Tuesday, August 31, 2010


We Could Be Heroes - update #10

The football e-zine Half-Time Heroes has reached its first anniversary, and in the August edition the usual suspects (including your friendly neighbourhood tragic) pick over the opening weeks of the A-League, the appointment of Holger Osieck, and the continuing fallout from the World Cup. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Ten Men and a Left Foot

Blacktown City won the NSW Premier League grand final 1-0 over Bonnyrigg this afternoon in a game that promised much in the first half-hour, but deteriorated thereafter. It was fitting, however, that Tolgay Ozbey managed to crown his excellent season with the winning penalty, even if he had a somewhat indifferent afternoon.

What struck me particularly about the game was that although Blacktown scored their goal only eleven minutes from the end of normal time, and were playing against ten men for the remainder of the game, they went awfully close to conceding an equaliser on no fewer than four occasions. And that was due to one thing and one thing only: the left foot of Daniel Severino.

Severino remains one of the great enigmas of Australian football. His set-piece delivery is, quite simply, the best in the country. No-one in the A-League comes remotely close to his incredible accuracy, and indeed there would be few players at any level of the game who would produce better service from free kicks and corners (especially from the right wing). In the closing minutes of this afternoon's game, he swung in a series of pinpoint corners and free kicks; four of them met a Bonnyrigg head, four times the ball flew tantalisingly wide of goal.

Yet, for all Severino's dead-ball mastery, there is a running joke in the NSWPL that when you play Bonnyrigg, you play against ten men. And this is because Severino is legendarily ineffective from free play; he offers no pace, little effective movement, and his idea of a pass tends to be a thirty-yard dink in the general direction of the forward line. His right foot, as the saying goes, is used chiefly for standing on.

The fact remains, though, that Bonnyrigg would hardly have been in a position to contest the grand final were it not for Severino's contributions during the season. He has scored a few goals directly from free kicks, but his specialty is the dipping, inswinging corner or free kick from the right, which frequently causes chaos in opposition penalty areas.

It got me thinking: should one be able to get away with being such a specialist in football? In baseball, there are the gun pitchers who need designated hitters to bat for them; in cricket, a player can be a hopeless fieldsman and a dunce with the bat if he can spin his side to victory on a regular basis.

But football? Goalkeepers are specialists, of course, but otherwise footballers are always expected to be adaptable these days. Can a team really afford to carry a player simply in the hope of nicking a scrappy set-piece goal?

I don't pretend to have an answer, but Daniel Severino's continuing presence in the Bonnyrigg first team is, if nothing else, another testament to the vital importance of set-pieces in football, however much the purists decry them.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Five Blind Mice

An incident in Thursday morning's Champions League playoff tie between Tottenham and Young Boys of Berne perfectly illustrated the utter fatuity of UEFA's "five officials" experiment, which has been extended to their premier club competition this year.

Ten eyes are better than six, the argument goes, especially when deciding on contentious decisions in and around the box...especially the dreaded "did it cross the line?" cases. Such cases, however, occur maybe once in every five or six hours of football, if that. Infinitely more common are instances of disputed offside, possible handball and the like. The extra two officials are completely useless in such situtations, as Tottenham's second "goal" demonstrated all too clearly.

Half the stadium would have seen Jermain Defoe control the ball with his hand before firing Spurs into a 2-0 lead. The referee and his assistants, however, belogned to the other half. No-one saw nuthin', and the goal was allowed to stand.

To make, for the umpteenth time on this blog, the screamingly obvious point: were the officials to be granted access to video technology, a ten-second referral to an official in the stands would be quite sufficient to judge the legality or otherwise of such a goal. A drag on the pace of the game, Messrs. Platini, Blatter et al.? Look at the endless petulant ranting at the referee after a controversial goal (or a disallowed goal), the time it takes the ref to re-establish order, and then tell me that video referrals would waste time.

The five-official experiment is a ludicrously ill-conceived ploy to prevent what must surely, in the wake of the Lampard/Tevez controversies at the World Cup, come to pass: the gradual introduction of technological assistance for football referees. Only twenty-five years too late.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Demon Days - update

All good things must come to an end, of course, and this year's NSW Premier League comes to an end this Sunday at Parramatta Stadium, with the Bonnyrigg White Eagles facing Blacktown City in the grand final.

Blacktown's recovery this season from their grim 2008 and 2009 campaigns has been very impressive, and much of the credit must go, once again, to Aytek Genc. The irascible former Socceroo, who had a brief spell in the assistant's chair at Sydney FC and an utterly disastrous period as manager of Sydney Olympic, has reached three NSWPL grand finals in his last three years with Blacktown, without any real star players at his disposal.

