Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Delayed Dozen - yet another update

It seems things are finally clear.

Although the whole process has made the FFA look both clumsy and devious, the ultimate decision to delay entry for a Western Sydney team is undoubtedly the correct one. 2010/11 will give the national body a chance to see how the two-teams-per-city dynamic will work in Melbourne, where the market is similar, though not exactly identical, to Sydney's.

11 teams next season, then, with the awkward bye. It remains to be seen whether this will have a further adverse effect on crowds (given that there will be greater gaps between home games at times); given the alarming drop-off already in 2009/10, the league could barely afford this.

Re the Western Sydney franchise, the key question of location remains. With a more gentle lead-in period, hopefully Ian Rowden and his crew will be made properly aware of the problems ANZ Stadium would entail.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Losing Their Griff

For the second successive week, the Newcastle Jets have been beaten by the odd goal in a game which they ostensibly dominated. For this viewer, there were echoes of an Olympic v. Parramatta game I watched in late 2000, with Branko Culina in charge of the former club: Olympic played all the attractive football, with Nick Carle and Greg Owens to the fore, but were undone by two typical striker's goals from the Power's experienced Scotsman Joe Miller.

There were even stronger echoes of the Jets' brief period under Nick Theodorakopoulos, at the beginning of the 2006/07 season. They won plenty of points for style, but few points on the competition table. There was no lack of elegant play in midfield, especially from the aforementioned Carle, but the final touch was lacking.

Last night, all the pleasing skills of Kaz Patafta, the quick feet and movement of Song Jin-Hyung, and the thoughtful promptings of Fabio Vignaroli went to waste in the final third. The former two worked themselves into shooting positions once or twice, but froze at the trigger. Ali Abbas produced a couple of bright moments and then lapsed into the background, although credit is due to David Mitchell for a canny tactical change which helped to nullify the tricky Iraqi: Scott Neville's fresh legs at right-back were just what Perth needed.

The sad truth is that the Jets are yet to recover from the loss of Joel Griffiths. Without him in 2007/08, not only would they never have won the competition, they would probably have failed to make the finals, so immense was his contribution. Significantly, Griffiths (like Shane Smeltz) is not the kind of striker who has to "rely" heavily on the midfield creating something for him; at A-League level, he was capable of crafting chances all on his own.

Newcastle's much-lauded midfield may look the part, but they haven't yet shown a real capacity to do what a matured Carle did so effectively in 2006/07; namely, to supply the forward line on a regular basis. Even Song Jin-Hyung, somewhat over-rated by many, offers genuinely incisive play only in patches.

Culina is targeting former Sydney FC (and Leeds United) striker Michael Bridges, who could indeed be an ideal man to make things click. Ironically, Bridges made his debut for Sydney in their first game following Culina's departure, a 3-2 win over the Mariners in late 2007. This time, Culina is no doubt hoping he can secure the services of the Englishman before he is booted from the dugout.

In the meantime, it would be heartening to see the likes of Patafta, Song et al. undergo the same subtle process of improvement that Nick Carle appeared to undergo during the A-League's second season: from uncorking a number of pretty moves to really making them count.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Mr. Ten Per Cent Right - update

Our old friend has never been averse to a bit of character assassination (all in the name of raising the standards of Australian football, of course). But this is quite inexcusable, even by his standards.

Once again: Branko Culina's comments about Vitezslav Lavicka were rude and ill-founded, but at least he had the grace to subsequently apologise.

Foster, by contrast, in a far less impassioned environment than a post-match presser, has chosen to systematically belittle a coach whom he and his colleagues lauded to the skies when it suited their agenda to do so.

(A small aside about that piece, incidentally. During that Urawa game, Foster - who was sitting a few rows in front of me that evening, in the company of Francis Awaritefe - appeared to be spending most of his time watching the magnificent choreography of the Urawa fans, rather than the game.)

True to form, Foster makes one good point in the midst of that deeply offensive diatribe; namely, that the appointment of Pierre Littbarski (and his successor in the Sydney FC dugout, for that matter) did not provide a fair reflection of the quality of foreign coaches, given that Littbarski had pedigree as a player rather than as a manager.

