Was one-team one-city a mistake by the FFA?

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Golgol Mebrahtu scores past Danny Vukovic as Melbourne Heart defeated Perth Glory 1-0 at AAMI Park. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

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Considering the relative success of the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Heart, it seems worth asking whether Football Federation Australia’s strict ‘one-team one-city’ policy was flawed from the beginning.

Should there have been two Melbourne and Sydney teams from the outset?

Last Saturday’s derby day in Sydney seems to support this view. With both ends of the stadium pulsating from start to finish, the Wanderers victory – deep in Sydney FC territory – was a vindication of their place in the A-League. It was a moment of self-realisation for a club steadily on the rise.

Similarly, the Melbourne derbies have already provided some excellent contests since the arrival of Melbourne Heart last season. And despite the Heart’s recent troubles in attracting crowds, few would advocate a return to a single Melbourne team.

One-team one-city, a very American concept, was a necessary step in the evolution of the game in Australia. For many years the old National Soccer League (NSL) allowed promotion and relegation, which served to entrench the influence of the many clubs from Sydney and Melbourne, who benefited greatly from drawing upon the largest and most diverse catchment areas in the country.

While a system of promotion and relegation may work in countries where football is deeply embedded as the number one sport, in Australia it only created a lopsided league which could hardly be described as ‘national’.

Strategically placing teams around the country is vital to the game’s success in Australia. Administrators from other football codes woke up to this reality in the mid-1980s, resulting in some controversial but necessary club mergers and relocations.

The survival of Australian Rules and rugby league hinged upon expansion. In football, the opposite is true. Rationalisation ensured the survival of the national competition.

Indeed, one-team one-city existed as an idea among football commentators and analysts for decades. In 1977, Soccer World editor Andrew Dettre called for Hakoah, St George Budapest and Sydney Olympic to pool their resources and create a Sydney super-team ‘Wentworth United’.

In 1990, the Bradley Report into the game’s administration recommended that clubs represent a geographic district, the scrapping of promotion and relegation, and the inclusion of sides from all states to make the competition ‘truly national’.

Yet, as Les Murray commented at the time, ‘there is no central communal ideology, and no vision’. The strength of existing clubs and the impotence of the game’s administration prevented any real change until 2004, when Frank Lowy and John O’Neill were blessed with a tabula rasa to completely restructure the competition.

“Everyone would be pitched together,” O’Neill promised wary football fans.

Indeed, with the success of Perth Glory in the dying days of the NSL, one-team one-city became increasingly hard to ignore. However, in 2002, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) commissioned a report that recommended a ten-team league, with a team each from Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, one club from New Zealand and another selected on ‘business merit’. Importantly, the PFA also advocated three teams from Sydney and two from Melbourne.

Titled ‘For the Fans: Australian Premier League’, the PFA’s recommendations have, a decade on, become a reality (I include the Central Coast, who have echoes of Northern Spirit, and draw much support from Sydney’s northern suburbs, as the ‘third’ Sydney team).

Of course, it took FFA several blunders in Queensland before settling on the current model. Considering this, should Lowy and O’Neill have listened closer to the PFA back in 2003?

The truth is, the Western Sydney Wanderers owe much of their success to the hard lessons learnt from North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United. With a generous grant from the Gillard Labor government, FFA have embarked on a hearts and minds mission to ensure that the west is won, once and for all.

Had the Wanderers been there from season one, they certainly wouldn’t have been such a well-oiled outfit, both on and off the pitch. The name, badge and colours of the club is a far cry from the tacky Fury and Gold Coast, whose image seemed straight out of an undergraduate sports marketing assignment.

Melbourne Heart, too, have put together an attractive package while prioritising community engagement programs and developing young Australian talent. Both sets of fans have quickly established an independent, innovative and colourful presence, which provides an important cloak of credibility for both clubs to project their image to the wider community.

In particular, it is easy to get carried away with the initial progress of Western Sydney Wanderers Already, commentators are calling them a ‘red and black wave‘, ‘the new kids on the block‘ and a ‘fairytale‘.

Credit must be given to FFA for learning from its mistakes. Let us hope when a buyer is found for the club, they will respect and contribute to the culture being built in Parramatta.

One-team one-city, it seems, is dead. Derby days have proved an enormous boost to the competition, and will only intensify as the A-League grows. After eight years, should the Heart and the Wanderers have been there from the start?

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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