It’s hard to believe that in 2019 we still see constant references to ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’ when it comes to the world game in Australia.
In the build-up to last night’s fairytale FFA Cup tie between defending champions Adelaide United and the Melbourne Knights and – to a lesser extent – the tie between Wellington Phoenix and the Brisbane Strikers, the same old juxtaposition of two vastly different eras popped up time and time again.
You would think after 15 years in the footballing wilderness of state leagues and the rebranded National Premier Leagues we could pay clubs like the Knights and the Strikers a bit more respect.
They are more than simply nostalgic windows through which we can compare a by-gone era of national football in Australia to the current one.
They are still proud football clubs with loyal supporters who have had to adapt and change with the circumstances they find themselves in and in between brief returns to the national spotlight thanks to the FFA Cup, they continue to ply their trade in their respective divisions.
Surely, by now we can stop talking about ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’ and recognise that Australia’s football future has to include every club in the land.
No one will stand hand on heart and say the National Soccer League days were perfect, bridging the gap between old and new and focussing on an all-inclusive future of the game is the best way to ensure the game can continue to prosper.
The gulf between the Knights and Adelaide on the pitch was clear to see last night – and so it should be.
Adelaide are the defending FFA Cup champions, they made the semi-finals of the A-League last season and are full-time professionals with Socceroos littered within their ranks.
Credit should be given to the Knights and their coach Marijan Cvitkovic for approaching the game so openly, when it might have been tempting to try and crowd out their professional opponents and turn the game into a slug-fest in the bitter cold and wet conditions.
The Knights had over 4,000 people pack into their famous Somers St ground, so it made sense that they would try and entertain, even at the cost of a result.
In the first half, the Knights certainly played their part in an entertaining spectacle. FInding themselves 2-0 down early to goals from Al Hassan Toure and Ben Halloran, the home side showed plenty of fight to claw a goal back through a smart Gian Albano finish.
Adelaide showed their class in the second half and took the game away from their semi-professional opponents, but off the pitch, the Knights showed the potential they could bring to the sport if properly incentivised.
Melbourne Knights continue to invest in their own infrastructure, spending tens of thousands of dollars to improve their stadium for the return to the national spotlight, while the game itself attracted a bumper crowd of 4,087 on a truly horrible night in terms of rain and temperature to see the game.
Even after the game, supporters stuck around the club’s social rooms for hours into the night.
So, what do you get when you combine a club-owned stadium and surrounding infrastructure, with a highly-motivated fan-base, a committee that knows how to strike when the iron is hot and an FFA Cup tie against an A-League opponent?
If you’re Melbourne Knights, you could end up clearing around $100,000.
Sources from the club have suggested that profits from last nights FFA Cup tie against Adelaide United, including from sponsorship, merchandising and ticket and food sales look set to tip $100,000 – after accounting for approximately $70,000 spent on stadium upgrades.
That is an extraordinary result for any club in football, A-League included. But it is only possible when clubs invest beyond the first team and commit to building and improving their facilities and infrastructure.
Just imagine if the Knights had a sniff at playing in the regular national competition and the potential to earn a spot back in the A-League.
By comparison, the all A-League clash between Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets attracted 4,045 people at the hired venue of AAMI Park.
The Knights have been big supporters of a national second division, and have even published their own white paper discussing what they believe are the pros and cons of the division structure announced by Football Federation Australia’s New Leagues Working Group.
At this point, the creation of a second division seems more a case of when and how than if.
Honestly, it cannot happen soon enough.
While the Knights game demonstrated the potential NPL clubs can bring off the pitch when properly incentivised, the Strikers proved once again that the gulf between the pros and the rest isn’t necessarily huge on the pitch either.
The Strikers shot to a 2-0 lead but had to be satisfied with getting the job done on penalties following a stirring fightback from the Phoenix.
It has to be acknowledged that Wellington are in the midst of a big off-season of change with new coach Ufuk Talay picking up the pieces from Mark Rudan’s departure, but nevertheless, this was an impressive Strikers performance.
Between the Knights impressive off-field performance and the Strikers on-field performance, the National Premier Leagues are teeming with high-quality candidates for a national second division which will help to promote continued investment in the game and the development of its players.