If the A in A-League stood for ‘ambition’ at the start of the 2012-13, when Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono were paraded around Parramatta Stadium to hundreds of journalists and photographers at the season launch, then ahead of tonight’s Season 11 kick-off, the A now stands for ‘austerity’.
Gone are the big-name attention-pullers and the lavish, big-spend launches where coaches and players are flown around the country for a few video and sound-grabs.
They’ve been instead replaced by virtual media conferences and a player montage described as a “cloud-based digital collaboration display”.
All that was missing was the slogan: “It’s the A-League coaches and captains, but not as you know them.”
Given the financial state of clubs like the Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners, and the general lack of a marketing budget, it’s perhaps more prudent of the game’s administrators to take a measured approach to building up the season.
Patently, they had no choice.
This correspondent long argued that the powers that be took their foot off the gas in the two off-seasons since Del Piero’s arrival.
Rather than work harder to consolidate the foundations laid in that great Season 8, the powers spent the next off-season relaxing and patting each other on the back.
Talk of taking over the world tomorrow soon started to emanate from the likes of David Gallop.
Granted, the FFA had put a team in western Sydney, but it was only on the back of the train wreck that was Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United in Season 7.
Besides, it was the football fans of the western Sydney and the chance capture of Del Piero, rather than any masterstroke from headquarters, that made Season 8 the success it was.
For one season, at least, every Tom, Dick and Harry in Australian football, sport and media wanted to ride the western Sydney and Del Piero juggernauts.
The newspapers suddenly took an interest. Crikey, even Channel Ten were sending reporters down to Parramatta Stadium for a few ‘questions’ to ADP.
The A-League was sexy. Everyone wanted a piece. But rather than reflect on that position and remain humble, the game’s administration got ahead of itself.
Fast-forward three years and we’re back at Parramatta Stadium for the season kick-off, but the mood is far less buoyant.
On Tuesday, Gallop addressed only a handful of rusted-on football journalists at the season launch. Contributing to the current mood of gloom is the tense stand-off created by the Frank Lowy and Gallop regime with its various stakeholders.
Whether it’s the national club identity policy (NCIP), the issue with the players association, ongoing recriminations over the failed World Cup bid, poor relations with its free-to-air TV provider and many club administrators, or the over-policing of the active terraces, tensions abound.
These are all issues that could have been addressed through proactive engagement, but instead head office has looked more interested in engaging ‘independent’ consultants to help Lowy continue to control the game from afar.
With FFA leadership so immersed in the politics of control and ego, and the game’s fans effectively left out of the debate, it’s little wonder a sense of pessimism prevails ahead of the season.
In his preview on Tuesday, Mike Cockerill argued that mood at home towards the A-League is always more pessimistic, suggesting the league had more credibility overseas.
The reality is that three seasons ago the mood for the A-League and Australian football was never as high, both at home and overseas. That had been largely the case for the past five seasons.
But the powers that be got far too carried away with ‘their’ success, and are now paying the price for ball-watching.
Last season saw some of the metrics decline. The TV product, both on Fox and SBS, is struggling to say the least, but FFA are seemingly unable to find an alternative on free-to-air.
This season, Friday night free-to-air has been relegated back to SBS2. The game’s administrators and TV executives ought to be feeling the pressure. Far too many have been far too comfortable for far too long.
It’s time to start listening again.
And no doubt there’ll be a prayer or two at headquarters that the on-field product diverts attention from the issues off it, even without the marquee bite.
After the highs of Season 8, the past two have been over-hyped and failed to deliver the type of football and buzz that had people clamouring for a piece in 2012-13.
It’s been good to great in some pockets, such as the eye-catching football of Kevin Muscat’s Melbourne Victory last season, Wellington’s flow under Ernie Merrick, Josep Gombau’s Spanish style in Adelaide, and the quality of Milos Dimitrijevic for Sydney last season.
But equally, the standard hasn’t been as deep in the past two seasons as it was in Season 8.
Take for example the fact that Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar made the bloated finals last season when they were never consistently functional.
The hope of course is that with so little expected this season, perhaps the muted build-up might actually work in the league’s favour and the standard will surprise.
We can only pray.
While no big names have arrived, the hope is that the foreigners that have come, and managers like John Aloisi, Tony Walmsley, Guillermo Amor and Scott Miller, can boost the quality of the on-field product, delivering a proactive, high-tempo template with creativity and function at the core.
Certainly when you look at the pedigree of the arrivals – like Filip Holosko, Diego Castro, Corona, Jeffrey Sarpong, Milos Ninkovic and Bruno Fornaroli – you hope at least a few can have the impact that Fahid Ben Khalfallah, Matthieu Delpierre, Milos Dimitrijevic and Roly Bonevacia did last season.
