The season the finals saved the A-League

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Whether or not you support having an A-League finals series, you simply cannot deny just how good the past two weeks have been in this oft-derided season.

Suddenly, from nowhere, the A-League feels exciting, vibrant and flooded with narratives worth following. It was totally organic – driven exclusively by the on-field product – and achieved without a cent of marketing. 

In my ideal world, we wouldn’t need an A-League finals series. We’d generate all the excitement we ever needed from the league, the FFA Cup, Asian Champions League and the frenzied clamour of promotion-relegation. 

However, for now, I’ve got to hold my hand up: this season, thank God for the finals. 

It’s the first time all season we have talked about the football – and only the football. No normalisation committees. No political leverage or power-hungry leviathans. No backroom deals; nor wheeling and dealing. Fighting for the next goal, not the next argument. 

And as much as political scandals and transfer deals draw clicks by the thousands, nothing can beat the goodness of the game's raw sunlight. It’s had an almost cleansing effect. 

Hats off to the players, coaches and you, the fan. The atmosphere at the A-League has been so very hollow this season but how loud were the crowds in Newcastle and Sydney on the weekend? 

Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory seemed eternally tethered to each other at finals time. Their gladiatorial slug-fests over the years have become annual events. You can set your watch to a Big Blue in the finals – and on it going to extra time. 

Credit to Sydney for their amazing season, for which they deserve great recognition. But what a colossal effort from Kevin Muscat and his men. The team that refused to die, with the most amazing 20-minute turnaround from Terry Antonis. Unsavory assistant coaching scenes aside, that moment is already enshrined in A-League history.

Speaking of A-League history, I can’t stop watching Riley McGree’s goal. It is the Australian sporting play of the year. Did he mean it? He certainly meant to make contact, which is good enough for me. The Internet is currently being hosed down after spontaneously catching fire. 

That goal virtually overshadowed the Jets’ comeback against the glamour boys from Melbourne City, which in itself was a sensational achievement. Not only would they win that match, but the expected trip to Sydney to face the Sky Blues rapidly morphed into the biggest match in the history of football in the Hunter Valley, the traditional cradle of the game in this country. 

Some were worried the A-League grand final wouldn’t sell out if played in Newcastle. Are you kidding me? The only grand final that sold out quicker was when somebody forget to book Etihad Stadium and we had to shoehorn Victory and Sydney into AAMI Park. 

The Hunter Valley is going to go bonkers, inside and outside the stadium. The atmosphere on Saturday night will be up there with the loudest of all time. Victory will bring a huge number of away fans and the hosts will be on their feet for 90 minutes. How wonderful that our sport can deliver such a blockbuster event to a regional centre. 

But if there’s one not-so-silver lining to this cloud, it is this. Why hasn’t this kind of football been played in the regular season? Why did half of the season feel it was 'on hold', just waiting for the finals? For any football purist, it was depressing few months. 

I often wonder if we could get all our knockout drama fix from a revamped FFA Cup – an event currently serviced magnificently by National Premier League clubs and dreadfully by A-League clubs. 

The advent of promotion-relegation, too, would provide even greater drama than a finals series ever could. And the finals’ spaghetti has totally destroyed the excitement over Asian Champions League qualification, devaluing what should be a huge achievement. Nobody seems to know exactly who finishes where and the ACL, naturally, becomes an afterthought. 

Indeed, before anyone shoots back “it’s Australia, mate”, I hear you. We are unique, but other sports don’t have the sudden-death cup and continental competitions, either. 

However, what isn’t in question is that the finals saved the A-League this year. Whether it’s the best solution – long-term – is an answer that’s still up for grabs.