The finale to the A-League season was an exceptional occasion for the game in Australia and yet another metaphor for its warp-speed growth, in a nation traditionally besotted with other sports. Recent years have seen the A-League make rapid strides on the field, but the off-field evolution has rarely been better illustrated than the interest levels for Sunday’s final.
Perennial nearly men Central Coast Mariners finally got their long-awaited reward as the league’s smallest club secured a deserved 2-0 win over its newest club, Western Sydney Wanderers. The Wanderers’ rapidly growing supporter base, combined with their remarkable table-topping finish to the league season, helped the A-League enjoy unprecedented interest levels among the populace and media alike. It is no mean feat in a city such as Sydney which boasts nearly 20 professional sporting teams. With crowds up at most clubs - along with TV, merchandise and social media platforms - one of the world’s newest leagues has enjoyed generational change in eight short years.
The season started with the focus on the three headline-grabbing imports; Japan icon Shinji Ono, England veteran Emile Heskey and most importantly 2006 FIFA World Cup™-winner Alessandro Del Piero. The appearance of Del Piero, not to mention the Italian’s on and off-field hunger to contribute, provided huge stimulus to the A-League and could prove to be a watershed moment for decades to come.
Del Piero’s presence gave massive impetus to Sydney FC and football in the harbour city, with the momentum well and truly maintained as the season progressed. Del Piero belied his 38 years to play with remarkable verve and passion, and the fabled Juventus star has inked a further one-year deal with the Sky Blues.
A typically melodramatic season for Sydney FC witnessed a change of coach and significant movement among the playing roster, although they still ultimately fell short of the play-offs, while Heskey’s Newcastle Jets also failed to reach that mark. For all the star power it was a handful of grizzled journeyman that made a pivotal difference at season’s end.
Battle-hardened Central Coast Mariners striker Daniel McBreen found a new lease on life, and at 35 somehow turned last year’s two-goal tally into a league-topping 19 this term. McBreen's fellow Mariners goalscorer in yesterday’s season decider was also an important contributor, being 38-year-old former Utrecht and NAC Breda defender Patrick Zwaanswijk. The man whose goal they breached was another veteran that played a key role in the season’s narrative; A-League goalkeeper of the year Ante Covic.
At the other end of the scale, New Zealand starlet Marco Rojas shone for Melbourne Victory and was the first player in Australia’s national league to collect both the player of the year, and the youth equivalent, since Mark Viduka in 1995. McBreen also secured the Marston medal for best player in the final. In many ways it was a nice piece of symbolism with Sydney-born Joe Marston – Australia’s pioneering and oldest living national team player – now calling the Central Coast home.
Newest oldest club
The Hollywood-esque rise of Western Sydney Wanderers led Football Federation Australia Chief Executive David Gallop to call it a story unlikely to be matched anywhere in world sport. Sydney’s sprawling suburbs had produced some of the nation’s biggest stars; Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer among them. With massive participation rates and latent support, the raw ingredients were in place for a professional team.
It was, however, the on-field success that truly astonished with coach Tony Popovic fielding just half a dozen contracted players in the club’s maiden trial match three months before the start of the season. Unlike some other franchise-style clubs this was an organically developed entity whose direction was born out of fan forums and support from the region’s grassroots base. There was also a nod to history with the Wanderers so named after one of the participants in an 1880 match – widely considered the first in Australia – that took place within touching distance of their Parramatta base.
The Wanderers failed to find the net until their fourth match, yet somehow they eventually built near-unstoppable momentum. The team’s blue collar work ethic resonated with the region’s fans, while three-time FIFA World Cup finalist Ono became an unlikely hero, invariably providing the team’s attacking flair.
A 13-match unbeaten streak was finally pricked by the Mariners in the decider. Graham Arnold’s men were overdue victors and were finally rewarded after featuring in three narrow championship decider defeats. The pair would have finished equal on points but for an against-the-odds winner from the Wanderers in the final regular season contest, such was the ongoing tight tussle between the two teams.
Coaches in the spotlight
The nation’s best supported club, Melbourne Victory, filled third spot under two-time championship-winning coach Ange Postecoglou. Having won the past two crowns with a fast-tempo possession-based style, the Victory, it seems, will only improve further. Similarly, Perth Glory benefitted from a change of style with national U-17 mentor Alistair Edwards taking the reins mid-season.
Coaching upheaval proved a familiar theme with five of the ten clubs ending the season with a different face in the dugout. Most notably, New Zealand national team coach Ricki Herbert departed after six years with Wellington Phoenix, while former Socceroo boss Frank Farina took the helm at Sydney FC. Significant too, was the fact that the nine Australian clubs had local coaches by season’s end for the first time ever.
Dig beneath the many layers of theatre and the raw statistics alone make happy reading for the game Down Under. There were record crowds for Sydney FC, Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory, while yesterday’s attendance was a new club record for Australia’s largest state, helping to achieve a league aggregate record. Television audiences were up nearly 20 per cent, while a host of other new benchmarks were achieved in a variety of areas.
The game’s growth perhaps best summed up by Socceroo captain Lucas Neill, who returned in the colours of Sydney FC, and who boasts a rare perspective after a decade and half overseas. “There is such a great atmosphere off the field, and such a great energy and buzz being created,” said Neill. “For so many years football has struggled to stake its claim and be on a level playing field with the other sports, and in many ways we are now leading the way.”