Tolgay Ozbey, another to have sampled the unique joys of life at Belmore, has looked a far more complete player this season. He has scored plenty of goals, as expected, but his all-round play appears to have improved considerably; no longer requiring six touches of the ball to make an impact, he seems much better primed for the professional game now.

There have been other discoveries at Blacktown, not least the surprisingly prolific and effective young winger Joel Chianese, and Bernie Ibini, whose fine touch and prodigious vision make him one to watch. Old stagers like Kain Rastall, Mirko Jurilj and Ante Deur have played their part as well, providing some solidity that was lacking in Blacktown's callow performances last term.

Bonnyrigg, for their part, were always expected to reach the final this season. The murmurings about their summer spending spree became ever louder as they continued to acquire some prize pickings as the season progressed; Nathan Elasi and Chris Tadrosse, two players with A-League experience, were among those who headed for the Serbian Centre in the midst of the campaign.

But a team of stars does not automatically equal a successful team, and ex-Sutherland boss Brian Brown did well to make the group mesh after an awkward beginning. Brad Boardman, a real leader of the line, formed a good partnership with Elasi towards the back end of the season, while the left foot of Daniel Severino could always be relied upon to cause problems at free kicks and corners.

Jamie McMaster and Shane Webb, among others, offered grit and penetration from midfield, and although the defence had some shaky moments (largely thanks to a significant weak link in Paul Cotte), they managed to keep the goals against tally down, even after the stomach-churning mid-season injury to first-choice keeper Phil Zabaks. And Bonnyrigg had a breakthrough youngster as well, in the lively left-winger David Gullo.

Blacktown thumped Bonnyrigg 4-0 in the second week of the finals series only two weeks ago, and that result above all else should give Genc's side the psychological edge going into the match. It could be the game in which Ozbey finally produces a five-star performance in a prestige encounter: probably the player of the season, he has the pace and audacity to trouble Bonnyrigg's less-than-formidable defence. But in 2006, he was expected to do the same, and instead he was snuffed out with little trouble, Luka Glavas making all the headlines at the other end.

Come one, come all. Parramatta Stadium (a much better choice for the showpiece than distant CUA Stadium, incidentally), 3 p.m. on Sunday. It should be a beauty.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Harry's Hypocrisy

A week is a long time in politics, and in football the same truism applies. While TFT has been off on a very enjoyable skiing holiday for the last week, several European leagues have kicked off, the A-League has thrown up some surprising results, and the increasingly tedious Harry Kewell saga has gotten very nasty.

What strikes me particularly about the whole affair is the stunning hypocrisy of Messrs. Kewell and Mandic re the issue of anonymity. Rewind the clock a year or so, and you may recall an incendiary anonymous email sent to the Murdoch press, partly regarding their allegations against Tim Cahill. It became well-known in the days following its publication that the email emanated from Bernie Mandic, and hence, ultimately, from Kewell. Its timing was dreadful, its intentions selfish and its overtones of spite quite obvious.

For Kewell to lay into Robbie Slater (no innocent party himself, of course) for not revealing his source for an embarrassing set-to in South Africa rings dreadfully hollow with the earlier incident in mind. My own sources indicate that it did indeed happen, although revealing such information does little good to anyone.

The petty jealousies and settling of old scores among the Socceroo class of 1997 is frankly getting beyond a joke, and this above all is why I feel that Holger Osieck should make some wholesale changes to the Australian line-up without delay. That should probably include the omission of Kewell, whatever his form for Galatasaray. And this does not require some grand declaration of future shunning; he can simply not be picked.

The Kewell situation is somewhat similar to the ongoing controversy regarding David Beckham's future with the England team. The difference is that Beckham, whatever his enormous public profile, has usually conducted himself with a certain dignity and humility. One could not say the same about Kewell.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The Kaiser's Man

Holger Osieck it is, and all one can say is that there were plenty of worse choices for the Socceroo job.

Osieck does tick many of the boxes. He has certainly had a taste of both the football and the logistical problems in Asia, having guided the Urawa Red Diamonds to the Asian Champions League in 2007. His spell with Canada at the turn of the millennium was a qualified success. And perhaps most importantly of all, his period as youth supremo with Germany, though a long time in the past, coincided with a number of successful youth teams and the launching of the generation that won the 1990 World Cup (at which he was Franz Beckenbauer's assistant - more on that later).

Until we hear how much Osieck is being paid, it is difficult to say whether the FFA have gotten value for money. But in any event, the decision to sign Osieck to a long-term deal is a sensible one. The Asian Cup next year will be a trial period for a number of younger players, and it makes sense for the same man to guide those that have settled in through the rigours of World Cup qualification.

