1 – Dislike: Police/security vs. A-League fans, episode 394879538721 (approx.)
Enough has been said and contested about Sunday night’s sorry off-field episode already, but it’s worth going back to this quote from A-League boss Greg O’Rourke in an FFA community summit tweet from just two weeks ago:
Whether or not the FFA can do much more to convince police to change how they respond to potential trouble at A-League games, let’s take it that the above is just how it has to be for a minute, because there remains the not insignificant matter of how security handles things at games before asking police to become involved.
And it’s here where the FFA do have more control. A-League games at Kogarah Oval have gone smoothly enough off the field this season but it was vastly different for the semi-final, a game that falls much more under the FFA’s control in terms of ticketing and logistics than the regular season. The lack of open gates, an unnecessary and largely senseless much stricter control of spectator access to facilities around the ground and a major increase in security amounted to an uneasy mess of a night, for no good reason. If the FFA are to take revenue from finals games instead of the clubs directly, it shouldn’t need pointing that they must in turn organise them properly.
When it comes to security, in a more ideal world, far more consultation with security firms and A-League venue management over time would have happened to help avoid incidents like this. But in this world, the FFA have been stupidly preoccupied with political power plays over the last few years. As is the case for a number of the game’s areas, much ground needs to be made up. Until then, fans suffer.
2 – Like: Another good value Victory-Nix game
With A-League teams playing each other three times in the regular season (and perhaps once more in the FFA Cup), there’s always the danger of bad repetition in yet another meeting in the finals and teams running out of good ideas against each other, making the final contest the worst one. Thankfully the opening finals game was the opposite, and this latest Melbourne Victory-Wellington Phoenix meeting was of the standard that should be expected in finals football.
Mark Rudan continued his aggressive pressing of Victory in their own half and making of much of the game’s play, willing to take the risk of leaving his backline with plenty of space to defend against Victory in transition (the type of thing that has destroyed the Nix in so many games away to Victory in previous years). It mostly worked for the first hour ‒ Michał Kopczyński got booked after being caught isolated against Kosta Barbarouses, while two Terry Antonis balls over the top to Ola Toivonen lead to decent chances ‒ but the approach was eventually punished as Kopczyński failed to fully intercept a Barbarouses through ball to Toivonen, whose beautifully chipped goal gave Victory their third goal to just about kill the game off.
One could see the core failure for Wellington here as their inability to capitalise on that first half effort and some Victory turnovers deep in their own half, with the starting absence of Sarpeet Singh arguably decreasing increase the odds of grabbing a vital opener. Conversely, Singh’s form had dropped off recently, Max Burgess had done some good things in his place and had it not been for two cheap turnovers by David Williams (and his subsequent foul) and Mandi that lead to Victory’s first two goals, the second half introduction of Singh against tiring legs could have been with the score still level. Additionally, Roy Krishna had a good enough chance to make it 2-2 after again being set up nicely by Singh, as happened for his first goal, but the Fijian failed to take advantage where he has so often this season.
What-ifs ‒ the story of all eliminated finals teams, but at least the Nix gave it a legitimate shot here (quite unlike, it must be said, Melbourne City two days later).
3 – Dislike: Wellington’s persistent inability to make a good season a consistent one
Another what-if that the Nix can come away from Melbourne ruing was playing away to a third-place Victory in the first week of the finals to begin with. A top four team in a number of tactical and strategic respects, fourth as late as round 24 and with fifth place still very much theirs for the taking going into the last round, their late season fade out brought back memories of 2009‒10 and 2014‒15, their two most impressive seasons to this point. One win in the first 10 games for the former ultimately left an enjoyable Paul Ifill-inspired team with too much to do from fourth place, while a run of four defeats in six dropped Ernie Merrick’s team from first place in round 23 to fourth and a tame week one exit to Melbourne City.
There remain a lot of major positives for Wellington this season ‒ Rudan’s coaching made them arguably the tactically progressive side the Nix have had to date, his man management was badly needed for a group that needed both hard truths and self-belief, and the general improvement was crucial at a time when the club’s existence and worth to the league is being (often unfairly) questioned by those across the Tasman. Even so, Rudan can’t escape criticism for his controversial and protracted resignation one year into a two-year deal he agreed to not long ago, and it’s hard not to think that the draining and frustrating manner of it played some role in the failure to kick on for a team that tactically often had the measure of the opposition.
4 – Like: Glory-Adelaide drama and flashbacks, and a more positive end for Kurz
The first 200 minutes of Adelaide’s finals campaign were largely a continuation of their attacking anaemia and simplicity ‒ that is, primarily, a heavy focus on crossing without doing much to drag opponents out of position and the glaring absence of someone resembling a top season-long A-League striker. There was Ben Halloran’s winner deep into extra-time against Melbourne City and some bright what-if attacking moments of their own early in Perth, but generally, going into the last 10 minutes of this semi-final, it looked a sure bet that the lingering feeling from the end of Marco Kurz’s tenure was one of offensive ineptitude and frustration. And it would have been deserved at that.