Even returning Australians like Oliver Bozanic, Ivan Franjic, Michael Zullo and Dario Vidosic should make an impact, and make up in some way for the loss of Nathan Burns, Matthew Spiranovic and Mark Milligan.
It might be a more economical period for a league starting it’s second decade, but if the standard of coaching and play can improve across the board, then the end to Season 11 might not be as doom-and-gloom as its beginning.
Josep Gombau is gone and the big question is whether Guillermo Amor can build on his foundations. He’s still got some guns in Isaias, Sergio Cirio and Marcelo Carrusca about, but the evidence of Adelaide’s work in the FFA hints at a bit more of a struggle.
Lots of turmoil off the pitch, but one of my teams to watch on it. Jamie Maclaren and Devante Clut should have bumper seasons and be knocking on Ange Postecoglou’s door soon enough. Meanwhile, after a couple of years to reflect and upgrade his learning, John Aloisi should be a much better manager. Expect a high-octane game which should have them pushing the top few for much of the season.
Central Coast Mariners
Once again they’ll be tipped by most to finish toward the bottom, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Tony Walmsley’s side turn a few heads with a vibrant, attacking philosophy. Gone will be the dour approach of Phil Moss as the Mariners take a risk or two in defence. If Walmsley can get the right balance between attack and defensive control, then the Mariners could be knocking on the finals door. I’m particularly keen to see how Harry Ashcroft, Josh Bingham and Mitchell Austin fare at this level.
John van ‘t Schip gets a final chance to prove he can cut it as a coach at this level, having assembled a very deep squad. Strong in all the thirds with an experienced back three, pacey fullbacks and plenty of options at the creative end, there are no more excuses. Aaron Mooy and Fornaroli loom as keys, and Rob Koren is due a big year. But given what van ‘t Schip has produced in the past, it’s impossible to be sure how he’ll go, or tip City to finish high.
The team to beat. Have strengthened in goals with the capture of Danny Vukovic, and I’ve long been a big Bozanic fan – he’ll be a great complement for Carl Valeri. The big question marks loom over the Asian Champions League campaign and the fact assistant Jean Paul de Marigny has moved to Newcastle. It’s a huge test for Muscat, but he’s built on his already deep squad and poses big threats in attack, plus continuity.
The squad looks stronger and deeper than it has for a while, and my sense is that the Jets are ready to start turning the corner. Nigel Boogaard, Mateo Poljak and even Cam Watson are good defensive men for a rebuild, so Miller had done well there, while de Marigny could also be a prize capture. But for the Jets to give a spot on the finals a shake, much hinges on the front four connection of Leonardo, Enver Alivodic, Milos Trifinovic and Labinot Haliti. A season on the up.
After the turmoil of last season’s salary cap breaches, the Glory have lost some big names and it’s hard to see them challenging.
Graham Arnold had built a crash-hot midfield in Mikael Tavares, Dimitrijevic and Ninkovic, while Holosko looks a great capture up high. But I’m not convinced about Jacques Faty – yeah, he’s the coolest kid in the Fox studio, but I’d rather focus on the football. The defence is the biggest question mark over Sydney. That and the ACL campaign, and it’s hard to see them challenging for the top two.
They’ll be written off by the usual sources, but in Merrick they have a proven man pulling the strings, and I expect then to be in the top few for much of the season. Bonevacia was a revelation last season, while the improvement of Roy Krishna was eye-catching. The prolific Blake Powell looks ready to make the step up from NPL level and looks a good fit. If Sarpong can also settle in, the the Nix will offer plenty of potency up front. Exciting times.
Western Sydney Wanderers
After falling short in the transfer market last season and getting a chance to fix it, the pressure’s on Tony Popovic. If Federico Piovaccari is more Poorvaccari, and the Spaniard trio of Dimas Delgado, Andreu and Alberto Aguilar don’t bring control and a forward trigger, then the Wanderers are in for another tough season. If the Spaniards can provide the control in defence and prompt the attack, then much will hinge on how creative and clinical Mark Bridge, Vidosic, Mitch Nichols and Romeo Castelen can be up high. Pressure abounds in the dugout and on the pitch.
1. Melbourne Victory
2. Wellington Phoenix
3. Brisbane Roar
4. Sydney FC
5. Melbourne City
6. Western Sydney Wanderers
7. Central Coast Mariners
8. Newcastle Jets
9. Adelaide United
10. Perth Glory