But that's pretty meagre consolation for the shameless denigration of Culina et al. elsewhere in that little quasi-interview.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Local Options

It's a pity that Branko Culina's undignified, self-serving comments at Sunday's press conference have served to obscure the fact that he does have a point. He developed that point somewhat truculently in his "clarification" today, pausing for a moment to offer Vitezslav Lavicka a well-deserved apology.

Those leading the "our coaches aren't good enough" bandwagon tend to ignore two important points: first, that at national team level, foreign recruits have been given the sort of logistical assistance that local incumbents only dream of. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it isn't always the best local candidates who snag the high-profile coaching jobs.

Culina mentions the case of Graham Arnold (probably referring to the Asian Cup debacle), but he could just as well have cited the current preparations of the Australian Under 20 side. Compare these to the slapdash schedules provided for Ange Postecoglou in the past, and it's clear that there is an issue here.

Foreign (well, Dutch) coaches within the national team setup are one thing, but let's consider the records of foreign bosses in the A-League for a moment. It doesn't make for pleasant reading; the various British cast-offs hired in the A-League's first season failed to make any impression, while Terry Butcher, a fine player but a mediocre coach, won few friends in Season 2.

Impressive attempts have been made to put a positive spin on Pierre Littbarski's earlier stewardship of Sydney FC, but fans with clear memories know very well that much of the football played by the A-League's inaugural champions was dismal. Several players were repeatedly played out of position, and the long ball reigned supreme for considerable periods.

I still feel that one of the problems with the appointments of both Littbarski and Butcher was that they were known primarily for their playing records, rather than their acumen in the dugout. Lavicka represents a refreshing change in this regard, although it's far too early to assess his contribution.

This fondness for past on-field stars brings us to the appointment of the locals in the A-League. Craig Foster and his ilk like to complain about the shunning of former Socceroos when it comes to coaching positions, but in reality such former internationals, often neophyte coaches, have been actively favoured in recent times.

Think Aurelio Vidmar. Think Graham Arnold, whose failures at Northern Spirit did little to diminish his standing in the eyes of some.

And more recently, think Paul Okon, who has clearly been earmarked for coaching stardom. I too believed that such a thoughtful, elegant player had the potential to be an excellent coach, but some of the details of his blink-and-you'd-miss-it period in charge of APIA-Leichhardt earlier this year have come to my ears, and believe me, they don't reflect at all well on the former Socceroo captain's ability to handle the pressures of coaching.

Once again: you don't have to have been a player on the very top rung to be a successful coach. There are plenty of decent coaches out there, but the A-League shows every sign of being a closed shop up to a point.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Mr. Ten Per Cent Right

Some years ago, I wrote on this blog with regard to the esteemed Craig Foster:

It remains an inordinate pity that many gullible readers consider Planet Foster a reality, and swallow the entire package, rather than sifting the thin grain of truth from the dross...

And this, sadly, remains the case. The most frustrating thing about Foster is that he often has a point...but that said point finds itself buried in a farrago of high-flown nonsense. Exhibit umpteen appeared in his weekly Sun-Herald piece today.

A director of football with experience in administration rather than on-field matters? Yes, it's far from ideal. But does Stefan Kamasz's gentle shove upstairs (let's call a spade a spade) really deserve such a laughably apocalyptic tirade?

Some more Foster classics:

Reading on, news that a new CEO was on the way from the Netherlands. Marvellous, get the leadership right and success will follow.

Since when does the Netherlands have a monopoly on sound football administration? The gentleman in question, incidentally, was in charge of a second division competition, something that has been largely hidden in the fine print. was a chance to make a statement and appoint a master, a professor of football, an encyclopedia of the game with credibility to drive the club's football soul.

Leaving aside the overtones of self-parody, it needs to be stressed once again that A-League clubs simply cannot afford such grandiose ideals as yet. By later comparing Sydney FC to the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, super-rich clubs with global brands (and, very importantly, full youth setups), Foster makes himself sound ridiculous. The comparison with Gary Cole is a far better and more pertinent one, and it could have safely been made without the paean to Jorge Valdano and Txiki Begiristain. And Foster reminds us:

...Not necessary to go abroad, plenty of former internationals with management expertise, or former national coaches with vast experience...

