The sun going down over Sky Stadium.

Dave has a dog now. It’s only nine weeks old and hasn’t had its vaccinations yet, so can’t go sniffing about on the ground. It’s called Brockie and is gently passed around the table for people to hold, cuddle and feed small crumbled pieces of bigger dog treats. Tracey is not wearing a cast or brace on either arm, which is notable enough that I write about it here. Patrick is fresh off the sound engineering for the hit comedy show by Two Hearts the other week, the stars Joe Moore and Laura Daniel are here as well. They’ve just been nominated for an award. Dale’s now got two kids, his second one was born three months ago.

These are the things that happen in life over four hundred and thirty-three days. For some of the yellow-and-black clad drinkers in the sunshine at Rosie’s Red Hot Cantina on the Wellington Waterfront, it’s been longer than that. There’s a lot of catching up to do. But 433, not the formation, is the number of days since the Wellington Phoenix played a home fixture. When the A-League paused due to COVID-19 last year, the Phoenix had lost just 2 of their previous 16 games. When it resumed, the squad was based in Sydney and all games were behind closed doors. Form suffered. Naturally.

There were hopes the Trans-Tasman Bubble would be established for the start of the 2020 season, but they were dashed by the persistence of the pandemic. From Aotearoa, Phoenix supporters were restricted to watching their team play at ‘home’ in Wollongong. On Saturday though, they were home. Real home. Wellington. You can’t beat it on a good day. Bad sewage pipes. No airport bus.

Home.

Well, not for me or Jay or Jonno or any number of those who have flown in from around Aotearoa or Australia for this one. It makes absolutely no sense to fly 500 kilometers to go and watch a single football match. It was on TV, on free-to-air TV no less. No flights, hotel bookings, working out where to eat and what you’re doing. No, it’s completely irrational to go to that much effort for football. But then again;

“Football is a big swirling mess of irrationality. That’s kind of its defining quality. That’s what makes it feel so good…’ — Trevor Bastard

Football the game is so popular because it is so simple. From the professional elites to the kids in the park, there’s beauty in its flexibility and universality. But football supporting, the culture of the game? It’s wonderful, chaotic, deeply emotional, and ridiculously contradictory. And on Saturday, Phoenix supporters got their first taste of the wonderful chaotic emotion that is supporting your team in person in over a year.

We’re lucky to have this. Everything out there in the world remains pretty terrible and finely balanced on vaccines and lockdowns in ways Aotearoa has managed to successfully manage its way through. In the aftermath videos of the crowd have gone semi-viral on Football Twitter, with many overseas supporters expressing longing for even knowing when they’ll be able to gather en masse again.

On Saturday we gathered. Catchups and conversations were interspersed with exclamations of genuine joy about being back, being here, going there, the game ahead, the 20,000+ tickets sold already. Hotly anticipated since its announcement in late April, the excitement had been steadily building. It resembled nothing more or less than the 2017 Intercontinental Playoff between the All Whites and Peru, at a sold-out Westpac Stadium.

Of course you’re excited to be back, it’s been over a year. But as always there was the underlying dread. That’s always there, that nagging fear that somehow we’ll bottle it, throw it away, suffer the ridiculous misfortunes that characterize every supporter's experience. What if you wait 433 days for a home game and, oh god, lost? Best not to think about it.

It had to be the Snakes, didn’t it? Western United are into their second season and have a claim to be Wellington Phoenix’s first proper rivals after 14 seasons in the A-League. Former Phoenix coach Mark Rudan hadn’t even completed his first season in Wellington before announcing he would be leaving, at which point the team’s form fell off a cliff. Boo. Snake. That he took number #1 goalkeeper Filip Kurto and young Australian prospect Max Burgess with him was pretty bad. Boo. Snake. But then there’s Dura. Oh Dura.

Andrew Durante is a legend, of the Wellington Phoenix and the A-League. Record appearance maker, 11 years at the club, captain leader legend you name it he is it. His decision to leave the Phoenix, return to Australia and captain the newly formed Western United team hurt, it hurt a lot. You can hold in your head the understanding that Durante gave over a decade of his career to the Phoenix, a club that rarely challenged for honours. He switched his international eligibility to Aotearoa to play for the All Whites. You can hold this, and still boo him relentlessly for having the audacity to leave, for playing for the opposition, for taking your heart and giving it away the very next day. You bastard Andrew, can’t you see I love you.

He was booed, and I know it has caused some friction between supporters. But thinking beyond the ‘offence’ caused, the theatrical nature of booing him, or Rudan — is revealed by the end of the game. Durante gave a wonderful interview, took a lap of the stadium and was hailed by the same people who were booing you. Sorry Andrew, you were playing for them, you know how it is. We still love you. We always will.

If you like football, and you watch it on the TV, you may have had someone tell you “They can’t hear you, you know” as you stress about misplaced passes or ridiculous refereeing or that bastard on the other team who seems to be able to foul anyone and never get booked.

