Why Sydney FC’s dominance is good for the A-League

Mike Tuckerman Columnist

By Mike Tuckerman, Mike Tuckerman is a Roar Expert

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    Perhaps the biggest surprise in Sydney FC’s 2-2 draw on Wednesday was not Milos Ninkovic’s goal, but the fact that the Newcastle Jets were the better side.

    Ninkovic scored not just a goal-of-the-season candidate but one of the best solo goals ever seen in the A-League, as the twinkle-toed Serb exchanged passes with Bobo before dancing through the Jets defence like they were Easter Island statues.

    It was a goal of staggering quality – even if Jets defender Lachlan Jackson could probably live without the countless replays it spurred.

    And having fought back from a goal down, seasoned A-League watchers could have been forgiven for thinking the Sky Blues would steamroll their opponents in the second half.

    But this is a different Newcastle Jets outfit. And they owe much of their resurgence to Ernie Merrick.

    Is Merrick the best coach in the A-League? He’s arguably the most underrated.

    Phoenix's Head Coach Ernie Merrick (right) prior to the Round 9 A-League match between Perth Glory and Wellington Phoenix at NIB Stadium in Perth, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. (AAP Image/Theron Kirkman)

    (AAP Image/Theron Kirkman)

    And having won championships with Melbourne Victory and steered habitual strugglers Wellington Phoenix into finals football, Merrick is now transforming Newcastle into the most entertaining team in the league.

    That he’s done it without playmaker Ronny Vargas, and more recently Roy O’Donovan, is testament to Merrick’s ability to get the very best out of the players at his disposal.

    And in bringing in Argentine attacker Patricio Rodriguez, Merrick is attempting to do something that has proved surprisingly problematic in the A-League – source quality foreign talent.

    In this regard, it could be said the Jets have taken a few cues from none other than Sydney FC.

    When Milos Ninkovic joined the Sky Blues, some online critics saw him as just another foreign blow-in from some far-flung corner of Europe.

    It was a strange position to take given that Ninkovic had won a couple of Ukrainian championships with a star-studded Dynamo Kyiv, and turned out for Serbia – against the Socceroos, no less – at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

    Milos Ninkovic celebrates for Sydney FC

    (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

    And in signing the Serbian star, the Sky Blues signalled that it was possible to recruit highly experienced players who aren’t necessarily in the Alessandro Del Piero class of marquee player.

    We can argue all we like about other factors – the rehabilitation of Alex Wilkinson and Michael Zullo, the signing of Danny Vukovic and subsequent form of Andrew Redmayne, the emergence of Brandon O’Neill and Josh Brillante among them – but what all of these components have in common is ‘recruitment’.

    Put simply, Sydney FC have out-recruited everyone else in the A-League.

    And they’ve done it mainly on the strength of their foreign signings.

    It started with Marc Janko and included Filip Holosko, but there’s no doubt their current crop of foreign stars is the best of the lot.

    Ninkovic and Polish winger Adrian Mierzejewski are the most effective foreign duo in the league since Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha – yes, thanks for the reminder Brisbane Roar fans – while Brazilian striker Bobo is one of the most prolific strikers in recent A-League history.

    Add the recruitment of cult defender Jordy Buijs midway through last season, and it’s clear Sydney’s scouting department is doing something right.

    All this after Graham Arnold finished seventh in his second season in charge.

    And for all the supposed favouritism shown towards the club by Football Federation Australia – should Bobo have been allowed to score seven goals in his past three games after raking his studs down Manny Muscat’s shin? – there’s a bigger-picture bonus to Sydney FC’s current dominance.

    It should drag the rest of the league up to their level.

    Sorry Western Sydney, tough luck Melbourne Victory… if you want to be the biggest clubs in the land – on the pitch, at least – you’ll have to match Sydney FC’s current standards.

    Newcastle Jets have responded to the challenge.

    And with Sydney FC’s AFC Champions League commitments just around the corner, now is the time for the rest of the A-League to strike.

    Mike Tuckerman
    Mike Tuckerman

    Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he settled in Brisbane, and has been a leading Roar football columnist from December 2008.

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    The Crowd Says (92)

    • January 5th 2018 @ 6:13am
      Kangajets said | January 5th 2018 @ 6:13am | ! Report

      I thought that Marc Janco was a heck of a player , but the les blues have recruited extremely well since janco .

