Wellington Phoenix's homecoming got the fairytale result the script demanded on Saturday when a record crowd of 24,105 fuelled the A-League's road warriors to a 3-0 win over Western United.
The crowd wasn't just a Wellington record -- it topped this month's Sydney derby to be the highest attended match of the A-League season. With crowds at Super Rugby down this season, it's also Aotearoa's biggest sporting crowd of 2021.
Hometown hero Clayton Lewis fired the Nix ahead in the first half, before Reno Piscopo and Tomer Hemed iced the cake after the break.
The victory was just the tonic for Wellington's late-blooming season, extending an unbeaten run to eight that could see them crash the top six and play finals for the third-straight season. But the occasion felt bigger than the match or the result, as showed by the bumper turnout at Sky Stadium.
Wellington's biggest-ever regular season crowd welcomed the team home after their marathon stay in Australia. The Phoenix hadn't played in New Zealand since March last year due to COVID border restrictions, a run of 433 days. On Monday, they were feted at the airport on arrival, and on Saturday, they repaid the faithful.
On 38 minutes, Lewis scored the opener, sending a deflected long-range shot past Ryan Scott. Lewis joined Phoenix earlier this season but it was only on Saturday that he was able to play in front of his family for the first time.
The Nix upped the ante in the second half and soon took the contest away from the flailing United. Piscopo's goal was a thing of beauty, rocketing a shot too hot for Scott to stop at the near post after 57 minutes.
Wellington were rampant and six minutes later had three, Louis Fenton dinking the ball across goal for Hemed to head home.
The loss is a bitter pill for Western United coach Mark Rudan, who left Wellington two seasons ago for the expansion side. The big spenders, who played in front of just 990 fans a fortnight ago, have lost five in a row, sit 10th have only a mathematical chance to play finals.
On the contrary, the Nix are every chance. Ufuk Talay's side are seventh, three points behind sixth-place Brisbane and have all the momentum -- though the Roar have an extra game to play.
The Phoenix will hope for a similar crowd in Auckland next week when they face Perth Glory.