In the stadium, this is the theatre, we are the Greek chorus. The players can’t hear me, but they can hear us. And we can hear each other. The roar as the team comes out, the hissing as Rudan slides across the turf to his dugout, the songs you’ve sung a hundred times before in victories, defeats, and frustrating draws. You share in the experience. It’s such an intrinsic part of the sport’s appeal that during the pandemic they had to pipe in pre-recorded noise into broadcasts because football without the crowd, like a play without an audience, is profoundly unsettling.

What was a record crowd, not just for Wellington but for the A-League as a whole this season, was nervous. Tomer Hemed raised his arms at the crowd, he wanted to hear more. They can hear us. It does matter to the players. There’s the slight raising of the volume when a Phoenix player gets the ball, a surge when they drive forward or make a vital tackle, the groan as possession is lost, or the frustration that what we can see from our raised perspective the players cannot down at pitch level. And the boos. Taking a corner for the Opposition in front of the Fever Zone is not projectile pigs-head territory for unpleasantness, but having a few thousand people indicating their disapproval of you cannot be comfortable.

And then Clayton Lewis scored, and 24,000 people share something special and temporary, a moment you are all there for that can be repeated and shared as a point of collective reference. On your feet, arms pumping, yelling with joy at the release of the tension that while it’s 0–0 it could still go wrong. Lewis scampered to the corner and took flight, punching the air. In the stands, it was what we’d all been waiting for. It was at the far end of the stadium, so there is always a split-second delay between the supporters closest watching the net ripple and those further away realising that it’s in.

They ran out of beer at half-time. The second-half made up for it.

Reno Piscopo, the potential successor to the departing Ulises Davila’s role as attacking architect, brought down a bouncing pass and drove forward. It’s not always clear that Piscopo’s feet touch the ground, as if he’s connected to the earth through the ball itself. His strike, with two defenders ahead of him, was as brutally heavy as he appears light. He streaked towards the Fever Zone, arms outstretched, hailed as the saviour he may yet prove to be.

United were finished, St. Patrick has absolutely nothing on Ufuk Talay in terms of reptile repulsion. The yellow shirts carefully pulled apart the tired tatters of the low-block Rudan had set up before Louis Fenton delivered a beautiful cross for Tomer Hemed to nod through the keeper. Hemed raced away, making a bird with his hands, a dove of peace or a phoenix? Either one is welcome.

One more beautiful unrepeatable moment, though, to share. Benjamin Old, 18. The aisle next to me filled with teenagers, his schoolmates from Scots College. He made his debut in front of 24,105 supporters, with the game won. His first touch, a nutmeg of a defender. His schoolmates insisted if he scored they’d be on the pitch. A moment for Old to savour, an ambition achieved but also the potential first step on an entire career.

Twist and shout started up, with the drummer hammering out time. The streets around the stadium were closed to traffic, and groups poured down the steps and spiral ramp from the concourse. The buzz was warm, energetic and it was not yet seven ‘o’ clock in the evening. Kids waved flags and answered the inevitable “Did you have fun?” question from their parents. To pubs and bars throughout the city, a wave of positivity and celebration poured.

Winning, as Joe Kennedy has written on, is a temporary state. The kids streaming down to get their shirts signed don’t know that yet. And the feeling lasts longer when you’ve waited a long time for it. Football is a game that endlessly marches on, leaving only the shared moments of collective joy or despair in the memories of those who collaborated in them.

It is, as I have said, irrational — but being a football supporter is not your employment, it is not your responsibilities, it is something you voluntarily commit your time, energy, and emotion to for the reward of enjoyment and participation. It matters a lot because it doesn’t matter a lot.

It’s also a creative space, one with a certain amount of freedom within its chaos. New chants are developed on internet forums and in bars before and after games. Banners and tifos, hours of labour and effort and time, for a presentation, for making the collective experience more joyous and more memorable. None of this is in the laws of the game, the actual sport taking place on the pitch. It’s football culture.

It’s often almost entirely divorced from “the club” and “the team” as a business or a group of professionals. The mutual relationship between the two exists, but if “the club” itself attempts to manufacture its own football culture, it often fails to pass the authenticity sniff-test with their own supporters — partly because they recognise that the judgemental one-upmanship between supporters of different sides is often as viciously competitive as the “the team” that plays out on the pitch.

Fourteen years into their existence, the Wellington Phoenix have survived owner bankruptcy and a period of time when the A-League itself was intent on throwing them out of the league and into extinction. The active supporters have stuck by them through thick and thin, and there’s certainly been a lot more thin than thick.

433 days in exile. The Phoenix are home. We’ve missed you as much as you’ve missed us. See you Sunday at Eden park.

Other stuff to read/listen to

Alex Brae — Defiant, triumphant, home: The Wellington Phoenix rise to the occasion

Tom Williams — Football Fandom

It’s longer stuff from PostingDad, the dad who posts.