    • January 5th 2018 @ 6:40am
      JetsFan said | January 5th 2018 @ 6:40am | ! Report

      Mike, i believe you are on the money with this one, but, and there’s always a but in a good debate. Brisbane are the best place to start, they have Billionaire owners, but they are getting nothing but grief from their owners. I believe a required element is better recruiting by the FFA when it comes to selection of owners. Newy and Sydney have owners who are football fans and it can be seen the pitch. Adelaide and Victory get the thumbs up, Mariners are improving and City are all cash no brains.
      Wellington need all the help they can get but Kaljudjerovic is second in the scorers ladder. Then you have to consider coaches and their understanding of our football culture.
      Simply put it’s not just black and white.

      • January 5th 2018 @ 8:05am
        Waz said | January 5th 2018 @ 8:05am | ! Report

        Much as I’d like better owners in Brisbane you can’t fault their playing record – we’ve made finals every year under their ownership, won the title, played ACL regularly, finished 3rd the last two seasons.

        This season they’ve spent a record amount on HAL players salaries, well over $4m which is more than all but 2, possibly 3 competitors, so is the problem ownership or management of the club?

        • January 5th 2018 @ 10:56am
          Lionheart said | January 5th 2018 @ 10:56am | ! Report

          We all have our down years, a natural cycle in a capped league.
          The Bakrie family are also football people with interests in other clubs including Leicester at one stage. They have been badly let down by local management, funding issues aside.

          • January 5th 2018 @ 5:16pm
            Kangajets said | January 5th 2018 @ 5:16pm | ! Report


            Get the bakkries to hire the right coach . It’s obvious that Queensland has a production line of talent but Aloisi has let the good players move .

            If Aloisi went tomorrow and just someone eg mulvey for lack of another candidate took over , Brisbane would be top 3 next season , and the big crowds will come back .

            I think Brisbane needs a Queensland derby , Ipswich , Toowoomba or sunny coast , where do u suggest?

            • January 6th 2018 @ 9:31am
              Alex said | January 6th 2018 @ 9:31am | ! Report

              It’s been said before that Aloisi doesn’t have a (Devante) “Clut” about who is a quality player and who is not

              • January 7th 2018 @ 1:04pm
                Kangajets said | January 7th 2018 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

                Clut will be hoping to get some game time one day , can’t get in the jets team , even with 7 injuries.

    • January 5th 2018 @ 6:53am
      RBBAnonymous said | January 5th 2018 @ 6:53am | ! Report

      Sorry Mike , but the salary cap will ensure that this very talented team is blown up at the end of the season. Instead of teams reaching up Sydney’s level we are going to take Sydney down a peg or nine to the level of Wellington. Instead of driving the A-league forward with our “bigger clubs” everyone must get a turn to be successful in A-league communism.

      • Roar Guru

        January 5th 2018 @ 9:00am
        spruce moose said | January 5th 2018 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        I’m no fan of the salary cap either, but I think it’s a necessary evil for the time being to ensure club survival.

        Perhaps in the next decade they will start to loosen the limits of the cap a little…

      • January 5th 2018 @ 9:16am
        mattq said | January 5th 2018 @ 9:16am | ! Report

        why didn’t that happen this year? recruitment

      • January 5th 2018 @ 9:40am
        Fadida said | January 5th 2018 @ 9:40am | ! Report

        Agree RBB. This comes up every year, but I’d love to see the winners get a cap bonus or exemption.

        The reward for success can’t be to have your best players cherry picked.

        Let everyone else try and improve to catch Sydney, not retard Sydney so they fall back to the pack

        • January 5th 2018 @ 5:24pm
          Kangajets said | January 5th 2018 @ 5:24pm | ! Report


          Hawthorn and New England patriots play under a salary cap without marquee exemption

          Why are / were they able to do it so well ?

          • January 6th 2018 @ 9:21am
            Fadida said | January 6th 2018 @ 9:21am | ! Report

            I can’t comment on those teams, due to a lack of interest in either sport

            • January 7th 2018 @ 1:06pm
              Kangajets said | January 7th 2018 @ 1:06pm | ! Report


              New England patriots won 5 out of 7 Super Bowls in 10 years with a salary cap

              Hawthorn win 3 grand finals in a row with a salary cap

      • January 5th 2018 @ 10:16am
        AGO74 said | January 5th 2018 @ 10:16am | ! Report

        In theory yes, but Sydney are arguably stronger this year via the recruitment of Mierzejewski to replace Holosko.

