The del Piero Dilemma (Or How An Azzurri Legend Hijacked A Club…But Not The A-League)

Okay, the title of this blog post may be a bit provocative, and of course I’m biased in my view due to my club allegiances. However, in the immediate and indeed long term wash-up over the ending of Alessandro del Piero’s playing career at Sydney FC there are some serious questions to be asked about the true value of his involvement in the sport in Australia, as well as his worth to the club he played for. Was ADP the greatest thing since sliced focaccia to hit Sydney FC, the A-League or indeed the entire sport of football in Australia in recent years? Was he value for money when it came to the expenditure made by Sydney FC’s owner, particularly in light of the definitive lack of success the club had on the pitch during his tenure as their marquee? Has del Piero been as noble in his crusade for football in Australia as some would have us believe, or has his stint down under been a clever marketing ploy by a professional footballer who wanted to maximise his income and brand? What will be his legacy at Sydney FC or indeed for the sport as a whole in this country? Bottom line; was del Piero worth all the dosh, hype and attention?

Taking the playing for his club view first, I don’t think that anyone could find fault with the argument that del Piero added plenty of quality to Sydney FC, particularly in his first season in 2012/13. However his individual achievements and ability to do very well as a mature overseas marquee for the Sky Blues could not counterbalance certain salient problems with his club. As I and many others have argued before Sydney FC’s dysfunctional structures in terms of recruitment policies, coaching attitudes, club culture and a player group that has far too many passengers for the money spent on them meant that for much of his time at the club del Piero was a bit like the boy of legend with his finger in the dyke. Whilst his set piece work was of the highest quality, and his ability to encourage and arguably serve as a leader for his fellow players at SFC will be well thought of by many, there have to be doubts as to whether he was more than just a band aid solution; a tiring fulcrum that a faulty machine tried to lever off. Whether it was his coaches or himself, or perhaps a combination of both as well as the influence of his team mates, with ADP in the Sydney FC line up they became far too focused on his role and work. There were times when it brought major dividends (as recently as the Round 25 game of the current season between Sydney and Wellington). However these matches and the synchronicity of a magisterial ADP combining with effective football from his team mates were far too infrequent. For every match where he bamboozled defenders such as the opening match of the 2013/14 season against the Jets whilst the likes of Abbas, Carle, Garcia and Petkovic backed him up, there were games like the second SFC versus Wanderers derby of 2013/14. In that match he was kept far too quiet for his club’s needs by a much younger opposition player (the Wanderers’ Daniel Alessi) and then when subbed not only did his departure indicate a degree of disharmony within the squad and coaching staff, things went off the boil on the pitch quickly as well, ending in yet another derby loss for the Sky Blues. Admittedly there were times when del Piero’s absence had his fellow Sydney FC players rise to the occasion (as they did in the third derby of 2013/14 against the Wanderers), but on the balance he could neither carry the burden of a stuttering squad for as long as or as well as needed, nor could his team mates match his mercurial brilliance with enough frequency. To put it bluntly, Sydney FC could never escape the problems of effectively being a one man team in the ADP years.

Another issue for Sydney FC in terms of its playing structures and achievements during del Piero’s tenure was the diversion of philosophical and tactical energy away from establishing an attractive and successful system into keeping del Piero on the pitch in some role, whilst at the same time coaching problems festered and leeched away support. If one was to look at opposition clubs that achieved more success over the last two seasons it would be fair to say that not allowed their style of play nor their squad’s playing philosophy to become a servant to one man. Coaches such as Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat, Mike Mulvey, Graham Arnold, Ange Postecoglou, Phil Moss and Josep Gombau were not afraid of putting their best and/or most iconic players into a tactical and/or cultural framework that served long term visions. Shinji Ono and Thomas Broich are two examples of international players with far less cachet as imported ‘stars’ than del Piero who were coached as part of a team, instead of being allowed to form an identity or a diversion apart from the team’s energies, its focus. Both Arnold and Moss never had anyone approaching del Piero’s skill or fame in their Central Coast line ups these last two seasons, and I would argue they achieved more than del Piero’s Sydney FC not in spite of such a disparity of talent but because of it. Even lower placed clubs with less success than Sydney FC, such as Melbourne Heart or Wellington Phoenix seemed to do better with their major players (i.e. Orlando Engelaar and Carlos Hernandez respectively) integrating into club’s playing culture. No one saw stories about Ono, Heskey or Broich being touted as a potential replacement for their respective coaches as del Piero was for Frank Farina.

From my perspective (and of course I am only a layman with an affirmed prejudice against Sydney FC) del Piero’s most significant role for his club seems to have been less about adding to his club’s achievements on the field, and more about serving as a brand or marketing tool for Traktavenko’s investment. It could also be argued he has been far more important for the FFA in the same context than his technical ability on the pitch encouraging or leading domestic A-League players to improve their standards accordingly. Whether we’re talking the amount of ADP related merchandise sold on behalf of Sydney FC, the links back to Italy for the club and the FFA through broadcast deals or tours of del Piero’s homeland, or the FFA’s use of the Italian legend in their advertising, del Piero the footballer seemed to take a back seat to del Piero the sales tool.

Alessandro del Piero and Shinji Ono launching FFA’s Summer of Football 2013/14

Now far be it from me to criticise either Sydney FC nor the FFA for wanting to make as much out of such an iconic and important player to promote their respective business interests in football in Australia. However assuming the $8 million value of his contract is correct how much was del Piero’s value worth in terms of media exposure compared to such expenditure? Also how much value was wrought from the success of the Western Sydney Wanderers as a club in 2012/13, compared to del Piero’s impact when it came to promoting the A-League and football? After all, whilst del Piero sold plenty of shirts and was featured in heaps of ads, Sydney FC were unable to get more than 60% of the same membership numbers that the Wanderers achieved for 2013/14. The Wanderers have had a real presence in Asian football due to their success in the ACL and their signing of the far cheaper Shinji Ono, whilst del Piero and Sydney FC have barely scratched the surface of engaging with the most important regional market for football and for the A-League.

At this point I must say that I don’t believe the more cynical perspectives of del Piero’s presence in the A-League; that he has been more an advertising cypher, a constant diver who made Sydney FC’s obvious deficiencies even more stark through his performances on the pitch. There has been a remarkable growth in the focus on football and the A-League in this country since 2012/13 which he has in no small part contributed to. There will be thousands of people who have gone to games with del Piero playing, or to off-pitch events that he has attended and they will hopefully feel more attachment to the game and the A-League than if del Piero had not come to Australia. Yet I am not going to adopt a Pollyanna vision that some media pundits may take when they look back on the ADP experience.

Perhaps my ambivalence towards del Piero can be best discussed in the context of the Round 24 match between Adelaide United and Sydney FC at Coopers Stadium on March 21st 2014. At this game the local fans came out in their thousands to see del Piero and show their appreciation for his playing in front of a sizable expat Italian community. Whilst all this affection for the visiting marquee was visually and possible emotionally exciting, the actual game saw Sydney FC utterly outclassed by Gombau’s Reds, with a far less famous or expensive player for the home team (Carrusca) bossing the visitors. As for the hero of the local Juventus fans, he was subbed at the 65th minute. In my opinion it is hardly the best result for all concerned that del Piero engaged far more effectively with people who may be more fixated with a European icon and his club than their local team, and that team played some of the most attractive and efficient football in 2013/14 (especially in contrast to Sydney FC).

