Captain's knocks, new faces and match-winning braces: The A-League players who were the difference in Round 19
Round 19 was an interesting weekend of football with no draws, 19 goals in six matches, two five-goal games on Sunday and for the…
Those bastions of Warner Brothers cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd engage in a famous skit whereby Daffy and Bugs try to convince the eternally confused Elmer which hunting season is current, in order to save their own skins from Mister Fudd’s shotgun.
In the A-League Men competion, right now it’s coaches season.
In the space of a week, Rado Vidosic and Steve Corica have been let go from their high-profile roles at Melbourne City and Sydney FC respectively, which even in the volatile world of football management is close to unprecedented. That Vidosic led City to the Premier’s Plate and a Grand Final last season, and Corica had just coached Sydney FC to Australia Cup success barely a month ago, makes very little difference in the frenzied modern sporting atmosphere of instant success. Clearly, poor starts in a 26-game league make club boards twitchy and nervous, and the insta-solution is to reach for Elmer’s metaphorical shotgun to rectify the problem.
Perhaps though, the antecedents to both departures were rooted in what happened last season as well as this. Vidosic inherited Melbourne City from Patrick Kisnorbo when the latter departed for French club Troyes in November 2022, little more than a month into the last A-League season. Statistically, Vidosic, a vastly experienced and erudite coach, continued the job, as City finished the regular season top of the table. However, there didn’t seem to be the same aura of invincibility that had made City a force over the previous five years.
Those doubts were compounded by an almighty dismantling at the hands of the Central Coast Mariners whose 6-1 win secured the title and a redemption story worth a Warner Brothers treatment last June.
The 6-0 defeat in Adelaide two weeks ago made the club look like they’d been handed a tennis thrashing in the early rounds of a satellite circuit. It mattered little that Vidosic had to make do without Matt Leckie and Andrew Nabbout for the start of this campaign. City Group moved swiftly and ruthlessly, and Aurelio Vidmar provided the “dead cat bounce” to give City their first win last Friday night. Against Sydney FC.
Alannis Morrissette would probably write a song about that. Club sacks coach, new coach gets first-up win against a team who then sack their coach. That the coach in question served Sydney FC for nineteen years in the end mattered little. Steve Corica belongs to a pretty exclusive club of three in the A-League era, that of men who have won championships as both player and coach with the same team.
His two contemporaries in that club – Kevin Muscat and Nick Montgomery – are both living the coaching dream overseas in Japan and Scotland. The man known as Bimby now gets to contemplate life away from the tension of the dressing room, the hubbub of the match-day bench, and the quiet intensity of the training ground.
The Sydney FC board released a statement indicating a “new direction,” always an amusing euphemism, as if the club found itself lost in the backwoods without a map or a GPS, and that the incumbent had no clue that winning and moving up the table was the desired “direction.”
It seemed as if Corica had been under constant threat for the last two seasons and that a semi-final appearance and an Australia Cup were mere coaching wallpaper to cover the cracks of a recent history that did not match up with his earlier stunning success. In fact, this could be read as that success becoming the measuring stick by which Steve Corica was judged. Unfair to an outsider, because you simply can’t win everything.
It begs the question as to how safe the rest of the coaching fraternity in the A-League Men comp are. It’s a testament to Australia’s coaching strength that ten of the eleven Australian clubs in the competition have Australian coaches. The only exception is Central Coast Mariners coach Mark Jackson, who might be feeling slightly nervous on a morning walk across the shifting sands of Terrigal Beach, having been unable to secure a point for the reigning champions in his first three games in charge.
And yet how fair would it be to get the hook out for a man who has stepped into the large glass slippers of fairytale-maker-come-true Nick Montgomery, with not a lot of lead-in time and a severely ravaged squad missing half of their grand final heroes? Fairness and coaching are not often sentence companions. Expectations are naturally high around Gosford after the Mariners extraordinary championship success but as a self-confessed produce-and-sell club, they may need to manage those expectations as well as Jackson is expected to manage the team.
The other coaches have at least accumulated some results in the opening three rounds to navigate the corridor of uncertainty associated with winning and losing. While much attention is focussed on the phenomenal early success of Ange Postecoglou at Spurs, it might give cold comfort to A-League coaches to see the criticism of Australia’s best-known coaching export following Tottenham’s first defeat of the season against Chelsea. Until the 4-1 loss this morning, it seemed Ange could do no wrong. Now he’s being criticised for the team’s high-pressing tactics while only playing with nine players. A week is a long time in the coaching world.
There are unique circumstances for A-League coaches to navigate in one of the few salary-capped football competitions in the World Game. This on top of the more familiar tasks of managing and guiding not only a playing squad but a backroom staff of coaching assistants, medical and fitness personnel, and video/tactics analysts.
The head coach knows though that the buck stops with them, and Mister Fudd’s metaphorical buckshot is only as far away as a couple of poor results. The coaching tightrope has probably never looked so thin.