New Zealand’s ‘new chapter of football’ is now clear: ‘It’s going to be something’

Once the Semi-Final heartbreak subsides, Wellington Phoenix players, staff and fans alike will look back on the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League season, and smile.

The ultimate goal was the Grand Final, and securing the first piece of silverware in the club’s 17-year history. A shock home defeat to Melbourne Victory in the second leg of the Semi-Finals prevented that dream from becoming reality – but amid the wreckage of Wellington’s premature post-season exit, comes the promise of what’s to come in the future.

Make no mistake: under head coach Giancarlo Italiano, this Phoenix side will be back.

Paramount+ analyst Grace Gill had just watched Wellington’s fairytale run to the Semi-Finals come to an end at Sky Stadium on Saturday night, when she painted an optimistic picture of the years ahead for a club on the up.

“I think the Wellington community, the crowd there, the fans, they will be so, so incredibly proud of what that team has achieved across the course of the season,” Gill said.

“As an outsider looking in, as a neutral looking at that result and what they’ve done as well, you look at it with admiration. Because they’ve exceeded every single expectation that was put upon them, not just in the way they’ve played and come together, but they’ve captured the hearts of the A-League fans.”

MATCH REPORT: INSTANT CLASSIC! Victory end Phoenix fairy tale to reach Grand Final after 120-minute thriller
PENALTY DRAMA: Commentators stunned as penalty chaos turns Semi-Final upside down

Wellington lost 2-1 to Melbourne Victory in Saturday’s Semi-Final, in front of 33,297 fans – an all-time record A-Leagues crowd in Wellington.

A city united behind a team with a deep connection to its community; many of the best Phoenix performers this season have come from the club’s academy, and have thrived under Italiano who, in his first season as a professional head coach, has gone about his business with a sense of authenticity not often seen from coaches in the spotlight.

“Giancarlo Italiano has epitomised what this team has done across the course of the season. He has been a real pleasure to watch, and a real pleasure to have in our league,” Gill added.

“What a benchmark he’s set for himself. He’s been a breath of fresh air. He speaks with a level of authenticity and genuine nature that seems so kind and so considerate. Everything he’s done over the course of the year has been so measured and so insightful, and he’s actually let the community and the fans in on a bit of that journey. I think that’s a rarity in today’s game.

“I think he’ll have a really fruitful career. – I hope he continues with Wellington Phoenix for many, many years to come – because what a start he’s got his side off to in his first year as a head coach in the league.”

Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano.

One of Wellington’s best performers this season has been their captain Alex Rufer, who in Saturday’s Semi-Final missed a penalty that would’ve put his side 1-0 ahead in the second half of regular time.

It ultimately wasn’t to be for Rufer or the Phoenix. 

Victory keeper Paul Izzo produced yet another moment of Finals Series heroism to deny Rufer from the spot. Adama Traore hadn’t scored an A-Leagues goal in more than 10 years, but broke that drought with along-range stunner to put Victory on top.

Oskar Zawada found a 99th minute equaliser to give the hosts hope but then, Wellington’s typically rigid, steadfast defence failed to deal with a relatively simple corner routine that led to Chris Ikonomidis’ winning goal.

Taking stock after the defeat, Rufer expressed his gratitude to the 33,000-strong crowd that sold out the ‘Cake Tin’ on a night that the Phoenix captain summed up best with two words: “That’s football.”

“Extremely gutted, but that’s what can happen,” he added. “I’m extremely proud of the team, extremely proud of everyone at the club, the fans. What a season.

“What we got tonight was a blessing and a bonus for the football we’ve played all year. Extremely thankful and proud we got the support we did tonight, I think we deserved it. I think Wellington deserved it.

“I hope we put on a good show – it might not be the result we wanted, but I hope they can walk away proud knowing we gave it absolutely everything. We didn’t leave anything out there. It might not be the result, but we can hold our heads high.”

Paramount+ analyst watched on as Rufer fronted the cameras and lauded the Wellington leader for putting his side’s monumental season into context after such a deflating result.

“Great captain – and it clearly means a lot to him, leading this team,” Harper said. 

“It means a lot to him being at the arrowhead of this campaign – and such a good campaign – and he spoke very eloquently. 

“Now, we wait to see what’s next for Wellington. They’ve now created over the last little period this wonder about what Wellington can be.

“Auckland come into the comp next year, and the New Zealand derbies are going to be something. You can’t expect anything different.

“Rufer will lead the team into that new chapter of football in the country, and what a great bloke to do it. I think he’s been immense.”

Phoenix players applaud the home fans after Saturday night’s Semi-Final defeat.