Thursday, September 30, 2010


Action Reaction

Eight games into the season, and still a goose egg in the wins column for Sydney FC. Not a good look for the defending champions, to say the least.

Last night's game followed what has become something of a familiar pattern. Vitezslav Lavicka's side dominated play, scored a good goal, and then simply allowed the opposition to come back into the match. Not quite as starkly as they did on the weekend, when Gold Coast United could have scored three or four during a period of dominance leading up to John Curtis's red card, but the initiative of the game was once again allowed to change hands without hindrance.

At the moment, Lavicka gives the impression of a man resigned to circumstance, which is not a good sign. Plenty of explanations could be offered for Sydney's poor form (not least their lousy off-season recruitment), but this is not the end of the story. Difficult times need proactive methods, and Lavicka has been only reactive of late...if he has been active at all.

A perfect illustration of this has been his use of the bench in the previous two games. Against Miron Bleiberg's side, who looked for much of the first half as if they could play until Christmas and not score, something clearly needed to be done after the break; Gold Coast's midfield three were, embarrassingly, running rings around Sydney's four. The change came, but it was hardly a daring one: a virtual like-for-like switch (Hirofuni Moriyasu for the hapless Scott Jamieson) which, ultimately, made little difference to Sydney's play. Then, when the hosts went 11 v. 10, there was no real attempt to go for the throat, and no second switch until nine minutes from the end.

Last night, with a bench curiously made up of three defenders, Lavicka either failed to notice the shift in momentum that accompanied Jack Hingert's arrival, or underestimated it. Sure enough, with only another like-for-like switch for Sydney in the second period, Franz Straka's more adventurous strategy paid dividends. Yes, there was that Hurst-style shot from Terry McFlynn, and Alex Brosque's near-miss just earlier, both of which might have made the points safe, but to focus unduly on these chances would be to miss the point. Sydney's coach, so shrewd and proactive last season, appears to be losing faith in himself.

Friday, September 24, 2010


The Long Winter

I expect that everyone is more or less Conned out by now, so all I will add to the cacophony of commentary on the Newcastle situation is the observation that the Hunter's new knight in shining armour should be eyed with some due scepticism (hat tip to one of my e-friends for that link).

Instead, some thoughts on another piece of news which saw the light of day this week, but was largely buried under the weight of the Newcastle saga.

It's a major change, and the ramifications for the A-League are actually quite significant. The NSW Premier League, along with its Victorian counterpart, is the major feeder league for the A-League; the fact that it will now be conducted in tandem with the national competition will have a number of spin-offs. Firstly - and this is probably one of the factors behind the change - the Premier League clubs will no longer endure the intense frustration of losing their best young players to A-League squads (or youth squads) just as the NSWPL finals are kicking in. Such was the fate of Sydney United, for one, this year; Ante Tomic and Mirjan Pavlovic, two star performers, were whisked away just as the business end of the state league arrived.

Secondly, the phenomenon of younger players getting some extra practice in the state league when the A-League is in abeyance will disappear. A bit of a worry, since the A-League season is not really long enough (even now) for the talented teens to get the sort of competitive practice they need.

There are some advantages to alignment, of course, and one is that many of the existing anomalies of player contracts will be solved. A common state league gripe in recent years has been the "amateur" status of players in A-League youth squads, which has limited the revenue available to the NSWPL clubs. Now, at least, the lines will be clearly drawn; a player is either contracted to a state league club or on an A-League roster, without the contentious limbo-land of July and August which has been a feature of the last few years.

But the biggest concern is simply the gap between state league seasons, which will probably have a very negative impact on the NSWPL from a pure footballing point of view. Plenty of players got caught up in the hiatus between the end of the NSL and the beginning of the A-League, and the same is likely to happen at the next level down. Many players will no doubt make the jump to Asia or to competitions in other states, and the league is likely to suffer.

And...what of the fans? Winter has always been the natural time for the league, and the dwindling crowds at many clubs may be thinned out even further as punters who have other things to do in the summer are forced to make a choice.