The biggest question mark over Osieck's appointment is surely the length of time he has been away from the dugout. Following his sacking at the hands of Urawa in 2008, he has spent his time in the comfortable, pressure-free environment of the FIFA Technical Study Group, a sort of mobile retirement home for coaches who are sick of the stress and criticism that comes with the territory. Having said that, TSG junketeers emerging from the cocoon are probably better suited to a national team job than a club one.

In an interesting sense, the appointment of Osieck could be seen as another subtle piece of politicking by the FFA in the long-running battle for 2022. Osieck is a close friend of Franz Beckenbauer, an influential member of the FIFA ExCo; Beckenbauer is a friend of Australia and has emitted plenty of positive noises about the 2022 World Cup bid. Osieck has apparently been appointed on Der Kaiser's recommendation; could it be that one of the motives behind the FFA's choice has been a chance to further butter up one of the key men in the race for 2022?

If so, smartly played.

Sunday, August 08, 2010


Momentary Lapse

Although last night's Sydney v. Melbourne encounter was hardly a classic, only coming to life after the hour, it certainly had a rousing finish. And the reasons for the sudden turn of events were interesting to consider.

Momentum and initiative are such important features in a football game, and a crucial part of a coach's skill is to discern just when the tide is turning against his team, and react accordingly. Last night, I felt that first Vitezslav Lavicka, then Ernie Merrick, missed the moment.

It looked for all the world, after Terry McFlynn's well-taken headed goal, that Sydney were headed for a smooth, relatively untroubled first-up win. But Merrick made a good substitution, replacing the ineffective Surat Sukha with Billy Celeski, and a subtle change occurred.

For one thing, Melbourne went to a back four, with Adrian Leijer switching to right-back. Not earth-shaking in itself. But Celeski joined Carlos Hernandez in the middle, allowing Tom Pondeljak to concentrate exclusively on the right flank, where Sydney are weakest. Mate Dugandzic, who had patrolled the right flank for much of the first period, was thus transformed into an out-and-out striker...and he responded to the show of confidence.

In the passage just following the hour, Lavicka failed to react, and Melbourne were allowed the run of the country. The first two Sydney goals can be put down to Pondeljak's domination of the right flank (Byun Sung-Hwan again showing that he needs to improve his positional play), but Melbourne were only allowed to exploit this because they were able to spread the ball around so easily. Well might Victory fans, seeing Dugandzic's sublime first touch just prior to the equaliser, think "Archie who?".

And so the game was turned on its head. But then Melbourne's temporary initiative died out, and as the minutes ticked down both Hernandez and Pondeljak began to look very tired. This time, Merrick was the one to take his eyes off the metaphorical ball.

Sydney's equaliser may have been a tad fortunate, given that the "foul" by Leijer on Mark Bridge seemed nonexistent, but it was not a surprise that they found a way through. Melbourne's increasing impotence in midfield had allowed Nick Carle (who found the going tough initially) to get into his stride, and the momentum shifted fully in Sydney's favour.

A coach's job is not just about shapes, formations, drills and set-piece preparation. The ability to read a game in real time, in my view, is what really separates the experts from the clipboard-holders.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


Version Six

It all starts tonight...not that you would know.

The first season featuring two teams from the one town (more on that later) has been overshadowed by the World Cup hangover, but some of the teams at least look capable of producing good football. The increasing move towards foreign coaches, with two new Dutchmen and a former Czech international among the coaching ranks, will make for some interesting comments however they fare.

Defending champions Sydney appear in reasonably good shape despite the loss of several players who provided the requisite quality to push them over the line last term - Steve Corica, Clint Bolton, Simon Colosimo, and, on his better days, John Aloisi. The chief worry for Vitezslav Lavicka must be the lack of an out-and-out striker to throw on when the chips are down; the combination of Nick Carle, Alex Brosque and Mark Bridge promises much, but there are few attacking options in reserve if these three run into a brick wall.

The "old" Melbourne side looks in pretty poor shape, with Archie Thompson out for a long time, Carlos Hernandez having "a season too far" written all over him and few other players looking likely to prove match-winners. The possibility of the A-League's most successful team being badly eclipsed by their new neighbours is a very real one.

And so to "new" Melbourne, otherwise known as pun central. The squad is incredibly strong by A-League standards, raising serious questions about how it was brought in under the salary cap. In terms of playing strength they should be favourites already, although, as we saw with the Gold Coast in 2009/10, things can take a while to click properly. Gerard Sibon, whom I remember leading the line fairly convincingly for Sheffield Wednesday many moons ago, has been in good form in pre-season; whether he can sustain top form for a whole season at his age is another matter. In any event, there are plenty of others who can carry the attacking burden, and the first-choice defence is probably the best ever assembled in the A-League's history.

