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Paul Ifill interview: Flames of Lions days burn on for Phoenix flier

Photo: Photomac

Photo: Photomac

 

Since he left English football for a new life in New Zealand, frontman Paul Ifill has become a club great with Wellington Phoenix of the A-League and this chapter for the ex-Millwall man means just as much as when he first started out.

Before departing his homeland back in 2009, Brighton-born Paul made his name as an explosive attacking competitor with Millwall. It was with Sheffield United that he realised his dream of becoming a Premier League player but those experiences of learning his trade in the game are irreplaceable.

Seven years at Millwall brought promotion to the second tier in 2001 as Division Two champions but the standout feat was the FA Cup final appearance in 2004. Paul played the full game as the Lions were beaten 3-0 by Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium and two of his teammates from that day have done their own interviews on here – goalkeeper Andy Marshall and defender Darren Ward. Alongside Ward and captaining the side at centre-back that day was a player who is still out there on match day at the age of 39 and he is the one Paul recalls most clearly when looking back at music memories of the club.

“Most of my teammates over time have just liked whatever they would see as up-to-date music. Coming through at Millwall we had a young team and UK garage was definitely the music of choice.
“I would say one of my best friends, Matt Lawrence, who’s still playing at Whitehawk in the Conference South, had to me the most diverse music taste. He hated anything that the rest of us enjoyed and used to moan at the lyrics of rap, r&b or garage tracks.
“He would say anybody with a computer thought they were a musician!”

Capped internationally by Barbados, Paul’s exposure to melodic surroundings started long before he was part of the Millwall dressing room. At Saltdean United he briefly played in the same team as his father Everton, a national karate champion in England and a native Barbadian. Paul explains how he influenced his sound choices when he was a youngster.

“Music has and still does play a big part in my life. Growing up, my father was a DJ so most Fridays and Saturdays he had parties to do and as I got older sometimes I’d tag along and help.
“I still use music as a way to focus before games and during gym sessions. Currently, I’m a big fan of artists like Ne-Yo and Chris Brown but I still like old school garage and r&b.
“I think the first record I bought was ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio when I was 17ish, although I’d bought many rave and garage tape packs before that.”

 

Photo: Photomac

Photo: Photomac

 

In his last season at Millwall, Paul had a fleeting taste of the UEFA Cup in a year in which the club finished 10th in the Championship. He scored 43 goals in all for the South Londoners before joining Sheffield United for £800,000 in May 2005. He was on target nine times for Neil Warnock’s side in 2005/06 as they finished runners-up and gained promotion to the top flight. He names two of the many strikers at the club during that period as the main men for music in the team, one of which has featured on here in the past.

“Team DJ is a very important role and I had a short but successful stint at Millwall! We all liked the same stuff so shared it around.
“I think it was Danny Webber and Steven Kabba at Sheffield United – they were good.”

Paul, 34, has been devastating on the field at his best for Wellington Phoenix and a great ambassador off it too. The early exchanges of this A-League season have seen him pass 100 Phoenix appearances and with 32 goals he is the club’s all-time leading scorer.

It is the sixth campaign so far for the New Zealanders and overseas names in the squad include Costa Ricans Kenny Cunningham and Carlos Hernandez, as well as Belgian forward Stein Huysegems and Spaniard Albert Riera. Nevertheless, it is an Aussie midfielder who gets control of the crucial pre-game playlist.

“At Wellington it’s a lad named Vince Lia and he’s been top drawer so far, lots of new stuff to get us up for the game.”

The move to Phoenix came about after Paul was talking with his Crystal Palace colleague at the time and current Sydney FC midfielder Nick Carle. Paul mentioned his desire to give Major League Soccer a go, to which Carle suggested the A-League, before getting his agent involved.

The possibility of going to Wellington presented itself but the distance initially deterred Paul. Millwall striker and now-joint interim boss of Crawley Town, Gary Alexander, told Paul of his own chance to join the club. Alexander’s personal circumstances meant he could not make the move but Paul’s intrigue had been stirred and he and his wife Elle decided to go for it.

Although the years spent as a player in England allowed a certain amount of travel during the off-season Paul has been taken in by the chances to see numerous Australian locations while with his current employers.

 

Photo: Photomac

Photo: Photomac

 

His favoured holiday destinations have also changed and they are altogether different propositions to the well-known hot spots in Cyprus and the Canary Islands he opted for once upon a time. Music has played its part along the way but it was just the one trip for Paul to the place where UK garage was celebrated passionately in the 90s and early-2000s.

“I only went to Ayia Napa once, though we had a great time we liked Tenerife better and the Millwall lads went about six or seven years on the bounce. After that it’s been Vegas for me seven years on the trot and then Thailand!
“I was lucky enough to see plenty of acts and DJs in Vegas. Some of the best were The Killers, Tiesto, Avicii, (Steve) Aoki and Deadmau5.”

The first time a player steps over the white line to make an appearance as a professional is truly momentous. For Paul, this moment arrived in February 1999 as Millwall were beaten 2-0 away to Lincoln City in the Second Division.

