Go on, admit it. When the Wellington Phoenix issued a press release on the 21st of July 2009 announcing a new signing, you’d never heard of him, had you?
Despite a professional career of over 350 games for Sheffield United, Millwall and Crystal Palace, Paul Ifill wasn’t a household name in New Zealand.
Today, as he brings the curtain down on his professional career, there isn’t a football fan in this country (or Australia) who doesn’t know him and wouldn’t recognise him in the street. That’s because Paul Ifill spent the last five years of his professional football career delighting us with his sublime skill, audacious dribbling, wonderful goals and defence-splitting passes. Off the field, his humour, accessibility to fans, sponsors and media and willingness to embrace New Zealand as his new home have made him an absolute Yellow Fever favourite.
From the moment he arrived, it seemed obvious Ifill would be a perfect fit for the Phoenix, and for the A-League. He was so different to the players who had worn the Phoenix shirt in the club’s first two seasons. Run an eye down the rosters for 2007/08 and 2008/09 and you’ll see good (and in some cases, excellent) A-League players, but no-one you could put an asterisk alongside and say, “That guy has the X-Factor”. You could do that with Ifill. He brought star quality to the football club.
As iconic Phoenix matches go, the playoff game against Newcastle in March 2010 stands out ahead of most others. On that day, in front of a sold-out Ring of Fire, Ifill produced an extra-time goal which will never be forgotten by Phoenix fans. His in-and-away shimmy on the edge of the penalty area to lose his marker and unstoppable shot across the goalkeeper into the far corner was the catalyst for probably the loudest roar in the club’s history. As he sprinted off to celebrate in front of the Yellow Fever, who were over 100 metres away, the 100 minutes of football he’d played caught up with him, so instead he stopped, arms raised on the half-way line and saluted all corners of the Stadium. What a moment.
Everyone has a favourite Paul Ifill memory or goal and for many it’s that one. But it was as much the little things he did which stand out. Like the way he’d lull a defender into thinking he was heading into a cul-de-sac, and yet emerge with the ball, leaving that opponent either sprawled on the turf or trailing in his wake. The passes which only a player with his confidence and vision would think to play, let alone execute. The way he drew defenders to him, leaving space for his team-mates to exploit. And those goals – all those goals – a club record 33 of them in the yellow and black.
So, how will you remember Paul Ifill?
For me, it’ll be the enduring image of him receiving the ball wide on the left-hand side, somewhere between half-way and the penalty area, and setting off on one of those slaloming runs in the general direction of the opposition goal. Sometimes, he’d cut in, sometimes he’d chop back out, often he’d do both. Always, he’d throw such panic into opposition defenders that he’d have been able to see the whites of their wide eyes as they tried – almost always without success – to halt his progress.
Paul Ifill is the type of footballer people happily part with their money to see. He’s the guy who young boys (and girls) in the school playground or backyard want to be in their imaginary games. He’ll be the player on the front of the book when a Phoenix history is published.
When a sportsperson retires, some probably look back and wonder what might have been. Some probably have regrets, or wish they’d done more. For Paul Ifill, there’s no need for such thoughts. He can hang up his boots absolutely safe in the knowledge that he brought joy to fans and magic to the football field. His legacy is secure – he is quite simply the Phoenix’s best ever.