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Opinion

A new solution to the old A-League finals problem

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Roar Rookie
1st September, 2020
59

I am far from the biggest A-League fan, so with another season completed, I got thinking: am I the type that Football Federation Australia (FFA) need to work hard to win back?

Or do they need to defend the home front and ensure the core group are still engaged?

There’s a perspective the league has become a bit stale or hasn’t maintained the momentum gained during what now seems like a peak from 2012-2015, highlighted by the persence of superstars like Alessandro Del Piero, Shinji Ono and Emile Heskey.

The FFA Cup was introduced to broaden the footprint of the game and connect it to its roots, the Wanderers were a hot new commodity and powering to a grand final in their first season in front of passionate home fans, the league’s bigger clubs were all a chance of winning titles, and the almighty City Football Group acquired a fledgling Melbourne Heart to transform them into Melbourne City.

But the next step was never taken.

FFA likely hoped that expanding would be the next catalyst of growth and excitement, adding teams in Melbourne and Sydney to create more derbies to manufacture tribalism and atmosphere.

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Obviously COVID-19 has stalled momentum with the two new teams and the big derby crowds those events bring, for which administrators can hardly be blamed.

Another theory could be Sydney FC’s dominance. It seems as if they have been a certainty to win from the get-go, finishing as champions in three of the last four seasons, which affects the interest of fans who aren’t rusted on.

Sydney FC celebrate after they defeated Melbourne City during the 2020 A-League Grand Final

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

However, apart from delivering the much-needed commercial benefits of bigger crowds and TV viewers, the FFA’s hope is that the finals series keeps interest and intrigue alive – that fans will be overcome with passion to push their side to finish the job as the league leaders or cause an upset.

But if it is the purists the league must appease, is this the way forward?

The case in point could be the 2017-18 season, when Sydney FC finished atop the table by a huge 14 points and were surely the best team all season, but missed out on the grand final after an extra-time semi-final loss.

Is this how Australian football fans want their champions crowned?

Although the grand final this season featured the two best teams and was exciting, albeit with controversy (I’m sure someone will throw the VAR in as another factor affecting interest), would fans prefer to see the champion of the league crowned based on the team with the most points on the table?

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Most purists also dream of promotion and relegation to go with a single winner atop the table, but most would likely recognise the lack of funds required to deliver this.

So, what if a new solution was created? With the addition of a 12th club in 2020-21, what if the finals series was replaced by an end-of-season standalone League Cup?

The draw would be determined by ladder positions and if the premiers didn’t win the League Cup Final, it wouldn’t result in any confusion about who was the best team over the course of 27 rounds (or possible 22 now), it is simply another challenge.

The League Cup could work as follows (assuming all the higher placed teams win for the sake of explanation):

Round 1
5th v 12th
6th v 11th
7th v 10th
8th v 9th

Top four teams receive a bye.

Round 2
1st v 8th
2nd v 7th
3rd v 6th
4th v 5th

Semi-finals
1st v 4th
2nd v 3rd

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Final
1st v 2nd

The League Cup would give every game context, with even the 12th placed team striving for form in the hope of moving up higher in the draw or causing an upset.

The top four teams are rewarded with a better draw and home advantage, while the mid-ranked teams gain home ground advantage in Round 1.

The team that wins the A-League might have the chance at achieving a double or even triple title feat if they can win the FFA Cup as well.

Commercially, the League Cup would feature 11 games compared to five in the finals series, so has potential to attract greater revenue.

The biggest barrier may be that it could feel like a finals series that every team has qualified for, however the knockout nature and separate trophy and tournament structure would hopefully combat this and could help give Australian football fans a taste of what they crave the most.