Cracks becoming canyons

May 09, 2018

Alex Mitchell would have loved to have been among Melbourne Victory supporters at the A-League grand final on Saturday. Picture: AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Kosta Barbarouses (centre) celebrates his debatable goal with Victory team maates. Picture: AAP Image/Darren Pateman

Talk about papering over the cracks.

A brilliant finals series — capped with an action-packed grand final on Saturday night — has taken the attention firmly away from another disappointing A-League season.

The scenes from Newcastle were extraordinary, with the Melbourne Victory away end going absolutely bananas throughout a momentous night in the club’s short history.

In football, home wins can of course be special, but the real magical memories are often made away from home and, as somewhat of a Victory supporter, I wish I’d been part of the 4000-odd travelling fans amid the celebrations with the players post-game.

But for me, the magic ends there.

Even the closely-fought 1-0 decider brought up one of the issues that has troubled the league this season — the much-discussed video assistant referee.

Victory’s winning goal was set up via a James Donachie header, with the defender clearly in an offside position when he made his run for the assisting nod to Kosta Barbarouses.

The VAR system did not intervene — Football Federation Australia citing a glitch that stopped the system working for 30 seconds in the lead-up to the goal.

VAR’s purpose compared with its actual impact has made it a hot topic, as its seemingly inevitable place in the game continues to take shape.

But when VAR had its chance to step up and make the impact it simply has to, it failed spectacularly — and that is symptomatic of the A-League.

The biggest problem facing the competition is continuing to evolve from what is turning into a rather stale position.

Being just a 10-team league yet needing a 27-game season means teams play each other three times in a seven-month stretch.

Compare this with the English Premier League where teams play twice in a 10-month span, or even Australian football where teams meet once — or a handful twice — in six months.

Marquee fixtures in the A-League — your Melbourne and Sydney derbies, Adelaide-Melbourne or Melbourne-Sydney — happen so often it feels like they are played every other weekend.

Declaring the A-League stale when looking at crowd and viewer figures is about the only conclusion you come to.

Call it a down year if you want, but each of the five major clubs — Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne Victory, Sydney and Western Sydney — had massive decreases in attendance.

Even Sydney’s fans, watching a regular season juggernaut going through a second season atop the table, did not feel a need to get along to games, dropping from an average of 18100 in attendance last season to 14800 this year.

Victory, held up as the competition’s marquee club, lost 20 per cent of its average attendance to 17500 this season, its first mark lower than 20000 since 2011.

And a poor free-to-air television arrangement, seeing games tucked away on Network Ten’s channel One, is not helping.

At the start of the season, when you would expect excitement to be through the roof, three of the league’s biggest fixtures — Sydney-Victory and the Melbourne and Sydney derbies — averaged an underwhelming 112000 viewers, a figure declining throughout the season.

With no prominence given to the league, it is no wonder the game is failing to capture the imagination of the average punter.

One of the main things soccer boasts that other codes cannot is active support.

Think Western Sydney at its prime with a thriving supporter base, or Melbourne Victory early in its existence — 90 minutes of singing and colour and just a generally exciting vibe, a sport like Australian football cannot ever hope for.

There are negative connotations associated with this, but people are generally attracted to this energy and want to come along and be a part of it.

The FFA acts as if it wants to scrub itself of the active support associations and instead appeal to its idea of the mainstream.

Soccer in this country can boom, but part of that will have to be a full-scale embracing of active support — if you’ve got the ingredients to create fan engagement other sports would dream of, surely you have to take the opportunity.

But what could be one of the biggest talking points in the code’s history is the idea of promotion and relegation, and how it could revitalise Australian soccer.

I will delve into that complex discussion in part three of this Outside The Box extravaganza.

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