What a sad twist of fate that the two A-League matches which were always going to be overshadowed by crowd-watching happened to be back-to-back on Saturday night; underscoring a deplorable week for the league.
First we were in Canberra for a dour scoreless draw between Central Coast and Adelaide.
Residents of the nation’s capital have every right to feel aggrieved at the FFA over the manner in which they were bypassed for the 12th A-League franchise; overlooked despite the debacle of finding a suitable licensee in west Sydney.
However, a crowd of 5,437 was a slight improvement on the 5,139 who turned up earlier in the season for Central Coast-Perth, and it was encouraging, especially in response to talk of a potential boycott by locals over the franchise snub. Credit to those who turned up.
But the focus Saturday night was always going to be on Skilled Park, and it was ugly.
The sight of a bare stadium – with cameras facing away from the only side with a crowd – was a terrible one for lovers of the game.
As North Queensland gained the upper hand thanks to the magic of Robbie Fowler, attention turned to the announcement of the crowd figures. It was like a ticking time bomb.
And then it came: 2,616.
It was always going to be bad.
Fans had every right to turn their backs on the club following the message they sent in capping crowds and blocking three-quarters of the ground to them.
It was, in hindsight, surprising that amount turned up.
The club was deserving of the wooden spoon for the lowest crowd in A-League history – that honour belonging to the defunct New Zealand Knights.
But credit to those who did turn up; brandishing signs such as: “Want bigger crowds Clive? Ask us how”. The community was reaching out to the club. It should be the other way round.
And credit to the Gold Coast fans that broke ranks and headed to the stand behind the goals. What a fantastic form of protest; showing United does have a core group of supporters who are passionate about the club.
As Simon Hill correctly outlined in the telecast, Gold Coast attracted over 10,000 for the friendly against Fulham. 7,526 watched their Round 2 meeting against the Fury at Skilled Park.
The decline since then – made even more stark by their on-field performances in the opening rounds – is self-inflicted.
All the bravado and bluster of the Gold Coast’s entry was all for nothing. Talk of an undefeated season, boasting about its private jet, and general arrogance all fell on deaf ears.
In light of this recent debacle, it’s difficult to see how the club is going to be able to build a sustainable supporter base, especially with the AFL franchise on the horizon.
This was meant to be the franchise that would give the A-League a boost this season. Help spice up the competition, fuelled by Clive Palmer’s billions with a squad brimming with talent. Instead it has become a basket case with on-field performances starting to replicate the off-field decline.
Perhaps the players are feeling the strain of being part of such a directionless club.
Consider the contrast with North Queensland Fury.
The Fury had been stuck at the bottom of the A-League table until last night; impeded by numerous injuries that impacted an already thin squad, taking until round twelve to win a home-game.
However, they are steadily building a solid supporter base off the back of community engagement.
Crowds haven’t been mighty, but they are, nevertheless, impressive considering the population base in Townsville. Supporters are wearing the club’s colours with pride, no doubt as a result of its school visits, coaching clinics, charities and work with local clubs.
It’s a stark and blatantly obvious point of difference between the two clubs.
Supporter bases are built through community engagement. And the Gold Coast has failed, badly, in this regard. The damage, sadly, may be too severe to repair.
Gold Coast’s approach seems to be an exaggerated example of the line taken by the FFA marketers regarding the A-League’s engagement with the public.
The “build it and they will come” mantra doesn’t work, not for domestic football in this country. Gold Coast has proven that it takes more than stars and results to build a franchise.
Other new franchises need to learn from these differing approaches regarding engaging with their communities. And the FFA needs to act on this disaster before the league hits rock bottom as a result of Gold Coast’s impertinence.