The history of expansion in the A-League has been rocky to say the least.
A number of teams have folded while Melbourne Heart were taken over and rebranded as Melbourne City.
The original teams in the first season were Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory, Queensland Roar, Perth Glory, Adelaide United, Newcastle Jets, Central Coast Mariners and the New Zealand Knights.
But how could it have gone instead if we were starting again?
For starters, the A-League was conceived of as a professional league for Australian players to get a start in their careers, as an alternative to having to head to Europe. So the New Zealand Knights should have been excluded. All the teams should have been Australian.
Sydney FC would be the first team to include, as the largest city in Australia and biggest football heartland should have a team. But at the same time, Western Sydney should have been there from the start as well to establish the rivalry and to tap into the vast number of football supporters in the west of the city.
Melbourne Victory for similar reasons would also have to be there, representing the second largest city in Australia. But like Sydney, there also should have been a local rival to create a derby.
The best choice would have been Dandenong, even if they had to play in the city initially. Having a clear geographic identity would have avoided some of the problems that held back Melbourne Heart from gaining fans and they would have become a source of strong local media interest in the southeast.
In Brisbane it was Queensland Roar who won the bid, but in hindsight it might have been better to have a team that would only represent Brisbane rather than the whole state in addition to having Dutch overtones. Perhaps the Brisbane Strikers would have been a more popular option after their success in the NSL, which gave them an existing brand and a clearer identity.
Over on the west coast Perth Glory were pretty much a shoo-in. After their history in the NSL and the popular support they had, they were really the only ones to look at, not to mention the lack of a rival bid.
In South Australia it was a similar story, where Adelaide United were the clear standout, although they could have had a bit more competition for the license from Adelaide City due to their profile and NSL success. But at the end of the day the Reds won out and that was the right choice.
Moving on to the regions, the first team I’d pick would be Canberra. As the nation’s capital and as a football heartland it didn’t make sense to leave them out of the original teams that made up the league.
Back on the coast again I’d also pick Newcastle. As a heartland of the sport and with a passionate fan-base they were a clear choice for inclusion and as another rival for Sydney it makes sense to have them in the league.
Further down the coast to the south, the Wollongong Wolves should have been another foundation club. After having won two NSL championships, one NSL premiership and the OFC Champions League, they had the record to show that they were a deserving club.
Taken together, these teams would have made a strong top ten to get the league going in its first season, rather than just eight teams. This would give you a league made up of teams from Sydney, Western Sydney, Melbourne, Dandenong, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Newcastle and Wollongong.
Beyond these, the next teams I’d choose would be Tasmania, which had a bid to join the first season of the A-League but just missed out, and the Gold Coast as the sixth largest city in Australia.
After that, Townsville and Central Coast could come in to give North Queensland a team to support and to take advantage of an open market with the lack of an NRL team in Gosford.
Then finally to make up the 16, I’d give Geelong and the Sunshine Coast a chance as they could both develop into keen football areas in the future as well as both having growing populations.
You have to wonder how much stronger the A-League would be right now if the expansion process had been handled better from the beginning by the FFA.
As for the future, things are up in the air because of the pandemic and all the fallout we can expect from that. But Macarthur FC are slated to enter next season and the Mariners may be relocating to Manly if Mike Charlesworth gets his way. So at least we can look forward to some more derbies.