ADP at Coopers Stadium for the match against Adelaide, Round 24, 21/3/14

Regarding del Piero’s legacy, I am of the view that his will be far more fleeting and less substantive than others may believe. His tenure as Sydney FC’s marquee would no doubt have resonated far more if his celebrity and individual quality has been accompanied by wider club achievements in the A-League. I also am of the opinion that because his presence in the Sky Blues seemed to affirm the ‘bling’ aspect of their culture whilst reinforcing popular attitudes regarding their cargo cult attitude when it comes to recruiting stars, del Piero’s legacy is going to be less than his boosters would hope. How much money and goodwill has been pissed away by Traktavenko, Barlow, Pignata and Farina through the conduit of del Piero’s celebrity and marquee status contrasted with the grassroots community achievements secured by the Wanderers? Or the small budget, highly motivated squads at the Mariners? Or the Roar and Victory’s approach to creating squads with more uniform standards of achievement and skill?

In light of this I fear that unless something is recruited by Sydney FC along similarly expensive and individually illustrious lines there will be a significant falling off in appeal for the club, and perhaps by association the sport in Australia. Thankfully the continued success of the Wanderers, the major investment by Manchester City’s consortium in the Heart, and major international tournaments for the Socceroos such as Brazil 2014 and the AFC Cup in early 2015 will keep people focused on our sport. However for me the bottom line is that del Piero has been a missed opportunity, reminiscent of those days when a huge European club would come to Australia and play the national team for a few exhibition matches, then return home with as much money as they could gather from their excursion in their bank account. Surely the way forward for the A-League and for our sport to grow is not through enlisting temporary excitement through legends of the game such as ADP, but building successful clubs and domestic cultures built around Australian players who both learn from more accomplished foreign team mates whilst teaching their junior squad members.

Unwarranted Advice for Those Suffering From The Sydney FC Blues

I’ll admit I take much malicious glee from the internecine warfare being waged right now over in the Moore Park precinct, between the forces of fan-based revolution at Sydney FC and the repressive fumblers that have brought their so-called ‘great’ A-League club so low. The whole sorry saga of the Sky Blues coming apart quicker than a three dollar suit sown together with fairy floss has been the funniest episode of A-League incompetence since Clive Palmer decided he could use his Gold Coast United players as pawns in a noble defence of free speech. From two derby day defeats this season, with the Wanderers racking up all the points and all the supporter honours whilst our cross-town rivals have floundered in a sea of self-loathing, through the false dawn of their pummeling of Melbourne Victory, through to last Saturday night’s chaotic scenes at Allianz Stadium, there have been laughs-a-plenty to be found from the rich comedy well-spring that is the home of Pignata, Barlow, Traktovenko and Farina. The sounds of wailing and gnashing of teeth coming from the Cove and fellow SFC acolytes has become the laugh track to a long running sitcom that keeps trying to be a serious effort at being a football club. Like a comedic cornucopia Sydney FC’s failures just keep on giving for all of us who find the club unlikable ( at best) or hated (at worst).

Now I won’t go into all the causes for this situation, partly because others have tracked its course far better than I, or because I have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to re-phrase the farrago here. Whether it be the failures of Sydney FC’s owners and administrators to secure the best staff, and the contrasting vision between them and the Wanderers (as indicated in this solid piece from Fox Football’s Simon Hill), the toxicity of the fan culture (viz this article from the Guardian), the supposedly egregious treatment of the Cove’s capo (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald) or the simple inability of the team to win enough matches under Frank Farina, there are plenty of paths that have lead to this unedifying chasm. It could be argued that the modus vivendi of the club’s owner and his perception of Sydney FC’s mission is the root cause of all it’s evils: trying to push into Asia with a club run by his son-in-law is not exactly the way to achieve domestic success in the A-League, and if reports of the cut-backs in staff are true then trying to accomplish either goal seems to be a wild goose chase. In an Australian sport where ‘all-knowing’ rich potentates have generally either sunk without a trace, created more problems for their club than solving them, or simply failed to deliver a profitable and successful football venture (e.g. Clive Palmer, Con Constantine, Tony Sage, Nathan Tinkler), it seems as if Sydney FC and their Russian billionaire owner is heading down a well-worn path strewn with errors. The bottom line may be almost profitable for Traktovenko, and no one can deny that there has been success in the NYL and W-League for the Sky Blues. Yet the dysfunctional elements of what was ‘Bling FC’ have coalesced into one seething, angry, flatulent and very nasty ball of hatred knotting up the club’s internal mechanisms worse than an all-egg diet does to a constipation sufferer.

So, from the outside looking in, and without wanting to proffer advice that might be used to actually improve the lot of the Wanderers’ local rivals, where do the hapless and hopeless out at Moore Park go? Is there reason to believe the runaway train to nowhere can be put back on track, and if so how long will it take? At what cost? Should those with financial or emotional investment in the club take the Vietnam War approach and ‘burn down the village to save it’? If I was honest I don’t really care if they do anything; yet like the man twisting the knife to find just that little bit more sadistic pleasure, perhaps I can be allowed to provide some observations on how Sydney FC can save itself.

  1. Stop the ‘Sydney is Sky Blue’ bull shit: Yes, everyone who has followed football in Sydney in any way, shape or form is aware of this slogan that gets pumped out like piss-poor muzak in an elevator only going one storey up or down. Not only has it fed the o’erweening arrogance of the club’s fan base, it has become an easily used way for particularly the Wanderers’ fans to beat the Cove and their associates over the head with their own failures. In an environment where Wanderers membership outnumbers Sydney FC numbers in a ratio of roughly 3:2, for the older yet less supported club to try and preen like they were the cock of the walk in Sydney when they are more like a feather duster on and off the pitch, well it all comes across as ridiculous arrogance. The days of dominating the Sydney football market are long dead, and the sooner the administrators, owner and marketers of Sydney FC get this through their thick skulls the better.
  2. End the ADP love affair. Yes, Alessandro del Piero is a great player who has contributed far more to the growth in the A-League’s profile on and off the pitch than any one marquee has in its short history. There is no doubt that del Piero has become an iconic part of Sydney FC and without him it could well be argued that both on and off the pitch the arse might have fallen out of the Sky Blue’s both far quicker and at a far more debilitating cost. However there comes a time when a simple cost-benefit analysis has to be undertaken to see if ADP has in fact given the club a full return on their investment. Yes, merchandise sales and crowds have been solid, but when all is said and done he was brought to the club to help Sydney FC win titles and transition to the Asian Champions’ League. It didn’t happen last season and there is every expectation it won’t happen in 2013/14. Throw in the manner in which his arrival possibly destabilised the plans of former coach Ian Crook, the endless focus on his role as the creative element within an ageing squad, and now the potential for him to become the SFC player/coach in 2014/15 at a cost of approximately $4 million, it is very hard to see how the continued fixation with del Piero will solve the club’s problems. There is also the questionable manner in which del Piero’s influence has taken the club into operational activities which have left them vulnerable, such as the 2013 benefit tour of Italy for ADP, or the mass marketing of del Piero merchandise which has possibly only engaged with his fans and not those wanting to connect with Sydney FC. When the Juventus legend finally leaves will those who climbed aboard his bandwagon at Sydney FC want to stay? I honestly don’t expect this to happen, as the hundreds if not thousands who have associated with Sydney FC via ADP will not be satisfied with either the club’s overall form during his time here or incidents such as these:

