Goodnight and Good Luck – Manchester Phoenix

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

What a mess.

I seem to have said that over and over again in the last nearly two years. We have come a long way from the 2015 playoff weekend in Coventry when the first shots were fired in the farrago that would ultimately lead to this point and Banners On The Wall’s second farewell to a club this season where we had only done one in the previous five years of the blog’s existence.

The Basingstoke Bison and the Manchester Phoenix games were never derbies; that word always has a geographic connotation to it in my opinion. Manchester vs Sheffield was the derby but the Bison and the Phoenix had a rivalry, one I have long called the rivalry of respect.

In the Elite League, both clubs were mid-table sides but their games were always played with spirit and urgency. Saturday 9th December 2006 saw what remains one of the most memorable games I have as a hockey fan. Curtis Cruickshank and Jason Wolfe went to war and Greg Owen scored the only goal of the game at 39:17 in a 1-0 win. I’d been watching hockey for two years and it was the first time I really remember that sort of goalie dual.

Both clubs dropped to the EPIHL at the same time though for different reasons. The Phoenix went through choice, the Bison through necessity but the games continued in the same vein. The Phoenix found success first as the Bison were rebuilding but the games were always in that same spirit and then when both sides were the front runners, it made the games all the more intense and special. 2013/14 went down as a special moment for both clubs and the final game of the season as both met in the playoff final seemed like the fitting conclusion to a season where both teams had run each other so close.

The following season, Tony Hand’s last ride and the Phoenix knocked the Bison out of the playoffs. It’s always disappointing to not be at Coventry but there’s also a relief. You get all of the hockey and excitement but none of the stress of watching your team. Then came Saturday evening. Then we find ourselves here.

Rumour followed innuendo followed counter-rumour. Battle lines were drawn as the Manchester Storm came lurching back into existence and people felt nostalgic as their history was coming back to them or being brought back to be ripped away from them in a fit of peak. Altrincham became Deeside which became Fylde which became Widnes which became nothing but tears, sadness and goodbyes. I made many friends who were Phoenix fans. Despite what some have said about them being a cult or being brainwashed or playing the victim, they’re good people. It’s really easy to throw people under the bus when they’re making decisions you wouldn’t and you’re an outsider. Do I agree with every decision my friends made? No. I told them so. Should people sympathise and empathise? Yes, because (and I’ve said this a lot too) there but for the grace of God go us all.

A happier time (c) 5 Hole Photography

A happier time
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Hopefully they will realise that my coming assessment comes from a good place and not from one of malice because just as with the Wightlink Raiders, this point was avoidable.

I disagree with James Gordon’s piece on today that the Storm coming back into existence meant this day was inevitable. Firstly because he mentions a decline in the standard of hockey in the EPL when the general consensus of those who watch it remains that it’s improved over the Phoenix’s time in the league and mostly because James’ piece whilst well structured and makes his case eloquently but it doesn’t make much more of an argument in my opinion beyond “the Storm are back” and therefore the Phoenix were always doomed. The re-emergence of the Storm is a factor; Neil Russell has done superb work as the GM in terms of engaging two main groups; those nostalgic for the Storm and those disillusioned with how the Phoenix was run. That’s not Neil Russell’s fault, that’s his job. He is paid to get people to go to Manchester Storm games. This doesn’t mean that the Storm don’t need to be a bit more honest as to how they came into being rather than just “they replaced the Hull Stingrays when they went out of business” but that’s a story for another day.

What we’re left with in the story of the Manchester Phoenix is a lot of questions.

Why was a proper supporter’s trust not something anyone looked in to? For such a dedicated fanbase with a broad skill set, if they had found a place to play then a structure could have been set up to take over the operations. I am sure there is a reason why this wasn’t done but I am yet to hear one.

As harsh as it sounds, why did the EIHA and other EPIHL owners let Manchester start the season given the precarious situation they were in? Would it have not been better to allow Manchester to mothball for a season and have the EIHA assist them in finding a better solution than Fylde though accommodating was not a place that should have been hosting EPIHL hockey?

Why could the Phoenix and Silverblades not put aside what appears to have been issues of personal animosity for the greater good? There’s much we could ask that nobody will ever answer to a point where everyone is satisfied. Someone once said that there are three sides to every story; your side, the other side and the truth somewhere in the middle.

Then (and I realise that this is going to get a lot of backs up) there’s Neil Morris; the man who tried, the villain of the piece, the man who tried to keep hockey in Manchester alive for over a decade, a liar, a thief, a misunderstood man who cares and the 800 other things that he has been called over the time.

