The Pride of the Nix

Wellington Phoenix had a heroic first season as an A-League Women side. Despite being unable to play a home game and with by some distance the youngest squad in the competition, the New Zealanders defied the challenges to pick up wins and creditable performances.

Supporters group Flight of the Nix members Denise Duffy (DD), Holly Eades (HE), Blair Campbell (BC), Liam Symes-Wells (LS-W), Blake Forbes-Gentle (BF-G), and Jonathan Haggar (JH) spoke to Impetus’ Ben Gilby (BG) about their team’s maiden season (7/4/22).

Above: Wellington Phoenix celebrate their first-ever A-League Women victory over Canberra United. Photo: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images.

BG: When we spoke at the beginning of the season, there were hopes of the Nix A-League Women side playing home matches in February. That never happened. What methods did you use to continue supporting/watching the Nix A-League Women team?         

DD: One cool thing we did was before each match was that I would put up a post asking our group members to send a sentence or two of encouragement to the women’s team. I then flip them to assistant coach Natalie Lawrence. Hopefully, those cheers made it to the athletes.

The reality though was that in New Zealand, we all watched on Sky Sports. Sometimes I would watch at my home with my fellow Flight of the Nix member Tabitha DeSalis. Tabitha also coached with Natalie Lawrence and was targeted by New Zealand as part of their future coaches program. Other times I would watch with my American neighbour across the street, a former referee. Honestly though, the matches were late at night here. Often it was just me in a dark room on the couch cheering for the Nix. And then there was that Western Sydney Wanderers match. We all just followed the admin on Twitter. It was dubbed in our group by David Lim ‘the best match none of us watched’. We were into it through our Facebook group community. I’ve been conditioned over the years to just get women’s football in whatever form I can.

Above: Tabitha DeSalis, Denise Duffy’s match watching mate. Photo supplied by: Tabitha DeSalis.

BG: Ahead of the campaign what were your most positive hopes for the team’s achievements this season? 

BC: Being a team that was put together at the last minute and filled mainly with very young promising players from both sides of the Tasman, most pundits and supporters, including myself, were optimistic they would show some form of competitiveness in their matches.

To get close in some matches and perhaps steal a point or two were some of the hopes for the team. It was also hoped that players would gain valuable experience and exposure playing in a professional league and be better players for it the following season.

BG: So, how would you sum up what actually happened?                    

BC: The team really did exceed all expectations across a number of fronts. Straight from the first game, it could be seen the team played with good structure and showed a lot of fight on the pitch.  They were up for the physical challenge and won a lot of turnover ball and interceptions.

It became apparent the team had worked first and foremost on their defensive side and their attacking play got better and better as the season went on.  They were very competitive in most games and unlucky not to pick up more points during the season. After getting through the first half of the season, I’m sure a lot of supporters would have started to back the team to pick up points against the lower to mid placed teams, which I’m sure would not have been the case at the start of the season.

The players will have gained a lot from playing together in their first season and should feel very satisfied with how they conducted themselves on the field.

BG: In a season of huge positives, what were the biggest plusses for you?   

BC: The first win of the season over Canberra United was a real highlight.  The reactions from the players after the final whistle told it all.  They had toiled very hard over the season for a win, coming very close in some earlier games.

Individual player development was very pleasing, with a number showing considerable improvement. The way the team developed was also evident, with improved passing, positioning, and ability to get forward. This was a team that had hardly any preseason, hadn’t really played together before, together with a number of players still at development level.  A full pre-season along with the addition of some more experienced players bodes well for next season. 

The coach Gemma Lewis was a real positive too – she has to take a lot of the credit for how she got the team to play and perform.

Above: Flight of the Nix member Blair Campbell. Photo supplied by: Denise Duffy.

BG: Which player(s) impressed you most this season? Why?

BC: Lily Alfeld was a giant in goal and a commanding presence as captain. She really did direct the younger players well (as captain) and played really well herself.