  3. Stop the band aid solutions. As soon as a problem emerges at Sydney FC the reaction is almost always one that would serve as the dictionary definition for ‘knee jerk’. This season alone there have been three Serbian players added to the roster individually, and whilst they have had their moments no one can definitely say how they expect the playing structures to develop or change. Was Petkovic recruited as a stop gap to plug the problems experienced with team mates like Tiago and Warren? Despotovic obviously had a role to play with Gamiero’s injury delaying his impact as a striker, but now the young Australian is back to match fitness where does the Serb striker fit? Is Nicky Carle supposed to be a creative attacking midfielder, playing off and alongside del Piero, or is he supposed to be a deeper defensive midfielder in the mould of Victory’s Mark Milligan? What is the story behind Sasa Ognenovski’s recruitment, and is it yet another ‘Oh he’s available let’s grab him’ band aid solution? Is it a repeat of last season’s doomed effort in bringing in Lucas Neill? Overall, is the squad playing this season structured around a possession game? A second man long ball game? Fast counter attacks? Defense in depth with del Piero having a free remit to do whatever it takes? It seems as if no matter what the preferred style no one has any long term concept of how to play or what the most effective structures are. What about the coaching staff; is Farina really calling all the shots with every player, recruiting to a long term plan and giving highly detailed instructions and monitoring all work done by his charges? Or is Rado Vidosic, Ange Postecoglou’s assistant and failed successor at the Roar the (evil) mastermind? If any of the players under pressure for lack of results or indeed the staff get the flick will someone higher up the food chain try and take a long term view? These are all questions I cannot answer, nor probably care to even if I had more than just anecdotal or second-hand evidence for. However every indication is that whatever decisions are made in the Sydney FC camp will be ones that quell the immediate problems, with no vision beyond (at their most long term) the end of the season. Even earlier today the statement regarding the discipline issues surrounding Nicky Carle, Matt Thompson and Frank Farina does little else but keep the pot boiling. The statement posted by Tony Pignata on the Sydney FC forum regarding the events of last Saturday night is a further example of PR spin that fails to really address core concerns for interested parties. If a so-called ‘pissant club’ like Adelaide United can install a coach who talks about developing a playing style that goes beyond the concerns of winning titles this season, why can’t the supposed biggest club in the A-League take a similarly long term approach?
  4. Club ethos…find one and stick to it. This ties in somewhat to the ‘Sydney is Sky Blue’ BS but has wider ramifications and themes. Perhaps the best focal point for consideration by the Sydney FC gurus is the whole ‘to be Bling or not Bling’ question. I hate to say it as the idea of a rich, big spending club that promotes itself accordingly is hardly attractive in any sport let alone football in Australia, yet why doesn’t SFC actually bite the bullet and return to the cashed up bling days of ‘All Night Dwight’? In itself there is nothing shameful in possessing access to considerable owner funds (if indeed is the case, and this merits further discussion) or for that matter a big name line up. In other sports in Australia there have been clubs that have had an abundance of riches both in terms of financial resources and player stocks, or in fact came from higher end social areas. The classic example is Rugby League’s Manly. For all their (deserved) antipathy among the wider league fan base because of their supposed wealth, their long-standing ability to poach players from clubs like the now merged Wests, and their reputation as a ‘Silvertails’ club, Manly have been perennially successful and their fans incredibly loyal. For Sydney FC the ethos and associated reputation that was cultivated during the first season or so of their existence did much to define them. By attempting to have it both ways, insofar as still having an incredibly well-funded squad and a club owned by a Russian billionaire, and yet supposedly appeal to the masses, results in a blurring of their raison d’etre. Australians find it very easy to hate someone wealthy who puts on the dog, but they find it easier to hate or dismiss someone who is hypocritical.
  5. Clean out all administrative/staff except for the very top. Yes, responsibility for the clusterfuck that is Sydney FC must ultimately be shafted home to Traktovenko, Barlow and Pignata, and unless the Russian owner has a desire to exit only he is really safe. Yet realism dictates that Barlow (Traktovenko’s son-in-law) and probably Pignata are safe. However everyone else should be given their notice (where contracts allow) that by season’s end they are gone. Sometimes clubs need to slash and burn to get results, and when you see the failures that have dominated the continuing fiasco that has been Sydney FC over at least the last season and a half then no one can be protected. Obviously Frank Farina must go, but he has to be accompanied by his assistants, his medical staff etc. There needs to be a clearing out as well of the club’s backroom staff in areas like media management and community engagement. I have it on good authority that Sydney FC have failed to cooperate with the media when it was in their best interests to do so. Hell, even the latest schemozzle over the expulsion of Cove members at the Adelaide game needs to see heads roll.
  6. Appoint a major domo/club dictator who will build a new and holistic structure. A big ask, and part of point two, implementing point fix needs such an act. No one can create a vacuum in their organisation through a culling of dead wood without assembling a replacement structure. If, as is entirely possible Frank Farina gets the chop before season’s end and he perhaps takes the likes of Kalac with him, and then someone like Mark Rudan replaces him, then give Rudan the power to create a new regime that goes beyond picking the occasional new recruit. If it means going higher up the food chain and dumping Tony Pignata, then do it and replace him with someone who has the authority to reshape Sydney FC across the entire breadth of its operations. Things are that desperate, so dysfunctional at Sydney FC that it needs one or maybe two key personalities to stamp their authority across the entire franchise and rebuild it arguably in their own image or at least in a unified vision.
  7. Do better with your existing members and improve new membership acquisition. It’s patently obvious that Sydney FC’s current crisis came to a boil when their existing core membership (specifically the Cove) felt they were being ignored, abused and through management stuff-ups pushed away from staying engaged with their club. Whatever my personal feelings about their membership (as a Wanderers fan it is beholden of me to despise and ridicule them), I can readily acknowledge that they have a series of  legitimate grievances that need to be addressed by their club, instead of being ignored or indeed inflamed by the current regime. If Traktovenko, Barlow, Pignata, Farina and anyone else associated with Sydney FC want their club to not just survive but flourish, they need to get their core members on board tout suite. Concomitant with this is the club needs to do more to increase actual member numbers. Considering that right now the club has approximately 60% of the numbers of Wanderers members on their books, with over nine years of history (during which for 8 of those years it was the sole A-League club in Sydney) to only have a tick over 10,000 members is pretty ordinary. Even the Central Coast Mariners, with an approximate population of 250,000 or so in its catchment area can claim 5,000 members, as opposed to the Sydney FC demographic or at least 2-3 million. Sydney FC has screwed the pooch with existing and unfulfilled memberships and they should actively do whatever it takes to implement remedial action in this area. Changing the cost structures, taking games to the people more often in their core catchment areas (such as Sydney’s southern districts and northern suburbs), even countenancing more effort in getting supporters and potential members from the Illawarra would all help. Sydney FC can’t sit back and tell their existing members they have a long and proud history of success and because ‘Sydney is sky blue’ they should support through thick and thin. They need to keep reinventing their appeal, refining their message and expanding their vision and means to acquire new members.
  8. Cull the dead wood in their playing ranks. Alongside the drive to put a broom through the back room staff whoever takes the reins at Sydney FC for 2014/15 and beyond needs to get rid of most of the players at Sydney FC and find younger talent that will demonstrate hunger, drive and passion to succeed. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that almost all the men on the pitch in the senior SFC team this season have disappointed, and some have been downright shite. There has already been some clearance of ill-performing or injured stock, such as Yairu Yau and Tiago. Abbas, Janjetovic, McFlynn, Petkovic and Despotovic have been fair to middling. The rest, including ADP have hardly set the A-League on fire in this season and in the case of Thompson and Warren they’ve actually been comically bad. Yes, I will grant that in their demolition of Melbourne Victory the players performed admirably, but as the cliche says one swallow doth not a summer make. There are a few players who have struggled with injury who could be of value in the future (e.g. Gamiero, Grant, Antonis) and there is plenty of potential in their NYL team. If a new coach had access to a mixture of some of the better performers from this season, fit squad members who can do a job and actively promote NYL players that can be developed further, instead of being thrown in at the deep end willy-nilly, then perhaps the piss-weak results wrought by a creaky, old and faulty squad like that currently going around can be put in the past.

