The Phoenix, Welnix and Gareth Morgan

By Paul Thomas In Sport

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A Phoenix fan shows his support.

A Phoenix fan shows his support, photo/Getty Images

A friend who attended some of Gareth Morgan’s presentations back when he was “just” an economist, recalls him as a stimulating speaker who made provocative statements to promote discussion and challenge his audience to think beyond their preconceptions.

His call for the eradication of domestic cats certainly got tongues wagging; amid the sound and fury, there was discussion about how much of a threat Felis domesticus really poses to our native birdlife.

It’s not quite so apparent what Morgan’s Phoenix-related antics are intended to achieve. Wittingly or not, however, he has focused attention on what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour on the part of private investors in sporting entities.

It should be said at the outset that only the dangerously unworldly could think well-heeled high-powered businesspeople are going to sink money into an organisation, then stand back and let others run it as they see fit. As the moneybags themselves might say, “We didn’t get where we are today by letting other people decide what to do with our money.”

The prototype here is George Steinbrenner who as owner of the New York Yankees baseball club changed the manager 20 times in 23 years. The extent to which he stuck his oar in can be gauged from this remark from a Yankees media man: “When the team was on the road, you’d come back to your room late at night, and if the phone light was on, you knew that either there had been a death in the family or George was looking for you. After a while, you started to hope there had been a death in the family.”

Morgan is a partner in Welnix, a consortium of Wellington businessmen that owns the Phoenix and has acquired a stake in the Hurricanes. Dispensing with “PR management and all that crap” (his words), Morgan has put himself out there, in the process making himself a lightning rod for the discontent generated by poor results.

It’s now received wisdom that Morgan triggered the Phoenix’s slide to the foot of the A-League table by saying the team had to move away from the strategy of winning ugly and embrace the “total football” synonymous with the great Dutch side of the 1970s. Having thus supposedly destabilised the team, he compounded the offence by being an ostentatious presence at training, thereby, according to the critics, undermining coach Ricki Herbert.

Although the very notion of the Phoenix, or any other New Zealand team, playing total football is too silly for words, it’s interesting to observe how quickly a consensus has formed that Morgan has behaved inappropriately and therefore can be blamed for the team’s lame performances.

If his interventions have indeed had such a calamitous effect, what does that say about the players, particularly their mental toughness? Can you imagine Richie McCaw attributing an All Blacks loss to NZRU CEO Steve Tew showing up at training, as he often does?

Morgan trumped his previous efforts by eccentrically laying into Phoenix fans, prompting this sneer from a supporters’ group spokesman: “I think he’s a pretty activist owner for a guy that doesn’t really know what a football looks like.”

The fans would do well to ponder the fact that if it wasn’t for Welnix, the Phoenix might not have risen from the ashes of Terry Serepisos’s proprietorship. When the consortium took over in September 2011, the club was losing $2 million a year. Although that has been halved, Welnix’s involvement remains more a charitable undertaking than a hard-headed business venture.

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