There were big wraps on Grace Jale ahead of the campaign, having previously been in the Football Ferns environment. We saw some glimpses of that potential in the first game, however, whilst she was working her way back to full fitness she suffered an injury that delayed her initial involvement.

Once we got 90-minute performances from her, we started to see her real quality and potential and she quickly became a goal-scoring threat with the lethal pace she possesses. She also started to become more prominent on the ball with some nice touches.

“It was fitting that she was the top goal scorer for the side this season and she has been well rewarded with selection back in the Football Ferns team for the series against Australia. “

The expectations on Chloe Knott were very high, being one of the very few experienced players in the team.  After a few games, her quality became apparent, coinciding with a move into the strikers’ role. Her work rate is first class and she surely must be the leading contender for the amount of km’s covered this season on the field. 

A very fit player who was always running strong at the 90-minute mark.  Other noticeable attributes were her strength on the ball and lay-off passing.  A key player moving forward who is also adept playing in the midfield.

I’m sure the general consensus would be that Alyssa Whinham was the find of the season, certainly the surprise packet amongst the team.  It’s true, there must really be something in that Canterbury water, which is Whinham’s home province.  There have been a number of young players come through the ranks there.

It has to be said there is no player like her in the team. Her composure on the ball, ability to maintain possession when under pressure, and real capacity to beat players with the ball set her apart.  Some of her passing and through balls were top-notch at times.

The challenge for Whinham will be that a lot of players will now see her as a threat and strategize to close her down. Her potential, however, remains untapped and if she can continue to work on other areas of her game she will be seen as even more of a threat moving forward.  The Football Ferns coach will keenly be watching her development.

Kate Taylor’s ability and skill became quickly evident during and after the first game of the season.  This was a name that the commentators started to repeat over and over.  Another Canterbury product that surely is knocking on the doors of the Football Ferns. A very physical courageous defender that partnered well with Mackenzie Barry at the back, winning a number of battles with composure that belied her age.  Also very good at taking the ball up, driving the play forward, and a nice passer of the ball. She could potentially move a position forward one day on the pitch and play as a damaging destroyer in a holding midfield role.

One of the standout players of the season and another that will be under the microscope for the Ferns.

Along with Taylor, Mackenzie Barry was an absolute colossus in defence and one of the real reasons the team remained competitive over a number of games. A very strong physical player who disrupted a lot of the opposition’s attack and fought hard every game to stop the ball from going in the back of the net.  Duly rewarded with the captaincy on a game towards the end of the season.  Higher honours beckon.

Talitha Kramer was another standout player in the team, surely being one of the first picked on the team sheet once she settled in after being a later addition. Her experience was needed at the back and I’m sure we can all remember some of her great driving runs forward down the flanks. A very strong physical player who never backed down to a challenge and no doubt well respected by her team members.  I’m sure all Nix supporters are hoping to see her back in Nix colours next season.  A very worthy addition to the squad indeed.

Other players deserving special mention include Grace Wisnewski who was very prominent as a box-to-box midfielder and a real team player.

Ava Pritchard who after a quiet start to the season really started to shine, becoming more and more involved in the attacks with some lovely runs through and an increasing threat on goal. Zoe McMeeken, the youngest player in the team who was a regular starter.  Just think how good she may become after a few more years playing at this level.

HE:  I want to add Lily Alfeld, who was player of the season for me. She was not just a fantastic goalkeeper and captain, but also a fan favourite. Lily always came over to the fans after each match to have a chat, and would contact us before every match to see if we needed tickets. She also just seems like a genuinely amazing person.

Above: Flight of the Nix member Holly Eades. Photo provided by: Holly Eades.

BG: Tell us what you all make of head coach Gemma Lewis?  

DD: The coaching duo, of Gemma Lewis and assistant Natalie Lawrence were the Nix’s best hires. They are young, they know these athletes, and their brand of football was exciting. The type of coach that does their job by out of control yelling and generally emotionally abusing athletes is becoming a thing of the past. You see that this style of coach was purged in the NWSL in America last season.

