‘Special’ moment in Wellington blows Phoenix coach away: ‘The best side of football’

Wellington Phoenix v Macarthur FC - Highlights | Isuzu UTE A-League 2023-24 | Round 26

The Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership race is still alive after Wellington Phoenix beat Macarthur FC 3-0 at Sky Stadium on Saturday night – a result that kept the ‘Nix on top of the table.

First-half goals to Kosta Barbarouses and Tim Payne set Wellington on course to a comfortable win over the Bulls, capped off by a stoppage-time penalty converted by Oskar Zawada.

But in the simultaneous kick-off in Newcastle, Central Coast Mariners recorded a 3-1 F3 Derby win over the Jets to ensure the gap at the top of the table remained at just one point.

Central Coast have one game left to play due to the postponement of their Round 25 clash with Adelaide United; the Mariners and the Reds face off in Gosford on Wednesday, May 1 in the final game of the regular season, needing just a draw to pip Wellington to the post in the Premiership race.

MARINERS WIN: Late Mariners flurry seals emphatic F3 Derby win to inch closer to Premiers Plate

The Phoenix had the early running at Sky Stadium and after a handful of half-chances, Barbarouses broke through to put the hosts on top.

Sam Sutton and Ben Old both had chances in quick succession, but Sutton skyed his half-volley over the bar and Old saw his right-footed attempt from distance saved by Filip Kurto.

David Ball put the ball in the back of the net in the 13th minute but an offside flag on Barbarouses in the build-up denied the ‘Nix but Giancarlo Italiano’s side kept the pressure rolling; Barbarouses threatened once again after a cut-back cross from Tim Payne but Kurto came to Macarthur’s rescue once more.

With 21 minutes on the clock, Barbarouses found the opening goal. Nicholas Pennington sent the in-form striker tearing in on goal with a pass through Macarthur’s defensive line and Barbarouses did the rest, slotting the ball into the bottom-left corner.

Macarthur captain Ulises Dávila almost brought his side back on level terms soon after but Alex Paulsen made the save – and down the other end, Wellington made the visitors pay.

A scything Phoenix move down the left wing resulted in an inviting cross from Old floated to the back post, where Payne steamed in to head Wellington into a two-goal lead.

Wellington fans had one eye on the simultaneous fixture in Newcastle as Central Coast played the Jets and when Newcastle striker Apostolos Stamatelopoulos levelled the score at 1-1 just minutes into the second half, a roar rung around Sky Stadium; a win for the ‘Nix and a Mariners loss on Saturday would have confirmed the New Zealand outfit as Premiers.

But as Wellington’s chances of lifting the Premiers Plate were boosted, Macarthur came out swinging to start the second half at Sky Stadium, heaping pressure on the hosts to keep their 2-0 lead intact.

“Come on Newcastle!” Chanted the Phoenix fans as they watched their side slowly but surely gain a foothold in the second half, while simultaneously willing the Jets to take the lead in the F3 Derby.

Wellington full-back Sam Sutton attempted to put his side out of sight with a curling attempt that just evaded the top corner, then Macarthur midfielder Jerry Skotadis – who has never scored an A-Leagues goal – almost broke his duck in the 71st minute with a shot from a tight angle which Paulsen tipped over the bar.

In Newcastle, quickfire goals to Harrison Steele and Ryan Edmondson put Central Coast back on top in the F3 Derby with less than 10 minutes to play in both games – but the ‘Nix, with their two-goal lead over Macarthur, still held a one-point advantage on the table.

It was then up to Italiano’s side to hold onto all three points and put pressure on the Mariners to get a result in the final game of the regular season: a catchup game from Round 25 against Adelaide United on Wednesday, May 1.

Wellington not only kept Macarthur off the scoresheet, but extended their lead to three goals in second-half stoppage time after Oskar Zawada won, then dispatched a penalty to wrap up a 3-0 win to the home side.

Saturday night’s game at Sky Stadium played out in front of 15,428 fans – the biggest home crowd at any Phoenix game this season – and after the full-time whistle, the Phoenix faithful were invited onto the pitch to meet their heroes, and to pose for a picture with the players and staff.

The special event led to incredible scenes which, when speaking in his post-game press conference, Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano admitted had blown him away.

After realising Central Coast had won the F3 Derby and denied the ‘Nix the chance to win the Premiership on Saturday, Italiano said his time spent mingling with the fans on the pitch reminded him that his team, that has smashed records through the club’s best ever Isuzu UTE A-League campaign, has truly impacted the Phoenix faithful along the journey so far.

“I thought it was great. Honestly, it cheered me up,” Italiano said. “Because again, this feeling – I mean, I’m proud of the group, I’m proud of the club, everyone that’s been involved this year, it’s been a great year – but that feeling at the end of the game, where we didn’t know where we sat, (it was) kind of a little bit uneasy.

“The fact that the club had the initiative to put the photo, and all of the fans were on the pitch, you kind of forget sometimes the impact that you have with fans… I don’t think I’ve had that many selfies in my life.

“So many happy kids, it was pleasing – that was the best side of football. You realise you touch so many people that you don’t meet, and then to have an opportunity to come and meet their favourite players, it was really good.”

Sky Sports commentator Jason Pine was on the pitch as the fans assembled for the post-game photo; as those fans buzzed around the Sky Sports panel, Pine took a moment to savour the scenes which, through his 17 years watching the Phoenix in the Isuzu UTE A-League, he’d never before encountered.

“I think it’s really special,” Pine said.

“I arrived at the ground today, and I’ve been coming here for 17 years watching this team since Ross Aloisi led them out on the 26th of August 2007… look behind us here. I think tonight, and this season, is for the fans. Particularly the ones that have been here since 2007, those who have grown up watching this team, watching Paul Ifill, Ben Sigmund, Roy Krishna and 170 others put in a shift.

“I feel like these players are all on the shoulders of those players.

“I think a large part of it has to go down to Giancarlo Italiano and what he’s managed to do. They really are greater than the sum of their parts, this team. At the start of the season we all know nobody gave this team a chance to be anywhere near the top two. They were talking about it was but there was no relegation, otherwise that’s where this team was going, through the trap door. Not a bit of it.

“They’ve come together, they’ve galvanised, they’ve believed, and they’ve provided some pretty special moments – and it’s not over. As we say, it’s not over. There’s a massive game – or games – to come in a couple of weeks, and I fully expect everybody behind us here, and many more to turn up for those.”