One final thought. The following "principle", stated in the Football NSW announcement linked above:

The club relegated from the NSW Premier League will be required to participate in the NSW Super League season which immediately follows the conclusion of the NSW Premier League season.

...strikes me as utterly absurd and unworkable.

For the uninitiated, the Super League is the tacky name for the second tier competition in NSW. It will still take place in the winter.

How on earth can a promotion and relegation system work properly when seasons are out of alignment? How are clubs expected to manage their playing roster, ground rental, cash flow, and a million other issues, if they might be playing an extra twenty or so games at the conclusion of their normal season?

Monday, September 20, 2010


Sharing the Blame

The hand-wringing over the state of the A-League has reached the stage of repetitive strain injury over the last week, and it is sure to continue. The Newcastle Jets have secured a stay of execution, but no-one seems to know for how long. Another pathetic crowd turned out on the Gold Coast, where the FFA has yet to effectively counter Clive Palmer's turnstile lunacy. There is very little in the way of good news.

Mike Cockerill has been particularly prominent in the opinion-making over the last few weeks, and in his latest column he revisits the thorny issue of Pim Verbeek's relationship with the national competition.

There is no doubt that Verbeek's snooty derision did the A-League some damage, but Cockerill implicitly overstates the case in saying that the impact of Verbeek's criticism was "hard to measure". He does, however, have a point when he says:

Where was the FFA when they needed protection from Verbeek's damaging crusade?

See here, where I suggested much the same thing. One of the most infuriating of the FFA's current habits is their complete inability to critically examine anything that comes out of the mouths of their Dutch recruits, either in terms of motives or just plain veracity. No-one seemed to wake up to the simple fact that most of Verbeek's A-League trash talk was self-serving in the extreme.

What was more disappointing still was that certain pundits, for axe-to-grind reasons of their own, backed up Verbeek's self-exculpation. All of which makes Craig Foster's recent criticisms of the FFA in his Sun-Herald column seem belated and even a tad hypocritical, however valid.

Holger Osieck has so far made little more than motherhood statements in relation to the A-League, but he strikes most as being cut from a more polite cloth than Verbeek. Nevertheless, were he to offer any convenient criticism of the competition following an Asian tie in which he is forced to field mainly local troops, it is hard to see the FFA offering anything other than stony silence.

There are many contributing factors behind the A-League's woes, and Cockerill has managed to mention more or less all of them (save Frank Lowy) over the last few weeks. But I would like to think that Australian football fans are not fools; they know that the vast majority of the blame lies at the feet of the increasingly misguided FFA...and the man who still calls all the shots on College Street.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Back in Control

So Adelaide sit alone on top of the A-League ladder after six rounds, and few could argue that they don't deserve to be there.

A very controversial choice for the coaching job given the popularity of long-time assistant Phil Stubbins, Rini Coolen has done a fine job injecting some organisation and self-belief into a side which looked truly rudderless in 2009/10.

There have been several factors in their revival, and chief among them has been the presence of a real attacking focal point in Sergio van Dijk. The Reds have struggled to acquire such a forward ever since the departure of Shengqing Qu; Cristiano was always more of a second striker, Robbie Younis never settled at Hindmarsh, and Lloyd Owusu's name features prominently in the list of the worst-ever A-League imports.

The continuing good form of Matthew Leckie has also been a boon, although Coolen was right to state, at the press conference following last week's victory over Sydney, that the youngster still has to work on some aspects of his game if he is to have a successful crack at Europe. He can drift in and out of proceedings, and the habit of sticking too stubbornly to the touchline alights on him now and then.

Another impressive feature of Adelaide's performances this season, which has been notable in their last two outings, is their newfound ability to bring the game back under control after periods under the cosh. In the second half against Sydney, Stephan Keller's set-piece goal (and near-miss soon afterwards) were the high points of a Sydney revival, in which the hosts threatened Eugene Galekovic's goal on several occasions. In response, Adelaide refused to lose their heads; instead, they slowed down the pace of the game, and deliberately set out to blunt the Sydney initiative via a period of sustained possession. It worked superbly, and the fact that they barely threatened Sydney's goal during that spell hardly mattered: they had re-established their dominance.

