Back in July 2010 I produced a season preview for FourFourTwo Magazine on A-League team Brisbane Roar. The main theme was uncertainty going into the new season. The club were stripped of three of Australia’s brightest young talents and brought in new untested players faster than you could blink. Some of the players doubted coach Ange Postecoglou’s approach and their home turf Suncorp Stadium was more a shed than a fortress. I suggested a case of reform or bust. Make their home ground watertight and quickly integrate the new players and a finals spot was a distant possibility.
Fast forward to March 2011; a record run of an astonishing 28 games unbeaten later and the most exciting game in A-League history witnessed ‘The Roar’ winning the Grand Final on penalties, coming from 2-0 down in extra-time. Not only did they finish ‘Premiers’, seven of the squad made the Team of the Year, they won the Fair Play Award and Postecoglou was crowned Manager of the Year. Cue a new Trophy Cabinet on order. But let’s take off the rose-tinted glasses for just a moment. Was the rest of the A-League as impressive?
Crack through the glossy finish and the outlook might not be as shiny. The sixth season of the A-League saw fan attendances that averaged 8,393, down from 9,796, a drop of over 10 %. A concerning figure for a League that is trying to be taken seriously.
As for the individual teams’ performances, the neutrals can sympathize with the Central Coast Mariners who seem to be forever the Bridesmaid, never the Bride, reaching 3 Grand Finals in 6 seasons but always losing, this time round in the cruelest fashion in a penalty shoot-out.
Sydney FC, most punter’s favourite to retain back-to-back Championships, stuttered their worst start and finish in the A-League to date and despite premature signs of a reversal, they finished ninth out of eleven in a season to forget.
Relative new kids on the block, North Queensland Fury, died a premature death completing only two seasons in the A-League. Their average gate was a little over 4,000 and on the 1 March 2011 the final nail in their coffin was hammered in by Football Federation Australia Chief, Ben Buckley. He explained the ‘Save the Fury’ campaign only reaped a fifth of it’s $ 1.5 million target and that resources were needed elsewhere, sending out worrying signals to other clubs that may expect support and a cuddle in hard times. More like a belt-buckle to the backside.
Fashionable Melbourne Victory crawled to fifth on the ladder, their second worst finish to date. The A-League’s most supported club disappointed their huge following who turned up on match day more than their team did. Recently the Melbourne Board lost patience and seem to be following the blueprint of Brisbane’s Orange Revolution, dispatching of two-time Championship winner and former double Coach of the Year, Ernie Merrick.
The A-League’s flag on the continent fell somewhat limp in 2010/2011. With Adelaide United becoming the first team to reach the last 16 of the Asian Champions League in May 2010, the expectation has been raised a bar. However, at the time of going to press, Melbourne Victory sit at the bottom of their Group with 2 losses including an embarrassing 5-1 defeat. Sydney FC have earned a draw from their only game so far.
It would be foolish not to recognize the ‘winners’ of the 2010-2011 Season, the teams, the individuals and hardcore soccer fans. PFA Chief Executive, Brendan Schwab, highlighted the positives and painted his picture at the PFA Alex Tobin OAM Medal gala dinner: “… the players have delivered a season of quality football, widely acclaimed for technical excellence and entertaining play.” This was fuelled to an extent by imports from South America, Player of the Year and Adelaide United star Marco Flores and Central Coast Mariners’ Patricio Perez, examples that talent can be attracted to the A-League, but keeping them in Australia is the real long-term battle. At times this year Ronaldinho would not have been fit to shine their boots.
Brisbane Roar provided an abundance of breathtaking performances and are arguably the finest club side Australia has ever seen. Individuals like captain Matt Mackay rammed former Socceroos Coach Pim Verbeek’s words back down his throat in proving domestic based talent can shine as Mackay grabbed attention consistently and staked a claim for a spot in the Socceroos’ line-up, a landmark breakthrough for Australia A-League players.
Adelaide United continued to impress in one of the heartlands of football in Australia, finishing third and gaining a finals spot. Top scorer Sergio Van Dijk managed to keep up a stellar strike-rate with 16 goals. It’s frightening to think how many he could have scored in his former Brisbane Roar outfit.
Wellington Phoenix are on the up, finishing in a finals spot along with the Shane Smeltz goal-powered Gold Coast United who some suspect will be a force in years in come.
The season didn’t pass without it’s controversy. One of the sensations of the season was the skillful and dynamic Argentinean Patricio Perez. The once former team-mate of Lionel Messi, Perez announced his arrival Down Under spectacularly, winning, then scoring an equalising penalty on his debut. However post-game he was adjudged to have dived by the A-League’s Match Review Panel, earning a controversial two-match ban setting a precedent for ‘Simulation’. Even more stunning was Perth Glory’s Michael Baird earning the same fate on the same weekend. Perez announced on the 23rd March that he would be returning to Argentina due to homesickness, a kick in the stomach for the A-League being teased with such a talent for just one brief term.
You couldn’t pass through an A-League season without Kevin Muscat disturbing the peace. Describing Melbourne Victory’s Captain as a ‘hard-man’ is probably being too respectful. The curtain drew on his colourful career when he was banned for 8 matches for a disgraceful lunge that almost broke Melbourne Victory’s Adrian Zahra in two, with Mark Bosnich calling it a disgrace, prompting the words, Pot, Kettle and Black.
The 2010-2011 Season is symbolic of the current tug-of-war in football in Australia. On the pitch the standard of football has never been higher. The Socceroos can now look to the domestic championship for support instead of turning their nose up and bypassing it. Off the pitch the FFA has its work cut out in shaping the future of the A-League. If the League is to be a roaring success it needs intelligent marketing, investment and solid support to ensure the standard keeps improving and ultimately the fans keep coming back. One thing is for sure, the 2011-2012 season has a tough act to follow.