The A-League will reach its denouement this Sunday when Brisbane Roar host Central Coast Mariners in the championship decider, with a likely record crowd on hand. For many the sixth edition of the Australian league will be remembered in years to come as the season a budding competition blossomed. Numerous coaches and commentators have praised what they see as a significantly increased standard of play in what is still a fledgling competition in world terms.
A sure sign of the A-League’s footballing maturation was played out in the unlikely setting of Qatar in January. The performance of metronomic midfielder Matt McKay for Australia at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup was a kind of coming of age for the competition, with the Brisbane Roar captain not only making the step-up to the national team, but being the first A-League product to make a consistent contribution alongside a plethora of European-based players in the starting side.
Roar echoes around city
At the same time that the Socceroos were in Qatar, McKay’s home city of Brisbane was inundated with flood levels not seen in over a century. Even the Roar’s home stadium was devastated, with the playing surface disappearing under water nearly two metres deep. Now McKay and his team-mates - who finished at the top of the league ladder - have the opportunity to bring more joy to Brisbane fans. That achievement was a first for a Brisbane club despite the city being represented in nearly every season of the national league, in its various guises since 1977.
“Hopefully people can take some strength and also joy out of our success,” McKay told FIFA.com. “To see our fans happy and see us achieve something is wonderful for them and for the city of Brisbane, so we are seeking to give them even more happiness.”
Brisbane will start as warm favourites on the back on an undefeated run which now stretches over 27 matches; a current world record. The previously humble Brisbane club are in the heady company of Spanish giants Barcelona, no less, second with their current La Liga run of 25 matches. The Roar are also undefeated in all their home matches this season, helping them win the right to host Sunday’s season finale on their own turf. A full 14 years on from the city’s only previous national league championship, won by Brisbane Strikers in 1997, the Roar have the chance to write their own chapter in the sporting annals of the Queensland capital.
Born and bred in Brisbane, McKay recalls vividly watching as a 14-year-old when soon-to-be Socceroo coach Frank Farina led the Strikers to what has hitherto been a one-off achievement. “I was a season ticket holder the year we won it and was there for every single game that season,” said McKay. “I was at the grand final with my old man (father), brother and mother. I have great memories of sitting on the half-way line and seeing the trophy lifted.”
Domestic league’s shining light
Gold Coast United midfielder Jason Culina, possessor of a similar high-energy game to that of McKay, has been a permanent fixture in the Socceroo side for a number of years on the back of a highly successful career with Dutch Eredivisie giants PSV Eindhoven. McKay has never played in Europe, yet his performances were so impressive in Qatar that Australia coach Holger Osieck did the unthinkable by selecting the 28-year-old in place of Blackburn Rovers and Socceroo ever-present Brett Emerton for the semi-final against Uzbekistan.
The faith was repaid in spades with McKay remarkably providing an assist for three of the six goals against the Uzbeks, having already laid on the winner for Harry Kewell in the epic extra-time quarter-final victory over Iraq. “Going into the Asian Cup I didn’t expect to get as much game time as I did in Qatar,” says McKay, who commenced his international career in the same part of the world with the Young Socceroos at the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. “Obviously I hoped to get on the field but to start the last four matches of the tournament was incredible. I learned a lot from the other players but I feel I made a good contribution.
“As much as I may not want it to be the case, it has shown other players in the A-League that if you play well each week in winning sides you will get noticed," he added. "Full credit to (Australia coach) Holger (Osieck) that he goes out and watches A-League games and recognises if players are doing well. The standard of the A-League has improved dramatically. I have never played in Europe but it shows that selection is possible without it.”