"The quality of players in the A-League is something that I think is very underrated by many people in Australia. While not at the level of the English Premier League or the Bundesliga just yet, the skill and the excitement is there every week."
The words of North Queensland Fury coach, Franz Straka epitomised the current school of thought prevalent in Australia at the moment. Numerous players, coaches and commentators have described the playing standards throughout the sixth edition of Australia’s A-League season as a new benchmark for the competition. Leading the way were Brisbane Roar who won the league by eight points, before claiming the championship on Sunday with victory in the championship decider.
Few would dispute the Roar’s claim to be crowned the league’s best having been undefeated at home and putting together a 28-match unbeaten streak. The lengthy run is the longest active unbeaten run and the Roar remain two matches clear of second-place Barcelona, who are yet to taste defeat in their last 26 La Liga outings. It is perhaps fitting then that Brisbane’s possession-based passing game saw them referred to as 'Roarcelona' by local media.
New league order
While new names took the spotlight it was big guns Melbourne Victory, and champions Sydney FC, that failed to fire with the latter missing the top-six finals. However the unpredictable nature of a league that operates under a salary cap has never been better exemplified than by the astonishing feat of last season’s bottom three teams – Brisbane Roar, Central Coast Mariners and Adelaide United – filling the top three spots on the ladder this term.
A late season run of wins saw the Victory reach the finals and finish fifth, however the club parted company with Ernie Merrick over the weekend, the league’s final remaining foundation coach. Sydney FC, the league’s other 2011 AFC Champions League representative, spent the entire season in the lower half of the ladder hampered by injuries notably to key goalscorer Alex Brosque and marquee signing Nick Carle.
Also missing out on the finals series were Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Heart, with the latter enjoying a solid first season in the competition. Coached by former Netherlands forward John Van’t Schip, the Heart had one of the most experienced rosters in the league including Australia’s 2010 FIFA World Cup™ defender Michael Beauchamp, plus veterans John Aloisi and Josip Skoko, both of whom retired at season’s end.
Trailing off at the bottom of the ladder were Perth Glory and bottom side North Queensland Fury. After making their maiden finals appearance last season, the Glory, coached by former Rangers stalwart Ian Ferguson, fell away badly notwithstanding a return of nine goals from Robbie Fowler. North Queensland, despite the fervour of coach Franz Straka, who played in the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ with Czechoslovakia, finished bottom. The club struggled all season under financial constraints and have been left out of next season’s competition.
The contribution of foreign players reached a new high, with erratic input of overseas players in previous years only underlining that fact. Winning the player of the year award was Argentinian attacking midfielder Marcos Flores who played a key role in Adelaide United’s resurgence. Flores edged Brisbane Roar duo, captain Matt McKay and German midfielder Thomas Broich, for the title. Also noteworthy, despite injury-plagued seasons were Melbourne Victory’s Coast Rican star Carlos Hernandez and the Mariners’ Argentine playmaker Patricio Perez.
Young local talent blossomed too with Mariners’ goalkeeper Mathew Ryan collecting the best young player award, as well as the Marston Medal for best player in the championship decider. Another Mathew, Adelaide’s Leckie, appeared a likely candidate to scoop the best young player award until a knee injury disrupted his campaign. The pacy Young Socceroo will now link up with Borussia Moenchengladbach, joining an increasing list of Australian players heading to Germany. Wellington Phoenix unearthed a starlet in Marco Rojas with the 19-year-old helping Ricki Herbert’s side into the play-offs for the second successive season.
With Gold Coast United eliminated in the penultimate week of the finals series, the scene was set for a battle of wits between two former national team coaches; Brisbane Roar’s Ange Postecoglou and Central Coast Mariners’ Graham Arnold. The former had led the Young Socceroos to three FIFA U-20 World Cups, while Arnold was at the helm when Australia competed at their maiden AFC Asian Cup in 2007.
A crowd of just over 50,000 - a domestic record attendance outside of Melbourne, saw the Roar score an astonishing comeback victory. Playing partly through torrential rain in a city recently devastated by flood, Brisbane somehow scored two goals in the final three minutes of extra time to secure a 2-2 draw. Erik Paartalu etched his name into the city’s sporting folklore with a headed equaliser in what proved the last touch of the match. Despite heroics from Ryan throughout 120 minutes the young keeper was unable to stop any of the penalties, while opposite number Michael Theoklitos blocked two as the Roar claimed a 4-2 shoot-out victory.