It’s been a crazy old year for the round ball game in Australia. From the highs of the Asian Cup and the win by the Socceroos on home soil in January to the fan walk-outs and boycotts of the A-League earlier this month, drama hasn’t been too far from the surface.
Ange Postecoglou deserves plenty of credit for the success of his Asian Cup campaign in January in which he was able to shield his players from the expectations of playing at home.
Instead he was able to harness the support and create an atmosphere of unity in the camp, drawing on that finest Socceroos tradition. The Socceroos are at the best when they are together, and that was evidenced in January.
This was a campaign symbolised by Postecoglou’s ability to strengthen a previous weakness, a leaky defence. The emergence of Trent Sainsbury as a composed centre back option was great to see.
Massimo Luongo, meanwhile, kicked on from his stellar 2014 in the first half of year, while it was great to see the likes of Matt Leckie and Tomi Juric emerge as the guys ready to carry on the foundations of the evergreen Tim Cahill up front.
It has been pleasing, in particular, to see Juric make an early impression in Holland, while the resurgence of Tom Rogic in recent months, as Mitch Grima wrote yesterday, is also a good sign for the Socceroos.
If it was Luongo who emerged for the Socceroos in 2014, than 2015’s star on the rise is undoubtedly Aaron Mooy, now a genuine A-League marquee.
Despite an injury setback that denied him valuable Champions League exposure, Mat Ryan’s move from Club Brugge to La Liga giant Valencia was reward for two outstanding seasons in Belgium and his fine form at the Asian Cup.
With the likes Ryan, Rogic, Mooy, Luongo, Juric and Sainsbury hitting their straps, 2015 has been a good one for the national team.
So too were the signs from Alen Stajcic and some of his Matildas at the Women’s World Cup. The continued rise of the likes of Steph Catley, Elise Kellond-Knight and Katrina Gorry are all good signs for this young side.
Meanwhile, football’s fans are often given a hard time, but they emerged again in 2015 as a powerful and united voice, able to fill the void left by the game’s management and media in defending and advocating for football.
Demanding to be heard and driving change through united action, it was a reminder that that fans are the game’s most important stakeholder.
Another to emerge in 2015 as a key voice for the game was Melbourne Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro, perhaps a future FFA chair.
With his club proving a success on the field, currently holding the A-League premiership, championship and FFA Cup, it’s little wonder Victory are now pushing to become the first ever football club here to have 30,000 members.
Meanwhile, di Pietro has proved you can turn a profit in football through sound management, and the business network at the Victory is the envy of many sports clubs around the country.
Still off-field and another big winner in 2015 was Bonita Mersiades, the former FFA communications chief now helping deliver the game much needed change at the top.
There was a lot of competition in a crowded sporting calendar, including the netball, rugby and cricket world cups, so perhaps it was no surprise to some that the mainstream media and the nation took its eye off the round ball game to a certain extent, but this was not a great year for football coverage downunder.
Even as the Socceroos and football fans lapped up the month long festival that was the Asian Cup, and Australia’s migrant Asian communities flocked to games for a rare glimpse of their nations on Australian soil, Australia as a whole seemed a little oblivious.
No doubt the fact the tournament was hidden on Fox Sports played a part, and the organising committee and FFA were culpable on that front, but so were Australia’s media providers.
Frankly, the Asian Cup was the type of feel-good story that didn’t suit the media’s anti-Arab, anti-refugee agendas.
Harmony and joy there might have been in the stands, but this was a story that contradicted the lines being pushed around the country, so it was largely buried.
Sadly the FFA continued to have its eyes completely off the prize throughout 2015, and weren’t able to manage the message well.
This was not a good year for the likes of Frank Lowy, David Gallop, Kyle Patterson and Damien de Bohun.
It was a year where Australian football become the Lowy play-thing with Frank passing on the chairmanship of the game to his son Steven in a show of nepotism that would may even have been beyond FIFA.
The fact they tried to sell it as a clean and transparent process only brought more mockery to the situation.
Beset by the ongoing turmoil surrounding the failed World Cup bid and the continuing questions around the use of the Government’s hand-out, the FFA was too busy trying to manage a public relations nightmare and the transition from one Lowy to another, and the management of the game and its stakeholders was lost in-between.
Instead of working with football and its stakeholders, the governing body appeared to go into a defensive shelf and show interest only in working with and among each other.
Among the most public of its tiffs was the handling of its player payment collective bargaining arrangements with the players association, another organisation who did themselves few favours in the eyes of the football public in 2015.
Rather than work together for the common good of the code, the FFA came across as the dictatorial master while the PFA came across as the money-grabber.
The fractured relationship was symbolic of what was going on across the code, with disenfranchised stakeholders including free-to-air TV provider SBS, various state associations and many club owners who continue to push for more transparency, strategy and collaboration from head office.
The financial and ownership woes of the likes of Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets and the Central Coast Mariners contiued to raise questions about the ongoing sustainability of the A-League franchise model.
There is gaining momentum to have an independent commission run the league and consider such options as a national second tier and eventually promotion and relegation.
There’s no doubt there’s been a lot for the FFA to deal with, but the reality is they’ve been far too insular and have no-one to blame but themselves.
The days of Frank Lowy’s autocratic my-way-or-the-highway management style have to change.
In many ways that’s been forced by the fans, who mounted a heap of pressure in the wake of sensationalist headlines about football fans being suburban terrorists and grubs.
If the FFA has learnt anything from 2015 it should be that it should never again take its fans for granted, or take their eye off the ball. We’ve been here before.
In 2012 there was a similar mood of despondency around the game after the axing of Gold Coast United.
The FFA managed to turn that around thanks in many parts to the prize capture by Sydney FC of Alessandro del Piero and the birth of the Western Sydney Wanderers.
But gradually that goodwill and growth has been eroded over the past few years as the FFA got too far ahead of itself, with Gallop proclaiming how it would soon be the number one code in Australia.
Naturally, that’s antagonised Australia’s old-guard, who appear hell-bent on maintaining the status quo.
The reality is that it’s too late, with football now a point where it is firmly entrenched in Australia as a mainstream sport, with it increasingly the sport of choice for kids, both from a participation and interest perspective.
This is the game’s biggest selling point, but FFA would do well not to ever get complacent about that position, and instead use it as the key bargaining tool in its current TV negotiations.
The lesson as far as the coverage on TV is concerned is that game can no longer thrive solely as a product on pay TV, or on a government-funded provider like SBS.
It’s needs a commercial free-to-air network to deliver the exposure, and Gallop will ultimately be judged on what he is able to deliver football on that front.
Working together with all its stakeholders and not just those it feels most comfortable with, or those who foot the bill, is the next logical step for the FFA.
Steven Lowy has come in preaching collaboration and in many ways it’s been forced on him by the fans.
Their role in keeping the FFA and media on their toes is now a critical dimension and must be maintained.
2016, then, is the year where Lowy Jr and his team must practice what they’ve preached, coming to the table with fans, A-League clubs, stakeholders the game over, TV and media to set up the game for a TV deal that will take football into 2017 and beyond.