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Nix v Sydney-42-credit to PhotomacOne of the bold­est and most innov­at­ive ven­tures ever seen in Wel­ling­ton is almost upon us.

On 26 July, the Wel­ling­ton Phoenix will host two Eng­lish Premi­er League teams on the same day. This is the cli­max to Foot­ball United, a week-long cel­eb­ra­tion of the ‘beau­ti­ful game’, also fea­tur­ing matches in Auck­land and Dunedin.

Good things take time and this event has been two years in the mak­ing. It was in 2012 that Phoenix FC, backed by own­ers Wel­nix, first star­ted approach­ing Eng­lish Premi­er League clubs dir­ectly to see if they were inter­ested in com­ing out to New Zea­l­and in the 2013 off-sea­son. That time­frame proved to be too ambi­tious, not helped by the fact that it coin­cided with the appoint­ment of new Phoenix head coach Ernie Mer­rick, repla­cing found­a­tion man­ager Ricki Herbert.

David Dome Headshot       Things got more ser­i­ous last Decem­ber when Phoenix CEO Dav­id Dome made his first trip to Eng­land to add the face-to-face ele­ment to nego­ti­ations. By this stage the Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil was fully on board as it real­ised what was on offer in terms of con­firm­ing Wellington’s repu­ta­tion as the centre of foot­ball in New Zea­l­and, and reaf­firm­ing its abil­ity to host big inter­na­tion­al events.

From there, months of plan­ning ensued, includ­ing pro­trac­ted nego­ti­ations and middle-of-the-night phone calls. More clubs were ini­tially going to be involved before the final details were con­firmed with New­castle United and West Ham United. Everything has been planned to the ulti­mate detail, and now loc­al foot­ball fans eagerly await two clubs from the Eng­lish Premi­er league play­ing in Wel­ling­ton at the same ground on the same day. Try even ima­gin­ing that five years ago.

It is hard to think of two Premi­er League clubs that can provide bet­ter value for the Phoenix’s money for this venture.

New­castle United is a club rich in his­tory, with play­ers like Jack­ie Mil­burn, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle, Kev­in Kee­gan and Alan Shear­er, and man­ager Bobby Rob­son, all house­hold names in dif­fer­ent eras. The club is also one of the most widely fol­lowed glob­ally and until the last three years was rated in the top 20 of all foot­ball clubs world­wide. On and off the pitch things have been a little bit sham­bol­ic over the last few sea­sons, but life­time fans, wheth­er here or in Aus­tralia, do not desert a club like New­castle United in a hurry. The fact that the All Blacks are play­ing a match at the club’s home ground, St James’ Park, in next year’s Rugby World Cup is a remind­er of the mar­ket­ing pulling power of New­castle United (if one was needed).

The second-best Eng­land team to con­test a World Cup, the semi-final­ists of 1990, was built around Beard­s­ley, Waddle and Gascoigne, all New­castle play­ers at one time or anoth­er. But the best Eng­land World Cup team was, of course, built around West Ham United, as their fans will remind you at every pos­sible oppor­tun­ity. The core of that 1966 World Cup-win­ning side were Ham­mers Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Mar­tin Peters, but more recently names like Billy Bonds, Joe Cole, Tre­vor Brook­ing, Paolo Di Canio and… um… Win­ston Reid have been chanted from the East End grand­stands. West Ham has a repu­ta­tion for being every New Zealander’s second team, and is a team with a stronger fol­low­ing in New Zea­l­and than in any oth­er coun­try. So why is that?

New Zea­l­and has affec­tion for the under­dog, espe­cially a styl­ish under­dog. Put­ting aside the sig­ni­fic­ant ex-Cock­ney expat com­munity here, there is the tra­di­tion­al jour­ney of Kiwis who have come late to the attrac­tions of the beau­ti­ful game. The jour­ney of the aver­age New Zea­l­and male goes some­thing like this: through school — and for a few years after­wards — immersed in rugby; arrives in Eng­land for a spot of OE; cheap­er accom­mod­a­tion is in the East End of Lon­don; finds a flat, gets work, finds a foot­ball club to sup­port and looks around. And bingo: you have a Ham­mers fan for life, blow­ing bubbles all the way from Lon­don back to Wellington.

