Wandering Off Course, Or How The Good Times Soured

Up until the news broke about the pay dispute I would suggest almost every member and fan of the Wanderers thought that our club was different. I know I was guilty of feeling that things were going to be far rosier for us than they have been at other A-League clubs, in part due to our success, in part due to the people I know personally or indirectly online as fellow supporters, and in part due to the gap in the way the club’s administration and playing stocks were nominally managed and what was seen elsewhere (particularly Sydney FC). There was obviously the warm inner glow of having achieved so much in our first two seasons as a functioning, successful, competitive club domestically and indeed internationally. A Premier’s title in our first season, longest streak for successive wins in the A-League also wrought back in 2012/13, two Grand Finals and of course the historic AFC Champions’ League title all created a remarkable record to build expectations and support upon. The growth in membership, starting from zero back in 2013, to over 18,000, and by association the continued acknowledgment of the RBB as being one of the best supporter groups in the country, has fueled that belief. It’s hard not to get pumped when you read comments like this from the CEO of the FFA:

“(David) Gallop says the Wanderers have changed the landscape of Australian sport, partly due to their fan group the Red and Black Bloc.

” “Australian sport has never seen the level of engagement inside stadiums like they create,” Gallop said.

” “I love the story of the grandmother that hands out throat lozenges in the RBB. They’ve definitely been a shot in the arm for the entire A-League and I think they’ve been a critical part in football’s booming popularity because people have sat up and taken notice of the A-League in some way because of the Wanderers, and that’s only going to get bigger and bigger in the decades to come. (source)”

Additionally, there had been the a wonderful relationship built between the club and its supporters best exemplified by the words and deeds of two people, Lyall Gorman and Jerrad Tyson. Gorman, our former club CEO, made a point of again and again drawing a distinct connection between the values of the club and the community it represents, as seen in words such as these:

“…that is, to contribute to the greater good of Western Sydney. If it was ever about me, we’d be in trouble as a club – and you know, I’d have no value so it’s never about me trying to put my profile out there. It’s about making sure our club is visible, but in a positive way so that it’s seen to be a community asset. It’s about making a difference and adding value….to be involved in supporting activities that are put on by other people in the community that are working hard. I think we have, you know, a corporate responsibility to be out there critically involved in our community.” (source)

And these

“We really empowered the community to have a sense of ownership of the club. We stand on their shoulders here today and I’m privileged in the role of group CEO to have 47 years of people working and sowing and making the fertile ground for this football club.

“There’s a rich history there which we can’t afford to do anything but embrace and stand on their shoulders. They’re the true pioneers of the game and … we need to engage and embrace (them), and if they’re not in the tent, bring them back into the tent. That was the call we learned at the Wanderers.’’ (source)

Obviously some of this may have been seen as marketing spin, however I know from a personal conversation with Lyall he believed in this mantra.

Then there is our ex-reserve goalkeeper Jerrad Tyson. Even as recently as the home leg final for the AFC Champion’s League Jerrad was there to support the club and the players, amid the heart and soul of the club, the RBB:

The awarding of the ME Bank Fairer Player Award for 2013/14 to Jerrad was also a signal of his engagement with the Wanderers community, and perhaps it was all the more remarkable that the prize was given to a man who stood more often than not in the shadows of regular goalie Ante Covic. It could be said that his efforts off the pitch were more appreciated by those of the Wanderers’ fan base and membership community because he was willing and able to be just like so many of us; working hard behind the scenes without that much recognition. I don’t believe it would be too bold to argue that Tyson was a wonderful example of the Western Sydney spirit (which was even more remarkable considering his Queenslander heritage).

Now at this point I need to stop waxing lyrical about the past and trying to fill in the gaps between my hypothesis of how the Wanderers were nominally different because of the behaviours of the club in, for and with the community, to focus on the here and now. To be blunt, those ideals of past values and of a sense of being better or different to our rivals are now badly fractured. There is a new cold reality that all Wanderers fans must deal with. We are no longer the fairy tale of Australian, or indeed international football, with a romantic or mythic narrative, where we win more often than not, we are able to shrug off adversity, and remain united across all groups, whether we talk about players, owners or fans. The Wanderers are now a football club that can in many ways be hardly distinguished from hundreds from around the world. The last week or so of pay disputes, of mainstream and social media battles, of members arguing vociferously for or against aspects of the owners’ or players’ behaviours, means we have now (for want of a better phrase) grown up and had a hard, bitter lesson in the reality of the business of football. To top it off the first match for the Wanderers of the Club World Cup match against Cruz Azul pointed out some limitations to what can be achieved by this club, no matter how much we believe in its core values and qualities.