Then it suddenly and completely turned. Perth Glory, with only 23 goals conceded in 27 games (and the presence of Matthew Spiranovic, with whom they had only conceded six in 13 games), did their best to prove that the Glory’s NSL days were indeed back…but from the second half of the 2000 Grand Final. Where Wollongong incredibly scored three in 34 minutes before taking that game to penalties, Adelaide did so in 38 minutes (accounting for stoppage time). To take the parallels to particularly eerie levels, the shootout went well past the normal five attempts for each team and Perth twice failed to convert match-winning attempts past that point, just as they did in 2000. This time, thankfully for the faithful in purple, Adelaide wilted before them and Liam Reddy pulled off more saves than Jason Petkovic could then.
Nevertheless, this was a dramatic difference in feeling to the end of the season Adelaide were on course for not long before. As this season has gone on, another parallel with the past has increasingly firmed in my mind, this time between Adelaide under Kurz and Adelaide under Josep Gombau. The latter finished sixth in Gombau’s first season before a week one finals exit, won the FFA Cup at Hindmarsh Stadium later that year and finished third in the second season before a week two finals exit away from home. The former finished fifth in Kurz’s first season before a week one finals exit, won the FFA Cup at Hindmarsh later that year and finished fourth in the second season before a week two finals exit away from home.
There are two main differences here. One going against Kurz has been the football, with considerably less to it in both attraction and breaking down defensive opposition than that under Gombau. But the other has been how this Adelaide has actually gone out of the finals. After throwing away great opportunities late in the 2013‒14 season to finish top four, Gombau’s Adelaide meekly lost to Central Coast in the finals and were second best by a long way in a 4-1 loss to Sydney FC in the following year’s finals. Kurz’s Adelaide, in contrast, gave Melbourne Victory a tough game in last year’s finals loss and then showed all the determination, mental toughness and fitness that has been a hallmark of the German’s management.
Ideally, of course, you’d like to have sufficient elements of both teams, and this did, for the best part of one season, happen well enough under Guillermo Amor in-between in 2015‒16. The challenge for Adelaide’s owners keen on Kurz’s departure is to find someone able to take this next step again.
5 – Like/Dislike: Glory’s exorcism/cracks in the system ahead of a Grand Final
I’m genuinely undecided as to whether Perth’s inability to hold on to a lead (twice) is something of positive, for getting long-buried finals wobbles out of the system without actually being eliminated ahead of a grand final, instead of just a bad sign of some genuine tactical or physical issues.
As Steph Brantz notes here, 38% of Perth’s conceded goals this season have been from 75 minutes on and 11 of the 15 now given up at home were after an hour. Tony Popovic may be big on fitness and discipline, but it’s natural for the oldest team in the league (the average age for Friday’s starting XI was a staggering 31.6) to have more of a shelf-life in games. Only one sub was made before the 7th minute of extra time last Friday, and that was on 85 minutes; making two or three subs much earlier on Sunday is surely well advised, especially with a fourth substitute now available in extra-time.
In any case, surviving an incredibly dramatic and near fatal collapse like last Friday does wonders for engendering a ‘this is meant for us’ feeling, while having all three of Diego Castro, Chris Ikonomidis and Andy Keogh to throw at Sydney for the first time this season must be particularly encouraging. One nerdy/pedantic/possibly meaningless note: Perth’s 2003 grand final means this current one won’t have the nerves of exorcising grand final demons, but a win on Sunday would still make this the first time the Glory have been crowned national champions on the back of two traditional home final wins. 2003 had the (dumb) home and away top six preceding a grand final, 2004 had a home loss in a major semi-final, and two home finals wins in 1999 and 2012 preceded disappointment on the road.
6 – Like: An area Corica has improved SFC
In the pre-Grand Final rush to talk up what Steve Corica has done as Sydney’s coach this season, the focus has, somewhat ambiguously, been on how he has sustained much of what Graham Arnold did and handled an ageing team that lost the likes of Bobô, Jordy Buijs and Adrian Mierzejewski from last season. But one specific improvement that could be said to have partly influenced Sunday’s semi-final was a greater sharing of game time throughout Sydney’s squad.
While the Australian season is a short one in total games played, the demands of the post-Christmas crunch of games, the extra travel and games for AFC Champions League teams and the general travel in an Australian/New Zealand league can still make the season a tiring one by the end. A common criticism of Arnold’s management of last season was a reliance on a core group of no more than 15 players through all this; of the 39 games that Sydney played in all competitions in 2017‒18, 15 players were given 10 or more appearances, and only 13 started in 10 or more games. In 37 games in this campaign, Corica has given 19 players over 10 appearances and sixteen had double figure starts.
Where Sydney’s late season struggle could hardly have been a surprise last year, it made sense that the sky blues were far sharper in this semi-final than they were in last year’s corresponding game against the same opponent. In truth, it’s still somewhat hard to gauge Sydney’s performance on Sunday night given the benefit of such a poor Melbourne Victory from the start, along with some lucky randomness for the first half goals (Lawrence Thomas appearing as the effects of Roy O’Donovan’s boot in last year’s grand final were 12 months delayed) and then irresponsible tactics from Muscat (expecting Barbarouses to play as a wingback) for those in the second. The Grand Final will surely give us a much better examination of Corica and his team, but he deserves credit here. Aaron Calver, in particular, looks to have significantly benefited from the faith placed in him.