The whole day was a nervy one for him but the boyhood Newcastle United fan grabbed his opportunity. He has never wanted to step up to the mark with the same level of assurance when it comes to initiation procedures at his clubs though!

“I’m a terrible singer so I’ve not sung so far and I have had to pay the consequences financially. Most clubs have a fee that needs to be paid if you won’t sing.
“At most clubs it was £500, which seems crazy to me now.”

Among the Millwall players making their way through the ranks at the same time as Paul was a striker who represented a flurry of clubs but got his break in the Football League with the Lions. The best of the 35-year-old’s goalscoring fortune came with Southend United and Port Vale but Paul gives props to him for his version of an r&b track.

“The best singing performance was by Leon Constantine at Millwall. He was unbelievable, we were shouting ‘encore’ and he duly delivered.
“He sang a Jodeci number.”

Top scorer for Phoenix in his debut season (2009/10) with 13 goals, Paul helped the team to the Preliminary Final where they were ousted by Sydney FC. Prior to this, in the Minor Semi Final he bagged one of the everlasting strikes of his time at the club. Against Newcastle Jets he fired Ricki Herbert’s team in front during extra-time and led some raucous celebrations with the supporters.

The game finished 3-1 after a further Phoenix goal was added by Eugene Dadi on 115 minutes. Experiences like this game convinced Paul to spurn the advances of other interested A-League clubs when they came calling and being settled is something he didn’t take for granted.

“New Zealand in general is a super-friendly place full of great people and amazing scenery. We love it here, my sister moved out here three years ago and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mum follows suit soon – it definitely feels like home now.
“The transition from England to New Zealand wasn’t really too difficult. Obviously I miss family and friends but with Skype these days it’s much easier.
“Also, the lads at Wellington were amazing when I arrived and made me and my family feel settled very quickly.”

 

Photo: Photomac

Photo: Photomac

 

In the 2011/12 season he was top scorer again, this time with eight, and a 4th-place finish opened the way for another shot at the play-offs. A Minor Semi Final loss to Perth Glory after extra-time ended their progress but it had been another year in which Paul’s craft and attacking input had led the way.

This season, he has been questing after a return to full fitness but provided a reminder of his quality as he weaved his way through to score in the 3-2 defeat to Melbourne Victory. Phoenix are managed by ex-Victory and Hong Kong coach Ernie Merrick, who was appointed in May, and have three points from their first six games, leaving them second-bottom of the A-League at present.

The team are looking for their first win but Paul has outlined his faith in what Merrick is trying to implement.

“We have started the season a bit slowly but are playing a much better brand of football and I believe it’s only a matter of time until the results turn for us.”

A member of the A-League All Stars who took on Manchester United in July, Paul’s Premier League debut in August 2006 saw him start for Sheffield United in a 1-1 draw against Liverpool at Bramall Lane. A fractious relationship with manager Neil Warnock contributed to a transfer to Crystal Palace in January 2007 but Paul was reunited with his one-time Blades gaffer nine months later.

Warnock’s appointment at Palace was something Paul had heard being hinted at before it went through. Although he was transfer-listed he played 38 times and scored six goals the following season before being released by the Eagles.

To say that former Leeds boss Warnock has had his run-ins with managers, players and officials through the years doesn’t even begin to tell the story! Paul looks at what he perceived to be the pros and cons of Warnock’s managerial approach as well as picking out his other bosses who have made an impact upon him.

“I’ve been lucky to work with some great managers… and a few bad ones too! Good ones include Keith Stevens, Mark McGhee, Dennis Wise, Neil Warnock and current coach Ernie Merrick.
“What they all have in common is their honesty. Good, bad or indifferent, they all told it how it is or was, which is the best way to deal with me.
“They were all good at man management apart from Warnock but what he lacked there he made up for with a will to win. He always got you up for every game!
“Overall, the best two I’ve worked with so far are McGhee and Merrick and they are both Scottish. Maybe I should have gone to Scotland to play when I had the chance, but that’s a story for another day.”

One of the great personalities of the A-League, Paul has been proven completely vindicated in his decision to uproot and move across the globe four years ago. The lifestyle and setting has been perfectly to his and his family’s taste and he has his name down in Wellington Phoenix history for a whole host of reasons.

In the regular final question on here, players name the four teammates from their career who they would have alongside them in a 5-a-side line-up. Paul did it a little bit differently, as one or two interviewees have, and volunteered to go on the bench…while adding a couple of others to join him as substitutes. Here he is to introduce his ‘8-a-side’!

“Finally, a 5-a-side team with myself amongst the subs would be as follows. (Goalkeeper) Tony Warner.
“(Defender) Phil Jagielka. (Midfielder) Steven Reid.
“(Striker) Dion Dublin. (Forward) Victor Moses.

“Subs: myself, Richard Sadlier (striker) and Tim Cahill (midfielder).Nice balance to my team and some impact off the bench.”

@chris_brookes

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