Just over two weeks into the 2020-21 A League season, the sky hasn’t fallen in, like the well behaved child, pleasingly VAR has been seen but not heard too much, the impoverished Newcastle Jets are still with us and Central Coast Mariners are on top of the table ! It has been a very interesting couple of weeks and on New Year’s Eve Twitter was awash with tweets from the A League alluding to a “game changing announcement”. This must be big news – Lionel Messi wanting to escape Covid 19 ravaged Europe has signed for Sydney FC ? A knighthood from the Queen for Rale Rasic?
No, nothing quite so earth shattering, just an announcement that the A League was being “unbundled” from Football Federation Australia (and I won’t use this term again as recently, I have been crushed by an abundance of unbundlement). Paul Lederer, the chair of the newly formed Australian Professional Leagues (“APL”) declared it “an historic moment for the future of football in Australia – for the fan, for the player, for the whole game.” Furthermore, Mr. Lederer asserted that this (historic moment) has generated a “euphoric feeling”. Well, I’m sorry Mr. Lederer but now a little over a week since the announcement, I have no symptoms of euphoria although maybe I should get tested as euphoria could be asymptomatic? The outcome of this separation of powers means that the A League and W League will be independent of Football Federation Australia but once again Australian football politics and the game’s administration was the story whereas the focus should truly be on the football.
Enough of the game’s administration and the “U” word, what the initial A League fixtures have shown is that Australian football can survive, though I won’t say prosper at this stage, without a glut of second rate, overseas Air BNB short stay footballers. There has always been a place for longer term quality imports in Australian football dating to English international Doug Holden in the 1950’s through Takis Loukanidis and Roberto Vieri in the former State Federations on to Thomas Broich and Milos Ninkovic in our modern game. The performances so far of four young Australian players have confirmed that given the opportunity and most importantly, an extended run in the first team, players such as Lachlan Rose, Calem Nieuwenhof, Dylan Wenzel-Halls and Ramy Najjarine have the potential to lift Australian premier club football out of threatening mediocrity.
In a first up victory over Western Sydney Wanderers, Rose, a product of the NSW NPL Division 2 sparkled effervescently in the Macarthur Bulls midfield. On A League debut, Nieuwenhof, previously unknown outside of Sydney FC circles, scored a cracking 25 metre goal, only to be eclipsed later by a superlative free kick from another local born player, the grossly underrated Luke Brattan. Dylan Wenzel-Halls, not as green as Rose or Nieuwenhof was also lively and showed rare skill setting up his second half goal for the Brisbane Roar against Melbourne Victory and complementing this with a calm finish. Najjarine too is an exciting talent whose services Melbourne City deemed surplus to their current requirements. Not yet 21, Najjarine is on loan to Newcastle Jets and is keen to show City Football Group why he has represented the national team at Under 17,20 and 23 levels.
Interestingly, a number of overseas based Australian footballers are now returning to, or are considering returning to Australia, maybe with a sense that money can’t buy you a love of football if you can’t get a regular game. The financial impact of Covid 19 and now the employment restrictions of Brexit on Australian players wanting to earn a living playing in the United Kingdom, will see even more Australian born or raised players looking to come home in the near future.
Former Socceroos captain Mark Milligan is back captaining Macarthur Bulls, Tom Juric has returned to spearhead Adelaide United and Mustafa Amini and Apostolos Giannou are also said to be in the airline ticket queue. Add to that the clubless Jackson Irvine and you get the sense that maybe the overseas grass is not turning out to be quite so green. Australian football can’t offer the attraction, financial or career wise of playing football in a major European league but surely playing at BankWest Stadium in a Sydney derby in front of 40,000 spectators (Covid 19 willing) has more appeal than playing for Pontefract Collieries against Brighouse in the English Northern Premier league (personally I would be concerned about playing against any team called Brighouse.)
What playing in Australia can offer is the proximity of family and friends, an agreeable climate and a familiar culture and language. For many players Australian club football should also be able to offer regular game time to help them win or cement a spot in the national team. Part of coach Graham Arnold’s dilemma has been the lack of consistent football for current and potential Socceroos. One would expect that returning incumbent and fringe national team players will become club regulars and that their consistent first team football in the A League, should not only improve the quality of the competition but simultaneously enhance the performance of the national team.
The A League in its’ current format is far from perfect. Promotion and relegation with the formation of a national second division can’t come quickly enough and a new TV broadcast deal is critical. Most importantly, there must be a united front with equal opportunities for all clubs thoughout Australia but I will leave these topics for others to debate. As it stands, post Covid 19 A League clubs will struggle to meet the wage demands of marquee players, let alone those on lower incomes. If however this means that clubs have to blood more Calem Nieuwenhofs, Lachlan Roses, Dylan Wenzel-Halls and Ramy Najjarines, is that necessarily a serious concern?
Ironically, Covid 19 may have delivered the A League an unexpected lifeline. Now is the time to dispose of the corporate speak, talk of ecosystems and stakeholders, the fanciful blueprints and let the players and the football matches do the talking. Then maybe I might start to experience Mr. Paul Lederer’s “euphoric feeling”.
David Jack ©2021