Adding the Win­ston Reid factor is the icing on the cake. The Phoenix delib­er­ately did not make the approach to West Ham via Reid, pre­fer­ring instead to go through ortho­dox chan­nels. But once the All White inter­na­tion­al and 2013 fan-voted Ham­mer of the Year was brought on board, he act­ively pro­moted the idea with­in the club.

Celebration-2 sml

The oth­er bonus adding loc­al fla­vour is the trans­fer of Yel­low Fever’s favour­ite hero-vil­lain Shane Smeltz to Sydney FC, who play New­castle United in Duned­in dur­ing the tour

Both of the Premi­er League busi­nesses have com­pletely bought into Foot­ball United, accord­ing to Dome. Pre-sea­son tour­na­ments play an increas­ingly large part of clubs’ rev­en­ue-gath­er­ing and mar­ket­ing oppor­tun­it­ies. Over the last 20 years, Manchester United have led the way in this and the oth­er clubs are now catch­ing up. For example, last year’s vis­it to Mel­bourne by Liv­er­pool is rumoured to have come with a $5 mil­lion appear­ance fee alone.

New­castle and West Ham won’t be char­ging any­thing like that, but when you start adding up all the costs you arrive at some large num­bers. Both clubs will travel with an entour­age of around 40 people. As Dome points out, “Busi­ness class air travel, five-star accom­mod­a­tion; this is not a cheap exer­cise.” Then con­sider that the appear­ance fee still makes up the major­ity of the cost involved.
Captain Fabricio Coloccini            New­castle United has been involved in such exped­i­tions before, but recently got burnt in a tour­na­ment in South­east Asia. “New Zea­l­and may not be so lucrative,
but the money is banked, and the sur­round­ings are more famil­i­ar,” says Dome. West Ham’s back­ground in pre-sea­son glob­al ven­tures is not quite so strong. For example, last year their pre-sea­son matches were in the Repub­lic of Ire­land. How­ever, the club is about to shift its home ground to the 2012 Lon­don Olympic Sta­di­um. They are up there with the big boys now.

The site vis­its have been com­pleted, and the logist­ics final­ised. Accord­ing to Dome it helps when the hotels involved can say, “Well this is what we do when the All Blacks and Walla­bies stay here.” The teams have even chosen their set menus, although they are nowhere near as demand­ing as the Eng­land crick­et team in Aus­tralia last year, with their 84 pages of detailed require­ments. This is a pre-sea­son tour­na­ment where play­ers are get­ting the fit­ness up: it’s pasta all round.

Plan­ning around the day itself kicked off months ago. Eng­lish Premi­er League sides in 2014 are a cos­mo­pol­it­an affair. Embassies have jumped at the chance to be involved dur­ing the day, with Italy, Brazil, Argen­tina and oth­ers lin­ing up to show­case their coun­tries, and  to bask in the reflec­ted glory of their nation­als play­ing out in the middle. A foot­ball World Cup reminds us of the glob­al nature of the sport, and dip­lo­mat­ic staff do love a good party.
Yoan Gouffran is tracked by Raheem SterlingWel­ling­ton City Coun­cil is strongly involved, and not just fin­an­cially. All seni­or club foot­ball is can­celled that after­noon and col­lege foot­ball is tak­ing a leni­ent stance to teams who default that day. The fan zones for both clubs sold out in May and, although it will be hard to get a fully accur­ate fig­ure, it is estim­ated that around 4,000 people will travel here from Aus­tralia for the games.

