Split-round doldrums show A-League’s susceptibility to shifting momentum

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By Evan Morgan Grahame, Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Where'd all the enthusiasm for the last A-League round go? (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

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    So, from a pulsating Melbourne Derby ten days ago, to the hollow emptiness of the split round.

    The energy and oomph from the Derby – generated in tandem, of course, with that extraordinary first versus second brush between Sydney and Newcastle – billowed into the league, and it felt like a breath of life. The barren half-round that followed has left the competition waning and gasping again.

    In a season most of which has felt only half-inflated, the stark difference between these two weeks has really driven home how fragile the A-League is, and how easily a wave of momentum can be halted.

    Having skewered Sydney FC with one of the goals of the season, and in doing so capping off one of the more remarkable ten-man performances in league history, Andrew Nabbout described his subsequent departure to Urawa Red Diamonds as “bittersweet”.

    Considering how that win – handing Sydney only their second defeat of the season – whetted the appetite for a potential finals rematch, bittersweet seems a little too euphemistic a term. Bitterly disappointing might be more accurate, especially for those who hold this season and the competitiveness of its participants ahead of any sentimentality they might have invested in Nabbout’s personal career trajectory.

    Without Nabbout, Newcastle’s chances of beating Sydney in post-season go down considerably.

    Dimi Petratos, another key figure in that wonderful win, has also since been linked to a mid-season move away; Lawrie McKinna has poured cold water over the rumour, calling it “rubbish”, although McKinna also intimated during the build-up to the Sydney match that Nabbout’s seemingly impending departure was nothing more than a rumour started by Graham Arnold.

    If Petratos were to be plucked away from the Jets, well, it would drive another spike into the momentum Newcastle have gathered this season.

    Inserted into this ten-day atrophic trudge was the FFA’s decision to announce Graham Arnold as the next-next Socceroos coach.

    The timing of this was puzzling for a number of reasons: David Gallop said it was necessary to quash the uncertainty surrounding the post-Russia landscape, as well as to address the rumours involving Arnold that have been whirling around for some weeks.

    At this point, though, no one’s really thinking about what will happen after the World Cup, are they? Russia is the towering, all-concealing topic of present speculation, casting a huge shadow of hope and fear, the final destination of a journey the trauma and trials of which we’ve barely recovered from.

    The Ange Postecoglou years have only just finished; why would anyone want to think about the era-after-next, when the current era hasn’t even begun? It only preemptively truncates Bert van Marwijk’s reign, freeing it, to some degree, of a sense of responsibility.

    I’m sure Bert is keen to do well at the World Cup, but if his employers are already waxing lyrical about how Arnie might utilise “that guy in Millwall who knows what to do in front of goal” – yes, Gallop really did prattle on about Tim Cahill’s relevance under Arnold in the presser – what sort of message does that send about how invested they are in him and his immediate mandate?

    If this was the FFA’s attempt to jazz up the gaping silence of the split round, it didn’t work. In fact, as much as Arnold tried to convince the gallery of his unwavering commitment to his present employers, the announcement also blew in a chilling fog over the remainder of Sydney’s season; with the Premier’s Plate all but wrapped up, the dangers of complacency are a very real issue for Sydney.

    Graham Arnold

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    Now that the country is fully aware their manager – the architect-in-chief of the most dominant period in club history – has secured a bigger, better gig, will the team be motivated to give Arnold a fanfare farewell, or will it be more of a disinterested, distracted dawdle to the finish?

    Their disappointing showing in Asia has meant this season – while domestically supreme – has a been tinged, undeservedly perhaps, with a sour undertone. We’ve gone from uncertainty over the future of the national team, to uncertainty over the future of the country’s best club, not exactly an ideal trade.

    A touch over 7000 people went out to see the Wanderers beat Wellington, and few hundred more than that went along to Perth’s win over Central Coast, both totals well below the average home attendance for those teams. These fixtures, involving the two bottom teams, were always going to be fairly low-key; the A-League social media team even managed to mess up one of the full-time Facebook posts so badly it was almost impressive.

    The split-round was necessary to accommodate the teams in Asia; no one should argue for a return to the situation where A-League sides are forced to run a gruelling gauntlet of congested domestic and continental fixtures at this time of year. But the fact that it sends the competition into a soporific malaise is still a problem, especially for a league as susceptible to downswings as the A-League.

    The ongoing FFA congress drama, the VAR tribulations, the stale dominance of Sydney, the lower crowd numbers, all of it has contributed to a sense of despondency around the league, which means it’s even more important to capitalise when the momentum is high, and avoid it dropping too low.

    If the league season ends with a sigh in May, and the Roos are bounced out of Russia in June, it will be a winter of discontent that follows, with Australian football shivering all the way through it.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • March 12th 2018 @ 7:56am
      Fadida said | March 12th 2018 @ 7:56am | ! Report

      Evan, if you acknowledge that it was necessary then surely it’s inevitable that momentum will be lost over the split round? And how is it avoidable? What are the alternatives?

      FFA are guilty of a number of things, but I’m not sure they have a crystal ball that could have predicted the Jets and Sydney was going to be a top of the table clash. Preseason, Melbourne Derby aside, all of the games were on paper a top half v bottom half clash.