For the latter, read Les Scheinflug. As for the former...the hint is not too subtle. strategic ties with major clubs of the world after five years...

Because, of course, that Rangers connection did Northern Spirit so much good (not to mention a few other such experiments in Australian football's recent past).

Perhaps the most distasteful element of the article is the belittling of Kamasz due to his connection with the NSL. Foster, like many others, sees fit to tar all those involved in the administration of the old national league with the same facile brush; in my view, Kamasz's share of the blame for the NSL's failings is, well, minute.

But back to Sydney FC for a moment. They were slightly lucky against the Jets this afternoon, but Vitezslav Lavicka deserves credit for re-shaping the side successfully despite the various absences. For Newcastle, Ali Abbas made an excellent impression on debut; I felt that he sometimes disappeared from the action with Marconi, but a substitute role, where he can go full bore for half an hour, could suit his talents down to the ground.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Delayed Dozen - another update

Eh? What's this?!?

The messages coming out of College Street, via Mike Cockerill's keyboard, are increasingly confusing. Now there is to be a second Sydney franchise, only a week after it appeared the game was up?

The lack of detail concerning the apparently successful bid is disquieting. Who is the mystery investor? Will the FFA have to thin out its resources yet again to get the new club up and running? (Let's not forget, money was already forthcoming for the Canberra bid.)

And, perhaps most importantly, where will the team be based? I fervently hope (and I think most fans feel the same) that the FFA will see sense and choose either Parramatta Stadium or CUA Stadium in Penrith, but the cold fear remains that they would be tempted by the lure of ANZ...a huge, impressive stadium, but utterly unsuitable as an A-League venue, for reasons I've outlined before.

Elsewhere in Cockerill's piece, there is some "guest player" speculation with regard to Sydney FC; given the ineffectuality of Sydney's midfield in recent games I'm hardly surprised that they are considering such an option, but I wonder whether Cockerill had his tongue partly buried in his cheek when he wrote:

Sydney FC have had great success with two guest players in the past - former Japanese international Kazu Miura and Italian playmaker Benito Carbone.

I say no more.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The Champion Team

Congratulations to the Sutherland Sharks, 2009 NSW Premier League champions.

Their 4-1 victory over Marconi in this afternoon's grand final provided a perfect illustration of the old cliché that a champion team will always defeat a team of champions. Marconi's Ousmane Toure and Ali Abbas, among others, showed flashes of sublime individual skill. But all their intricate play went to waste in the final third, where the forwards Alex Canak and Erick Anabalon had miserable afternoons.

Sutherland, by comparison, were well-disciplined throughout, keeping their shape, fighting doggedly in defence, and ultimately showing far greater precision in front of goal.

It was significant that the men from the Shire triumphed despite a surprising attack of stage fright on the part of Panny Nikas, who had looked so dangerous in recent weeks. Sluggish and indecisive, the youngster looked unduly awed by the occasion, although a goal at the death will have done his confidence some good. But freezing up in such a high-profile game suggests that he still has to work on his temperament.

George Souris, the Sharks' indestructible veteran, had a fine captain's game at the heart of the defence, blunting several attacks and never losing his concentration. Other star performers for the victors were the tough midfielder Neil Jablonski and...Brad Boardman.

Boardman is a player who polarises opinion. To his detractors (fans of the ethnically-aligned NSWPL clubs, in the main), he is the archetype of the British-style target man, a player who "gets his way" by sheer brawn, and whose skills are virtually non-existent. To his admirers, he is a tireless worker in Sutherland's lone-striker system, who not only performs a thankless task with aplomb but scores goals...lots of them.

He certainly had the last laugh this afternoon. After Marconi had capped a long period of pressure by equalising in the 72nd minute, Sutherland could have been forgiven for dropping their heads for a while. It was Boardman who prevented that from happening, pouncing on a loose ball in the box and blasting it home at the second attempt. It was very much the goal of not just a striker, but a leader.

Boardman laid on the fourth, too, leaving two exhausted Marconi defenders for dead before prodding the ball back for Nikas to seal the win. As those who have regularly visited Seymour Shaw know, Boardman is capable of making goals as well.

