Saturday night’s Sydney derby will be the strangest meeting ever between the two sides, with the rest of the season a test of which teams can handle playing behind closed doors.
These are unprecedented times. There are legitimate questions around whether professional sport should even be taking place, with the A-League set to continue with no fans for the foreseeable future.
Some clubs, most notably Wellington Phoenix, will be far more affected than others.
There have been suggestions that the remainder of the league season beyond this round may be played out in Sydney and Melbourne only.
That won’t come as a surprise to fans of clubs outside those two cities, because for years A-League officials have been obsessed with marketing the league in Sydney and Melbourne to the exclusion of everyone else.
But this is the hand we’ve been dealt, and an A-League played in empty grounds in selected cities is arguably preferable to no A-League being played at all.
So tonight’s two fixtures between the Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne City in Gosford, and Brisbane Roar and the Newcastle Jets on the Gold Coast, mark the start of a new and hopefully short-lived era.
There have been plenty of jokes about the A-League always being played behind closed doors, to which it’s worth responding that the first Sydney derby of the season at Bankwest Stadium drew a crowd of more than 28,500 – and that wasn’t even the largest attendance of the season.
But as we saw with both the AFL and NRL starting life behind closed doors on Thursday night, conjuring a response from players when there’s no atmosphere in the stands is clearly easier said than done.
But that’s exactly what needs to happen tonight when the Mariners and Roar host games in empty venues in Gosford and Robina respectively.
And the biggest challenge for what’s left of the A-League season is not for teams to find a way to beat Sydney FC, but to deal with the completely new experience of playing in front of zero fans.
It makes tonight’s two matches somewhat of a litmus test for the league as a whole, as the competition prepares to end the season with an almost Big Bash League condensed format.
It also brings into sharp relief the decision to continue playing football at all, with rumours abounding that it was made to avoid giving Fox Sports just cause to terminate a broadcast contract that still has three seasons left to run.
The online clamour for streaming service Optus Sport to pick up the A-League broadcast rights grows louder by the day, yet the reality is that for all their slick production values, they haven’t actually expressed a desire to do so.
They’re also highly unlikely to pay as much for the broadcast rights as Fox Sports did given the lack of other credible suitors.
That Foxtel is haemorrhaging money at a rate of knots was rammed home in midweek when at least 25 long-serving journalists were made redundant in the midst of this global pandemic.
The names included dedicated football reporter Carly Adno and popular on-air identity Daniel Garb, who spent years covering both the English Premier League and the Socceroos.
It’s not football fans’ fault that the network vastly overpaid for some of its content – in particular cricket, which has produced virtually no commercial return – but it’s invariably football fans who’ll pay the price.
Because if Fox Sports can’t afford to keep some of their hardest workers like Garb and Adno around, then what hope is there for the rest of the coverage?
No wonder they were keen for some content tonight.
Get ready for the weirdest round of A-League action we’ve ever witnessed.
The jury is out on whether the players should even be playing, but perhaps it beats the alternative of being unemployed.