Saturday, February 27, 2010


Coalface 2010

As the A-League lurches through its unbalanced, prolix six-team finals series, a competition with a far more sensible finals schedule kicks off in Sydney today. Yes, it's time for the NSW Premier League again.

The power balance seems to have shifted this year, with the Serbian-backed Bonnyrigg White Eagles making a none-too-subtle attempt to purchase the title. Brad Boardman, who led the line so forcefully and effectively for Sutherland during their 2009 triumph, has arrived at the Serbian Centre, as have several other highly-rated NSWPL regulars.

Bankstown City have provided two key players for the Bonnyrigg revolution in Shane Webb and Daniel Severino. Webb, who didn't quite make the most of his A-League stint with Newcastle, is an all-action left-back or midfielder who provides dynamism and grit in spades, along with neat skills. Severino is a tad over-rated in my opinion, but his left-footed free kicks are certainly a great asset.

David Zdrilic is now in the coaching hot-seat with Sydney United, following Ante Milicic's move to Melbourne. It will be very interesting to see how he fares; he cuts quite a thoughtful and insightful figure on SBS's analysis panel, and United certainly found a player/manager setup suitable in 2009. The squad at King Tom still looks good, with influential midfielder Pete Markovic apparently recovered from his recent injury problems.

Another new coach on the block is Pat Marando at Olympic. Long-suffering assistant to the string of high-profile coaches at Belmore over the past few years, the affable Marando knows the game and the NSWPL scene well, but how he copes with the legendarily prickly egos of the Olympic dressing-room is another matter. The squad has a few new faces, but none to really inspire.

Little change at Manly United, who will be grittily competitive again. Bankstown and champions Sutherland both have a familiar look as well; Sutherland may find it hard to cope with their two serious losses, namely Boardman and Panny Nikas, who has joined the Mariners (and should really have been given a chance by Lawrie McKinna towards the end of their disappointing season).

The interesting outsider this season is that fallen giant of the NSWPL, Blacktown City. After a truly grim couple of years following their 2007 title win, the club has been re-united with Aytek Genc, who had such success in the Blacktown dugout previously. Genc has re-acquired some of his most effective troops from that era, including bustling striker Luke Roodenburg and defensive lynchpin Mirko Jurilj. The Demons are not to be underestimated in 2010.

Bonnyrigg go into the season as clear favourites, but a good five or six others could challenge for the title this year. And a rising star to watch? Hard to say, but keep an eye on Sutherland's Blake Powell, who played with precocious maturity in the 2009 grand final.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Mr. Ten Per Cent Right - yet another update

More choice ranting from Mr. Foster in yesterday's Sun-Herald, with, as usual, a good point obscured by the facile blather.

The coach of the year award is little more than a professional popularity contest in any case. I personally would have given it to Vitezslav Lavicka, but the brief history of the A-League has shown how hard it is to carry on from a succesful season, especially when one loses a key player. Given Danny Allsopp's departure for the Gulf cash and Melbourne's lengthy injury list this term, Ernie Merrick's achievement in guiding Melbourne into the top two is worthy of respect.

But not for Foster. Apparently Lavicka "built a team around John Aloisi", which is something of a surprise for thousands of Sydney FC fans who were under the impression that the Brosque-Bridge partnership up front solidified into Lavicka's automatic first choice. And if he had possessed a "19-goal-a-season striker", he would apparently have won the league by 20 points. The mind boggles. Are the other coaches allowed their if onlys as well?

Branko Culina was apparently incapable of "interpreting" Lavicka's football when Sydney posted a lucky home win over the Jets early in the season. To an impartial observer it might have appeared that Sydney were poor that afternoon and Newcastle deserved a point, but clearly Stephan Keller's long balls were philosophically far superior to Iain Fyfe's.

But enough of that. Wherein lieth the 10% this time?

Well, it is certainly true that there is a dearth of ideas in the A-League; even the competition's most ardent defenders would find it hard to argue otherwise after three seasons of underwhelming football. But, as always, it is a mistake to equate "A-League coaches" with "Australian coaches".

Let us look at the coaching recruitment in the league this season. First coach down was Frank Farina, to be replaced by a Fox crony and former member of the national team setup. At the end of the season, Lawrie McKinna endured his long-anticipated kick upstairs. Into the hot seat came...a Fox crony and former member of the national team setup.

And what of the two new franchises? A former A-League coach, and an assistant at an A-League club (that in itself was a bit of an innovation).

In the dugout, the A-League is simply a closed shop, and it is partly this which has made it such a dreary spectacle in recent years, I feel. Such a mates' club (and coaching merry-go-round) is not unique in world football, of course, but the phenomenon of promotion and relegation at least ensures some new blood gets a look-in occasionally. In the A-League, it just doesn't happen.