In between, there was a gem of a goal, a signature piece from one of the most remarkable partnerships in Australian football. The near-telepathic combination of Jim Bakis and Michael Katz on the Sutherland right clicked once again, as the two sweetly exchanged passes twice, Bakis's final ball releasing Katz for a run along the by-line. Rather than cutting it back as he usually does, this time Katz scored himself, beating James Chronopoulos from the tightest of angles, Amarildo-style.

Finally, a word of congratulation for Robbie Stanton, who has done superbly in his first season as Sutherland coach, lifting the Tiger Turf Cup as well as the NSWPL trophy. And best wishes to one of the Sharks' most loyal fans, the affable Micky Brock. A long-time chronicler of Sutherland's exploits and an amiable companion in the Seymour Shaw media box, Micky suffered a heart attack recently and is still recovering in hospital, unfortunately missing his beloved side's finest moment since 1986. All the best for a full and speedy recovery.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Battle of the Sky Blues

The curtain comes down on the NSW Premier League season tomorrow, with the Sutherland Sharks contesting the grand final against Marconi at CUA Stadium in Penrith.

Before I move on to these two teams, mention must be made of the side which dominated the regular season and justly claimed the premiership. Sydney United were a team transformed this season, and Ante Milicic showed outstanding promise as a senior coach. As some have already observed, the real test might come for Milicic when he can no longer call on his own services as a player, but that is not to detract from his 2009 accomplishments. When they were cruising at 2-0 against Sutherland in the major semi-final, few would have predicted the stunning turnaround that sunk United in that game, and sapped their spirit for the following week's encounter with Marconi.

Although the two teams contesting the decider both take the field in a home strip of light blue, that is where the similarities end. Most of the Sutherland side is of Anglo-Celtic or Greek descent, and there have been few sweeping changes to the line-up over the last couple of years. Marconi, by contrast, are a truly multicultural outfit, unrecognisable from the team which faltered in the league in 2008.

Their two Ivorian youngsters, midfield schemer Vamana Diarra and exuberant winger Ousmane Toure, have added plenty of allure to the competition this season. Slightly less impressive has been the Iraqi refugee Ali Abbas Al-Hilfi, but he too has had his moments. Up front, the absence of the suspended Ben Vidaic on Sunday might not affect Marconi unduly, given the presence of the hard-working Alex Canak and Erick Anabalon, who has made some vital contributions in recent weeks.

Sutherland's season looked set for a grim end after a traumatic 4-3 home loss to Bankstown; Robbie Stanton's side had been 3-1 up with only fifteen minutes to play, and the young coach's impromptu press conference was riddled with expletives. To his and his side's great credit, they recovered well in the succeeding weeks, and their young attacking midfielder Panny Nikas has come on in leaps and bounds, creating and scoring goals with increasing regularity. His battle with Diarra and the canny Nahuel Arrarte on Sunday will be fascinating to watch.

On the Sutherland right, Jim Bakis and Michael Katz pose constant danger, and Marconi may need to reinforce this area somewhat. Conversely, on the other flank, Toure will be hard to stop at times.

Sutherland will be the sentimental favourites after their grand final loss last season, but the game should be a close one. The key man, in my view, is Arrarte. When he can impose himself on the midfield and run the show from there, Marconi usually win. On his off-days, the Bossley Park side can look a little callow and rudderless.

If you're in the area, come down and enjoy the show. I confidently predict that you'll see a better display of football than was provided in last night's execrable Adelaide v. Central Coast game.

Thursday, September 10, 2009



The FFA's expansion plans are looking ever more messy, and the quite justified grumbles from the nation's capital are becoming louder. It is quite clear by now that the bidding process was an elaborate charade.

Although the "boycott" mooted in the opening paragraph of this piece would be a petty and counter-productive reaction, Ben Buckley's comments about the turnout at the Central Coast v. Perth game are either disingenuous or naive:

''Having two clubs competing from regions other than Canberra [last Friday] is always going to be hard but I expected more. I think the game deserved more.''

Erm...this would be the same competition in which crowds of eight thousand or less have become a disturbingly common occurrence this season? To chide ACT fans for mustering a turnout of over five thousand for a "neutral" game on a freezing Canberra night, between two teams not noted for their entertainment value, is just nonsensical.