Popular opinion will not judge Neil Morris kindly because of the overall result of what happened with the Phoenix and sadly, it is a fall from grace. He put a fantastic amount of his own money into the club, he loves the Manchester Phoenix and I don’t think that was disputable. Was there ego involved? Of course there was, it’s British hockey but there was an element of care there, 100%.

However my personal credo has long been that the end doesn’t justify the means. Some ex-players spoke out in favour, some were vocally against like Jacob Corson-Heron who had said very little for a long time then let fire in a barrage where accusations of lying were made. There were clearly a bunch of decisions made since early 2015 that weren’t solely the fault of people smearing the Phoenix on social media but Neil Morris making bad decisions. Since the Phoenix won the 2013/14 title we had new investment brought in, a decision to leave their facility, a loss of that investment, the move away from Deeside and the failure to find a way forward that led to the final Manchester Phoenix game being in a Silverblades rink after many vowed they would never go back.

Then there was the Manchester Ice Arena, lurking in the background as this mythical lost city that would bring the Phoenix back to prominence. There were always plans long term, this wasn’t some thing that wasn’t being planned but poor execution of other actions in the short and medium term made the long term nothing more than a pipe dream. Again, there’s a measure of blame that the Phoenix organisation need to take for that.

Morris’ position was untenable, he needed to step aside and should have done long before this point but for some reason he was unable to find a replacement to take the club on. Was the brand too toxic? Did he want to retain involvement as a figurehead and that wasn’t palatable to potential investors? We’ll never know.

What are we left with? We are left staring at a sad decline and a lot of people whose effort and money and energy towards a club, their club, that is now confined to history. We’re left with a hole in the schedule and 9 teams now shuffling the books and the fixture list. Players have moved on. We’re left with a few people callously saying “I told you so” and many more people wishing it just hadn’t happened at all.

I hope my friends find their place within British hockey to carry on though I understand if this is their stopping point, especially at this point where the wounds are still very fresh. If Phoenix fans want to go to Storm games then that’s their decision as well.

It is like in vein but I do hope people will be honest about where they were in this. There are no winners in this situation. Saying “I told you so” to people who lost their club is insensitive clap trap that has no place here.

I will miss the laughs, I will miss the Phoenix Podcast, I will even miss the hideous jerseys. I will miss the Manchester Phoenix; the fans, the hockey they played, the rivalry. It’s what hockey is built upon. Wherever you all end up, may you be happy there.

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography


2 Comments on “Goodnight and Good Luck – Manchester Phoenix”

  1. Peterbrads says:

    Good piece as always Anthony. On the subject of mothballing the club again that was seen as impossible, with many fans saying that if they mothballed it would have seen the club practically die there and then by some. The article you referred to as well on BIH, was some poor writing i thought. I agree about the standard of hockey improving in the EPL from the two clubs opening season, as the play was a bit slower but compared to the years that followed the hockey was brilliant to watch. The game against Bison at Alty in the league decider was a thriller for me and as you stated too, games between the Bison and Phoenix were normally competitive ones.

    I still recall the opening game at the Altrincham ice rink was against the Bison and saw the Herd winning 6-5 i think, though i maybe wrong on that. But it did bring one moment in hockey that i have never seen before or seen since and that was a Bison player who had lost his stick on the play, but then picked up the puck in his own defensive zone and launched it like a grenade that cleared the far end and glass and struck the back wall almost hitting the roof to earn a delay of game call.

    Bison games always worried me more than any other team, as we could have run up big scores against Guildford, MK or Peterborough the established teams, but then we would struggle to break down a tough Doug Sheppard side and i think the season we surprised you guys in the playoffs was when you had the better of us all season and we won our only game in the 2nd leg down in Bison land.

    As a fan of the team since day one but not going to watch them regularly till the 2008, i grew up with the club and were a big part of my life and where i met some good friends. Plus hockey is also about meeting new people and having the chance to get to know you at Playoff’s weekend and even be on your podcast one time (and the only time haha) it was great to know you. Meeting Ben and Joe from Swindon and Rob from MK and Dan from Peterborough, you meet ppl in hockey that you wouldn’t normally do and make great friendships too.

  2. Andy Wood says:

    In all the postings and crap levelled at Phoenix on THF and FB this piece is perhaps, no definately, the best balanced and well thought out piece written on the subject. It’s hard to lose your team, and for me my dream announcers job, but I won’t be lost to hockey. I just wish that everyone could look at the “situation” as well as you have done. It would have made it a lot easier to bear. Thank you.

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