Adelaide United are chasing history on and off the field, one of the most celebrated names in Australian football history is continuing its rejuvenation, Melbourne Victory needs to stand and deliver and the APL has some work to do. It's all here in this week's Australian football wrap!
Work to do
On Wednesday, ESPN broke down 10 reasons why the 2020-21 A-League and W-League seasons may just be the best ever.
Nonetheless, there's always room for improvement -- especially in the maelstrom of discontent that is Australian football -- so here are three issues the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) need to address, and fast.
1. Support the fans
Clearly, to expect crowds to resemble those of previous seasons following a pandemic -- and in the face of ongoing restrictions on crowds -- is to engage in bad faith in the extreme. Inevitably, crowd growth will be intrinsically tied to health authorities' efforts to suppress COVID, vaccinate the population and get people feeling safe.
Yet, at the same time, the traditionally well-supported Western Sydney Wanderers are averaging just 6,885 supporters this campaign and Melbourne Victory just 6,862, marks well below the COVID-safe levels presently allowed at their homes. Results, invariably, play a factor -- the Victory are very bad right now -- but the Wanderers are second on the table.
And in reality, crowds were sliding well before COVID emerged.
A-League fans, particularly active support, have been increasingly marginalised over the past decade; especially as then-FFA administrators marginalised and dismissed them to prioritise the fabled "casual" fan. Over-policing and differences in treatment compared to other sports, and the perceived recalcitrance of Football Australia, the APL and clubs to vociferously defend them, has further dented morale. Nobody wants to be treated like a criminal when they're just trying to support their football team.
As ESPN's Samantha Lewis has observed, the groundhopping nature of W-League clubs does little to endear them to their fans and allow for fostering of sustained fan support and deep-seated connections in that competition.
An increase in marketing and paid engagement will go some way to bringing back fans, but that's a one-way street -- the easy bit. As football emerges from COVID, it's imperative the APL does all it can to attempt to repair the damage done and work in collaboration with fans to build its precious, and largely untapped, asset back up to the heights it experienced in years gone.
2. The Video Assistant Referee
At this point, something has to be done about the VAR.
Deployed to (correctly) wipe away Wellington's at-the-death-equaliser in their 4-3 loss to Western Sydney Wanderers, the technology was once again front and centre in the discussions in the aftermath of the game -- despite the preceding contest being one of the most madcap ever produced by the A-League.
If it's not going away -- which it probably isn't -- steps need to be taken to proactively communicate with fans as to the reasons for its ongoing retention and what, if any, steps will be taken to improve its deployment going forward.
Such action won't silence protests against the technology, nothing probably will, but when a major talking point amongst the zeitgeist following one of your most entertaining fixtures in years is how the game is dying a VAR-inflicted death, you've got to do something.
3. Uniting the game
This is a big one, and it's also quite complicated.
The APL, ostensibly, carries limited say in the introduction of a national second-tier and steps to unite the Australian football calendar and pyramid beyond that of an important stakeholder.
Indeed, the extent of its ability to dictate its own destiny seems set to face a major test in coming months after the Sydney Morning Herald reported that it was likely that broadcast deal negotiations were auguring the continuation of summer stagings of the A-League and W-League -- against the stated desires of Football Australia.
Then there's the matter of a national second tier and its evolution.
Football Australia retains the final say over the introduction of such a competition and, while it has promised to consult widely with stakeholders such as the leagues, CEO James Johnson has already declared its introduction, in whatever form it takes, a fait accompli. And if the two competitions aren't to be connected in any way then, in theory, there is little need for the APL to provide much in the way of input -- although the process would clearly go a lot smoother if they provided their support and endorsement.
However, the push for promotion and relegation -- which, inevitably, will soon begin after any second-tier's introduction -- clearly hits a lot closer to home for APL clubs and their current monopoly on the Australian top-flight. Having only recently been handed the keys to the castle, the prospect of the APL willingly throwing the gates open and jeopardising its member's positions in the top-flight seems far-fetched, at best.
The footballing benefits of uniting and aligning the game are obvious, the economic ones (definitely for those at the top) less so.
On Sunday, Adelaide United's W-League side will host Western Sydney Wanderers at Coopers Stadium -- and it's shaping as the biggest game in their history.
The Reds enter the contest in fourth-place on the W-League table, a point clear of fifth-placed Canberra United and one back of third-placed Melbourne Victory. However, while their finals-chasing rivals have two games to play, the Wanderers' visit represents Adelaide's final game of what has already been a record-setting 2020-21 campaign.
Effectively, that means the contest is a must-win if coach Adrian Stenta's side is to retain any hope of playing in their first-ever finals campaign. The pressure, especially coming off a 4-2 loss to Brisbane Roar, will be extreme.
But they won't be doing it alone.
Adelaide is seeking to break the W-League attendance record for a standalone game on Sunday, making entry to the fixture free (although registration for a ticket is required). Already, over 6,500 supporters signalled their intent to attend, meaning that the club is firmly on track to more than double the existing record of 3,105.