If Foster and others hazarded a look below Australian football's top tier, they may just find coaches with progressive ideas, coherent philosophies, and the ability to read a game and make necessary changes in real time.

Friday, February 19, 2010


We Could Be Heroes - update #6

If it's half-time, there must be some heroes about. February's issue features, among other goodies, informative interviews with bloggers specialising in our three opening-round opponents in South Africa. Not to be missed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Inside Agents

A story on SBS's World Game program this Sunday which deserved a second look was the feature on the PFA's new Player Management Agency.

The story was quite partisan, of course (Craig Foster's PFA links are hardly a secret), but at least the other side, in the shape of the well-known agent Leo Karis, was given a hearing.

The question of possible conflicts of interest was brushed over fairly quickly, but it remains a concern. Would the PFA have a vested interest in keeping players in the A-League? There are certainly reasons to think so.

Having said that, there is no question than some players are jumping ship to Europe too early. Very few of the moves from the A-League in the last few years have been successful, and it's a sobering thought that hardly any Australian players under 26 are holding down first-team places at first division Euro clubs.

The instant-soup star status of youngsters in the A-League is partly responsible for the early leap to Europe, in my view. The likes of Mark Viduka, Brett Emerton and Scott Chipperfield proved their quality and resilience over several years in the national league before heading to the northern hemisphere, and found their feet with little trouble. By contrast, plenty of A-League hopefuls tagged as worldbeaters by a breathless media have foundered at the first hurdle.

Pim Verbeek's incessant belittling of the A-League has also played a role, but probably a minor one. If anything, the main result of his constant hinting has been to drive slightly older players into the arms of the Asian leagues - a move sideways rather than forwards, in my opinion.

I still feel that the FFA, as well as the PFA, has a role to play here. Some time ago I suggested engaging an advisor, not an agent as such, to offer impartial guidance to young players who might otherwise be dazzled by the blandishments of agents. Conflicts of interest would be possible here as well, but we wouldn't be talking Eddie Thomson-style shenanigans, merely disinterested advice.

At least the next time that a Nikita Rukavytsya or Nathan Burns goes out on loan to Last Chance FC after a period acquainting themselves with a European bench, we will know that one organisation is aware of the problem.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Rolling Back the Years

Sydney FC have won the premiership (there's nothing minor about it). Beating their eternal rivals. On a steamy, stormy afternoon. In front of a bumper crowd.

Those are the bare facts, but of course the significance is much greater. The whole occasion was, for the first time in four years, unequivocally joyful for the fans. It was a throwback to the A-League's first season...but this time, the crowds were not there to see Dwight Yorke. They were there because their city's team is finally playing consistently good football, and is a genuine contender for top honours once more.

It is a real tribute to the spirit and discipline instilled in the troops by Vitezslav Lavicka that Sydney did not fall to pieces with the departure of Corica. Instead, Karol Kisel, with plenty to play for, adapted excellently to the three-quarter role, and Brendan Gan played a diligent game on the right flank, contributing substantially in defence to make up for his predictable lack of attacking punch.

John Aloisi, for so long an underachiever, chose to produce his best-ever performance for the club when it really mattered. Dropping back just behind the front-line, to allow Alex Brosque to play off the last defender, he finally looked confident and composed. No petulant ranting at the referee from the marquee man this time, he simply got on with the job.

The football was not always a pleasure to behold, especially in the second half. But this game is about defence as much as attack, and Sydney kept their shape and their heads impressively as Melbourne began to come forward in numbers towards the close.

Carlos Hernandez? Lavicka wasn't going to alter his system in order to man-mark him. Instead, Sydney played pass-the-parcel with the stocky playmaker, double-teaming him whenever possible, and stifled him very effectively. Nik Mrdja? Apart from a couple of dangerous moments at the start and that deflected shot that hit the post in the second period, he did very little. I felt that starting him was a mistake on Ernie Merrick's part; he was clearly going to cop plenty from the fans, and Mrdja has been known to show some frailty in such situations.

In fact, Melbourne never looked comfortable with their makeshift system, and Tom Pondeljak and Grant Brebner were often to be found dwelling uncertainly on the ball in midfield, unaware of whose run to connect with. Sydney, by contrast, shuttled the ball through the midfield smoothly for the most part, even when their link-man was replaced.

Sydney FC are back in business, after the mismanagement and on-field mediocrity of the Lowy years. And it's no longer just about the Bling.

Friday, February 12, 2010


In Praise of Bimbi

In many ways, Steve Corica couldn't have timed his retirement better. Fairweather Sydney FC fans now have a twofold reason for turning up to the vital game on Sunday (not to mention the finals series); even those fans who drifted away from the fold after the 2005/06 campaign will remember who scored the winner in the inaugural grand final.