Our athletes were definitely feeling the pressure of having to perform at their top level week after week and live abroad. The coaches did well acknowledging these pressures and supported their athletes’ mental health. As a fan, that was awesome to see.

I will say, there is sometimes a misconception that because it’s a women’s side that mentally they have each other backs and everything will be OK. The men’s side has a chaplain to help with this. The women’s side needs access to mental health professionals during the season, and actually year-round. These days they can even be via online access. It’s a cost that needs to be funded either by the league, players union, or each team.

Above: Denise Duffy (right) with fellow Flight of the Nix member Blake Forbes-Gentle. Photo supplied by: Denise Duffy.

LS-W: I think Gemma has done a really awesome job this season. Looking at how quickly the team was announced, meaning such a short time frame to find players, coaching staff, and all the important things to get the team up and running. I feel she really adapted to this and looking at the success we had, it was a job well done.

Alongside her was Assistant Coach Natalie Lawrence and she also did an awesome job, What made this even better was a few days before each match everyone in the group would send messages for the team and Denise sent these off to Natalie. This really showed we are connected to the team even if we are 4000ks away. The way Gemma dealt with Grace Wisnewski by offering her the help she needed and supporting her the whole time really showed she cared for her players and they were like family.

Even seeing messages of support on the Phoenix’s Facebook really showed how much everyone watched and supported the team, and I am proud to be one of them. To sum it all up in one sentence. Gemma did an amazing job with such a young team and shattered all expectations put in front of her, onto next season and more wins. Hopefully, she sticks around with the team for many more years and we can have plenty more success in the future.

Above: Flight of the Nix member Liam Symes-Wells. Photo supplied by: Liam Symes-Wells.

BG: With the Nix having secured funding for two seasons of A-League Women football, do you know if there is any more news about any longer-term funding for the team?   

DD: Gut instinct, I think the Nix are here to stay. General Manager David Dome even spoke of that in the future the A-League men’s sides will all have a women’s side. Honestly, dollar for dollar, I think the Wellington Phoenix organization will find the women’s side to be profitable. These women are stars, market them as such. New Zealand has changed over the last five years. Women’s sports are now all over the news. With the World Cup coming, we will find more and more football fans in New Zealand and they will find the Nix.

BG: Other than being able to play home matches in New Zealand next season, what would you like to see from the team next time round?         

BF-G: No nothing more because having the club home is the greatest gift that we could have especially for the woman so we can finally show them all the gratitude and how grateful we are for all the sacrifices they have made over the pandemic and finally be able to repay them with the home crowd is the greatest gift of all.

I am proud to support a club that is so inclusive. Especially because of the story that David Dome shared with us about a blind man who would go to the matches and listen to the radio call. The audio was always behind the actual run of play because of transmission time. To solve this they allowed him to sit in the actual commentary booth. I love how the club tries its best to accommodate its supporters however they can no matter what background of disability, religion, and sexuality.

BG: Is it realistic to assume that more experienced New Zealand players would join the Nix for next season or would you be happy for another season of the talented kids?

JH: A lot of the appeal of the Nix women this season was watching a very young squad showing the entire A-League their ability to be competitive against well-established teams. Discovering the talent of Whinham, Barry, McMeekan and many others was magic!

However, the reopening of the borders for travel will have a big impact on player availability next season. It is possible that Kiwi women who played in other teams this season might switch to the Nix. So many up-and-coming players got an incredible amount of positive exposure by playing in a professional league.

For the Nix women to have a shot at making the Finals, the team needs to recruit a couple of more experienced players to guide the team through the tense moments. This season’s team would have benefited from having players with more experience in the hard-fought matches with super close scorelines resulting in losses or draws. Recruiting a couple of experienced players into the team will help secure more wins when the score lines are tight and calm is needed.

If the Nix can add two or three experienced players while keeping the bulk of the squad from this season, then fans will be happy.

Visit Flight of the Nix Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/829834380984076

Artwork: Graphics by PW.

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