In conversation with my daughter over the weekend, we reflected on just how much things have changed over the last two years.
Who could have ever imaged that she would have completed a significant portion of her education within the four walls of her bedroom, that the fluidity of people’s movement could ever have been so restricted or that shareholders in businesses manufacturing hand sanitiser and surgical masks could become so frightfully wealthy?
Of course, the ‘new normal’ is almost upon us and with Australian vaccination rates soaring in all communities bar those of our First Nations peoples, it is time to re-engage with life in the safest manner possible.
In Australia’s two most populous cities, people will now resume getting married, celebrating in large numbers and returning to sporting events with confidence.
Right across the broader nation, domestic competitions and events that have been restricted, cancelled, postponed or played behind closed doors for extended periods appear close to being launched back into life without restriction, pending the co-operation of the states and the continued impressive vaccination rates.
Such a situation places A-League men as one of the first cabs off the rank.
The early season cricket action has begun, motor racing is imminent and NBL basketball looks set for a December 3 tip-off.
However, until the Ashes cricket begins a few days later, it will be football that stands to be the measuring stick in terms of how emphatically and confidently fans reconnect with domestic sport.
Across its 16-year history, A-League men has featured seasons where attendance, fan engagement and the football played have been impressive and seemingly signalling towards real growth and expansion.
Big-name players gave the competition a shot in the arm early on, people flocked to the matches and the claims of many that football was the sleeping giant in Australian sport appeared to be finally coming to fruition.
Sadly, there have been other seasons perhaps best described as a treading of water and the last half decade has not provided critics with anything other than more fuel to be used in their attempts to death knell the competition.
The COVID period pushed the league to the brink and there was the odd moment or two where I questioned, with no end of the pandemic in sight, whether all its clubs would survive their most unexpected and significant challenge.
Personally, I held fears for the Newcastle Jets, Central Coast Mariners and Western United. Macarthur FC was such a new club, its survival must surely have come into question and with fans locked out and a necessitated decrease in the salary cap mirroring the vast sums of money that had been sucked out of the league, fears that a reduced number of clubs would be involved when it reconvened were realistic.
However, and with all credit due to Football Australia, the players and the staff working so passionately across all 12 clubs, here we are on the verge of what looks like, on paper, a potentially brilliant A-League men season.
2020-21 showcased a host of young Australian players, as many foreigners fled for their homelands when travelling abroad became something of a frightful challenge and family security and safety more paramount.
Many of those local players made names for themselves and after earning the trust of their managers, will be back to once again play roles in what do look deeper and more powerful squads this season.
Network Ten and its associated Paramount+ streaming service came on board as key partners in June, Bunnings Warehouse continues as sponsor of the official league ladders and most recently, Isuzu Ute became the official naming rights sponsor of the men’s competition, with an announcement still pending in terms of the women’s.
As a throwback to the early seasons of the competition, the big fish destined to put bums on seats was signed and his arrival was sold to the public amid much excitement. Former Liverpool and England star Daniel Sturridge signed on with Perth Glory in one of the most headline-drawing deals completed in Australian football for some time.
Should Western Sydney’s rumoured interest in former Premier League player Jack Rodwell also prove accurate, both will be hot topics of conversation and provide plenty of reasons for the curious fan to pop down to an A-League men’s match this season.
Along with an impressive array of signings made by other clubs, the league’s new free-to-air timeslot, a reasonably priced app for which many clubs were wise to negotiate even better deals for their members and some lovely clear sporting calendar air in which to start the season, everything points towards something of an explosive and successful launch.
Too often the start of the A-League men’s season has been muted, lost in the calendar and supported by underwhelming promotion.
Something feels different this time around and with the enthusiasm of fans to get into stadiums and enjoy the matches with their fully vaccinated friends, we may well be about to see a season of football where, for the first time in a number of years, the competition actually moves forward.