I want to preface this piece by making it clear that I am a fee-paying member of ANZ Stadium and have been for the last few years.
Being a supporter of one of the clubs that plays many of their home-and-away fixtures there in the NRL makes the membership worthwhile, as do the special events that take place on a regular basis.
Having a reserved ticket for State of Origin matches, the NRL grand final, recent football friendlies such as the Chelsea and Tottenham tours and the fantastic Liverpool Legends game are just some of the wonderful benefits to holding a membership.
The ease of access to the level four members seating and the quality of food and beverage facilities without lengthy lines are also perks that I really enjoy. Despite not being ridiculously expensive, the benefits of uncluttered seating and a pleasant environment to view the game are things that I am more than happy to pay for.
While this all sounds quite appealing, there are some serious issues surrounding the future of the stadium. Its pitch quality and shared use are key elements currently under much scrutiny, most notably after the appalling surface presented for the recent Australia-Greece international.
The dilemma of the surface quality seems to remain a significant issue for the stadium. The surface that the Socceroos were forced to play on was an absolute disgrace and an embarrassment to us as an emerging football nation.
No news there. This is obvious and a statement that any sensible sports watcher would have picked up watching the coverage. Of more importance are the ramifications of turning out such poor facilities to our guests.
At a time when we are seeking quality, friendly encounters to slot in around pre-season times for European nations and clubs, we need our visitors to know that they will face top quality opposition on surfaces that allow for the same level of football.
There seems no point in having major European teams such as Chelsea, Real Madrid or Arsenal, who visit in 2017, play at smaller venues such as the Allianz or even Pirtek, as the reality of the financial investment needs to be considered.
In addition, Sydney must be a leg on the pre-season journey of these clubs for the same financial reasons. The frequency of these tours, deals and contracts could be under threat if we continue to present pitches of poor quality.
Our players’ development against the top sides requires a surface that allows for Ange Postecoglou’s style of football. His post-match reaction reeked of a man frustrated that, with limited international matches, we had just wasted another opportunity. An opportunity for our boys to take another tiny step as a squad towards the Asian qualifiers and hopefully, the World Cup.
The Sydney Swans’ decision to move their three matches away from ANZ this year and essentially, forever, was made for a variety of reasons. Yet poor quality of the surface was indeed a consideration.
The dangerous position in which Jarryd Roughead found himself as he slid across the surface in Round 16 last year, where metallic bolts were exposed, drew the ire of Alastair Clarkson. Admittedly, this occurred outside the actual playing surface yet players getting stuck in the surface and wrenching knees and ankles have been commonplace since Sydney began playing matches there in 2002.
Let’s not forget that the AFL is still contracted to ANZ for Swans home finals and this looms as a distinct possibility the way they are travelling at this point.
Attempting to play international football on a pitch within 48 hours of a game of AFL or rugby league, often played in wintery and wet conditions, is folly.
If only there was a way to transport the impeccable surface at Coopers Stadium, or the equally impressive and newly reworked Adelaide Oval surface to the east coast to showcase some of the great football talent from both our local pool, as well as our international visitors.
Anyone with any doubts as to the connection between the quality of the pitch and the skill level shown by the players needs only examine Adelaide United’s season, who play on Australia’s only purpose-built football pitch.
Look at the passing and possession statistics and the dilemma that Postecoglou and the Socceroos face in Sydney is undeniable.
Sure, the MCG is better, yet with Sydney such a large and fundamental part of the promotion and development of the game, a solution to the issue needs to be found rather than relocating games. We need ANZ to work.
Playing on a pitch such as the recent land-mine littered surface returns us to our colonial days as a burgeoning football nation where the surfaces, at times, were a symbolic representation of the state of the game in this country. Second class.
Many people felt that the relocation of the Big Bash League and removal of the need for drop-in pitches might help out the curator in the short term, yet the issues seem to remain.
No longer should football have to fit around the calendars and venues of the other codes and put up with unsuitable conditions. There is enough growth in the game to justify the shuffling of matches in football’s favour to ensure a quality spectacle.
It is in the best interests of all the codes, as the benefits to the stadium financially and in reputation are shared by all parties.
From a viewing perspective much has been made of the distance from the top decks to the field of play and a remodelling of the shape of the playing surface is imminent with new funding of $700 million going towards a rectangular upgrade.
Effectively, the distance remains the same to the centre of the pitch, yet the belief is that, atmospherically, the experience at the ground will improve. This is still at least three years away and doesn’t solve the short-term issues.
Would it be naïve of the public to think that the structural improvements and modifications made to the stadium would magically transfer to better programming and preparation of the surface? Perhaps.
Essentially, the future still looks bleak in terms of scheduling and pitch quality. Certainly nothing will change this year. Australia’s run of home World Cup qualifiers still appear as TBC in terms of venues except for the September 1 game against Iraq.
The NRL finals will power through the remainder of September and an October 11 clash with heavyweights Japan could be the big test.
The tasty thought of the upcoming Sydney derbies also deserves an excellent surface and shouldn’t be ruined like the Socceroos’ recent international.
Let’s hope I am not inclined to write another article like the one I did just prior to Australia’s match against the People’s Republic of China in Brisbane during the Asian Cup of 2015.
As sports fans, ANZ members and a paying public, we deserve better.
An earlier version of this article referenced James Graham being injured due to the ANZ Stadium surface, a claim Graham himself has since said is untrue.