Opinion

A-League's 'avalanche' of problems steering towards NSL fate

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I still remember my first A-League game like it was yesterday. It was a bitterly cold night in August, 2005 and together with my family, we journeyed from Canberra to Newcastle to support my brother Ned as the Richard Money-led Jets hosted Adelaide United in the inaugural season’s first-ever match.

Over 13,000 fans piled through the gates to take their pride of place at what was then known as Energy Australia Stadium, where there was an element of surrealism in the atmosphere.

The Jets lost 1-0 that night thanks to a Carl Veart strike in the 19th minute but the results of that round weren’t leading the headlines -  after a 12 month hiatus, the beautiful game had made its sensational comeback and so too had the fans’ mercurial inamorato for Australian football.  

Merely a year prior, the National Soccer League suffered through its tragic demise and depending on who you speak to, the nostalgic attachment to that particular era is still palpable today.  

From witnessing a young Mark Viduka’s spellbinding talent to watching Perth Glory striker Bobby Despotovski infamously gave the three finger salute to Melbourne Knights fans - moments like these were etched into domestic folklore and represented a level of storytelling that transcended the pitch and rival codes.

Through its people, the NSL managed to transmit the very soul of who Australian’s were - a passionate and diverse mix of immigrants who with them, brought their infectious penchant for food, family and of course, the beautiful game.    

Romanticism aside, the league wasn’t without its issues but it produced an inordinate amount of wildly talented characters who would go on to carve out hugely successful careers abroad.  

They were our pride and joy; our “golden generation” and still to this day, the NSL diaspora will preach that we haven’t been able to produce a similar ilk of talent since.  

When the A-League was proposed, it was off the back of Frank Lowy’s announcement in October 2003 that a task force had been assembled to develop a new national competition.  

What was trumpeted then, is still very much apart of the customary suit and tie rhetoric now - we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and are setting out to make things right.  

At the time, there was a genuine sense of optimism from a variety of stakeholders because the bells and whistles sounded in all the places you would expect from a professional league.  

There was an official broadcaster, a major sponsor and lure of Australian football royalty, and the likes of Dwight Yorke to Sydney FC upheld the governing body’s promissory note that a new age was on the horizon.  

A statement of intent had been made and by all accounts the first season of the A-League was championed as a success with even the highly skeptical being forced to stand up and take notice.  

Though, sadly for many, their unfettered attachment to the clubs that preserved and celebrated their foreign identities saw them accuse the status quo of being “soulless”.  

Not even geography or titles were enough to lure this displaced cohort because to them, football was more than just about winning trophies.  

They had been shown the ultimate disrespect when they were told to become more “inclusive” because the irony was, one of the only ways they felt included in this foreign land was through their football clubs, which to them, had now been decimated by their faceless foes perched atop their ivory tower.   

This belief gave birth to the “old soccer versus new soccer” war which still rages on today.   

Depending on which side of the battle lines you sit, one seemingly shared belief is that 15 years on from the A-League’s inception, the league has begun to suffer from a fate eerily similar to that of its dead and buried predecessor. 

The competition’s rap sheet is a long and painful read.  

The unsavoury treatment of fans, inadequate free-to-air access for the public, unsuitable stadia, exorbitant ticket prices, the strangulation of active support, competing in summer, the failure to capitalise on the popularity at the grassroots level and poor leadership at the governance level are the leading perpetrators. 

The failed expansion attempts in North Queensland and the Gold Coast were ill-advised laboratory experiments that should never have gone ahead.  

Worse yet, the lack of strategic enterprise around expanding the competition from the time the league was established has fuelled the mess we are in today.  

We’ve witnessed the Lowy family dynasty rise and subsequently fall, and with the changing of the guard have come a new set of promises, actions and problems.  

The expansion announcement in December 2018 gave a semblance of hope to the football populous but it was subsequently dashed after the dramatic sacking of Alen Stajcic, which, rightly or wrongly, was handled terribly; both internally and publicly.  

However, it goes without saying that the new board have attempted to make inroads. 

They announced in March last year that the existing National Club Identity Policy would finally be replaced with a new Diversity and Inclusion Policy, revealed that a New Leagues Working Group had been formed to give autonomy to the A-League owners and that a National Second Division Steering Committee had been forged.  

There are justifiably shared concerns amongst the community that the switch to an independent A-League have proposed a new set of problems.  

It’s precisely what Steven Lowy was eluding to in his final press conference in August 2018 when he told us he would not be running for re-election and to “be careful what you wish for.” 

Whilst the official changeover is yet to occur and won’t for sometime, the fact that the owners couldn’t agree on something as simple as a marketing campaign for this season is worrying beyond measure.  

Although Steven Lowy’s legacy at the FFA was left somewhat besmirched, he understood what was coming and although it may taste like poison to some, admitting that he may have been right isn’t all that absurd.  

Respectfully, David Gallop’s role as CEO attracted less than desirable opinions for the duration of his tenure but now, James Johnson has been given an opportunity and a clean slate to enact the change we all want to see in the game.   

With a sip of rationality, we can all agree that some positive baby steps have been made but for now they are still just words and the far scarier proposition is whether or not the damage has already been done. 

It begs the question: what will it take for the fans to come back? 

When the expansion announcement was made in 2018, it was welcomed by an increasingly disgruntled football populous, but after three short months, Western United’s admission into the league hasn’t delivered the injection of life many of us were hoping for.   

The reality is, we cannot expand our way out of trouble.  

While our derbies continue to be the competition’s major selling point, the remaining fixtures suffer and without promotion/relegation or an Alessandro Del Piero to prop up the league, the game has well and truly reached a point of stagnation.  

It would not be unreasonable to assert that Australian football’s reputation continues to take a dive and its beginning to show through crowd attendances, television ratings and the news that sponsors like Aldi and Caltex have abandoned their financial ties with FFA

Back in 2016, FFA announced the unprecedented six year, $346 million dollar deal it struck with broadcaster Fox Sports who have provided economic stability to the league from day one with little reward. 

Will they continue to provide said support once the deal expires or will they too, walk away? 

These issues, in addition to an avalanche of others are all problems the owners, FFA and the game in this country continue to face and should they remain unchanged, I fear our future is destined for the same fate no different to that of the NSL. 

With the way the game has been treated, it surely looks that way and instead of being labelled a pessimist by the powers-that-be, at what point does this view become that of a realist?