Truth be told all of these suggestions may be considered as less valuable than the paper they weren’t printed on. I honestly couldn’t care if any of these ideas were considered reputable or worth implementing by even the laziest of armchair fans from Sydney FC. Right now the Sky Blues are in a world of pain and as a passionate fan and member of their cross-town rivals nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing them flail around in a sea of their own incompetence. However, as academic exercises go, or indeed for a more altruistic aim of seeing the A-League prosper in this city and across the nation, I’m more than happy to throw a few hypotheses out there for consideration, whilst dwelling on the ways in which this clusterfuck came into being in the first place. My gut feeling is that by season’s end Farina and a few of his cronies will be booted out, with core problems still to be addressed as they would challenge much of the validity of Traktoveno’s regime. Sydney FC is a veritable sinking battleship that can’t be saved or turned from its downward course without some superhuman effort, serious thought and a bit of luck. I think all bar the most passionate (or biased) fans of Sydney FC would admit that those three elements are barely present within the club’s current structures and can’t be simply imported or developed by the close of the 2013/14 season.

2013/14 – The Season So Far (Melbourne Heart/Sydney FC/Adelaide United)

My second part of a half-season review of the current progress of each A-League club.

Melbourne Heart (0 wins/5 draws/9 losses/-16 goal difference/5 points)

The current cellar-dwellers of the 2013/14 season and deservedly so, the Heart have demonstrated that you can’t just enlist a coach on name alone, throw together a badly recruited squad, formulate no real club style or sense of purpose and then expect to get results on and off the pitch. Of course those who may be more forgiving would point to the major injury problems experienced by the Heart, with their two most significant signings in Orlando Engelaar and Harry Kewell having major injuries that led to the former still to play a single competition match in the A-League, and the other missing all bar a handful of games. However other teams have also had injuries to major players this season (e.g. the Roar with Berisha and Wanderers with Hersi) and they have had more success than may have been supposed with these issues effecting their respective squads than Heart has.

So, where has it all gone wrong. Obviously John Aloisi’s coaching was a contributing factor, and his sacking after the Round 12 loss to Wellington was the obvious reaction to a clear cut problem. Whilst a legend of the Socceroos and a genuinely good guy, he seemed to flounder at how to organise and direct his team. Questionable substitutions, ill-informed recruiting, arguably too much chumminess with his players, an incessant public facade that things weren’t that bad; it was as if JA had been asked by someone to demonstrate the paradigm of how to be a bad coach. However for all his faults the real blame must be sheeted home to the players, and there have been some very flat performances indeed.

The most startling example of how the Heart have got things wrong is their Maltese international striker Michael Mifsud. An energetic forward whose boundless running attempts to compensate for his lack of stature, Mifsud has been a failure no doubt about it. With only one goal this season his return on the club’s investment is already pretty low. What makes things worse is he seems to have no positional awareness. There have been strikers at other clubs in other seasons who have not scored many goals (e.g. Dino Kresinger at the Wanderers in 2012/13), however if they play a specific or additional role that leads to the squad scoring through other channels, then that can be accepted. Mifsud is perennially off-side, shooting off-target, too small to assist in either defensive pressing or serve as a target for crosses, and simply taking up a shirt that someone better should be in.

The woes don’t end there for the Heart this season so far. Not only have they experienced some almost comical attempts on scoring goals, their defence has been at best adequate and at worst farcical. Patrick Kisnorbo should be a major professional influence on his team thanks to his international experience. Instead he has found himself being sent off thanks to stupid hacks, or let the opposition through his line with surprising eases. Aziz Behich has been passable going forward but when it comes to his defensive work, he can be rather shambolic. The way he has let a few of his opponents skin him in one-on-one situations is alarming not just for him and his coaches, but also for neutrals who want to see a supposed talent blossom for future national duties.

There have been flashes of quality from one or two players every now and again, with the work of Migliorini in the game against Adelaide in Round Eight the best of the Heart’s entire season. His two goals in that game were stunners. David Williams has also struggled manfully. It might be argued that if the Heart had won their second round match against the Mariners at home with Williams’ brace of goals their season may not have gone to shit so fast, so badly. However it is hard to see how the occasional lift in quality would have led to a revival of their fortune at any time this season.

Overall the bulk of Heart’s squad is not good enough, were brought into the club with no clear concept of how to play or the club’s identity, and in John Aloisi had a neophyte coach who seemed unable to do more than form a friendship society with those on the pitch. He facilitated the recruitment of players who simply have not delivered (such as the aforementioned Mifsud, as well as Murdocca, Wielaert and Ramsay), and now interim coach John van t’Schip has to try and cobble together results. For a club that is supposedly up for sale with an approximate $12 million asking price, in Australia’s second biggest city, it’s simply not been good enough.

Prospects and Predictions: The return of Engelaar may help van t’Schip to tighten his defence and bring some much needed depth and creativity to play off the still-relevant skills of Harry Kewell, however the core of the club is shot for 2013/14. Their most recent game against Perth away from home reinforced the hopeless pessimism fans of the Heart must feel, and the derision felt for them by neutrals. With 2013/14 effectively over the sole consolation must be that van t’Schip can start looking at how to put in place new foundations to rectify this season’s fuck ups and build for a better squad for 2014/15. Administratively, the likes of Scott Munn must clear the way for a sale of the club that benefits as many people as possible, then get out of the way so someone else can do better. Until the end of their last game this season the Heart will be at best nuisance value, and at worst a farce.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Tenth/Wooden Spoon

Sydney FC (6 wins/1 draws/7 losses/-4 goal difference/19 points)

Just as the Heart have been in the shadow of the more successful cross-town rivals, so to has Sydney FC been finding it almost impossible to keep up with the Wanderers in 2013/14. An ageing squad that has had problems with injuries, a coach who is very rarely in the favour of fans or members of the club, and battling to extract the optimum value out of their tiring superstar marquee Alessandro del Piero, Sydney FC have an exceedingly hard row to hoe in the second half of the season.

Perhaps before indulging in some deeper criticisms of the Sky Blues it is only fair to point out some positives. Their two Serb transfers who came into the club after the beginning of the season, in Nikola Petkovic and Ranko Despotovic have been the best to play for Sydney FC all season. The former has strengthened a fragile and very inconsistent defence whilst the latter has scored goals with promising regularity. When they have been at their best and there has been sufficient support from others in the squad SFC can and do win. Some plaudits must also be guided to Vedran Janjetovic as a solid goalie (except when faced with Brisbane Roar), and of course even at his tired, unfit worst ADP stands head and shoulders over many of his comrades. Corey Gamiero could also be given some praise though through injury he has hardly had an impact in the first half of this season.

However as much as the above citations indicate some quality in the Sydney FC 2013/14 season so far, there has been far too much to regret or to criticise for simply being inadequate, and there are no problems in finding faults. Garcia, Carle, Abbas and Yau have been as inconsistent as some of their less successful opponents in (for example) Melbourne Heart. Carle and Garcia are particularly significant as ineffective players, in that both of these ex-Socceroos should be demonstrating far more of their worth, like (for example) Michael Beauchamp and Matt Spiranovic do for the Wanderers, or Bruce Djite for Adelaide. Brett Emerton (who has just announced his retirement) was more or less a passenger all season, and if there is a worse player in the Sydney FC squad than Marc Warren he must be hidden well. Yairu Yau has also not lived up to expectations and due to injury is now gone from the club.

Yet as much as there have been problems with the cattle, it goes without saying that the core problem at Sydney FC is Farina’s regime. From the manner in which he has helped shape the club’s conditioning, through to their tactical structures, and even in the relationship he has with the fans and members. there are very few outside his own coterie of friends and players who would believe he has done a good job. There must also be some criticism aimed at his assistant Ranko Vidosic, who for all the talk about how well he assisted Postecoglou at Brisbane, has failed to really make a difference since then.