I don’t want to cast aspersions or throw mindless accusations out there, and if my narrative of the issues  at hand are a bit skew-whiff I apologise. It must be said however that the intransigence of management (either directly or indirectly influenced by the club owners) when negotiating with the players has been a brewing issue for some time now, and has arguably been around since at least the beginning of this year. The manner in which gifted and crucial overseas players from our first season Shinji Ono, Jerome Polenz and Youssouf Hersi were rumoured to have been dealt with when it came to extending and/or improving their contracts back in the middle of last season were not dissimilar to what was experienced by the current player group. If this story that circulated around the time of Shinji Ono’s contract not being extended is true there already was a worrying refusal or neglect of negotiations with the players from the administration, prior to the sale of the Wanderers to the Paul Lederer led group. The combination of management waiting until the last minute to resolve contract issues and the players waiting for a response sounds eerily familiar to those problems raised in the recent troubles.

When the news broke on December 6th that the players were considering a boycott of the Club World Cup in Morocco there was without doubt some serious debate and consternation among the members and fans. As seen below, the opinions ranged from pissed off over the owners’ attitudes, worry about either the squad actually playing at the CWC, and if they did what impact the dispute would have,  concerns about the finances of the club, the role of the PFA and mistakes they may have made, and even talk about greedy players and writing off the current a-League season:

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These posts from the core Wanderers fan forum were indicative of what became a very divisive issue for those in the stands, whilst at Wanderland, at the club’s HQ and even throughout the broader football community battle lines were drawn over the rights of the players to expect the bonuses they received after their AFC Champions’ League triumph to be replicated at the CWC. Shannon Cole, a player who has formed part of the bank of rotated reserves usually used by Tony Popovic when a first choice right or left back is unavailable or needs a rest, took up the cudgels for the players with management in his role as PFA delegate, and there was plenty of support for him and the players expressed across the entire A-League:

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At this point I have to state that I personally was in favour of the demands of the players to get more than the 10% originally offered. However there were some caveats that needed to apply, particularly in terms of the PFA and the players using the Adelaide 2008 experience as a paradigm for payments, plus the belief that a better bonus structure was assumed to be in place based on the players’ CBA, when in all honesty the CWC bonus arrangement should’ve been stipulated from the get-go.

Where things really did go off the rails for most fans and members of the Wanderers is that for the first time they saw their beloved club’s owners behave in what might be considered in some quarters a capricious and rude way, and in other people’s opinions, they acted like fiscally prudent businessmen protecting the club’s future. The latter motive was self-consciously integrated into the Wanderers’ management’s reply to the brouhaha as it developed, as seen in their statement issued on Monday 8th December. By talking about the difference between player’s appearance money and bonuses, and the desire to invest 90% of the CWC ‘residual amounts’ into “the purposes of enhancing and improving current training and player facilities, as well as junior academy, community, indigenous and women’s programs“, the owners and managers of the Wanderers were putting it out there that the players were effectively robbing the club of long term future investments, even though they had been the agents of achieving the success in the first place.

All this talk was to some extent acceptable as part of the argy-bargy of any wage negotiation, as seen both inside and outside the world of football. As Craig Foster said both on TV and in his weekly Sun Herald column the issue was not necessarily about the here and now, but instead a fight that players of his generation and even older had had to deal with back in 1997, or earlier immediately before the 1974 World Cup Finals. That aspect tapped into other streams of discontent or dispute, but straight away any long term football fan in this country who was now associated with the Wanderers could see an end to the ‘unique difference’ our club had. The likes of Lederer and his associates as owners of the Wanderers were following the spirit, if not the exact same practices, of the preceding suits and backroom staff at other clubs or indeed nationally in Australia’s football history.

To be honest, it has come as a rude shock to many who have sworn to always stay faithful to the red and black, that these behaviours have now tainted what was supposed to be the best new phenomenon to hit our sport in this country. It could be said that what was worse about the dispute, before its resolution on December 12th was that the owners and managers of the Wanderers put themselves into the same basket from a public perception as the likes of Nathan Tinkler, Tony Sage, Tony Pignata and the unlamented ex-Gold Coast United owner Clive Palmer. At a time when the club should’ve been celebrating the achievement of making the Club World Cup it was embroiled in a sticky situation made nasty by the simple irritant of the club’s authorities being uncommunicative. For those of us who have relied on the mantra first propagated by the likes of Lyall Gorman, as featured above, or indeed by Paul Lederer himself, it was a bit of a kick in the guts:

“I have been a director of the club for the past two years and I’ve had the privilege to play a part and see first-hand what makes this club so special,” he said.

