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The A-League needs ten strong, competitive teams to be successful

The second article I ever wrote for the Roar was entitled ‘The Socceroos are changing the Australian sporting landscape.’ As a Roar rookie I was nervous about its reception.

 

I needn’t have been, as Roarers launched into an excellent discussion about the face of football in this country and the direction we were heading.

 

The article featured a brief story about the elderly owner of my local newsagent saying, ‘Go the Socceroos, eh’, as I approached him for service around Asian Cup finals time.

 

What was most astounding was that it occurred in the middle of a rugby league heartland and the comment was made by a man with whom I had never discussed football with previously.

 

If I had been wearing a Wanderers Jersey, or the easily identifiable green and gold of the national team, perhaps there would have been some explanation as to why he broached the subject. But this was not the case.

 

The fact is that his comment was symbolic of the awakening of the beast that is football in this country. An awakening that has finally seen the game reach previously untapped sectors of the community.

 

I work at one of Sydney’s most wealthy and traditional private schools where participation numbers in football has doubled over the last ten years. When I was employed nearly a decade ago there were 40 rugby teams and around 20 football teams. These numbers have literally reversed, almost to the exact number.

 

After so many years of struggling to set up a truly national competition that embraces all sectors of the community, the A-League finally arrived. The inaugural season saw 1,046,459 people roll through the gates. 2015-16 saw 1,661,742 bums on seats.

 

I’ve read many articles extrapolating statistics in both positive and negative ways, yet a 58% growth in attendance cannot be ignored.

 

The W-League and the recent successes of the Matildas has added momentum to the burgeoning growth in women’s football. Roy Morgan data (2015) places football as the most popular sport among girls in the six to 13-year-old age group. The dislodging of netball from top spot is historically significant.

 

Television ratings have also reflected the growth in the game with a significant jump from 2011 to 2015 that saw the number of people tuning into A-League matches, either casually or regularly, rise from 1.4 million to around 2.1 million. Club membership has cracked the 100,000 mark and the goal of 125,000 might be achievable this year. The clicker that monitors this on the A-League website is a nice initiative and fascinating viewing.

 

Yes, there was football in this country before the A-League. There were hundreds and thousands of expats, migrants and kids passionate about this game way before the Frank Lowys, Alessandro Del Pieros and Tim Cahills of the modern era.

 

However, it is naïve to ignore the fact that Australian football stands on the verge of a new frontier in terms of popularity, exposure and investment.

 

The Socceroos’ brilliant start to the final qualification stage for Russia 2018 has already injected much energy into our pre-season discussions.

 

The A-League will always be a measuring stick for growth and ten strong clubs grappling for semi-final places, while enjoying financial security, is the ultimate goal. Each A-League season can be a giant step forward, solidification or a minor correction. To move forward in 2016/17 a few clubs need to improve.

 

The support for the Phoenix must grow. After threats to remove their license, Wellington have four years to build their numbers, broaden their base and solidify revenue streams. To become established to the point where questions about their survival are a thing of the past, the Phoenix needs growth to ensure the future three-year contract extensions are granted.

Solid recruitment could see good performances on the pitch, and Kosta Barbarouses and Gui Finkler are key signings. Let’s hope the front office is aggressive and proactive in their strategies to grow the game through the Phoenix brand as the FFA have requested.

 

The Central Coast Mariners find themselves in a precarious position as the season begins. On-field performances have been poor in recent times and weakening support has been the direct result. Another year similar to 2015-16 would be disastrous and new coach Paul Okon faces a monumental task to return the club to the finals.

 

Recruitment has been reasonable – Mickael Tavares and Connor Pain bring some experience – and a quick start to the year with a home win or two could provide the shot in the arm that the Mariners need to reinvigorate their supporter base.

 

The Roar need to overcome pre-season dramas, achieve some sense of stability and continue to perform on the pitch. John Aloisi has a big job ahead to focus a squad after the pre-season went off the rails.

 

The losses of Migual Corona, Henrique and Steven Lustica will take some filling and much will be expected of new signings Jacob Pepper and Brett Holman.

 

Financial insecurity undermines a playing group and ‘unpaid wages’ puts the fear of God into the media, players and supporters alike. It appears overdue wages have been paid and that is a positive step with only three weeks before the new season kicks off.

 

Sydney FC need a return to form after a diabolical season and the key Sydney market needs strong clubs in order to provide a valid reason for corporate interests to continue their support in the nation’s biggest city. The much-anticipated arrival of Bobo is not the magic elixir; George Blackwood and Filip Holosko need to provide more up front.

 

Northern neighbours Newcastle could be a potential problem for the league. The sacking of Scott Miller was poorly timed and reeks of internal unrest. Something is not right in the Hunter and many hold grave fears for the season ahead.

 

Hopefully for the Novocastrians, the arrival of Englishman Wayne Brown can add something to their midfield. Perhaps the Jets can get more out of the two Andrews, Nabbout and Hoole, who arrive seeking new opportunities after some recent disappointments.

 

Perth Glory look powerful, skilful and sits on the upper lines in betting for the Premier’s Plate. After some of the turmoil of previous seasons, is this the time for the Glory to reclaim their status as a powerhouse in the national competition? The depth of their squad says yes and augurs well for increased attendances and membership in what is a significant market for the A-League.

 

It is hard to see anything but successful seasons for the Melbourne Victory, Adelaide United, Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City who have strong squads and the potential to play deep into the finals.

 

Despite significant losses, most clubs have picked up quality recruits, the only question being how they blend in and adapt to their new environments.

 

In a dream, the season will bring brilliant W-League curtain-raisers, continued goal scoring rates that saw an average of 3.12 goals per match in 2015-16, and another rise in physical attendance and television support.

 

The national competition is vital to continued growth and the success or failure of the Socceroos’ Russian campaign will also define the next six to twelve months.

 

It’s up to all of the pieces of the puzzle to combine and present a quality product. We all know the critics will be out in force, searching for the first sign of cracks or weakness in our game, attacking from partisan perspectives based on cross-code rivalry.

 

Hopefully, the game will continue to be resilient in the face of odds that appear stacked against it. We have come too far to let it all slip away.

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