Prospects and Predictions: Sydney FC are in an extremely dense tussle to make their way into the top six, and with such an immense reliance on Alessandro del Piero they will most likely progress or decline depending on how he performs. His motivation and fitness seems to be less resilient at this stage of the season contrasted with 2012/13, and the last few weeks have seen him pull the pin early and sub himself off, help facilitate goals for the opposition, and most memorably in the round thirteen derby react most unhappily at being called off the park by Farina. If del Piero’s work rate and quality degrades and reflects a wider malaise with Sydney FC, then they could fall much further down the table. On the other hand, the Serbian influence on the squad may help improve results, and if someone like Gamiero, Garcia or McFlynn rallies the troops on the pitch, well a top four position may not be utterly impossible.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Eighth

Adelaide United (4 wins/5 draws/5 losses/-1 goal difference/17 points)

The Reds have been the most egregious offenders when it comes to having the potential to do something special this season and yet come away from most of their games either without the three points. With coach Josep Gombau creating a new stylistic vision for his club that wasn’t necessarily predicated on grinding out wins, and whilst his players have generally followed that prescription to a tee, the quantity of negative results were causing some heat for coach, squad and club. It could be argued that the Round Eight draw against Melbourne Heart would’ve been the catalyst for a changing of personnel if the Reds had lost, and even though they managed three goals in that match it wasn’t until the Round Ten demolition of the Mariners where the Gombau plan for Adelaide finally won over the disbelievers.

Yet for their very good run of form over the last five rounds, with no losses and a goal differential of  plus 5, there must still be some doubts over how the club can ascend to a higher position than maybe fifth in this season’s league table. The players that have been at their best and driven the results for Adelaide, such as Djite, Carrusca, Jeronimo and Cirio have all had injury problems that have limited their availability for the team. Djite has been the most influential absentee, in that his return to the Red’s line up stiffened a hesitant playing group. The pre-season transfer of Dario Vidosic also hurt Adelaide’s playing stocks, and I am yet to be fully convinced of the value of loaned Socceroo Michael Zullo.

The injury concerns that have affected Adelaide have not killed their season (if anything their Round Fourteen win away from home over Brisbane undermines any argument for such a preposition), but overall fitness levels and the ability of the club to play out a full 90 minutes in a unified, controlled manner is. The early signs as to their fragility were there to see in Round Two, versus Melbourne Victory. The high passing rate, dominate possession style of football needs every player to be on song as long as possible, and particularly in defence there have been times when the likes of Boogard, McKain and Elrich have failed to keep up. Boogard has also had some discipline issues, and whilst Elrich has been solid some silly errors have led to games being draw or lost.

One area where I don’t believe the Reds are as strong as they were last season is in goal. Galekovic was without doubt one of the two form goalkeepers in the A-League last season. In 2013/14 I don’t believe he has maintained the high standards and has arguably been surpassed by Birighitti and maybe Theo and/or Janjetovic from the younger batch of keepers. Having said that he is still a strong possibility of future Socceroo appearances.

Prospects and Predictions: Adelaide have turned the corner after their earlier problems this season, and I do think they will scrape into the finals. I don’t believe however that they can progress to high up the ladder as there is such a gap between the top three clubs and the balance of the league. Where the Reds do have some advantage is that they are playing for a longer term goal than just this season, and with the adaptation of the ‘Barcelaide’ vision by Gombau melded to some astute Latin recruitment, Adelaide won’t fail to entertain. The fulcrum of their movement up or down the ladder is team and individual fitness; if that can be optimised look for plenty more wins. Also, in Awer Mabil they have a very promising young player, and the recent signing of Ryan Griffiths goes some way to strengthening the squad.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Sixth

A Derby Day Diary, Or How Manfred Watched The Smurfs Succumb to the Wanderers at Wanderland

Saturday 11th January 1.18 pm: On the train to Parramatta, with no one checking tickets at the station when I get on. It’s early for the trip to the game but I have important matters to deal with when I get to my destination. The trip is quiet and unlike most others  I take on game day, as I see no other Wanderers fans in my carriage. I guess six and a half hours before kick off is a bit premature for waves of RBB supporters to make the trip. When I finally arrive at Parramatta station there are a few brothers in the home strip. So, it’s off to the Roxy.

2.10 pm: Sitting in a shaded area of the forecourt of the Roxy with about ten other people (almost all Wanderers fans) spread out under cover. It’s fucking hot and whilst I would love a beer I decide to pace myself and not go in too hard. The set up is good, and whilst not as flash as the Woolie there is certainly far more room to maneuver in. Sipping on water and checking out the usual online haunts on my smart phone. Get some text messages from friends in WSW who will be meeting me shortly. Did I say it was fucking hot?

2.45 pm: First of my Western Sydney Wanderers friends rocks up…WhoDoWeSingFor (his nom de plume online). WSWSF and I met in person at the friendly versus Adelaide at Penrith pre-season and had a great road trip to the Mariners away game in round one. He’s feeling the heat and agrees to rehydrate through a beer and some cold water. Once suitably supplied with drinks we chat about life, the game, the Wanderers, basically anything that can somehow be related to the game.

3.00 pm: Lloydy from Coona arrives and we say hello to one of the Wanderers most traveled supporters. Another middle-aged Anglo (thus defying the media stereotypes of A-League/WSW supporters) I have a lot of respect for a man who comes from a country town approximately 6 hours drive away from Parramatta to come see the Wanderers play. We talk a bit about his experiences as a football fan in a town that is typical of many bush places in NSW (i.e. union and league are more appreciated and supported than our preferred code).

During the balance of the afternoon at the Roxy the courtyard, bar, bistro and other areas slowly fill up. There is a good mix of people, young and old, rabid RBB and passionate regulars, and the mood is positive. Everyone is obviously gearing up for what will be one of the biggest matches of the season. WDWSF and I grab a feed and join Lloydy is keeping our thirst quenched, though we all stick to lights. At one point I feel the need to attend to a call of nature and upon entering the appropriate facilities I can’t but smile at how someone has put a Sydney FC shirt to (good) use. That and the smurf toys do get a well-deserved drenching.

Between drinks and our conversation every now and again a rather attractive female member of the Roxy’s staff passes by again and again, sometimes disturbing my train of thought. We also meet quite casually another Wanderers fan who takes the chance to sit in the shade and like old friends well met we continue our convivial talk about core subjects (i.e. how good are the Wanderers, the smurfs are shit, fuck it’s hot, loving the RBB and Wanderers support, etc).

5.15 pm: The capos and La Banda start up the chants and the Roxy becomes a cauldron of sound and music. Lloydy, WDWSF and I join in however in our shaded nook we find it too difficult to get closer to the action. Whilst the melee of chanting, singing RBB and Wanderers fans isn’t as densely packed as captives in a Borneo death cell moving freely is a big ask. The new diss chant against the smurfs of ESFC gets a good run and sounds like a winner. More and more people are entering the venue, and as we three are not that committed to being in the march we decide to decamp. Also, as both WDWSF and Lloydy having never been to one of my favourite Parramatta haunts, the Bavarian Bier Cafe, I suggest we head there for some German libations.

5.30 pm: Leaving the Roxy and walking to the Bavarian we see a ratio of about 50 Wanderers supporters to 2 policemen to 1 Sydney FC fan. The streets of Parramatta are suffused in a mass of people in red and black, with gaggles of lazying coppers keeping a languid eye on the behaviour of one and all. As we three walk to our next drinking hole another friend unexpectedly joins us. Beerslayer tags along plus provides some valuable information about our next venue (i.e. his sister is a waitress there). I know it’ll be booked out for table seating in the restaurant however I hope that we four can at least find somewhere to stand and have a few drinks.

