The classic A-League finale has thrust football into the mainstream

Stuart Thomas Roar Guru

By , Stuart Thomas is a Roar Guru

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    Attempting to write this piece without a goofy smile – as worn by all Sydney FC fans in the aftermath of the A-League grand final – will be tricky.

    While easy to romanticise the victory when your team is fortunate enough to be on the right side of the scoring ledger, sometimes it is worth looking at the broader picture rather than simply cheerleading your own mob.

    Sunday night reminded me of the larger stakes in play for Australian football.

    Aside from the intensity of the contest, the commitment of the players and the sheer drama of the extra time period and penalty shoot-out, something else was taking place.

    Something very special, powerful and worth celebrating, which was even more worthy than the two hours of drama that played out on the pitch.

    Despite some criticism of the coverage and interest being flat in the week leading up to the game, the anticipation was fever pitch throughout Sydney.

    Archie Thompson spoke glowingly at a function he attended, citing rising levels of enthusiasm and excitement. The pubs, bars and clubs were well patronised on Sunday afternoon and to top it all off, Sydney turned on a wonderful day weather wise.

    It was great to hear players from both squads interviewed on various radio programs through the week and the grabs from both coaches were also of top quality, as they always are when the grumpy smurf and the Victory mentor face off.

    As the A-League grapples with the reality that there is a core group of supporters across all clubs that have been at the coalface since day one and that attracting new people to the game is the secret to real growth, it is contests such as the one we saw on Sunday that have the potential to do just that.

    By late Sunday night, I had contact with three people who all watched the latter stages of the game and were glued to the action as the drama unfolded. They were not football fans at all, but still genuinely interested in who would win the game.

    Sydney FC Football A-League Grand Final 2017

    If they were to merely flick over to the television coverage to check the score before returning to their previous viewing choice, that would be a success for football in Australia.

    If they had attached themselves more to one side than the other, that is even more pleasing, as emotional engagement, particularly in traditional matches such as the ‘Big Blue’, is key to broadening the supporter base.

    What made me smile even more broadly however was the fact that these three people flicked over and were glued, gripped and intrigued by what they saw. They used words and phrases like tension, drama, penalty and toilet seat.

    Sure, they are people whose passionate sporting allegiances lay in other codes or contests yet they were intrigued. In short, Australian football turned them on.

    I did my bit and suggested they come to a game with me next season. All three seemed genuinely keen.

    Two of them stand to be great supporters of the A-League as they seem pretty keen on the boys in blue from Moore Park Road, the other shocked me when she expressed a liking for the Newcastle Jets. She is a ‘Coastie’, I suppose.

    As I sat on the lounge late at night, trying to rest my vocal chords that had been stretched to their extremes at the time of Rhyan Grant’s goal and Milos Ninkovic’s penalty, I wondered, ‘Did we just get noticed?’

    The answer was clear – bloody oath we did. Just like Collingwood and Essendon get noticed on Anzac Day with all the history and commemoration that takes place. Just like the NRL does around State of Origin time and the best three games of rugby league in the world takes place.

    Just like the Rugby World Cup garnered before the recent apathy and disinterest that has been adopted by many, sick of the rubbish trotted out by the ARU and its failure to address structural problems.

    The last time I can remember such attention and interest in football was John Aloisi’s penalty and our successful qualification for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Some got a little too excited, predicting an explosion of growth in the A-League. This was never going to happen, it is a slow and painstaking task.

    Where the explosion has taken place is in participation rates. With women’s football exceeding netball in 2015 and the continued growth of junior boys’ involvement, we all know football is hitting some dizzy heights, with recent numbers confirming the anecdotal.

    Parlaying those numbers to future A-League expansion, growth and broadening needs contests such as the one we saw on Sunday. And the people who were somewhat interested enough to tune in, need to be entertained.

    We’ve all heard it before, sport as the entertainment business. We all know it is true. At the proverbial end of the day, people will spend their time and hard earned where they receive something in return. Product is everything.

    Sydney FC A-League 2017 Grand Final

    On Sunday night, the product was right. It lured people in who may have never been lured in before. The regulars were there, watching live, following online or listening in and they are our bread and butter. However, those casual fans who were engrossed by our grand final and hung around enthralled by the action, are the future for football.

    The younger they are the better and if they bring a friend or two that’s great.

    There will be some who say things were flat in Brisbane or that Perth and Adelaide didn’t embrace the game as they may have. They will cite poor media, lack of interest and a historical dislike for the two grand finalists, the bullies that they are. This is the case in other codes as well, when cities lack representation in big finals. It’s just the lay of the land.

    However, Australian football was on show Sunday night. Big time.

    I am happy my team won but my stronger emotion is one of pride. Pride that the players from both squads were in the spotlight through the week and that casual sports fans were interested and engrossed in the contest enough to view, discuss and enjoy it.

    But most of all, I was so proud that we were noticed.

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