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
    Joe Gorman

    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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    The Crowd Says (59)

    • December 18th 2012 @ 7:50am
      steven said | December 18th 2012 @ 7:50am | ! Report

      Yeah, totally agree with the article. If the W.S.Wanderers were one of the foundation teams they would have been called Western Thunder and have been a failure. The FFA did learn from the debacle of GCU.
      Great point about the PFA Premier league – perhaps the FFA is no different from most large corporations – don’t listen to the workers and pay them as little as possible!

    • Roar Guru

      December 18th 2012 @ 7:52am
      TomC said | December 18th 2012 @ 7:52am | ! Report

      My understanding is that one-team, one-city was only ever meant to be a temporary strategy to encourage support for the first round of startup teams. Creating further teams in Melbourne and Sydney after several years doesn’t mean anything changed at the FFA, just that they were operating according to a set timetable.

      I’m a bit confused by the article. Is it a criticism of one-team, one-city as a temporary measure or a defence? I can’t tell what the conclusion is.

      • December 18th 2012 @ 8:41am
        Christo the Daddyo said | December 18th 2012 @ 8:41am | ! Report


      • December 18th 2012 @ 8:58am
        steven said | December 18th 2012 @ 8:58am | ! Report

        It’s neither a criticism or a defence. But, it accurately points out that the one team one city policy had flaws in the implementation, and the success of the Wanderers, in particular, is a result of lessons learnt from past mistakes. It also rightly alerts us to the need to look at football history in this country before acting.

      • Columnist

        December 18th 2012 @ 9:43am
        Joe Gorman said | December 18th 2012 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        TomC, you’re right that there was a five year plan to allow clubs to develop an identity. I’m simply trying to raise a question. There have been benefits from the one-team one-city model, however, having two Melbourne and Sydney teams is clearly the way forward. Importantly, what do you think?

    • Roar Guru

      December 18th 2012 @ 9:01am
      Cappuccino said | December 18th 2012 @ 9:01am | ! Report

      One team-one city was an official agreement that the FFA had with the eight foundation clubs not to create new clubs in currently occupied cities for the first five years. I think the ten teams we have now should’ve been the TEN foundation clubs- it would avoid the issues of MV dwarfing the Heart, and the derbies would be huge by now.

      • December 18th 2012 @ 9:39am
        Christo the Daddyo said | December 18th 2012 @ 9:39am | ! Report

        The derbies ARE huge now!

        • Roar Guru

          December 18th 2012 @ 10:20am
          Cameron Kellett said | December 18th 2012 @ 10:20am | ! Report

          Albeit with attendances reverting to low figures for the heart which is Cappuccino’s point. Otherwise we would see derbies filling Etihad to capacity. Heart can get there but lack 5yrs in Melbourne that the victory were afforded.

          • Roar Guru

            December 18th 2012 @ 11:53am
            Cappuccino said | December 18th 2012 @ 11:53am | ! Report

            Exactly, not only would Heart’s attendances be higher (perhaps MV with slightly lower figures) but also the derbies would be even bigger than they are now- they could’ve been developing for 8 yrs rather than 3.

    • December 18th 2012 @ 9:40am
      Towser said | December 18th 2012 @ 9:40am | ! Report

      Straight answer no it wouldn’t have worked .
      Reason both Victory & SFC took up the “sympathetic to local football “supporters at the time”. Doesn’t mean there werent plenty more to go around,just means they were still in “Eurosupport” mode. Anything local wasn’t worth their attention.
      It would have split the support down the middle & Melbourne Victory in particular wouldn’t be the club they are today.
      Sydney FC, well given the dysfunctional way they’ve operated from day one I doubt they would exist,despite the obvious potential you see from time to time with crowds over 30,000.
      Whether a West Sydney team would have done any better at the time,well I would argue that they wouldn’t,given that no A-league club at the time had any experience of running a professional football club for a mainstream audience(well maybe Perth & Northern Spirit, but thats a story on its own, as the bar in the NSL was set so low that a cockroach would have trouble limboing underneath it)
      So instead of one dysfunctional Sydney club we could have had two.
      As it stands now theres 8 seasons of experience in A-League to draw on its been a steep learning curve ,but signs are that mistakes are being heeded & rectified.
      I see Melbourne Heart as a hasty mistake on the learning curve, along with Fury & Gold Coast,whereas the Wanderers took stock, reflected back & did all the right things in determining where they came from, who they were & tried to engage potential fans on that basis.