The Bavarian Bier Cafe is pretty chockers, but that doesn’t stop us from heading into the sweet air conditioned comfort of the main bar and dining room to buy some drinks. As the resident German beer expert (and all round piss-head) I get questioned as to what to order. In the end WDWSF goes for a small Stiegl, Beerslayer for a Spaten and Lloydy for a small Hofbrauhaus Dunkel. Partly because I love the heft of such a beer as well as the taste, I also indulge in a Dunkel, though mine is a full one litre stein.

Back out in the biergarten of the Bavarian it is still warm, and there are a few seccos, coppers, one or two smurf fans and a vast number of Wanderers faithful present. Miraculously we get a table to sit at and enjoy our drinks and chat some more. Beerslayer works at SBS so we have quite a long conversation about Thursday FC. The general consensus is that it’s a decent premise ruined by Matt Okine. The beers are all enjoyed though in my case it takes a little longer to go down (in my defence it was more than three times bigger than those steins tackled by my friends). We all agree that we need to come back here again, which gives me no pain as the Bavarian has been almost my second home when it comes to pre-Wanderland games. Plus as much as I enjoyed my meal at the Roxy I know that the Bavarian does a very tasty huge schnitzel.

6.30 pm: We four start the final part of our pre-game build-up and take a walk from the Bavarian to Wanderland. More and more people are arriving and the attendant police numbers are also on the rise. However the atmosphere is nowhere near as oppressive nor as frantic as I saw at (for example) the pre-season game at Penrith. I know that this might be surprising or a little controversial, however the cops and the fans at a Wanderers home game give no call for alarm whatsoever. With Beerslayer and WDWSF in different stands at the ground they leave me and Lloydy to head to our eastern stand bays.

6.40 pm: Lloydy has gone to sit in his seat in a bay close to the RBB, whilst I am on the tooth again and need to track down the mythical ‘Wanderdog’. Lo and behold, I find it:

In the process of securing a much fabled WanderDog I find myself accosted by a stranger. “Hey Manfred, I know you” comes the says the unfamiliar voice from someone behind me. I exchange greetings (hoping that this isn’t an undercover Hatamoto wanting me banned for crimes against A-League blogging). Instead it turns out to be one of my favourite posters from the West Sydney forum, dmixtaa. We share a Wanderers embrace of shared happiness and I compliment him on his posts in the forum. It’s always a bright moment to put a face to some of the denizens of our social media world. We part with him off to buy his WanderDog, and me to eat mine.

7.10 pm: My beloved has turned up to share the experience of the derby with me (plus provide chauffeur services post game), and as this is her first chance to see the Wanderers clash with ESFC she is a little hyped. Me; well now that I’ve had a few beers and some meat in tube form to settle the stomach I am tense yet assured.

7.15 pm: The news comes in that Tony Popovic isn’t using Jerome Polenz (ex-Alemannia Aachen legend and hero for me and many a Wanderer devotee). The shock is a little disconcerting, but has been written in both small and incredibly large print, in Popa we trust.

7.35 pm: The stands are well nigh full and I can see some movement below the fence line of the seething mass that is the RBB. It looks as if there will be a massive tifo shown by men, women and children that drive so much of the energy and passion at Wanderland:

7.45 pm: We have kick-off! The crowd goes berko with a combination of confetti throwing from everywhere, and the aforementioned tifo plus a sea of red and black flags in the RBB:

7th minute: The first really serious attack on the ESFC goal, and its that man Tomi Juric taking a shot that skids like a V-1 flying bomb at the right post of the opposition’s goal. It take a hell of a save from Janjetovic to deflect what was part-speculation, part-inspiration into the goal post, then over the line for a corner. The guys are looking very strong already.

16th minute: Well it had to happen…the one true genius in the dross that has been Sydney FC over the last two seasons gets a chance to shoot, however del Piero’s effort is swallowed up by the best goalkeeper of last season in the entire A-League (and pretty freaking good in 2013/14 so far), Ante Covic. Covic is assisted mightily by Nikolai-Topor-Stanley. Yes, it was a nervous moment however there’s plenty of game time to come.

18th minute: Tomi almost scores on a Ned Zelic-like angle. By christ he is good value

20th minute: The RBB raise what I believe is both the cheekiest and most enjoyable banner ever seen at Wanderland, if not any recent A-League game:

For me this is a riotous laugh-inducing joke at the expense of arguably the most craven, illiterate, self-serving know-nothing to have ever got a job in the media thanks to having relations with men of power in the industry. Hats off RBB…well done.

30th minute: Hell of a terrible hack on Iaccopo La Roca by a typical ESFC grub in Matt Jurman. After the last derby at Allianz Stadium there was all kind of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the likes of Richard Garcia and media mates of the sky blues such as Andy Harper over Jerome Polenz. Well that hit on La Rocca was worse than anything JP has done all season. Plus for all the tommy rot over how many fouls the Wanderers commit ESFC have already had two suspensions for reds this season, whilst the home team have had none.

34th minute: Bridge almost gets a goal thanks to a mighty through ball followed by an audacious step-in that opened up the ESFC goal mouth. The angle was just a little too acute and yet again the woodwork saves the visitors from embarrassment.

42nd minute: Holy shit…it’s all happening. First Youssouf Hersi sees Janjetovic in a lazy stupor and from a position closer to the half-way line than the box he takes a lob shot that yes, you guessed it, hits the woodwork (this time above the flailing ESFC’s grasping hands). There is a rebound that falls in Tomi’s way and he gathers gracefully, then drops his foot into the ball like an 88mm flak gun firing an anti-tank round. Unfortunately this too hits the cross bar. For fuck’s sake; four post strikes in 45 minutes of football! Talk about cruel.

8.33 pm: Halftime. The beers have caught up with me so I have to attend to certain matters, and when I return the pristine field of Wanderland has plenty of young tackers running around in either our colours or those of the intruding team east of South Dowling Street. There is also a rapper and DJ on site performing, but I pay them no heed. Like me my partner in life and Wanderers membership is a little frustrated the score doesn’t reflect the dominance of our team over the visitors.

46th minute: Second half starts up and with the Wanderers running from our left to right usually this would be when I can really let my Jerome Polenz man-love out. However his replacement 16 year old Daniel Alessi is there in the right back’s role, and doing a mighty fine job of things.

52nd minute: Emerton gets subbed by Cranky Franky Farina. I used to love Emo’s work as a Socceroo but since he swapped wearing the green and gold with sky blue my estimation of him has dropped several magnitudes. Having said that my lack of support for him is probably still superior to the hatred his own club’s fans feel against him.

The next twenty minutes are incredibly frustrating as time and time again the Wanderers get themselves into forward positions yet lose the ball or play an ill-aimed pass or cross. Hersi particularly gets me grumpy, as he has moments of listlessness than is atypical of him from previous games and especially contrasted with last season. The visitors don’t cause too many heart palpitations however I confess to my partner that I am nervous that this may the kind of game where the Wanderers play all over the opposition yet they steal a goal on the counter or through some egregious fuck-up. Tomi is subbed for Santalab, joining Trifiro as a second half sub. There is plenty of run in the boys but it seems just a little aimless.

80th minute: Time for the Poznan. Like everyone else in red and black I join in and jump rather non-athletically in spot, arms linked with my neighbours. I don’t stay the course for the entire Poznan as things are afoot on the pitch. Shinji has a dead ball chance to send the ball into the ESFC box, then whilst it ends up as a fruitless endeavour del Piero is yanked by his boss from the game. As the ageing Italian marquee meanders grumpily off the field he gets a loud and rather effective ‘who are ya’ yell from all the home fans. Frankly his effort tonight ranged from somewhat threatening to slow and old, with a dive here and there to spice up his acting resume.