It bodes well, as anyone that's been at a pumping Hindmarsh Stadium can tell you how much of a home-field advantage that environment can bring.
.@AUFCWomen at Coopers Stadium... a thread. 😊— Adelaide United (@AdelaideUnited) March 17, 2021
We've had over 6500 ticket redemptions so far but registrations are still open!
Get around it 👉 https://t.co/PrR32rUF59
2008-2010#AUFC #UnitedAsOne #WLeague
"That makes it even more exciting and more special," Dutch defender Maruschka Waldus said. "We're playing in front of our own fans and hopefully a lot of fans. We should take that as an advantage and use that and take that energy from them within our game and try to make them proud and give them a good experience."
Indeed, the mood in the City of Churches appears good.
Their W-League side setting records and targeting history, the Reds' men occupy third place on the A-League table and, though their defensive record raises questions of sustainability, have won four straight games.
Sitting on fertile ground for talent and South Australian nationalism always a potent force to tap into, the club's A-League and W-League programs have emphasised the production and elevation of SA products in recent years; bolstering their reputation with fans and allowing them to make some handy income in the international transfer market.
"We've got a lot of good people in and around the club," said A-League boss Carl Veart. "The atmosphere in the club has really galvanised the people in South Australia, the football people.
"I think for a time there the club sort of went away from that and credit to the chairman [Piet van der Pol], he's brought people back in that means a lot to the club.
"Bruce [Djite] is doing a tremendous job as the football director; bringing myself, Eugene [Galekovic, Adelaide's goalkeeping coach] and Ross [Aloisi, Veart's assistant] back, we have that real passion for the club and for the state. [The club's] a happy place to be."
The lion roars again
You don't need to go far to find three of the sides that make up the "Big Four" of Victorian football clubs outside the A-League: Melbourne Knights, Heidelberg United and South Melbourne all residing in the state's NPL1 competition.
The fourth, however, is found further down the pyramid.
Preston Lions are set to play NPL3 this year -- its season commencing against Melbourne City's NPL side on Friday night -- and, remarkably given its historical status and fanbase, 2021 represents their first-ever season under the NPL banner.
Founded in 1947, Preston was a member of the National Soccer League for 13 seasons between 1981 and 1993 -- achieving a third-place finish in 1983 -- and has fielded famous Australian football names such as John Markovski, Gary Cole and Sasa Ognenovski. Yet despite being a powerhouse of Victorian football and possessing one of the largest fan bases of any club outside the A-League, financial difficulties and mismanagement almost led to its collapse in 2012 as they dropped down the Victoria's State League Two.
Fortunately, the Lions rallied and subsequently eliminated its debts and now, under the stewardship of president Zak Gruevski, has re-established itself as a rising power. Promotion from the State Leagues to the NPL was secured in 2019 and the club recently received a new, $3 million government grant to redevelop its facilities and amenities.
"It's amazing," Ognenovski, who played 90 games for Preston, told ESPN. "Although that old change room should be heritage listed!
"It's been a long time coming. [Preston's] another club with genuine [second division] aspirations. I know they're NPL3 at the moment but in the scheme of Victorian football, it's a really big club. They get supporters out there, good numbers regularly and the sooner they get into the NPL1 space the better for everyone because traditionally we travel everywhere and we fill stands and we really enjoy football."
Backs to the wall
It might seem unthinkable, but Melbourne Victory's season could, somehow, get worse this coming weekend.
Anchored to the bottom of the A-League table, Victory will travel on Saturday to face old rivals Sydney FC in the latest iteration of the Big Blue looking to avoid its fifth defeat in six games as well as its third successive loss against a rival.
Though the rivalry is traditionally one of the marquee events on the A-League calendar, Victory's abjectness has robbed its latest staging of significant lustre -- that Central Coast and Melbourne City's meeting on Monday carries significantly more interest is a demonstration of the competition's upheaved nature in 2020-21.
Nonetheless, it's still a bitter rivalry, and the Harboursiders would enjoy nothing more than crossing the line and kicking their longstanding foes while they're down.
"We have to think positively anyway," said Victory's Robbie Kruse. "We know as players that it's been a really difficult season. We can't spin it any other way. It's been a tough year and a half and we're really hurting -- particularly for the fans.
"When your back is against the wall you've got to throw up a change in mindset. We've spoken a little bit about that with Brebsy, about not losing the game; being tighter at the back, a little bit less adventurous in certain aspects.
"We know we need to be really tight at the back this week. Maybe not push as many men forward because they're really good on the counter-attack as well. We have the players to do it but we obviously haven't been implementing it in the games.
"Things can change football, I've been in a lot tougher positions in my career; relegation fights [with VfL Bochum in the Bundesliga] and fans turning up [at training] and not letting us out of the car park. I know what type of things can happen, so it's about coming together as a team and players and as a club and trying to fight our way out of it because that's the only option we have."
Good Football Thing of the Week
Adelaide's Kusini Yengi putting Victory to the sword was good, but the celebration was even better. And if you didn't appreciate it, I'd suggest watching out for meteors.