As the dust settles on the 2019-20 A-League grand final and fans anticipate the start of the rapidly approaching new season, Sydney FC can bask in all its glory.
Melbourne City will lick its wounds, yet will be pleased in retrospect, knowing the squad finally produced real quality on the big stage.
After years of disappointment and glib performances, City pushed Sydney all the way and if not for something special from a Socceroo energiser bunny named Rhyan Grant, could well be holding the trophy.
Grand final penalties appeared likely, despite half chances becoming more frequent during extra-time, as legs began to grow weary. Yet the Sky Blues found what was needed yet again. They are making an excellent habit of doing that on a consistent basis.
It perhaps seems a little odd to call the interrupted season of football we have just lived a success, however, aside from global and domestic panic, forced lock downs and the postponement and/or cancellation of competitive sport across much of the globe, it will actually be seen as a success in retrospect.
Merely playing all the scheduled matches was something of an achievement in itself. The hub concept worked, players did the right thing and Wellington enabled the competition to eventually come to something like a natural conclusion by setting up digs in Australia for an extended period.
The football played was brilliant at times, Newcastle, Brisbane and Western Sydney showed signs of rebirth and 431 goals were scored at an average of 2.91 goals per game. The League culminated with a brilliant finals’ series and a thrilling grand final, after what was a competitive and unpredictable season.
However, it was the debut of Western United that arguably did more for the league than any other factor.
Mark Rudan’s team in green and black faced the challenge of a rookie season of play without a home venue and a nomadic lifestyle for two to three years awaiting its construction.
Membership and community support levels were destined to be low and the sheer difficulty in creating football cohesion on the pitch stood to be a daunting task for the coach.
With all of that stacked against the club, what they managed to achieve was simply astonishing and a breath of fresh air for a competition so oft described by critics as stale. There was nothing stale about Western United in 2019-20.
Quickly into stride, the team sat inside the top six for the first 17 rounds, then after briefly slipping out, stormed home with a run of form that was the envy of the competition after the league resumed in July.
That run saw United with a theoretical shot at third place in the final match of the home-and-away season. Their eventual fifth place finish was to send them into a knockout situation against Brisbane Roar, where they surprised many by extending the run.
United drew just three matches throughout the entire season, winning 12 and losing eleven in what was something of a ‘rocks or diamonds’ inaugural campaign.
Max Burgess came of age, Besart Berisha defied his and Alessandro Diamanti was at times astonishingly skilful.
Rudan let them play positively and aggressively and their collective haul of 46 goals was only less than the 49 managed by both grand finalists.
No doubt Rudan was given some quality tools with which to work. Josh Risdon, Andrew Durante, Connor Pain, Aaron Calver and Filip Kurto are all quality players, yet being able to morph his collection of weapons into a competitive team in such a short space of time is potentially Rudan’s greatest coaching achievement to date.
Whilst the season of success meant so much to United supporters and the 4,786 members who have hitched their wagons to the club, it also added a new flavour to future Melbourne derbies; with a third prong now threatening to steal bragging rights in the city.
Western United invigorated a formally ten-team competition in 2019-20, despite their entry somewhat compromising the draw, and the powers at be will be hoping Macarthur Bulls have precisely the same impact and success when they enter the fray in the coming months.
Both teams bring new A-League fans on board, something that has not been happening for some time and proponents of expansion will site the success of United as what is possible with the continuing establishment of new teams in the league.
Western United have smashed the glass ceiling of expansion and shown just what is possible. We should thank them, not only for their play, but also for the freshness and interest they brought to a competition that was in desperate need of just that.