After this amusing moment the familiar feelings of frustration and exasperation boil up again. I may have used a few rude words in some loud pejorative comments aimed at officials, ESFC players and even Youssouf Hersi after yet another failed effort to keep the ball, then…

86th minute: The maligned player I had just been swearing at sends up a slightly shanked cross that Brendon Santalab takes control of in the box, and then before you can say ‘suffer ESFC dullards’ the ball is in the net. Just like about 17,000 fellow Wanderers fans I go into a crazed screaming moment of pure euphoria, exultant at a thrust into the very bowels of the opposition’s rapidly diminishing hopes of sharing the honours at the derby. As the happiness fades just a little up comes the nerves; will we get through the dying minutes of the match including injury time and win, or will there be some dastardly conspiracy from the fates or the referee to screw us over, as per the last minute draw against Victory two rounds ago.

Thankfully my concerns were unfounded, and aside from more thuggery from the likes of McFlynn, Gamiero and Janjetovic the Wanderers survive, scoreline intact. The ref blows the whistle on the fourth minute of injury time and that’s it; our fourth derby game in a row undefeated, and three wins out of five against the evil empire that is ESFC. Oh frabjous day, calooy callay!

The remainder of the night was a long dark journey home, illuminated by my smart phone and checking out all the bitterness and self-lacerating hate being spun by the Cove and other ESFC fans on their social media sites, and the mutual congratulation coming from Wanderers fans. Leaving Wanderland was marked by a bevy of handmaidens and servants of Rupert Murdoch, giving away free copies of one of his slimy tabloid publications which gives voice to red neck bigots like Rebecca Wilson. I made sure to reject any offering, though I didn’t accompany this action with a sincere diatribe at the dross being proffered to me.

Then there was a blockade of O’Connell Street mounted by the men and women of the NSW Police Force (Parramatta LAC) ensuring there was no revival of some half-remembered 1980s English soccer hooliganism. The ESFC fans were give untrammeled access to their avenues of return to all points east, north and south of Parramatta (with perhaps one or two deluded folk possibly heading west). Then, after about ten minutes a senior sergeant said “let the Wanderers fans go’ and we were free.

So there it was, done and dusted, another derby consigned to history. Each one has been special in their own way, however this one was especially convivial. Whilst humiliating the smurfs is now commonplace what took the day to greater heights was the way in which camaraderie, entertainment and sport collided in a melange of pleasure. It’s days like these that will stick in my football memory for years to come, alongside the Socceroos win over Uruguay in 2005 and Japan in 2006, or seeing both of Dino Kresinger’s goals last season (including the massacre of the Reds at Wanderland).

The 2013/14 A-League Season Half-Time Report

The beginning of Round Fourteen sees the current A-League season effectively reach the midway point of normal competition, and for all the positives spruiked in the early rounds, there are some points of concern both on and off the pitch. Whilst no one would say that the A-League administrators, clubs, players and crowds are in the worst of times, there are several symptoms of a malaise that wasn’t so concerning last season. I’ll be writing more on some of these issues in future posts, but for now here are what I consider the highs and lows of 2013/14.

Refereeing/Officiating

If there is one single part of the A-League that has done the most damage to football as a sport this season it has to be the officiating. From bad calls on offsides, disallowed goals, bad penalties that shouldn’t have been given or spot kicks that were missed, the use of yellow and red cards, almost every game in every round has had something to make the fans flesh crawl and the coaches to yank their hair out. In recent games we’ve had multiple handballs missed (Victory vs Wanderers, Round 12), players sent off before they even get on the pitch (Glory vs Mariners), players protected whilst they arguably dive or at least manipulate the officials (del Piero winning a free against Brisbane), and this is but the tip of an iceberg. At the beginning of the season the referees lobbied for an were awarded a pay rise of 20%. Yet if there was to be a commensurate increase in the proficiency of the officials or a similar quantitative decrease in blunders then the refs should be charged by the ACCC for theft.

I’m unsure of how the FFA or anyone else associated with the A-League can help redress this problem with the A-League’s officiating. Unfortunately the referees and linesmen who are given their role in each round are coming from a relatively small group of people who may not necessarily number in sufficient quantity to allow for promotion of better officials and relegation of those who make errors. About seven or so referees seem to be cycled through repeatedly over each round with hardly any reward for excellence nor deterrent for stuffing up. Many are relatively young and inexperienced, with only someone like Strebre Delovski standing out as someone who could officiate not just in the A-League but also in other more prestigious domestic or international competitions. The plight of linesmen and lineswomen a.k.a. assistant referees is even worse. I certainly don’t agree with the thoughts of referees’ boss Ben Wilson about extra eyes helping the men and women officiating A-League games, and like many fans I understand that the human element in each game’s officiating will mean mistakes are made. I would suggest more needs to be done to get our match officials drawn from a wider base of participants (including ex-professional players where possible), plus have those currently in the A-League given more support to train and engage with more prestigious leagues. Whether these suggestions solve the problems hurting the A-League right now is anyone’s guess. However right now no one from inside the halls of FFA’s HQ seem to be saying anything public about recognising the problem and saying it will be dealt with.

The Coaching Roundabout

Even before the beginning of Round Thirteen the A-League had seen four clubs change their coaches, either unwillingly or as a result of a boot up the bum of the previous seat holder. As it stands Ange Postecoglou left Melbourne Victory to become the Socceroos coach, Graham Arnold departed the Mariners to join J-League club Vegalta Sendai, Alistair Edwards lost a in-house power struggle at Perth Glory, and finally the management of Melbourne Heart eventually woke up to the disaster that was John Aloisi’s tenure. In each case assistant or interim coaches have been brought in or back, however with  casualty rate of 40% it seems as if job security as a coach in the A-League is not that easy to establish. Throw in public and rumoured rumblings over Frank Farina (Sydney FC), Gary Van Egmond (Newcastle United) and Josep Gombau (Adelaide United) only Tony Popovic and Mike Mulvey seem to have a grasp on their roles at their respective clubs.

Now has such instability hurt the development of the A-League this season, especially contrasted to last season? I believe it has. Of all fourteen coaches who have had a role in guiding the ten clubs this season I would argue only Postecoglou, Popovic, Gombau and Mulvey have demonstrated any growth in their players’ systems, style and (hopefully) success. Kevin Muscat has definitely lost some of the developmental traction his previous boss had with the Victory, whilst Popovic has been the one to implement the most serious change to his club’s system and roster and get good results. Mulvey has possibly done little more than embellish the old ‘Roarcalona’ motif of playing under their 2010/11 and 2011/12 guru Postecoglou, whereas Gombau has taken the Spanish possession leitmotif to another level (without a decent return on investment in terms of points and wins). Having said that the Adelaide experiment is focused on longer term results beyond the current season, so with that context in mind it is a little unfair to judge Gombau’s work on the results so far.

Those clubs that are in the lower half of the ladder as it stands right now are not just reflective of average performances on the park; they are also demonstrating the failings of their coaches to achieve consistency and create winning systems. There also have to be questions in some instances over how those coaches recruited and had their players prepared physically. Frank Farina has had many of his issues stemming from the combination of an ageing squad prone to injuries, thus curtailing any consistent performance from the players. Ally Edwards was undone by a combination of injury and perhaps most heinously the introduction of his sons into the Glory squad. John Aloisi had the misfortune of recruiting players who have under-delivered most egregiously (i.e. Michael Mifsud) or had any value in the first half of the season curtailed through injuries (Engelaar and Kewell). These three coaches have arguably been the most bankrupt in terms of creating success through quality coaching, and in the specific case of John Aloisi the disarray his management of the Heart engendered leaves them effectively already out of the 2013/14 race.

