuries under their belts, star import Jeffrey Sarpong could emerge from hibernation and some of the young talent on the bench might flourish if given the chance.

We live in hope about what happens on the field. The key moves, however, are likely to continue to take place in the boardroom.

One final thought: the trumpeting of the A-League as a high-quality competition has sounded hollow this year, given lacklustre attendances and TV audiences and ongoing financial problems at several clubs.

The Phoenix have plenty of challenges on their plate but perhaps the bigger question is whether the league itself is able to improve, connect strongly with fans and become a blockbuster instead of a soap opera.

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