by Tony Ising
How often have we heard players refer to the fans as their "12th man"?
In a competition like the A-League with a salary cap, squad size restrictions and regular travelling distances greater than any other league in the world the differences between winning and losing are often miniscule. And having vociferous support of your fans in the dying stages of a close game is often enough to get a club over the line.
However, the concept of the fans acting as a 12th man has been given a new dimension by Wellington Phoenix's "Yellow Fever" supporters group. Not content with merely cheering their team over the line, Yellow Fever is contributing directly to their team's success by sponsoring scholarships for young players.
This initiative paid dividends last week as one of the products of the Yellow Fever scholarship program, Marco Rojas, was instrumental in dismantling Melbourne Victory and securing a valuable three points in the race for the finals. Rojas was brought to the attention of the Phoenix coaching staff after being identified by Yellow Fever members while playing in the NZ state leagues. Has there ever been a better example of supporters being a 12th man for their team?
The Yellow Fever scholarship is a brilliant example of a club and its supporters working cooperatively towards the success of their club. Too often the club/supporter relationship is fractured and tainted with suspicion, mistrust and dishonesty. But the reality is neither could survive without the other. Spokesman David Cross says that despite Yellow Fever not being an official supporter group they don't feel persecuted in the way other groups around the country claim to be.
"I think part of it is the nature of Wellington. It's a small town with a real city-centre focus so you see the players, management and the people from the club day in and day out and they don't feel unavailable. I think it might make us feel more part of the club than the bigger city sides.
"We can work together on an initiative if it benefits the club and football in general. A benefit to us isn't as important as without the club we'd have no reason to exist."
Great sentiments indeed, but it also works both ways. In this instance, not only are the supporters happy to proactively fund and support talent identification on behalf of the club, but the club has enough respect for the fans that they also embrace the concept. It would be far too easy for a club, usually at the behest of its football department, to dismiss this input from fans. It takes a brave club, and one which values its supporters as an essential component of club culture, to endorse such a program.
With the A-League's marketing slogan "Fan Made" ringing in our ears, it is high time clubs and supporters alike took a step back and reassessed their relationship with each other. As Yellow Fever and Wellington Phoenix have discovered to their mutual benefit, the advantages of working together far outweigh the negatives. And aren't they both on the same side anyway?