“The consortium has responsibility to ensure the Wanderers have a sound financial base and a strong administration so the club can continue to grow and be successful on and off the field.” (Paul Leder, ABC Grandstand, 14/5/14)

What made the Wanderers special up until the pay dispute was not the minutiae of fiscal responsibility or indeed the players’ personalities and achievements (though these aspects did help). What was different for old hands or new bandwagoners who threw in their lot with the Western Sydney Wanderers was over the last few years the perception was we were not like Sydney FC with its bumbling troika of Traktavenko, Barlow and Pignata. Nor were we like the cheapskate, forever poor Mike Charlesworth owned Central Coast Mariners, the fractured, in-fighting, Tony Sage owned Perth Glory, or if one was to look overseas, like a Vincent Tan owned Cardiff City.

This disillusionment meant that coming into the Club World Cup some serious joy was taken out of the club;s achievements leading into the match, and has arguably soured the efforts of all for the remainder of the current A-League season. The impact on the medium and long-term future of the club is hard to assess, though it must be said that some existing players may be more keen to leave at the first appropriate opportunity than they may have been in the past, and it may mean potential recruits will look askance at the owners and managers and ponder if they will be treated as negligently. However most importantly those of us who have been on this fantastic ride over the last thirty odd months or part thereof have been sobered up, with some degree of our innocence gone. The Wanderers experience has soured somewhat, however its hopefully also a sign of our maturation, and a period of conflict to build from, not to pull apart.

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.

Normal Service Resuming Shortly

Sorry for the lack of posts recently…work and the myriad engagements of the type experienced as a follower of all things red and black and Wanderers related has recently held my postings down to a dull since. However I promise to write up reviews of all rounds outstanding from the 2013/14 season plus fill the interweb with more unsolicited blog posts a.s.a.p.

In the interim please enjoy this video of from the night we said sayonara to Shinji Ono from Wanderland.

A-League 2013/14: Round Fourteen Preview

Friday January 10th: Newcastle United vs Melbourne Victory (Hunter Stadium)

With both teams coming off losses last week and also losing traction in their progression on the current A-League ladder, it would be fair to say that this is a must win match for either club. Kevin Muscat will be wondering how he can reverse the less than quality efforts from his players over the last two rounds, having been thumped by the Roar last week and escaping with a dying second draw against the Wanderers the round prior, and with both of these games being played at home. He will take some comfort from the probable return of Archie Thompson who will add some much needed professionalism to the less than efficient finishing of his forwards. However the Victory are missing numerous players either through injury (Milligan), international duty (Geria, Pain, Galloway) or suspension (Leijer). There are also lingering concerns over how well Mitch Nichols is committed to the club and coach with his possible move to the J-League being held up over transfer fees. Having said all that, there is still sufficient class in the Victory line-up to worry Van Egmond’s hot and cold Jets. The home team will also be missing some key young players thanks to Under-22 international duties, such as the key triumvirate of Hoole, Brillante and Taggart, with Chapman also in that situation, whilst Jaliens is suspended and Scott Neville a long term absentee. Much will be needed from Heskey up front, Zadkovich in the middle and Birighitti in goal to keep the Jets on at least level terms with the Victory. In what should be a fascinating game between fourth and sixth, I would no be surprised to see a draw end up as the final result.

My Prediction: 1-1 Draw

Friday January 10th: Perth Glory vs Melbourne Heart (nib Stadium)

Perth are back home after a rare away win last week, and will be looking to heap more misery on the Heart who have all but come to the end of the road of any hopes of qualifying for this season’s finals. Neither team has as much exposure to international duty requirements for their younger players, with only Ryan Edwards and Jack Duncan missing from the home squad and Stefan Mauk and David Vrankovic out of the visitors. Where Perth have been strengthened through the return of squad hard man Jacob Burns, having served his suspension, and Shane Smeltz back from injury, they are still under the pump without Dodd, Maclaren, Gallas and Jamiseon. Therefore if the Heart can get something extra out of their fumbling defence and forward lines, perhaps sparked by Harry Kewell, they may be a reasonable chance for their first win of the season. The result will almost certainly depend upon who scores first, and the impact of the previously mentioned Kewell for the visitors, and Sidnei for the Glory. Not exactly the most attractive of fixtures for the neutral, there will be at least happy local fans not having to watch the game in the middle of a stinking hot Perth summer’s day.