Last night against Newcastle, the same story. The Jets were looking increasingly likely to break through around the hour mark: once again, the Reds simply began to work the ball around patiently, not looking for openings every time the ball reached the midfield, but rather aiming to take the wind out of the Jets' sails. Although the strategy did result in a bizarre goal for the visitors, Cassio trying a bit too hard to be elegant in possession at the back, the job was nearly done by that stage.

The last time Adelaide did this on a regular basis was way back in the first A-League which they won the premiership.

Friday, September 10, 2010


The Stalled Revolution

In a week which featured a battling friendly win for the Socceroos but little other football news of note, the raging debate over the health of the A-League has dominated the Australian football media. Everyone has had their say, with Archie Fraser venting his spleen at his former employers, various bloggers and commentators joining the fray, and finally Frank Lowy choosing to exculpate himself via Mike Cockerill.

The spur for all this, of course, was the revelation of the depth of Newcastle's financial troubles, but the rumbles of discontent have been building for some time. The phrase "taken their eye off the ball" has become common parlance with regard to the FFA's inaction, and the fact that the current A-League season has opened fairly brightly has added to the cries of woe.

Cockerill's faith in Lowy is frankly a little hard to share, for a number of reasons. For a start, it has become blindingly clear that for all Lowy's "club" history with Sydney City (and the nostalgia that surrounded his takeover of Sydney FC), at the moment his sole interest, football-wise, is that acquisition of the 2022 World Cup. This is still quite possible, incidentally, even if a few unconnected events seem to have pushed Australia down the pecking order in recent months.

The post-Crawford history of Australian football is quickly becoming a tale of renewed optimism and long-desired good management morphing into misguided appointments, skewed priorities and blithely tolerated pet projects of little long-term benefit. It has reached a point where if Australia does hit the jackpot in December, all will be well, but if we don't, the A-League will be on a precipice.

What Cockerill does not mention, understandably enough, is Lowy's own significant role in the downturn, which started with his takeover of Sydney FC in 2006. That, to my mind, was the beginning of the rot, and it's worth revisiting the situation in some detail, given the slightly hypocritical noises Lowy makes in Cockerill's article.

At the end of the first A-League season, it would not have been at all inappropriate to describe Sydney FC as the league's flagship. The crowds had been excellent (towards the end), the publicity generated by Dwight Yorke in particular had been welcome, and, most significantly of all, the relationship between the fans and the management of the club was enviably good.

The spending had been a little over the top, without doubt. But there were investors prepared to step into the breach (the very same investors who came into the picture prior to last season, in fact). Lowy, however, was determined to make himself another Sydney City, and indulged in a good deal of subterfuge in installing his son as a proxy owner.

Suddenly, a large proportion of the goodwill that had attended the Lowy takeover began to dissipate. The invaluable John O'Neill left (partly due to Lowy's blatant conflict of interest), Sydney FC became an administrative basketcase, and slowly but surely the A-League was starved of the promotion it desperately needed.

Publicity is not the whole picture, of course, and there is plenty that the clubs themselves could have done better over the last few years, both on and off the pitch. But Lowy, and the FFA in general, need to take a good look in the mirror before they implicitly lump much of the blame for the parlous state of the A-League on the clubs. The national association has given them scant support in recent times.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


Champions' Curse

Rarely, if ever, have Sydney FC been so badly outplayed at home as they were against Adelaide last night.

Sydney's midfield play was stilted and unfocused, their movement up front predictable and easily countered. Adelaide, by comparison, looked smooth, organised and dangerous, especially when the opportunity to play in Matthew Leckie on the right presented itself. Adelaide's newest young star looks set for Europe within a year or two, although his coach observed at the post-match presser that "a few details" needed to be sorted out before Leckie was ready for the next level.

There is no doubt that the hosts badly missed both Alex Brosque and Terry McFlynn, neither of whom are apparently certain to start (or even be on the bench) next week. But their dismal start to the season cannot be put down solely to a couple of significant injuries. The A-League champions' curse, which afflicted Melbourne so badly in 2007/08 and Newcastle the year after, seems to have alighted on the harbour club.