The two most far-flung teams, Wellington and Perth, should be able to consolidate the improvement they both made last season, with Wellington in particular looking a force to be reckoned with in 2010/11 with Paul Ifill still among the ranks. Oscar Cornejo is an interesting addition, and if Jade North can find some form in defence alongside the still underrated Andrew Durante, the Phoenix will be hard to breach. Robbie Fowler should notch a fair few goals for the Glory, but service might be thin on the ground, especially if the injuries mount. Already, it's hard to see who will perform the creative duties for David Mitchell's side.

The omens don't look good for Adelaide. The lingering bitterness of Phil Stubbins at being overlooked for the managerial hot seat might cause problems, and the backline looks dreadfully brittle without Mark Rudan. Nevertheless, Sergio van Dijk is an excellent addition in attack (the first good No.9 that Adelaide have possessed since Shengqing Qu, in fact), and Travis Dodd remains one of the most incisive players in the competition.

Gold Coast United are a settled side by now, and if Shane Smeltz can put his bizarre Chinese embarrassment behind him and concentrate on bagging A-League goals once again, they should finish in the top four. The other new side of 2009/10, by comparison, might take quite a while to gel, after the massive changes forced on the club by having their financial rug spectacularly pulled out from under their feet.

Still in Queensland, but further south, Brisbane Roar will face the real test of their volte-face this season. Ange Postecoglou has rebuilt the side around youth, and although the losses of Tommy Oar, Michael Zullo, Liam Reddy and especially Sergio van Dijk will hurt, there is still plenty of young talent at the club. Kosta Barbarouses is a good acquisition, and Henrique is still getting better. Ultimately, though, they might not have the experience to survive a tense scrap for finals places.

That leaves the eternal rivals of the F3. Finally Graham Arnold gets to test himself in a club situation again after living off the fat of the FFA for many years, and it will be interesting to see how he copes under pressure; on recent form, the answer may be not very well. There have been some good additions, not least Oliver Bozanic, but Arnold may find it difficult to imbue the squad with a new mentality after the determined mediocrity of the last two years.

Newcastle began to look like real contenders towards the end of last season, and they should be able to carry on in the same vein in 2010/11, especially if the canny Michael Bridges stays fit and if Ali Abbas can keep improving. In Ben Kantarovski they have probably the best young player in the league, and his progress this season will be intriguing to watch.

Monday, August 02, 2010


Who Knew?

Although I share Phil Micallef's disappointment at the small turnout for the Sydney Festival of Football, a well-considered and well-organised event which deserves to be repeated next year, I think he is wrong to direct the blame at Sydney's fans, for a very simple reason. Many of them didn't know about the event until it was too late to make arrangements to attend it.

The promotion for the tourney was simply invisible. Several acquaintances of mine whom I would consider dedicated football fans, the sort who would pay good money to see even a pre-season tournament as long as it featured teams of reasonable quality (which it did), hadn't heard of the Sydney Festival of Football until about a week prior to the kickoff. Family people need a bit more notice than that.

Yes, the mainstream media is clearly taking an extended break from the game following the World Cup, with the NRL and AFL seasons reaching their respective climaxes. But was there really no way to make the public more aware of the first Euro-dominated pre-season tournament to be held on Australian shores for a very long time?

It is, unfortunately, the same story with the 2010/11 A-League. Yes, would you believe, it is starting in three days, and yet the publicity for the sixth instalment has been quite minimal. The FFA has been distracted by the World Cup and Asian Cup bids, the search for a new Socceroo manager (which has been predictably put on hold), and the continuing battle with the Fairfax media to limit the revelations about the activities of Messrs. Hargitay and Radmann, two gentlemen whose involvement with the World Cup bid constitutes, in my view, a serious error of judgement on the FFA's part.

Essentially, my feelings are the same as they were at the same juncture last year. The hosting of the Asian Cup, the possibility of landing the biggest fish of all in 2022, all of these are exciting ventures, but the health of the Australian game ultimately depends on that of the domestic league, and it has been short-changed again in the marketing department.

Of course, it still has its champions, one of whom protests too much. Seizing on a quote from a diplomatic visiting manager as evidence of improving standards shows either naivety or disingenuousness, and there is a revealing caveat later in the article:

Strangely enough, Australian players seem the hardest to convince.

Now I wonder why that could be.

Mike Cockerill's Fairfax colleague, Sebastian Hassett, relayed to the SFS press box some snippets from his interview with Nathan Burns during AEK Athens' visit down under. Believe me, they did not reflect well on the quality of coaching in the A-League compared with that overseas, even in the Greek second division. And please note, once again: that is the A-League, not Australian football in general.

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