Eleven for next season, then? Byes are awkward, annoying things, but it seems that the FFA have resigned themselves to one. At least there will only be the one new franchise to keep a fatherly eye on. And an eleven-team competition would make a six-team finals series marginally less farcical.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


We Could Be Heroes - another update

Eamonn Flanagan and Con Stamocostas have been hard at work again, and the second edition of Half-Time Heroes is hot off the e-presses.

In this one, among other things, Tony Tannous reflects on some tactical highlights of A-League Version 5, Con himself previews the Young Socceroos' chances in the World U-20 tournament in Egypt, Shane Davis shatters some myths about "passing football", and yours truly has another grumble about refereeing standards in the A-League.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Golden Boy

Although the majority of the plaudits after last night's Gold Coast v. Sydney encounter will naturally go to Shane Smeltz, there was another Gold Coast player whose reputation will have been considerably enhanced. I refer to Zenon Caravella.

It's a pleasure to see such a positive, resourceful player back in the A-League, and Miron Bleiberg deserves credit for his canny recruitment of the former Sydney Olympic and New Zealand Knights midfielder.

Caravella was desperately unlucky to spend his first season in the A-League alongside a number of third-rate plodders from the English lower leagues, in a squad assembled without much imagination by John Adshead. As a result, Caravella's bright performances tended to be obscured by the Knights' poor results, and he spent the following winter with Sydney Olympic in the NSW state league...again, looking a notch above his team-mates, as my Well-Informed Covite friend regularly observed.

After a spell in Holland, he has been sensibly snapped up by the new franchise, and last night he ensured that his side made light of the absence of Jason Culina. In fact, with his darting runs, purposeful movement and neat skills, he made more of a contribution than Culina had the previous week against the Jets.

His companion in the three-quarter line, Robson, showed class in patches but was disappointingly static at other times. Caravella, by contrast, was always mobile, even if his passing wasn't always precise.

As for Culina himself, he was back in a defensive role in Seoul, and looked as insipid as ever in a Socceroo shirt. It was interesting to compare the midfield of Mile Jedinak and Luke Wilkshire, in action against Ireland, to the well-known Grella-Culina axis which operated again in Seoul. Such a comparison would not reflect kindly on the latter, to be honest.

Culina, in the green and gold, is yet to move beyond the square passes and occasional dinks to the wing which have been his trademarks in recent times. As for Grella, his propensity for giving away needless fouls is becoming a genuine worry.

Two incidents which summed up the problems of the Culina-Grella combination in the second half in Seoul: the Koreans' third goal, when Culina was a complete specator in the area while Park Chu-Young moved himself into position for a shot, and a moment some minutes earlier, when Grella nastily elbowed Lee Jung-Soo on the goal-line after a good chance for the Koreans (unnoticed by the referee, fortunately).

Thursday, September 03, 2009


Delayed Dozen - update

So the favoured Western Sydney bid has collapsed.

In all probability, this is good news for the A-League. It's surely inconceivable that the FFA will consider the nebulous bid fronted by a Socceroo captain who can't even find a club of his own at the moment; Canberra is the only realistic option if they are going to expand to twelve teams in 2010/11.

The further expansion has undoubtedly been precipitate. The market manoeuvres of the AFL on the one hand, and the blackmail of the Asian confederation on the other, have scared the national body into two jumps in two seasons, which would never have been considered in more "peaceful" times. The relief is that the high-risk insertion of two same-city franchises will not happen now, barring a bizarre turnaround.

And if they are still not prepared to accept Canberra, what's it to be for next season? 11 teams would be extremely awkward; there are very few national leagues with an odd number of sides.

The other, dreadful, possibility is the removal of Wellington as a sop to the Asian confederation, thereby keeping it at ten teams. The Kiwis would have a right to be mightily annoyed should this come to pass: the Phoenix have been competitive for the last two years, they have established a decent fanbase, and the continuing presence of a New Zealand side in the A-League has been an important gesture towards our near neighbours, who probably still feel a little aggrieved about Australia jumping ship for Asia in 2006.

Instead, the FFA should take the plunge and allow the Canberra bid its chance.

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