The VAR seemed to miss what looked like a clear cut penalty
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Well, as is often the case with the four A-League teams who fail to make the finals, the culling has begun.
Dozens of players will be cut from rosters – many of them, inevitably, to be picked up by the teams who will not make the finals next season – but the exodus doesn’t end with the playing staff.
Paul Okon and Darije Kalezic had arranged – and in Okon’s case, executed – their departures from Central Coast and Wellington respectively before this week, but the two other managers of the remaining finals-less teams, Josep Gombau and Kenny Lowe, had not. This week Western Sydney opted not to renew Gombau’s contract, and yesterday Perth sacked Lowe.
The two departures, although coming within a day of one another, could not be less alike. Yes, the teams finished under a similar cloud of choking mediocrity, stuck in that utterly unbearable limbo of being clearly not good enough to challenge in the post-season, but not awful enough to truly wallow – embrace even – their inadequacy, like Central Coast or Wellington. They finished within two competition points of one another, and the same goes for goal difference.
But Josep Gombau had been at the helm of the Wanderers for less than six months. The Wanderers were three-quarters of the way into abseiling through their preseason preparations when Tony Popovic’s sudden departure saw their ropes snap and whip around, leaving them dangling horribly.
When Gombau arrived he was faced with the task of shaping someone else’s squad without a preseason. He is a manager who has a history of needing time to instil his style, to tinker alchemically with the formula, balancing the skills of his team with his tactical ideals.
It took a year and a half with Adelaide before he won anything. But by the end his methods were sound, and the team he built formed the nucleus for the Gui Amor’s title-winners the next season – it was Gombau, remember, who had brought in Amor during the 2014-15 season as technical director.
His was a popular appointment to the under-23 national team role, and his value was consolidated by Ange Postecoglou, who regularly had him on the bench as part of the Socceroos coaching staff when he was manager. Everything about his career – the and the unremarkable remarkable moments – indicates that if you hire him, you must give him time, and if you do, good things tend to follow.
Six months is not long enough, and Western Sydney now run the risk of becoming one of those short-termist clubs that hire and fire recklessly. That’s fine if you’re Chelsea, with unprecedented investment and the ability to attract almost any elite manager in the world, but Chelsea the Wanderers are not.
When the Popovic era ended – the only manager the club had had, keep in mind – it signalled the end of a period in which the manager was the only constant; Popovic chopped and changed his squad with an almost manic abandon and was able to by and large keep the team performing, buffeted and a little bewildered, rising and falling but maintaining flight amid the turbulence.
Not all managers work like that, and clearly Gombau had an extremely hard time coaxing any coherence out of this season’s squad. This isn’t reason enough to drop the axe, however.
Kenny Lowe, on the other hand, had been at Perth for 139 matches, losing almost as many (52) as he won (60), and treating the public to an ongoing fireworks show, blasting and fizzing furiously at both ends of the pitch.
Perth have been the league’s kamikaze team for a while, conceding goals in extraordinary numbers, scoring almost as explosively, and all the while failing to make a grand final in each of Lowe’s four full seasons. They are still the only foundation team still in existence that hasn’t won an A-League premiership or championship. The Wanderers answered the question, ‘Can our manager lead us to success in the near future?’ on too little evidence; Perth had all the evidence they needed.
In the 2016-17 season Lowe had Diego Castro, a recent Johnny Warren medallist, under his stewardship. He had Adam Taggart and Andy Keogh, two players who banged in a dozen or more goals each that year. He had Rhys Williams and Josh Risdon in the squad, two players who now hold hopes of national team selection for Russia.
The squad was padded out with league stalwarts: Liam Reddy in goal, Dino Djulbic, and Rostyn Griffiths patrolling defensively. This was as good a squad as Lowe has had. They finished fifth in the league, conceding a staggering 53 goals, and were knocked out in the second round of the finals. For many Perth fans, this guillotine is late in falling.
Gombau might have been thinking of reworking Western Sydney’s youth program or pondering which Spanish midfielder to bring in over the off-season. Now Southern Expansion may well be taking a look at him as a potential candidate should they receive a licence.
For Kenny Lowe, it’s hard to have sympathy for someone who was given all the time he needed to succeed but who so visibly failed to address the very aspects that prevented that success. How the clubs move on from these managers and whether history will etch these sackings in as wise decisions, we’ll have to wait to see.