Of course, his spell with Sydney FC was only a small part of Corica's career, and it is a sure sign of his class that he so often looked the club's best player, even during his twilight years. His skill on the ball, his off-the-ball awareness and movement, and his ability to sense an opening were commodities possessed by few players indeed in the A-League.

Like so many others of his generation, perhaps the finest crop ever to come out of Australia, Corica suffered from some less-than-ideal club moves. In the early days at Marconi he was already earmarked as a star, and there were those who felt that he was worth a Socceroo shirt during the historic World Cup playoff against Argentina in 1993. The late Johnny Warren was among those pushing his claims.

Then a move to Europe at a young age, a strange departure from Leicester, five injury-plagued seasons with Wolves, and a demure retreat to Japan in his prime. It was during his time there that he rejoined his old Bossley Park comrade-in-arms, Paul Okon, for one of Australia's finest tournament performances ever: the 2001 Confederations Cup.

In hindsight, one can argue that some of the sides Australia faced at that event were well below full strength. But Australia too were missing Messrs. Kewell and Viduka, perhaps their two key players at the time, and they still managed to post victories over France, Brazil and Mexico.

Corica played the link role in Frank Farina's favoured 4-4-1-1 system, and in fact looked more effective there than Harry Kewell did in the eventual World Cup playoff with Uruguay. Showing creativity, adroitness and admirable industry, Corica was a solid contributor to a memorable Socceroo showing.

Sadly, he was barely to be seen in a Socceroo shirt thereafter. But Sydney FC provided a welcome breath of fresh air for "Bimbi", and he never flagged in his efforts for the club. Amidst the boardroom chaos, the procession of eccentric or second-rate coaches, the frequent personnel changes, Corica was always there, professionalism personified. He often ran out of energy towards the end of the season, but who could blame a man in his mid-thirties for that?

This season, in fact, he has stayed in better fettle towards the close than usual. Against Perth last weekend, the Corica of old shone through now and then: a twisting run through the midfield, or a ball sweetly laid off followed by a canny far-post run (how many other A-League players bother to keep on moving once they have completed a clever pass?).

In person, Corica has exuded a warmth and a common touch which has endeared him to the entire fanbase. Loyal, affable and dedicated, he can count on plenty of goodwill from the football fraternity in years to come...even if the inside word at Sydney FC is that he doesn't appear well-suited to an eventual senior coaching role.

Never mind. Youth development could be a fruitful area for Corica to devote himself to in the future, and I envy any young players under his tutelage.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Changing of the Coast Guard

So the expected has happened, and Graham Arnold steps into the chair vacated, voluntarily it seems, by the man who replaced him at Northern Spirit.

For all his team's staleness over the past year, Lawrie McKinna's contribution to the nascent A-League has been considerable, and worthy of great respect. He oversaw a memorable first year in Gosford, in which the Mariners reached every final on offer, and did a great deal to foster the family-friendly community ethos at Bluetongue. No other team in the A-League has a smaller population base to draw from, yet the Mariners have always attracted decent crowds.

On the football front, it is probably true that McKinna had become jaded, and that a change was necessary. Contrary to many glib opinions, the Mariners played excellent football in their first season, with Tom Pondeljak, Dean Heffernan, Michael Beauchamp, Andre Gumprecht and Danny Vukovic all outstanding. It seems strange to say it now, but the Mariners were probably the best footballing side in the league in 2005/06.

Their challenge petered out in 2006/07, when several other sides found a pleasing groove and the Mariners suffered from a long injury list. But 2007/08 saw McKinna and his team pick up a largely deserved Premiers' Plate, with Mile Jedinak dominant in midfield and Matt Simon somehow unstoppable up front despite his obvious technical deficiencies. The football wasn't always pretty, but few other sides that season did any better.

It was with the departure of Jedinak that the wheels began to fall off, and McKinna suddenly appeared unable to respond properly to the problems facing the team. The nadir was reached with the disastrous 2009 Asian Champions League campaign, in which the Mariners' surprising weakness at set-pieces was never remedied.

Sydney fans with long memories might recall that McKinna very nearly became Sydney FC manager prior to the 2006/07 season, instead of Terry Butcher. Would the club have been spared the various upheavals of the last few years had the affable Scotsman taken the reins?

So then: Arnold. He has certainly cut an unimpressive figure in recent times; his extended disappearance after the Olyroos' dismal campaign in China was undignified and unprofessional, and his tactics at the event bespoke a lack of ideas. In general, his spell in charge of the two national teams found him effective if somewhat unimaginative during the qualifying series, but out of his depth at the "main events". The 2007 Asian Cup featured some of the poorest Socceroo performances of recent times, although inadequate preparation was partly responsible for this.

