WELLINGTON Phoenix boss Ricki Herbert says he's hugely proud of his team even though they fell heartbreakingly short in a 3-2 extra-time loss to Perth Glory in Saturday's minor semi-final.
The Phoenix looked on course to stun the Glory and advance to the preliminary final for the second time in three years when they led 2-1 late in normal time but Billy Mehmet levelled with 18 minutes left before Todd Howarth scored the winner 22 minutes into extra time to eliminate the Kiwis.
Goals to Chris Greenacre and Manny Muscat earlier in the second half had put the visitors in front after Bas van den Brink's opener.
Herbert, who was upset his side didn't receive a penalty when Paul Ifill was bundled over in the box by Dean Heffernan just four minutes before Mehmet's equaliser, said it was a cruel way for Wellington's season to end.
But he said everyone at the club could hold their heads high, both for their effort against the Glory and across the whole season after battling a precarious financial position before the campaign.
"Everybody has given everything ... I'm incredibly proud," he said.
"Given a penalty tonight, which looked like a pretty clear penalty, maybe the result could've been a bit different.
"I think [the game] was pretty even. We started well and I didn't really think they created a lot of opportunities.
"I thought in the second half we were really strong. We got better ball in the box and we looked like a side that probably could go on and win it.
"We've gone the journey and were minutes away from going to a penalty shoot-out. We'll cop that one on the chin and it's tough. It could've gone either way tonight."
Herbert, who said the hamstring injury that forced Ben Sigmund off just past the hour mark proved costly, felt the loss was especially tough on retiring midfielder Tim Brown.
"He's addressed the players and all the staff and he's very emotional around it," Herbert said.
"He's been the stalwart of the club and a foundation player and somebody who we've all known to grow and respect."
Despite the tough nature of the loss, Herbert said there was real optimism at the club for the future in large part due to the new ownership.
"That's three finals series' for us tonight, we're really, really close and I think we're a strong and integral part of the league now," he said.
"We're expanding now, we have academies, we'll have young players coming through, we'll have other opportunities for players that are in this squad to actually go and play."