7 – Dislike: Where Victory have gone of late under Muscat, and where they might go without him
At the time of writing, it looks all but certain that Kevin Muscat will be leaving the club he has been involved in ‒ with plenty of success ‒ from their start in 2005 as a player, assistant coach or head coach. It makes sense, but Victory’s own history comes with a cautionary tale.
In 2011, after two championships but disappointing finals and ACL results in the time since, Ernie Merrick left the Victory. It was a sound enough decision in itself given how much it seemed he had come to the end of the road with them, but far less so when considering the tenures of Mehmet Durakovic and Jim Magilton over the next 12 months.
Kevin Muscat, and Victory’s powers that be, find themselves in much the same boat now. The football and recruitment has been increasingly unconvincing in recent years, and while last season’s finals run (and the luck of no VAR at the right time in the grand final) did a lot to cover the cracks, there can’t be any avoiding of the continued ACL failures and now an embarrassing night in Sydney. But the risks of getting Muscat’s successor(s) wrong may be even greater now; it’s somewhat forgotten how much the Durakovic and Magilton mistakes were able to be salvaged the following season with the luck of someone like Ange Postecoglou being in the league and keen to coach in his home city, ultimately getting the Victory back on track and leaving them in a good state for Muscat to later take over from.
Chances are that Victory will have a far less easy of a get out if they get next season’s coach wrong, and only having a playoff for ACL qualification next season makes the need to get this appointment right even greater. In any case, for now, it’s been some run for Muscat in a number of capacities, and no (ex-) player has been a more important person to any A-League club.
8 – Dislike: Honda’s exit
Even if you limit it to foreigners, Keisuke Honda was nowhere near alone in disappointing Melbourne Victory players on Sunday night. Georg Niedermeier was as rash in his concession of a penalty as Matthieu Delpierre was once such a dependable figure at the back, Raúl Baena had a rough night and even Ola Toivonen, the best of Victory’s foreigners this season, struggled in the air and to hold up play.
But at least the Swede had plenty of late season credit in the bank. Honda’s second half of the season following hamstring problems was a disappointment given the spend, and brought to my mind how Dwight Yorke, the league’s first big marquee, fared in his sole (full) season in Australia. Worth the price tag for the first few months, the prospect of leading Trinidad and Tobago at the 2006 World Cup seemed to result in Yorke making sure of his fitness in Germany ahead of pushing himself in the A-League, and it wasn’t until the finals that Sydney got more of what they were entitled to expect from him in the front third.
Injuries are a more valid reason for a downturn in form, but Honda is now retired from normal international football, with his only interests in it now being to play at home in the Tokyo Olympics (over a year away) and…oh, yeah, that awkward and curious matter of being the “general manager” of the Cambodia national team. Regardless, the sight of Honda receiving the ball on the right edge of Sydney’s box on Sunday and repeatedly and tamely passing back for the low percentage play of a Thomas Deng cross from deep was frustrating, and it’s fair for Victory fans and neutrals to have expected better come the climax of the season. An assist for Toivonen in the closing minutes to make it 6-1 epitomised garbage time.
9 – Dislike: Finals scheduling
ACL commitments can make things difficult, but they don’t justify the Sunday night scheduling of two finals. First Adelaide were given a Sunday final that clashed with an Adelaide Crows home game, and the same timeslot was used for the Sydney-Victory semi-final with all the consideration for TV and none for families and travelling fans.
A Saturday night slot for the Adelaide game would have clashed with no Adelaide AFL teams (home or away), and while ACL commitments for both Sydney and Victory made another Saturday final difficult, surely Sunday afternoon would have been the most considerate choice for all involved. “7pm kick-off, and [there are] still people arriving…what have they been doing all day?” asked Brenton Speed in commentary; not only was he unaware of the inexcusable shortage of open gates and an over-abundance of security checks at Kogarah Oval, it was somewhat rich coming from an employee (Fox) that was so keen on such a inconsiderate time slot to begin with.
Perth being two hours behind the eastern states means Fox can still have their desired Sunday evening kick-off without playing the game too late locally, but that’s no consolation to fans who already couldn’t make or found it a right pain to attend the past two Sunday games.
10 – Like: The prospect of over 50,000 at Perth Stadium
Enough said really, but this would mean all five main Australian capitals have hosted A-League games with crowds of over 50,000. The best for Adelaide is 50,119 for the 2016 Grand Final, Brisbane is 51,153 for the 2014 GF, Melbourne is 55,436 for the 2007 GF and Sydney managed 61,880 for the 2016‒17 round 1 Sydney derby at Homebush.
Now for both teams, a first time A-League Grand Final referee (Shaun Evans) and, last but not least, security to play along on the day.