At club level, Arnold's only gig was a similarly insipid one at Northern Spirit. His task in Gosford will be considerable; the squad is short on quality, morale appears low, and support among the fans might be grudging at first. We shall see.

Monday, February 08, 2010



And so it all comes down to next Sunday at the SFS for the premiers' plate. The A-League's apparatchiks, after a season of poor crowds, can afford a little grin of satisfaction...even if they must be cursing themselves for scheduling the game for Sydney rather than Melbourne!

The initiative for the encounter must be with the hosts, with both Kevin Muscat and Archie Thompson unavailable. True, Melbourne did well to shrug off the absence of the two in seeing off North Queensland, but Sydney at the SFS are a somewhat different proposition to a side featuring Beau Busch in the starting eleven.

Carlos Hernandez, undoubtedly the player of the season, is the key man. My mind goes back to the season's opening game, when the Mariners managed to crowd Hernandez out by compressing the midfield. Viteszlav Lavicka will be loath to tinker with his established first eleven, but would he be tempted to add Rhyan Grant to the mix, in order to stiffen the engine room? Stuart Musialik had an insipid game against Perth, and may not be up to policing Melbourne's talismanic playmaker on his own.

Musialik's indifferent form aside, there are problems for Sydney. The dramatic nature of yesterday's win served to disguise some worrying signs heading into the finals: Karol Kisel looks out of touch, while both of the fullbacks are still somewhat uncomfortable in their roles - not that Melbourne's strength is in the wide areas.

John Aloisi's two goals put some gloss on his performance, which was otherwise, as so often, blunt. Lastly, Steve Corica can hardly count on being given the run of the country as he was by the flaccid Perth midfield in the first half. He did, however, look more incisive than he usually does at this stage of the season.

Melbourne will miss Muscat's ability to initiate attacks from deep, and Thompson's trickery in and around the box. On the plus side, Marvin Angulo looks a good addition, and the defence still looks solid enough. The Mrdja signing? Plenty has been said about it elsewhere, but no-one seems to have mentioned what to me is the key point: whatever happened to the A-League's determination to have clubs dip into their youth ranks for injury replacements? That laudable commitment has quietly gone out the window.

Sunday's match will be a beauty. 2-1 to Sydney is my pick, in a repeat of a similar occasion four years ago.

Friday, February 05, 2010


Raison d'Etre

For all the occasional interest provided by Les Murray and recently Vitor Sobral as well, Tim Vickery remains by far my favourite scribe on SBS's World Game website. Never wedded to dogma, and always willing to question established beliefs about the game, he always produces writing worth perusing. His latest piece, an extended reflection on the value of football in a global context, is more ambitious than most.

Like anyone who has spent a great deal of their time devoted to such a basically pointless activity, I have had similar pangs myself at various times. And now, with hooligan behaviour still rife in Europe, wages at farcical levels in leagues such as the English Premiership, and John Terry recently showing just how bullet-proof the new generation of stars consider themselves, football's social impact and basic raison d'etre is worth considering.

There will always be those who claim that sport as a whole has no social value. For reasons that Vickery outlines in his article, the possibility of friendships that transcend race, class and culture tends to give the lie to this gloomy attitude. Albert Camus, a good footballer himself, was always at pains to point out the capacity of team sport for softening class distinctions.

And what of the anger on the terraces, the hatred which Zico refers to, the racism which is still central to the identity of many of the hooligan groups? Lamentable, deplorable, and all the other adjectives. But football is hardly the cause, merely the catalyst. And such catalysts change from era to era, with each new focus for group rage being slightly less horrifying than the last. Heysel? Consider this, and the matter comes into perspective.

Entertainment, in my view, is almost as basic a human need as food and shelter. For those unlikely to be moved by Verdi or Rembrandt, sport (and football is, for better or worse, the world's current favourite) is of inestimable value. For every Terry or Steven Gerrard caught disgracing themselves, for every shocking clash between rival fans, there are millions who have their lives temporarily brightened by a slick move, a brilliant goal, a stunning upset.

And then there is the point which Vickery comes back to at the end of his article: the basic camaraderie of social sport. In my years playing club football (and cricket, for that matter) I made friends with people of incredibly diverse backgrounds, and gained hundreds of small but fascinating insights into other cultures.

Similarly, whenever and wherever I've travelled, football has been a precious conversation-starter. It happened to be football because it is the world game, but the principle would apply to any sport, had it experienced the historical accidents that have pushed football to its present primacy. The need for entertainment is universal, and sport is the most universal of all forms of entertainment.

If you put Tim Vickery in the middle of Pyongyang and led him to the nearest party official, he would probably say "Pak Doo-Ik...1966". I guarantee that the Cold War would temporarily be forgotten.

That's the value of football.

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