On the horizon, in an apocalyptic world wresting itself from the grip of a terrifying pandemic, looms a mutant. The form is recognisable, but on closer inspection badly scarred and misshapen. The start of a horror movie? In time, perhaps, but for now let’s call it the return of the A-League.
A lot has happened in Australia, and Australian football specifically, since Newcastle Jets downed Melbourne City 2-1 at Hunter Stadium on 23 March, but like a Knight who says “Ni!”, the 2019-20 season resumes on Friday when Sydney FC take on Wellington Phoenix. That clash is the trigger for a frenzy of football with 27 matches crammed into 34 days, after which comes a five-match finals series.
This logistical nightmare will take place in hub conditions in New South Wales. Hopefully, it should be added; none of this comes with any guarantee.
The precariousness of the situation was laid bare embarrassingly last week when the three Victorian teams failed to cross the Murray in a timely fashion, condemning them to 14-days of quarantine and delaying the restart. On brand, the A-League found itself a laughing stock.
Joking aside, it was a reminder how serious the backdrop to this high-stakes exercise has always been. It should also serve as a warning, as the outbreak in south west Sydney worsens and plans are drafted to relocate the hub to Queensland.
Not long after the resumption of play Sydney FC will be crowned premiers. The season’s dominant force to this point are eight points better off than second-placed Melbourne City and 12 ahead of third-placed Wellington Phoenix. On the flipside, Central Coast Mariners are little more than extras in a crowd scene as they lug behind them the burden of a ten-game losing streak. For every club between the premiers-elect and the sunken sailors the competition should resume with renewed urgency.
Ordinarily, the finals series is a fait accompli, with the top two sides commonly taking advantage of a system weighted in their favour. This year, who knows what kind of momentum teams will bring into this matryoshka doll of a competition within a competition within a competition? The potential for an outsider to hit a burst of good form and take everyone by surprise must be greater than ever in A-League history. The playoffs may yet be a free-for-all.
At this stage of a regular season there’s often the requirement to confect some jeopardy to make it appear as though everything is at stake in the battle for sixth place (conveniently ignoring the unlikelihood of a team winning the finals from that far out, or whether it is even sane to offer such a massive incentive to a side that finishes below halfway on the ladder). But if this postseason is more of a lottery, then maybe that narrative carries more authenticity?
The downside of this - and the irony is surely not lost on any A-League die-hards - is the risk of matches becoming focused on results at all costs, at a time when the game would be best served by attention-grabbing spectacles. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it would be unfortunate if the incentive for risk-averse football to secure a finals position outweighed the collective benefit of a month of highlights that showcased the A-League’s potential to entertain on a nightly basis.
Greg O’Rourke voiced this dilemma when the revised fixture was announced, the Head of the A-League telling the Sydney Morning Herald he had spoken to coaches, “trying to ensure they make the product as exciting as possible”. With the competition searching for sponsors and broadcast partners, his message is about more than aesthetics.
On the pitch, variables abound. Brisbane Roar were adding attacking fluency to their defensive solidity before the break, but they return without coach Robbie Fowler. Perth Glory’s talisman, Diego Castro, has opted not to join the hub, while many other credentialed foreigners have cut their losses. Ola Toivonen departs one of the best the competition has ever seen; more was expected from Panagiotis Kone and Markel Susaeta.
There could be upsides among the uncertainty. The four clubs bubbling under the finals cut-off positions all have coaches not long in post, and the break may have afforded them time to solidify plans and indoctrinate their lists. Phoenix and Glory always endure a travel-induced handicap, a factor that may be diminished or exacerbated by the hub model. While recent transfers may be more acclimated to their new surrounds, which could bode well for Simon Cox at Western Sydney Wanderers or Joe Ledley at Newcastle Jets, both of whom showed flashes of their potential before the break without hitting the form that saw them prosper in Europe’s top divisions.
As the last of the major football competitions to return to the field post-lockdown, the mutated A-League has the benefit of studying other leagues to maximise the opportunities and sidestep the pitfalls of operating in such extraordinary circumstances. It could be a month of hot-housed action that generates renewed interest in the domestic game, or it could be a horror show.