      Each time the a-league plays through an international window there are many complaints and calls for a free week. I suspect that if there was a window there’d then be complaints that the season becomes too long, or that games were moved to midweek (with associated lower crowds), or that momentum was lost

      • Roar Rookie

        March 12th 2018 @ 8:16am
        Waz said | March 12th 2018 @ 8:16am | ! Report

        With only five games a split round is going to be problematic with one weekend only having two games. But the FFA are to be applauded for introducing this, it’s the right thing to do.

        Expansion by two teams will help only slightly meaning both weekends might get 3 games (unless we have 4 teams qualify then it’s 4+2).

        Other options include a national second division which can help pick up the slack with 5-6 games on both weekends – scheduling big teams to meet each in these blank weekends would help.

        And another option is to have an odd number of teams (11 or 13) and schedule a bye for a competing team in to these windows. That would give an extra game back potentially every split round

        Then there is the reality that we just have to live with this right; the other way of the season losing momentum is for ACL participants to have massive injuries ruining their HAL and ACL season, that to me is worse than any perceived loss of momentum.

        • March 12th 2018 @ 8:34am
          Fadida said | March 12th 2018 @ 8:34am | ! Report

          Agree with the last paragraph Waz.

          I’m not sure a second division would help. While I’d love to see one, I just don’t see it will fill the A-league void, just as the championship doesn’t fill the EPL void for its fans

          • March 12th 2018 @ 4:54pm
            Mark said | March 12th 2018 @ 4:54pm | ! Report

            It might for the 500-1000 who will attend second division matches, but otherwise I agree.

            • Roar Rookie

              March 12th 2018 @ 5:52pm
              Waz said | March 12th 2018 @ 5:52pm | ! Report

              Well, a lot of NPL matches are pulling in crowds of 2-3k early in this season, that’s in QLD, NSWs and VIC so don’t underestimate it

    • March 12th 2018 @ 8:09am
      chris said | March 12th 2018 @ 8:09am | ! Report

      More good news!

    • Roar Rookie

      March 12th 2018 @ 8:31am
      Grobbelaar said | March 12th 2018 @ 8:31am | ! Report

      “… it will be a winter of discontent that follows, with Australian football shivering all the way through it.”

      The local game is where all real football fans are, and this level of football is absolutely thriving. One full round of Vic NPL games would have more attending than the two A-League games on the weekend (also giving a strong clue that a 2nd division, and even a 3rd division will work).

      Never forget that football in this country is not just about the A-League.

      It’s much more than that.

    • March 12th 2018 @ 8:31am
      Buddy said | March 12th 2018 @ 8:31am | ! Report

      It does seem sometimes that organizing committees or governing bodies of you prefer, cannot take a trick in the decision making process. There were howls of protests at the fixture scheduling in seasons past when teams played ACL midweek and then had to fly home and prepare for another away game on a Friday night. “Unsupportive, unhelphul, short sighted and incompetent” were the polite adjectiives bandied around at the time and I have yet to meet anyone who believes that teams competing in the ACL should not receive support in the scheduling department although perhaps with results so far, some will argue it was a wasted effort.
      So we receive a split round and week 1 contained not the most mouthwatering fixtures. As far as I recall, the decisions on scheduling were made months ago and without a crystal ball on hand it was difficult to predict the topsy turvy season WSW are suffering. Perth is a similar storyand whilst Wellington and CCM were short priced favourites to battle for the wooden spoon they are both capableof causing surprises. Do we need a reminder that CCM were the first team to rock GA’s boat this season and it wasn’t that long ago that The Nix travelled to Newcastle and made a mockery of league positions that day…probably their best performance of the season.
      So, let’s “suck it up” and not spend time sulking or worrying that it was the wrong decision. We have a couple of ACL midweek fixtures to look forward to and then back for more A League next weekend.
      As a WSW fan, I’ve already written off the season anyway as should supporters of at least five other clubs!

    • March 12th 2018 @ 9:43am
      Kangajets said | March 12th 2018 @ 9:43am | ! Report

      New South Wales np l showed live games on their Facebook site Wollongong v Blacktown was one of them ,
      but the weekend was taken over by nrl watching for myself and a lot of others . The fact that Penrith sold out a 4 pm time slot on a Autumn Sunday in Sydney… great scheduling from the nrl .. common sense .

      If we had more teams in the A league then we could have more games to watch in a split round, but that’s just flogging a dead horse .

      The jets will have played 1 home in 7 weeks when city come back on Easter Sunday , bizarre scheduling.

    • March 12th 2018 @ 10:50am
      Lionheart said | March 12th 2018 @ 10:50am | ! Report

      I sat and wondered where my next game was coming from, off the box without venturing out. Way too much other codes, and cricket all worthy of an occasional flick but it had to be soccer and what a reward seeing Jamie MacLaren play for Hibernian, one off the crossbar, next a beautiful cross that should have been rewarded and then a wonderfully composed goal beating a defender and the goalie in a manner Jamie wasn’t capable of in his first season at Roar. He’s come along well since then. Then there was Rogic, maestro. Let’s hope both these guys keep form and move on to better leagues post Russia.

      • March 12th 2018 @ 11:03am
        Kangajets said | March 12th 2018 @ 11:03am | ! Report

        Both Maclaren and rogic goals were excellent

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