Crowds and Game Attendance

Generally speaking the first half of this season has been very productive in terms of numbers going to A-League games, thanks to almost every club lifting their average attendance above last season’s figures. Round One started the season with a bang, thanks to a 100,000+ total across all five games driven by the Melbourne derby between Victory and Heart. Then there was the great success from the first Sydney derby of the season, when over 40,000 fans went to Allianz Stadium to see the Wanderers beat Sydney FC in Round Three. As it stands eight of the ten A-League clubs (the Jets and Mariners being the exceptions) have exceeded their 2012/13 crowd averages, and in the case of the bigger clubs these numbers are up by around 24% (Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers), and around 9% (Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC). There have been some flat rounds and the FFA must have some concerns over the decline in raw attendance numbers for the Mariners. Having said that there should be every reasonable expectation that by the end of 2013/14 we will see the largest numbers of attendees at A-League games across a single season in the competition’s short history.

Media

The introduction of new free-to-air options in TV and radio has undoubtedly helped the A-League’s profile rise through 2013/14, with SBS now showing the Friday night games on their second and HD channels. Additionally ABC radio now broadcasts all games live on their digital network plus depending upon circumstances local and regional AM/FM channels. Having said that the main engine for the A-League’s coverage in the audio/visual media has been Foxtel, who have claimed a rise of about 6% in viewer numbers over last season. However in relative terms the major difficulty faced by the A-League this season in getting eyes and ears glued to games is that the competition from a resurgent Australian cricket team and that sports coverage has blossomed exponentially. TV and radio coverage of the A-League this season has also been damaged somewhat by the lack of last season’s excitement created through the debut of the Wanderers plus the arrival of major marquees like del Piero, Heskey and Ono. Generally speaking until the A-League finds mass free-to-air coverage through commercial broadcasters such as Nine, Seven or Ten, who are then hopefully willing to devote as much production and promotional effort to the A-League as per their respective current broadcast sports such as Rugby League, AFL, Cricket and Tennis, it will continue to be a marginal sport when it comes to broadcast media coverage.

In the mainstream print media the story is far more complex, with reportage often at variance with the more general ‘op.ed.’ work of the newspaper commentators. Unfortunately with the decline  in quantity and quality of specialist sports journalists who write only on their specific sports, most of the articles that have been written that have done damage to the A-League this season have come from biased, unscrupulous News Limited writers. The dominance of News Limited papers in several major Australian cities has arguably helped contribute to a less than flattering image of the A-League and/or the clubs, particularly in Adelaide and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent in Sydney. I would argue that whilst there are some good journalists in both Fairfax and News Limited print organs, they are not of a standard seen in past years (for example I don;t believe even the best of Mike Cockerill or David Davutovic matches the work done by Tom Anderson in the 70s and 80s).

One promising aspect of the A-League’s media coverage this season has been the growing depth and quality of podcasts, both commercial and independent. Personally speaking my two favourites are the ABC’s Top of the League and Fox Sports Football Australia podcasts. However these are not the only options for audio media coverage of the A-League, and it could be argued that it is through these formats, as well as other new media (including blogs such as this one), the future of the A-League’s non-TV coverage will be directed.

Playing Standards

Generally speaking it would be hard to prove the hypothesis that the overall majority of games this season have been played at a similar standard of those in 2012/13, and this must be a concern for all parties with an investment in football in Australia. The A-League has been improving gradually over the last few years, most noticeably due to the influence of coaches like Postecoglou and players like del Piero and Ono. However stagnation has set in with only Mulvey’s Roar and arguably Popovic’s Wanderers showing glimpses of how the game could be played. The strikers in almost every team have been less than satisfactory with their finishing, and in the case of two gun performers from last season (the Mariners’ Daniel McBreen and Phoenix’s Jeremy Brockie) the decline in standards has been awful. I’ve already referenced the disappointing efforts of Michael Mifsud, but you can add to this list Emile Heskey, Archie Thompson, Shane Smeltz , Mitchell Duke and Jeronimo Neumann who have been battling injury concerns. Aside from the Brisbane pair of Berisha and Yeboah the only A-League strikers who have looked the goods in more than a couple of games have been Tomi Juric for the Wanderers, Adam Taggart for the Jets, and of late Stein Huysegems for the Phoenix.

In terms of midfielders and their quality across the board things look a little better, thanks in no small part to the work of Broich, del Piero, Ono, Troisi, Miller, Hersi, Carrusca, Flores, Hernandez and Nichols. However I would argue that aside from Broich and arguably Nichols none of these leading midfielders have demonstrated week-in, week-out consistency. The elephant in the room regarding A-League midfielders is that we are not seeing enough young creative Australian midfielders who could be the next Harry Kewell or Tom Rogic. An example of this problem is Aaron Mooy, who has only shown a modicum of his promised talent this season. Players like him, the Jets’ Josh Brillante or Glory’s Daniel de Silva need to be progressing further not just for the good of their clubs and the A-League, but for the football in Australia overall.

In the back of the pitch A-League defenders and goalkeepers have been like a curate’s egg, with some stand out performers and squads, and some absolute shockers. The Roar again have the best record and the performers in this context, though I don’t rate Theo as highly as other goalkeepers in other clubs. The work of Ivan Franjic has been generally excellent, and has outpointed his nearest rival Adam Traore. In the right back position Jerome Polenz has been consistently the best performer in the A-League, whilst the return of Matthew Spiranovic to the domestic game also through the Wanderers has been a great success. Unfortunately most other clubs have had their defenders perform in fits and starts, and in some cases (most noticeably the Melbourne Heart and to a lesser extent Sydney FC) the standards have been woeful. Ante Covic, Mark Birighitti, Danny Vukovic, Vedran Janjetovic and Eugene Galekovic have all had pretty decent seasons in front of goal so far, and demonstrated that our best footballers are usually those doing glove work in front of the net.

The Fans

Overall the A-League has achieved a hell of a lot of success with their fan base this season, thanks in no small part to the ripple effect of last season’s fairytale of the Wanderers and the RBB. Memberships are up at many clubs (and in the remarkable case of the Wanderers went from just over 7,000 to 16,000, thus selling out), and targets have been met or exceeded. Having said that the two most well supported clubs in terms of members (i.e. Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers) have had recurrent issues with their active supporters. Whilst not all these problems originate from the fans, there has been incidents and breakdowns in relations between fans and their clubs that have without doubt damaged the reputation of the A-League. The extent and nature of that credibility problem depends on who you listen to or your position within or without the supporter base, and it hasn’t been helped by some hysterically vicious opinions emanating from anti-Football writers in the mainstream press. The bottom line is that no matter how well behaved part or all of the A-League’s fan base is, there will continue to be scrutiny placed on them that borders on unethical, unreasonable and xenophobic.

My Overall Rating

If I was a teacher looking to give a report on this season, I’d think a B+ grade would be appropriate, which in some respects is a bit of a let down from last season. I would not say that the likes of David Gallop and Damien de Bohun have got cause for major concern, however it would be hard to put a positive spin on everything accomplished this season. I suspect that overall the competition has hit a plateau that needs new stimuli to help it take the next step. What they are could be anything from the impact of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 AFC Cup, through to better refereeing, the return of an iconic Australian player like Tim Cahill to the A-League, or another foreign marquee legend being recruited. The forthcoming FFA Cup will also be a potential positive influence, and who is to say how the ACL may impact upon the A-League in the near future. These are interesting and challenging times for the A-League and its players, coaches and fans.