The oth­er inter­na­tion­al vis­it­ors will be our friends rep­res­ent­ing the UK media. Tick­et­ing and accred­it­a­tion passes for the Wel­ling­ton games are restric­ted to one rep­res­ent­at­ive per organ­isa­tion, which is some­thing you do not often see. This tour is right in the middle of the trans­fer win­dow, so rumours will fol­low the teams around, along with the tabloid journ­al­ists doing what tabloid journ­al­ists do.

The pay-per-view deal with Sky is also a bit of a water­shed in the fast-chan­ging busi­ness of how sport is broad­cast in New Zea­l­and, as this is the first time a non-pugil­ist sport has been covered this way here. The rev­en­ue helps under­write the event, but the main motiv­a­tion was to act as a media black­out to encour­age people to actu­ally go to the event rather than take the flat-screen option at home. It is not often that such a large unsched­uled event comes along, so Sky can get away with clip­ping the tick­et. And with pay-per-view sport­ing events comes lots of bonus promotion.
But prob­ably the best example of atten­tion to detail has been in the schedul­ing: two day­time games, at 2pm and 4.30pm. A full day of foot­ball played at a child-friendly time. Strange that nobody has ever come up with that idea earli­er really.

This is more than just a Wel­ling­ton event, with matches also being played in Auck­land and Duned­in. There was a tempta­tion to play the Sydney FC vs. New­castle game in Sydney, but the pref­er­ence was to make this a purely New Zea­l­and event. And Duned­in Ven­ues Lim­ited has been very act­ive in their pro­mo­tion of that match.

The only poten­tial doubt around the Duned­in fix­ture con­cerned wheth­er the arti­fi­cial turf there would be suit­able. But when New­castle rep­res­ent­at­ives vis­ited the sta­di­um every­one remembered that the tech­no­logy used to devel­op the hybrid turf at the new For­syth Barr Sta­di­um was copied from the tech­no­logy used at St James’ Park, and that these organ­isa­tions had pre­vi­ously met. It is indeed a small world.

The match at Eden Park, with its notori­ously fickle fan base, is the ris­ki­est of the ven­tures. How­ever, the Phoenix has attrac­ted large crowds at that ven­ue in the past, and Auck­land is easi­er to get to from Aus­tralia than Wel­ling­ton, so there is a feel­ing of optim­ism there. When the Phoenix has played there in pre­vi­ous sea­sons, around 80 per­cent of the gate sales occurred in the final week.

There has been mut­ter­ing in some quar­ters that we will not get to see the best play­ers from each club, but this just does not add up. Not only do the Eng­lish clubs have con­trac­tu­al oblig­a­tions, but it would make no sense for them to do any­thing oth­er than field the strongest teams possible.

Let’s look at this from a West Ham per­spect­ive. They play six pre-sea­son games in total, so these matches will make up one-third of that. It is import­ant for lead­ing play­ers to have as much game time as pos­sible to pre­pare for the fol­low­ing season.

On top of this, it will be a chance for fans to see the Phoenix for the first time for a few months, com­plete with their own recent sign­ings. It will also be inter­est­ing to watch them up against sides from the most fam­ous league in the world. This is a big event for a club that wants to take foot­ball in this city to anoth­er level, and for a city to show that it is not afraid of com­ing up with ori­gin­al ideas, and quite likes being part of a glob­al event.

Much plan­ning and pre­par­a­tion have been under­taken to put all of this togeth­er. It was always a going to be a huge gamble, but it looks like it will come off. The club has even whispered that it might make a small profit, but that is just a tiny part of what is behind the event.

The club, and its own­ers, do not lack for ambi­tion. Let’s hope this is not the last time we get to see such a venture.

Nix v Roar 13-10-13-303

Graeme Beasley

One of those rare people: a born and bred Wellingtonian. And enough of a Wellingtonian to know how to pronounce Majoribanks Street. Has a soft spot for the Makara wind farm, the south coast and the bucket fountain, but refuses to toot the horn in the Mt Victoria tunnel. Very familiar in handling the full range of emotions generated by supporting Wellington sports team. Works in IT.

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