Monday, March 02, 2009


A-League, Version Four: A Look Back

The fourth instalment of the new national competition was, on the whole, an improvement on the third. The football was somewhat better, the violent incidents fewer, and the officiating marginally more consistent (even if Matthew Breeze gave a typically inept display in the grand final).

Below, some thoughts on A-League Version 4 as a whole, and the "expansive" future.

The Revelations

Although there weren't too many startling performances from younger players this season, a few newcomers made promising debuts in the competition. Ben Kantarovski, in the midst of a dismal season for the defending champions, showed composure beyond his years for the Jets. Tahj Minniecon, Michael Zullo and Mitch Nichols all shone at times for Queensland. Adelaide played host to a couple of energetic young fullbacks in Scott Jamieson and Daniel Mullen - particularly pleasing given the dearth of good Australian fullbacks at the moment. Even Michael Marrone, another young wide defender used by Aurelio Vidmar, showed some promise.

On the flipside, Robbie Kruse's personal demons and injury problems prevented him from carrying on after a bright 2007/08; Kaz Patafta remains a puzzle, enthralling the purists but failing to impress the coaches, while James Downey is yet to add sufficient technical prowess to his searing pace.

It was good to see some younger stars heading to relatively modest European destinations, where they are likely to get game time (even though Nathan Burns' move to AEK Athens has been something of a disaster). Mile Jedinak, Nikita Rukavytsya and perhaps James Holland and Bruce Djite will be in the national team reckoning before long (Jedinak, arguably, already is). The Asian drain? A pity, but not exactly unexpected given the "three plus one" rule now operating for the Asian Champions League. Australian players are valued for their strength and fighting qualities - and they are cheap. A potent mix for ambitious Asian clubs.

The Old Guard

With Kevin Muscat and Craig Moore making substantial contributions to their respective clubs' achievements this year, the grey brigade have shown that they are still a force, even if Steve Corica appears to be withering on the vine.

More surprising, and pleasing, was the fact that a couple of the older imports proved well worth the punt. Charlie Miller was outstanding for Queensland, podgy figure notwithstanding, while Eugene Dadi provided fine support for the exuberant Nikita Rukavytsya out west, where the Brazilian Amaral also put in some classy performances before his unfortunate injury. No Jardels, Deanes or Dragicevics this season.

The average age of the returning Socceroos (or, more broadly, Euro-based Australians) is gradually getting younger - Paul Reid, Dylan McAllister and Wayne Srhoj were all good additions to the A-League, and of course Jason Culina is a great get. With the expansion of the league and the importance of the lifestyle factors which apparently sold Culina, the trend is sure to continue.

The Football

Pim Verbeek has been filling in his time between engagements making plenty of enemies with his remarks on the A-League, but shorn of the shock factor, some of his comments are worth heeding. There is still a problem with the space between the three lines in the A-League, and long balls and telegraphed passes to marked men are still a groan-inducing feature of the competition. By comparison with "Version 3", however, more teams were prepared to throw men forward and take the game to their opposition this season. Good wing play was still at a premium (Queensland were the undisputed kings here), but this seems to be something of a worldwide trend.

The Referees

Srebre Delovski was generally very good, and young Chris Beath did well at times. The rest, sadly, were poor. There must be more serious repercussions for referees after unsatisfactory the moment, there appear to be none at all.

The Youth and the Women

Low-key, but a qualified success. Full marks to the ABC for coming to the party with coverage of the women's league, which predictably attracted poor crowds, but produced some engaging football at times (especially the impressive Queensland side).

The youth league didn't produce any fill-in superstars, although Brendan Gan, Rhyan Grant and Kofi Danning made decent contributions for Sydney FC (some cynics were quick to point out that Sydney's youth coach Steve O'Connor had, naturally, the first pick of the AIS players). It's a worthwhile initiative, even if perhaps the FFA should have gone for expansion in 2008/09 first.

Off the Pitch

On the marketing and PR front, there is still some work to be done. The generic nature of the clubs, which manifests itself in everything from the strips to the still dreadful club websites, has ceased to be a necessity and is stifling the growth of the individual club cultures, in my opinion.

There was little crowd trouble, thankfully. The Murdoch hecklers had very little to bite on in this regard, and concentrated instead on the "scandalous" use of public funds to underwrite Australia's 2018 World Cup bid. The contretemps between Newcastle's combustible chairman Con Constantine and some members of the Squadron late in the season was an embarrassment, but I don't think any long-term damage was done.

The Future

The first big plus of an expanded competition? More games. 21 is just too few, and although 27 doesn't sound that much more, it's a definite step in the right direction. Although they looked tired for a while, Adelaide United showed that a testing Asian Champions League campaign did not affect them unduly at the back-end of the season, and in the unlikely event that the Mariners or the Jets go on a similarly inspired run, they should be able to cope even with a slightly longer A-League season.

Then there's the novelty factor, the gestation of new rivalries, and the re-appearance of Miron Bleiberg at press conferences...all likely to add some lustre. I only hope that the fatuous six-team finals series idea, which would make the competition a joke, will be quickly scrapped.

And when to go to 12? Two seasons with ten is surely the way to go, to see whether the much-discussed talent dilution really affects the standard of the league or not (I tend to think not, but plenty of knowledgeable football people of my acquaintance disagree).

What a wrap-up! Lots to consider indeed.

One general note about media is that by critically but respectfully analysing things like ref quality and the wisdom of FFA decisions, you actually help inspire excitement. The Orwellian screens of the FFA and the mainstream - which are so fucking transparent - far from helping the league 'from coming into disrepute' or some such bullshit, inspire nothing but yawns and disinterest, at least for this punter. Is it better to allow for a bit of critical 'disrepute', or to bore us shitless?

Thanks Mike. You're a legend.
Really good wrap-up mikey.

Along with the six-team finals idea, I hope the move to expand the season into August/July (rather than March and closer to the World Cup) doesn't eventuate. I'm excited to see what comes of an expanded league, but as it is I haven't been very interested (even annoyed by it) for awhile. Aside from the football, some better organisation would make the competition a less frustrating experience again.
you know what really bugs me about the refs? I brought up the standard of refs continually online between the NSL and the A-League and everyone told me there was more important things to worry about.

Now that they are fucking up all the time it's an issue.

Well, they were fucking up in the NSL, they were fucking up in the NSWPl so of course they're going to fuck up in the A-League!
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