To call the decade “2010-2019: A Turbulent Time” could be an understatement of a title. Certainly, for those of us who were a part of the Phoenix Faithful, turbulence was almost expected. We saw the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. Yet many of us remained resolute in our support for the club.
Certainly, the early part of the decade was an optimistic period. The club was settling in to life as an EPL “heavyweight”. We had a team that was winning far more often than it had done so in the EIHL. And off the ice things seemed relatively stable and secure. How little we all knew. Anyway, back to the good stuff.
Tony Hand was putting together teams that could dazzle on the ice. A solid core of young British talent kept on coming back year after year. And the imports he unearthed were often the envy of the league. And Tony himself was having one hell of a career wind down. This lead the club to finally achieve it’s ambitions in 2011 with a first League Title. This would be followed up with a second one in 2014, and a much coveted Play Off win in 2013. Things were good.
As a fan, this was an exciting few seasons. We were winning on the ice, and we were fairly popular off it. We established ourselves as regulars in Coventry for the Play Off finals weekend, always looking to have fun. We effectively took over The Windmill pub, with them declaring themselves to be our “official” pub. We broadcast a live podcast every year from the confines of the WIndmill, which proved very popular. And we turned up en masse to watch our team, often filling 3 blocks behind the goal at the Skydome. We had a good natured rivalry with the Guildford fans which often entertained when the on ice product wasn’t.
But, like all good things, it must come to an end.
And it did. Dramatically.
Just before the club was due to play it’s Play Off semi final in April 2015, the owners of ALtrincham Ice Dome released a statement on THF (The Hockey Forum) via a proxy (Matt Lloyd, an employee of theirs). This statement effectively kicked the Phoenix out of Altrincham, leaving them homeless. Ultimately, this would have far reaching consequences, not just for the Phoenix, but for the EPL as a whole. But we will get to that.
This statement began a long, often quite nasty, “war” between the club, Planet Ice, and various fans. Many people in the sport turned on the Phoenix, and more specifically the clubs owner Neil Morris. And many of these fans could not separate the desire of the Phoenix fans to keep the club alive from a perceived desire to support Neil Morris. The club and the man became one entity. And it got super nasty. I myself partook in the childish, petulant behaviour that marred the next couple of years, a fact I am not proud of.
Planet Ice for their part fanned the flames somewhat when they revealed that they would be operating a team called the Manchester Storm out of ALtrincham in the EIHL. For some fans this was perfect. They had always wanted the Storm name back, and with it EIHL hockey. I wrote a now infamous blog about the “returning” fans who were overjoyed to have “hockey back in Manchester after 13 years”. Do I regret writing it? No. It was where I was emotionally and psychologically at the time. I do regret the ongoing impact it has had, though. There are still those in the “Hockey Family” who appear to have a very visceral hatred towards me over this. And that is fine. I never did anything that I did to be popular, or well loved. I did it for myself. At times it was because of my ego, at others it was my depression lashing out.
Anyway, the next season and a half were incredibly hard. A full year in Deeside waiting on a temporary rink in Manchester (which never happened) was hard enough. But there was a solid core of fans who stuck with it. We made the trip to North Wales every week, and we supported our team. Sadly, not everyone welcomed us (certainly not the Deeside juniors who ran their sessions right up to the line, time wise, knowing it made life more difficult for us), but we made the best of it, and hoped the future would allow us to return home.
Throughout all of this, we fell under the wing of Wayne Scholes. A man who promised the earth, yet only managed to succeed in ruining 3 different clubs (ourselves, Telford, and Bracknell). Do I believe that his involvement was the true trigger for the fall out between the Phoenix and Planet Ice? Yes I do. Planet Ice were (rightly as it happened) wary of his investment ability in the sport and wanted nothing to do with him or his supposed money. He burnt Deeside by not making the payments on behalf of the Phoenix he was supposed to. And then he just up and left the sport, shafting 3 clubs at once.
Now, if the year at Deeside had been hard, then the following season was to be the breaker. It began with a tiny roster playing out of the small, yet welcoming Flyde Coast Arena. The club knew it wasn’t really suitable, but felt it had no other option if it wanted to keep playing. Very basic seating and terracing was installed, and the club and the remaining core of fans who opted to carry on with the club got on with the hard work of keeping the club alive.
There were “casualties”. A lot of volunteers left the club, meaning new people had to be found to work the match nights. For my part, I was Fan Liaison, Goal Judge, Match Night DJ, LIve Stream commentator, Pre and Post Match pundit & interviewer, and timekeepers box assistant at various points during the season.
By the time the end finally came, it broke my heart. We had moved to Widnes (a better venue, and one where had we been there from the start of the season, maybe things might have played out differently), yet continued to hemorrhage both money and goodwill. There were those who saw through the “Neil Morris bashing” that was prevalent, and still offered the club their aid wherever possible. They know who they are, and they have my undying thanks for their help. But it had gone too far. Even a last ditch effort by Tony Hand to secure funding failed to materialise. And that was that.
A few hundred hardy souls showed up for the final game. They sang, they chanted, they clapped. And then they cried. So many tears were shed. As I said, it broke my heart. And my mind. I spiralled into a very deep pit that I only began to emerge from last year. So deeply a part of me was the club. For 13 years it had been my obsession. And it was gone.
It wasn’t just the Phoenix that were affected though. The ripples caused by our demise prompted the end of the EPL. Guildford and Milton Keynes ultimately moved to the EIHL (although for MK it was not to be a successful jaunt). The EPL disintegrated, and has been sort of reborn as the NIHL National League. The EIHL has had its own share of issues and controversies (open homophobia, teams struggling, etc). Indeed, in many ways, the decade from 2010 to 1019 ws much like the previous decade. A sport built on shifting sands just about maintaining itself.
As for the Storm? After Planet Ice realised that there was no money in owning and running the club, they were sold to a consortium headed by Ryan Finnerty. They appear to have settled into being a lowe end EIHL team, and certainly of late the fans are seemingly restless and appear to be somewhat disenfranchised. Will they, or indeed any of the clubs currently playing, still be here in 10 years time? I wouldn’t want to guess. For the sake of the sport I do hope they are, but history has a horrible way of repeating itslef when lessons are not learned. I won’t be going back to Altrincham any time soon. I’m not interested in the Storm (that club died almost 20 years ago), and I’m not interested in the EIHL. Were there to be a new NIHL National tema, with a new name and no ties to either Storm or Phoenix, I might give it a go. But what are the chances of that?