Football fans in Australia can be quick to point out everything that’s wrong with the domestic scene, but on the eve of another A-League season, there are reasons to be cheerful.
With the arrival of Western Sydney Wanderers in 2012-13, the infant A-League noticeably lifted. Yes, there had been active support, but not like this. Yes, there had been derbies, but not like this. And yes, there had been marquees – but not like this. The Wanderers sparked an arms race – Sydney FC shifted uncomfortably, in came Alessandro Del Piero.
Fast-forward to 2019 and a club that should be flying, Melbourne City, has been drifting. No clear identity, no connection to fans. The naffness of the logo – “the blacktop of the bitumen with the greenery of our suburbs” – aside, Western United stand to be a second Wanderers – a club connected to its community, bringing a new edge to Melbourne derbies and an injection of oxygen and optimism to the league. (RP)
In Australia, professional football’s unique selling point is the atmosphere. The international culture of orchestrated chanting, colourful tifos, and a host of other less socially accepted means of manifesting sound and fury, provide a backdrop that can often be more entertaining than the action on-field.
Wanderers are about to embark on their first campaign in the best venue in Australia for generating atmosphere. Their new Bankwest Stadium is raked steeply in the European tradition and includes a safe standing section for active supporters. It is a potential game-changer not just for the Wanderers but for the entire competition. (JP)
It’s been an aching sore point in the A-League for years: despite the hype around young potentials like Ramy Najjarine or Dylan Pierias, limited league minutes have stymied the development of Australia’s best young talents.
Now, while the precise detail is still to be confirmed, Congress is making noises of larger bench sizes, possibly even spots being ear-marked for players under the age of 23. More than that, clubs like Sydney FC – infamously geared towards experienced journeymen – are starting to show faith in their academies. It won’t happen overnight, but hopefully the breakout of a Ryan Teague or Birkan Kirdan can delight home fans with increasing regularity. (RP)
Since the marquee-dominated preseason of 2012-13 there hasn’t been a great deal of positivity around the A-League at this time of the year. Recent campaigns in particular have been waylaid by politics while the clubs and Football Federation Australia have gone toe-to-toe. Now that those issues have largely been resolved there is a chance to finally look forward with optimism. We can discuss the merits afforded by an independent A-League, and we can celebrate the possibilities of a second division injecting new energy into what has for so long been a conversation shaped by acrimony and mired in pessimism. Yes we can. (JP)
Higher calibre coaches
If fans complain that the A-League recycles players, think about how risk averse it’s been over the years to new coaches. The success of Mark Rudan last season was a massive fillip for the local cohort; should Ufuk Talay succeed in his debut campaign more will follow.
On top of that Eric Mombaerts and Gertjan Verbeek are a much higher calibre of foreign coach – new ideas, new challenges – it all means for a more tactically sophisticated and interesting league. And then there’s Robbie Fowler. Like it or not, his global reputation will attract media that doesn’t normally follow the local game. Go well, and he could bring thousands more eyeballs to the A-League. (RP)
Snakes and spice (and all things nice)
Sydney FC recruiting two of the most influential forwards in the competition from their two fiercest rivals set the tone for a combative transfer window. When Kosta Barbarouses comes up against Melbourne Victory and Alex Baumjohann encounters Western Sydney Wanderers there should be fireworks – which is exactly the kind of needle a competition like the A-League thrives on.
Throw in Marco Kurz leaving Adelaide United for their most bitter foes, Mark Rudan returning to Wellington on matchday one, and the encore of the league-wide pantomime villains that are Besart Berisha and Roy O’Donovan, there should be some spicy subplots to most fixtures. (JP)
The new ABC deal
It’s the old adage in the women’s game: you can’t be what you can’t see. For all Fox’s financial commitment over the years, there’s nothing like sport on free-to-air TV to grow the game. Attract new eyeballs and make it hassle-free for existing fans. SBS forged the path for the game to become mainstream, the two-or-three-times larger reach of ABC can help cement it there.
With their rival commercial interests in other codes there has long been suspicion that commercial FTAs just don’t have the heart to back football – not helped by Ten’s token efforts over the past two years. If the ABC can bring a genuine love for the product, the game will only thrive. (RP)
Ola Toivonen arrived in Melbourne on the back of a goalscoring World Cup campaign. But even that failed to prepare many of us for just how good a footballer he would turn out to be. His touch, vision and composure all proved as brilliant as the competition had ever witnessed – and he’s back to do it all again, this time as Victory captain.
Throw in the return of the mercurial Bruno Fornaroli at Perth Glory – alongside one of the league’s best ever, Diego Castro – the potential of Alessandro Diamanti and Panagiotis Kone at Western United, the prospect of Baumjohann dovetailing with Miloš Ninković in Sydney, and much much more besides, the roster of attacking quality this season has the potential to eclipse any in A-League history. (JP)
Improvement in last year’s bottom sides
A rising tide lifts all boats. It may not have worked for trickle-down economics, but it’s 100% true in the A-League.
One of the great demoralisers of last season was just how bad some of the football was. It was end-stage North Queensland Fury fused with Clive’s Comedy Gold Coast, lathered in John Adshead’s NZ Knights. Don’t believe me? Rewatch the bit when Mariners went 7-0 down at home to the Phoenix inside an hour.
Sure, clubs can have rotten seasons. Last year three did at the same time. But positively, the Mariners, Roar and Wanderers are all looking significantly stronger. So if the floor lifts, the whole league benefits. Here’s to a tighter competition, and hopefully, more upsets. (RP)
Enough of all this jollity! There’s nothing we like more as football fans than a good long whinge, and there’s nothing that guarantees a meaty gripe quite like VAR. There is sound logic to the introduction of video referees, but as the canary down the coalmine since April 2017, the A-League has gathered more evidence than most to indicate the system is still far from foolproof.
Bring on the first five-minute delay while the referee studies a pitchside monitor, to the dismay of the uninformed crowd. Let’s steam into that debate about frame-rates turning borderline offsides into Schrödinger’s cat. And we can only dream of a technical malfunction whereby the system fails entirely in a grand final. What an epic grumble that would be… ahem. (JP)