My Prediction: 1-1 Draw

Saturday January 11th: Brisbane Roar vs Adelaide United (Suncorp Stadium)

Unfortunately the visiting Reds are on a hiding for nothing in this major away game for them, thanks in no small part to a simply awful rate of attrition through injury for their players. Only a few weeks ago back at Coopers Stadium it took a small amount of luck and some wonderful one man skill from Berisha and Franjic to get the Roar over the line against Adelaide, and that squad under coach Josep Gombau looks almost totally different to that which will be fielded on Saturday. Key players Djite, Cirio, Ferreira and Cassio are out thanks to injuries, plus Malik is suspended and Barker-Daish is off on international duty. Having said all this there will be some welcome additions to Adelaide with Carrusca nominally back on board as well as Jeronimo, and ex-Jet Ryan Griffiths has joined the club from China’s 2nd division league. As for the home team, Mike Mulvey is in the enviable position of almost having a full squad which has been winning games well. McKay, Broich, Miller, North, Theo, Brattan, Franjic and Hingert will be joined by Berisha and Stefanutto, thus forming a line-up that will be exceedingly hard to beat. I don’t expect a blow-out, but I can’t see a way for Adelaide to beat the Roar in this match unless something truly aberrant comes to pass.

My Prediction: 2-0 Brisbane Roar win

Satuday January 11th: Western Sydney Wanderers vs Sydney FC (Pirtek Stadium)

In what should be the match of the round and almost certainly in front of a full house, the two Sydney teams meet again looking for bragging rights over who is the more important club in Australia’s biggest city. It will be a fascinating game where to be honest neither club have played at their possible best in recent weeks, and each club has errors of concern. The visitors will be boosted without doubt by a fit Alessandro del Piero, and in Corey Gambiero they have a quality emerging striker. However two of their best players this season are out, with Carle suspended and Garcia injured, plus Yairu Yau has been released. For the home team the only injury concern is Brendon Santalab, however what is probably more troubling is the strength of their left flank. Last round the Phoenix made easy runs through Mooy and D’Apuzzo, plus ace striker Tomi Juric was effectively pushed out of the game. Having said that the loss at home on New Year’s day was not something that you would expect to be repeated from a squad that still has second place on the ladder nailed down and with the likes of Polenz, Ono, Poljak, Spiranovic and Hersi a core group of players that other clubs would kill for. If Hersi and Ono are at their near best for the Wanderers it could be a massacre for Sydney FC, who have a fragility of defence that usually gets exposed by quality teams (and is even threatened by far less capable squads). On the other hand if the game become a dead ball fest and ADP is allowed too much control over how fluent the visitors’ attack flows, then they have a distinct chance of an upset.

My Prediction: 2-1 Western Sydney Wanderers win

Sunday January 12th: Wellington Phoenix vs Central Coast Mariners (Westpac Stadium)

It seems almost fantastical to think that last season’s wooden spoon team could be favoured to beat the grand final winners from 2012/13, and yet with the recent run of form that the Phoenix have hit mirroring a less than fluent collection of performances from a stuttering Mariners, I can easily see the home team racking up their fourth win on the trot. Whilst Ernie Merrick is without the important services of All Whites Fenton and Ifill, he has got Hernandez back and more importantly Belgian Stein Huysegems is probably the form striker in the A-League at the moment. For the visitors there are some key players unavailable, including Matt McGlinchey, and Marcos Flores, with the likes of McBreen, Sainsbury, Duke and Rose hardly giving coach Phil Moss reason to be happy. There may also be a boost coming from the return of Bernie Ibini to the home team after some time in China. The Mariners are nothing if not a team that will fight hard, and there have been several occasions this season where the Phoenix have been profligate in front of goal. The game may well be won and lost on the left flank of the Mariners, and how and when the combination of Huysegems and talented young Kiwi Tyler Boyd comes on for the home team. If the Phoenix can win it will be a major step in their campaign to ascend into the top six by the close of the 2013/14 season.

My Prediction: 1-0 Wellington Phoenix win

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.