Brisbane Roar’s gritty 2-1 win over the Central Coast Mariners in Gosford on Sunday afternoon had just about everything – except, crucially, a vibrant atmosphere in the stands.
After downing Bali United 2-1 in energy-sapping conditions in Bali in the AFC Cup on Wednesday, it was always going to be tough for the Mariners to back up again on Sunday.
So it proved, as they went behind to an early Florin Berenguer opener that was not without a dash of controversy, as Nikola Mileusnic only just kept the ball in by a matter of millimetres to cross for the Frenchman to lash home.
Yet the defending champions found a way back when Marco Tulio’s peach of a pass found the marauding Alou Kuol, and the fan-favourite kept his cool to beat Macklin Freke in the Brisbane goal.
But the Roar under Ross Aloisi are made of sterner stuff and deservedly re-took the lead when teenage striker Tom Waddingham side-footed Kai Trewin’s cross in at the far post.
Trewin thought he had given away a penalty only moments before – only for VAR to inform referee Jonathan Barreiro it was Mariners midfielder Christian Theoharous who initiated contact inside the box.
And if Barreiro thought that was to be the end of the drama, he was sorely mistaken.
The Roar were rightly reduced to ten men when holding midfielder Joey Caletti received two yellows for a couple of cynical fouls, before Mariners substitute Harry Steele saw a straight red four minutes after entering the fray for a studs-up challenge on Jay O’Shea.
Neither player could have any real complaints about either decision, and while the two sides went at each other hammer and tongs in search of another goal, it was the visitors who clung on for a deserved victory.
It was a fantastic advertisement for the competition and one that only the diehard A-League fans seemed to watch, both in the stands and at home on TV.
The A-League Men is failing as an entertainment product because it’s missing the key ingredient that compels us to tune into football leagues around the world – atmosphere.
The tens of thousands of empty seats that greet fans at every A-League Men game these days are a turn-off for the fans who actually do show up, along with those watching on TV.
We had another stark reminder of that in the earlier kick-off on Sunday when Melbourne City came back from two goals down against Macarthur to secure a 3-3 draw in a clash that produced all the atmosphere of a trip to the library.
Since the City Football Group took charge of Melbourne City in January 2014, they’ve done virtually nothing to lift attendances at AAMI Park.
More parasites than powerbrokers, it’s hard to pinpoint a single decision they’ve made that has actually benefited the competition – let alone one that should see the Australian Professional Leagues continually turn to the City Football Group for guidance.
Yet the APL appears to be stuck in a permanent state of catatonia – incapable of making the decisions that need to be made to lift the A-League Men out of its malaise and get football fans turning up and tuning in once again.
So it is that we’re stuck with dodgy decisions like trying to advertise the league with a 3pm free-to-air Sunday afternoon fixture that hardly anyone attends.
The only must-see timeslot in the A-League Men is always the Saturday night fixture – not least because the night-time temperatures mean those games aren’t played at a walking pace.
Sydney FC’s 5-1 demolition of Adelaide United in Ufuk Talay’s first game in charge won’t have pleased the locals on Saturday night, but at least it was watched by a bumper crowd of 12,859 fans at Coopers Stadium.
But the lack of atmosphere at A-League Men games is genuinely hurting the competition.
Here’s hoping fans start to find their way back into stadiums organically. Because if the start of the season is anything to go by, our administrators sure don’t have the answers.