Stifling conditions in Round 14 reignited the debate around playing A-League matches in the heat of the day during the summer period.
The demand to do so by the competition organisers once again raised significant workplace issues for the players.
While conditions were still demanding at 7:45pm (AEDT) when the Mariners and Wanderers kicked off at Industree Group Stadium in Gosford on Saturday night, it was the earlier women’s fixture at McKellar Park in Canberra that drew much attention in relation to heat and player welfare.
The women took to the pitch in the absolute heat of the day, suffered in what were extreme conditions, and looked completely depleted and exhausted at the conclusion of the contest.
For competition organisers, the intention was, of course, to stick to the schedule and ensure that there was no cross-over in broadcasting, with Macarthur FC and Western United set to kick-off in A-League Men at 5pm (AEDT).
However, one wonders about those who insisted the women take to the pitch at the originally designated time.
Sending players onto a pitch under the intense heat of the sun during the hottest portion of the day could only be done guilt free by someone who has never exercised in their life.
I mowed my front lawn that very morning and was swathed in sweat within minutes. Two litres of water were consumed in the process and after 50 minutes of work, I enjoyed a sit down in the shade. That was at 10am.
I called a relative in Canberra and enquired about the heat and whether they would be attending the game.
The chuckle I received said all that needed to be about the stupidity of asking footballers to play at the designated hour.
Ominously, my relative said, “Someone will die out there one day.”
Far from intending to be alarmist, the comment is in fact reality and – considering the A-League’s place in the sporting calendar across the summer months – lessening the chance of it happening should be paramount in the APL’s thinking.
It would be naïve to not comprehend the complex A-Leagues schedule, the broadcast commitments that must be adhered to, seemingly at all costs, and the challenge of not disturbing the fan experience by making excessive changes at the last minute.
Yet by 9am on Saturday morning, a decision to protect the players should have been made and the match pushed back two to three hours, at a minimum.
The players should stand united and deliver a firm message to the APL that inserting a couple of drinks breaks per half does not alleviate the danger in which they are placed in such oppressive conditions.
Western United did brilliantly to put on a show, scoring five goals in handing out a second thrashing on the trot to the home side. However, the pace of play was ridiculously slow at times and many players were absolutely spent within 15 minutes of the game starting.
By the final whistle, there were few smiles and most appeared desperate to get off the pitch.
Frankly, the players looked unwell.
Any suggestion that professional athletes should be able to cope with such conditions is absurd, with the quality of football, fan experience and attendance numbers all negatively affected by the demand to stick to the schedule.
Where the true inflexibility lies is unclear, whether it be Network Ten, Paramount+ or the APL itself, yet the simple fact remains that all Australian matches played in the warmest months should be planned with an asterisk alongside them, subject to a heat-assessment criteria by mid-morning.
Kick-off times would be then automatically altered regardless of when other matches in both leagues are set to be played around the country.
The APL has scheduled a host of A-League Women games at 3pm this season, with up to three being played at the same time on a number of occasions. Seemingly, there is little concern of cross-over in that instance, something that frustrates me greatly as someone hoping to watch all the matches.
Therefore, with crossover occurring elsewhere, player, spectator and product quality should all be respected with a more flexible approach during the summer months.
Had Canberra United versus Western United taken to the pitch on Saturday a mere three hours later, the conditions would have remained challenging, yet fans would also have felt comfortable that APL had taken all possible steps to alleviate unnecessary stress on the athletes involved.
Instead, they put player welfare in serious jeopardy. It was hot in many places around the country across the weekend, yet without the blazing Australian sun, football can still be played at dusk and into the evening.
That is the model towards which both A-League competitions need to be moved immediately, before another group of professional players is placed in danger.