        What’s important to recognise is the culture on and off the field that Sydney FC have driven. Sure it is a winning culture and that is something players want to be a part of and are prepared to perhaps receive a bit less than they could get elsewhere in order to win tropies – but it is also the spirit of the team as well. It is clear that this is a very tight-knit unit and players for all their professionalism and need to earn a salary for player that are only a short time in the game but that they also want to enjoy it. How many horror stories have we heard of players (both Australian and foreigners that come here to play) signing in Asia or eastern Europe and getting treated like yesterday’s leftovers.

        That said, there are times when the club has been tough – Ninko wanted out at start of last season to go make a motza in the gult but the club said no. He didn’t sulk, nor was he allowed to sulk by the club and was arguably the single greatest contributor to our success in last 18 months. Why is that? Sure Ninkovic’s professionalism contributes significantly to this, but it is aided the culture and professionalism which Sydney FC foster. Then when given the chance at end of last year when contract expired, he chose to stay with Sydney – albeit on marquee wages – when he could have earned far more elsewhere.

        The longer it goes the harder it is to sustain in a salary capped league – but as we’ve see this year and to go back to my original comment, Mierzejewski is arguably a greater player than Holosko was and we were able to sign him through a strong recruitment policy combined with an extremely well-run club.

        • January 5th 2018 @ 10:59am
          Lionheart said | January 5th 2018 @ 10:59am | ! Report

          well said (yeah, it hurts)

      • January 5th 2018 @ 5:21pm
        Kangajets said | January 5th 2018 @ 5:21pm | ! Report


        Sydney FC won the grand final last year . I can’t see how the salary cap has stalled them this year . They r even better

        A team like Newcastle is playing with almost entirely Australian lineup which would be nowhere near a full salary cap

        I guess with good money and player management success can be achieved

        Sydney FC and Hawthorn and New England patriots are good examples of success within a salary cap

    • January 5th 2018 @ 8:02am
      Onside said | January 5th 2018 @ 8:02am | ! Report

      What does it say about the quality of local Australian talent, when overseas
      footballers, who are genuinely past their prime ,can shine in the antipodes .

      They are all very welcome, most certainly, but their skills do mirror a reality.

      • January 5th 2018 @ 8:06am
        Waz said | January 5th 2018 @ 8:06am | ! Report

        Can you give some examples?

        • January 5th 2018 @ 8:45am
          Onside said | January 5th 2018 @ 8:45am | ! Report

          No I cant Waz. My observations are a generalisation. Are they off the mark.

          All A – League teams have a noticeable weighting of overseas talent.

          My point is that every ‘foreigner’ represents a local player without the skills to
          deny the overseas player a game.

          If the local talent was up to the mark, then given the restrictions of a salary
          cap, some imports would not get a game.

          I sense this argument may have deteriorated into convoluted ‘Irish’ logic .

          • January 5th 2018 @ 9:18am
            mattq said | January 5th 2018 @ 9:18am | ! Report

            are you suggesting Australia doesn’t have the crème de la crop of world football talent? well blow me away.

            • January 5th 2018 @ 11:14am
              punter said | January 5th 2018 @ 11:14am | ! Report

              Please tell me in what team sport that is played globally, does Australia have the creme de la crop?

              • January 5th 2018 @ 12:56pm
                Kangajets said | January 5th 2018 @ 12:56pm | ! Report


                Women’s surfing mate . Australia is world class

          • January 5th 2018 @ 9:19am
            Waz said | January 5th 2018 @ 9:19am | ! Report

            ha, ha, no I just thought you had players in mind. There’s been a few duffs on visa players in this history of the league but this season most seem to be working out bar the polish import at City.

            There is a large pool of foreign players to choose from and, as we’ve seen with betisha, Broich, Ninkovic and others, some really good ones are ireoared to move here within the cap and not as marquee players. I think they lift the game and the local players

          • January 5th 2018 @ 9:42am
            Kangajets said | January 5th 2018 @ 9:42am | ! Report

            Australia has an equal amount of players plying their trade across different continents.

