The last few days appear to have opened a small chink in the armour of Wellington Phoenix’s charismatic, inspirational and motivational manager. It feels weird to complain about someone being too honest in today’s scripted sports environment. An arena where players are trained to talk about what’s best for the team instead of focusing on individual performances and where managers often toe the company line talking about great fans, great opportunity and a new challenge.
Mark Rudan’s curveball came in the form of rumours about his future. It’s understandable given the waves that have been created due to his current success with the Nix, but the words sounded as though they were from a manager who had just been given the dreaded vote of confidence rather than one who has taken the league by storm.
Mark Rudan comes across as the model for a modern-day manager. More comfortable in the dugout wearing a tee shirt than a suit, the kind of guy who will put his arm around a player and give them a few encouraging words instead of publicly yelling at them, who will take the blame for team performance rather than throwing his players under the bus, a coach who will aim to make the team greater than the sum of all parts. His unpopular trials gave him a chance to not only look at the skill level of footballers, but find out what they believe in, how they’ve reached this point and what drives them on. These were all key attributes that the Nix needed in a new coach for this season. The club was in disarray, yet again, after a poor season and staff, players and fans all needed a pick-me-up.
Rudan had clearly done his homework. In his first press conference he talked about the US vs THEM mentality referring to the Aussies that wanted the Nix out of the A-League. He oozed charisma and hammered home the need to change the whole mentality of this football club; fans, staff, players and media. It reminded me of Jurgen Klopp’s first Liverpool interview when he said it was time for fans to go from “doubters to believers”.
After a bumpy start to the season the Nix have found their feet. Winning away against Sydney and Western Sydney Wanderers as well as draws against Melbourne Victory and Adelaide started to convince fans that this season could be something special.
The teams last game against the Central Coast Mariners was a great example of where the team and the coach are at. Over 10,000 fans turned up to watch their side, who’d not lost in 7 games, concede 2 quick goals to be trailing 2-0 at half-time. For many in the stands, and at home watching on TV it was a real ‘here we go again’ moment. Like seasons gone by we expected heads to drop and there to be another frustrating loss, this time against a side that hadn’t won in 9 games. Instead Rudan was brave, making changes at halftime – substituting a player and changing tactics – which proved the difference. The pressing was back, the passing was sharper, it was like the Nix had gone up a gear. Three second half goals had the fans bouncing as the Nix walked away with all 3 points.
Rudan’s post-match speech was just as impressive as the comeback on the pitch. He did not want to focus on how forcefully he spoke to the players at half-time, instead emphasising that tactics played their part in the turnaround as much as the substitution. Rudan talked about his pride about bringing belief back to the club, about wanting the country to be proud of the team and the players to be proud of who they are. He reminded fans about celebrating the success we have had as a sporting nation against Australia and that there are more to come. He challenged fans to get along to games, that sometimes “you don’t know a good thing til it’s gone”.
After delivering such an inspirational speech his comments in response to rumours of him leaving the Nix next year to take up a coaching role in Australia, were somewhat alarming. Deep down most of us probably feel the Wellington Phoenix job is a stepping stone to bigger things, but this was the time for him to continue the charm offensive. Sean Hogan from 1 News summed up one view nicely
I wouldn’t expect him to say anything else really. He’s obviously ambitious. Why make a commitment to the supporter base when who knows what could be in the pipeline? Whether that is in form of a big money offer from another club or every goes tits up at the Nix.
— Sean Hogan (@SeanHoganNZ) January 15, 2019
It’s not a view I share. Instead of being noncommittal it was a chance for Rudan to wax lyrical about being excited about the next stages of his Wellington Phoenix project. A chance for him to back up his words of bringing belief back to the club by commenting on his lofty ambitions and goals for the side. He had us as putty in his hands, ready to believe in him and every word that comes out of his mouth. Instead the words he chose were deflating. “I am not going to answer that”…”I am contracted and I am the head coach of Wellington Football Club…” It sounded scripted and something like Jose Mourinho would utter with the vultures circling. It feels like the end of the season could bring more heartbreak for Nix fans, this time off the pitch. It’s a reminder that in football, it’s important not to get too attached to players or coaches because whilst our club is an obsession to us, it is just a job for those on the pitch. Sooner or later they will move on.
Maybe we just need to heed Rudan’s words from his Central Coast post-match interview… “Be in the now, do it while you can. Be in the moment, forget about the past, enjoy the now.”
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