Sydney's championship hangover, in my view, has much to do with some mediocre off-season recruitment. Scott Jamieson has been stuck in third gear since his breakout season, and he has been poor for Sydney so far. The signing of Hirofuni Moriyasu remains a complete mystery to me: on the few occasions I saw him in action for APIA-Leichhardt, he was solid and intelligent in midfield but nothing more; certainly not a state league standout. To surrender one of your allotted overseas slots to a player who can offer little more than, say, Sam Munro or Neil Jablonski, makes little sense.

Lastly and most importantly, the failure to sign a proper centre-forward to replace the Melbourne-bound John Aloisi (not to mention Chris Payne) has really hurt. Without an alternate target-man it was very clear that Sydney were one injury away from trouble, and a "trouble period", as Vitezslav Lavicka dubbed it last night, has arrived. Bruno Cazarine's CV gives ample cause for concern - a journeyman is one thing, a frenzied club-hopper quite another - and Kofi Danning is no-one's idea of a central striker.

Whether the Bridge-Brosque partnership can stop the rot, and start gelling with the immensely talented but still unpredictable Nick Carle, will depend on Lavicka's ability to restore the side's self-belief after a miserable start to the campaign. He proved a shrewd operator in 2009/10, but never during that campaign were Sydney at such a low point as they are now.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Underage Overseas

Another timely and interesting article in this week's edition of Goal! Weekly, this time concerning the infamous Article 19 of FIFA's transfer regulations. The article has appeared online as well, on the website of Australia's de facto player union.

The article's author, James Johnson, is a former professional player and now a lawyer in the employ of the PFA. With that in mind, the sentiments that he expresses are understandable enough. However, sometimes it's difficult to work out which side of the issue he stands on, viz:

While it is noble for FIFA to try to protect minors, the practical operation of Article 19 is counterproductive to young Australian players by severely limiting their football development opportunities.

In the very next paragraph:

Professional Footballers Australia (“PFA”) research has showed that, as a general rule of thumb, it is in a player’s best interest to exhaust the Australian system before moving overseas as many international transfers can go wrong.

The problem with this whole issue is, of course, that it is such a fertile ground for both emotions and ambition. The story of the unjustly ignored youngster at the mercy of mediocre local coaches, cruelly prevented from furthering his development overseas, is familiar to any long-term follower of Australian football. One such story even found its way to a commercial current affairs program recently, in which the theme of youthful dreams being shattered (that is, parental dreams being shattered) was hammered home with all the subtlety of a Roger Milla goal celebration.

The reality, of course, is that in 99% of cases the child in question would indeed be better served by staying in Australia initially. The recent cases of Danny Vukovic and especially Shane Smeltz have shown how treacherous overseas transfers can be; if twentysomethings have trouble getting things right, how are teenagers to cope?

In my view, the effect of Article 19 (first introduced nearly a decade ago) has been almost uniformly positive. The horror stories of young South Americans left high and dry in Europe by nefarious agents have dried up, and starry-eyed youngsters in more affluent countries, including Australia, are less likely to be induced by the promises of glory on the part of fly-by-night "academies" with tenuous links to the clubs they purport to represent.

To deal with Johnson's main point: yes, it is a pity that youngsters from within the European Union have greater freedom of movement than Antipodeans. But the same is true in the senior game, when foreign player quotas have often made it hard for Australians without European ancestry to settle in Europe. The PFA seems to be tilting at windmills here.

Then there is the issue of whether certain players simply "can't learn any more" in Australia. At age 16, I simply don't believe this to be true. Our level of coaching may be well behind that of Europe, but the popular view that all Australian coaches are simply British-tinged hacks only interested in physical power and speed is, from what I've seen, a myth. Again, many commentators (not to mention ambitious parents) are inclined to confuse the A-League, in which they have seen physicality to the fore in recent years, with Australian football as a whole.

There are good coaches out there...and kids who are ambitious and open-minded enough will eventually find them.

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