      • Columnist

        December 18th 2012 @ 9:45am
        Joe Gorman said | December 18th 2012 @ 9:45am | ! Report

        good points Towser, although I’m not sure that I agree with your view on the Heart.

        • December 18th 2012 @ 10:38am
          Towser said | December 18th 2012 @ 10:38am | ! Report

          Just on heart Joe, the following statement from Peter Sidwell(Johnno link above) is why I have reservations about the clubs future.

          “We are after a different and new supporter who falls in love with the game.”

          What that indicates to me is that in Melbourne he is trying to convert people to football from scratch..
          Previously the Club indicated that its football style would give a point of differentiation with Victory & lure already fans of the game to Heart.
          Sort of contradicting himself ,indicating to me that this club is floundering in its present market. Simon Hill supported the Heart yesterday in an article ,said it needed time. Totally disagree,time will not change the inability of Heart to find a niche in the Melbourne market.

          • December 18th 2012 @ 1:35pm
            MV Dave said | December 18th 2012 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

            If Heart are successful on the field, win 2 Premierships/GFs in a row, as MV have, then l think you’ll find their crowd averages will rise significantly.
            One of the main issues for Heart in their 2 1/3 seasons so far is their poor Home record and performances.
            BTW Nearly 24,000 tickets pre sold already for this weekends Derby and still 4 days to go.

      • Roar Guru

        December 18th 2012 @ 10:29am
        Cameron Kellett said | December 18th 2012 @ 10:29am | ! Report

        Hasty is definitely the word most appropriate, but for the heart there should be enough there to continue building on. Heart always see the derby as an opportunity to represent their small following and hopefully entice more fans football fans to jump on, board. Watch how the heart will give it 110% and cause a possible boilover. A win is vital to both teams but none more so than heart.

      • December 18th 2012 @ 8:34pm
        Stevo said | December 18th 2012 @ 8:34pm | ! Report

        Couldn’t disagree more strongly! There should have been two teams in Sydney and Melbourne from day 1. That was also the model proposed by the players association in 2002 after extensive research. That would have split the supporter base in 2 and today MV and MH would have >10,000 members each and growing. The derbies would have been the best thing since slice bread and would have ramped up the HAL from day 1 . All the current situation has done is put Heart at a 5 year disadvantage, having to work twice as hard as MV had to do to get fans inboard. We’ll get there we just need time and some solid few years – with finals appearances hopefully.

    • December 18th 2012 @ 9:53am
      nordster said | December 18th 2012 @ 9:53am | ! Report

      A difference between the first five to ten years and beyond….one team for 1-5, two for 5-10…more competition beyond that hopefully. Maybe add a third in melb and more regional nsw teams for a second division in the future. Grow the game from the base with small clubs trying to win promotion, rather than attempting to keep on building ‘powerhouse’ teams from scratch going forward…once u get past the MVs and WSWs expansion has to happen more organically.

      • December 18th 2012 @ 9:58am
        Johnno said | December 18th 2012 @ 9:58am | ! Report

        organically yep nordster, non fertalized.

        • December 18th 2012 @ 10:48am
          nordster said | December 18th 2012 @ 10:48am | ! Report

          A little fertiliser maybe…but locally sourced 🙂
          And any centrally provided fertiliser comes with no instruction as to how to spend…ie no cba or wage regulations…just a little pot of tv money upon promotion.

    • December 18th 2012 @ 10:01am
      Midfielder said | December 18th 2012 @ 10:01am | ! Report

      Hold the faith …. you had to start somewhere…

      The PFA model was good … it had ten teams….

      Sydney * 3
      Melbourne * 2
      Canberra or the Gong.

      No one will ever know if this would have worked better and if the funds and players to run a 10 team competition… and there would be no Mariners …

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