            However u find Newcastle Jets has played an all Australia line up bar the keeper for the last 6 weeks

            • January 5th 2018 @ 2:11pm
              Onside said | January 5th 2018 @ 2:11pm | ! Report

              Fantastic Kangajets. I listened to an interview where a team member discussed how several young players were given a run and acquitted themselves well.

              This triggered a thought along the lines of,if given the opportunity to play and learn, how many other young players are out there who could in time mature into good footballers.

              • January 5th 2018 @ 2:46pm
                Onside said | January 5th 2018 @ 2:46pm | ! Report

                Hi mods,

      • January 5th 2018 @ 10:23am
        AGO74 said | January 5th 2018 @ 10:23am | ! Report

        There have also been players who have joined A-League clubs from top tier Euro leagues and been less than average. In those instances, our players have shined above them – does that mean our league is better than those leagues? No – its simply that not all players thrive in all leagues. Even the current Johnny Warren medallist Milos Ninkovic took the best part of a year to adjust before thriving from season 2 onwards.

        There are so many factors that contribute to a players success in any given league (physical, technical, man management, money – ie. are you being paid regularly, lifestyle etc) – your admission that you have made a generalisation is refreshing but you need to think a little deeper before making sweeping statements like that.

      • January 5th 2018 @ 11:35am
        pauli said | January 5th 2018 @ 11:35am | ! Report

        You’d hope the imports were better than the locals otherwise there’s no point bringing them here. Am I right?

    • January 5th 2018 @ 8:38am
      Eden said | January 5th 2018 @ 8:38am | ! Report

      I’ve always thought the a-league should target the South American players for international talent. I imagine clubs can compete on salary with SA clubs and offer a pretty unique lifestyle for footballers.
      The natural skill and technique of the South American would be a big drawcard as well.

      • January 5th 2018 @ 11:03am
        Lionheart said | January 5th 2018 @ 11:03am | ! Report

        there’s a few around (but don’t ask me to name them)

        • January 5th 2018 @ 12:55pm
          Nick Symonds said | January 5th 2018 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

          Don’t forget Africa either.

          • January 5th 2018 @ 3:36pm
            Kangajets said | January 5th 2018 @ 3:36pm | ! Report

            Scouting players costs a lot of money

            Obviously Arnold and Merrick have a great networking of scouts

            Just sit back and enjoy great football

            Currently the jets are playing 11 AUSTRALIAN in the starting line up
            Yes. 11 Aussie’s.

            But have 2 South America an Irishman in waiting.

    • January 5th 2018 @ 8:50am
      Redondo said | January 5th 2018 @ 8:50am | ! Report

      Agree about the recruitment. But it’s not just about finding good individuals. It’s also about identifying players whose attributes (on and off pitch) will fit with the existing team. It’s also about adjusting tactics to optimise the combination of players. And it’s also about getting marquees to subject themselves to intense fitness regimes.

      For example, It took a season to integrate Ninkovic properly into Sydney’s playing style. And it took a season to get Bobo fit enough to play the Sydney way. It also took most of a season to adjust Sydney’s build-up play to suit Bobo’s attributes (average technique but great positioning and eye for goal). Similar adjustments were made to integrate Buijs, O’Neill and Brillante. And Mierzejewski and Ninkovic could have been a disaster on the same team but have so far looked like a good fit.

      What I’m saying is it’s not just the quality of the recruits, it’s whether they fit with the existing team and then how the coach adjusts to integrate them. Arnold has done a great job both recruiting and managing the recruits.

      • January 5th 2018 @ 9:43am
        Fadida said | January 5th 2018 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        All credit to Arnold. As at the Mariners he has shown an excellent eye for talent. His coaching is also excellent.

      • January 5th 2018 @ 10:27am
        AGO74 said | January 5th 2018 @ 10:27am | ! Report

        This is one of the best comments I’ve read on here. Milos Ninkovic took virtually a season to acclimatise to playing for FC. He really only started to shine when playing in the ACL, but even then it wasn’t till season 2 that he took off. Agree with your other comments re the imports like Bobo etc.

      • January 5th 2018 @ 11:16am
        punter said | January 5th 2018 @ 11:16am | ! Report

        Agree great comment Redondo, the recruitment doesn’t always work.

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