Soccer

The latest A-League Men’s season may have finished with a whimper not a bang, but the star of former Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou continues to rise. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The A-League struggles as Ange Postecoglou shines

A middle-aged man with grey hair and dressed in a suit claps his hand against his chest, watching on from the sidelines of a football pitch. Behind him is a stadium full of fans.
Ange Postecoglou celebrates Celtic’s victory in the Scottish Cup last weekend.
Credit: Lee Smith / Reuters

You had to be a palaeontologist to uncover news of the A-League Men’s final last weekend, buried as it was beneath, well, everything else. Cricket veteran David Warner’s retirement plans, Parramatta Eels star Dylan Brown’s arrest for sexual touching without consent, and former Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou’s imminent ascension to Premier League manager all enjoyed higher billing. So too the AFL’s latest matches, the NBA finals, and the FA Cup final which, despite happening on the other side of the world, enjoyed a stronger command of our imagination than our domestic league. Even the 30th anniversary of one leg-spin delivery – Shane Warne’s “ball of the century” – seemed easier to read about last week.

As it was, the Central Coast Mariners upset the favourites, and reigning premiers, Melbourne City 6-1. It happened in no-man’s-land, Sydney’s CommBank Stadium in Parramatta – the home-ground advantage usually conferred on the highest-ranked finalist having recently been sold to Sydney for three years by the Australian Professional Leagues (APL). It was this allegedly high-handed and insulting move that helped inspire last year’s disturbing pitch invasion – and a Melbourne Victory fan smashing the face of City’s goalkeeper with a steel bucket – during a local derby at AAMI Park. City, shockingly and comprehensively pummelled last Saturday before a crowd overwhelmingly in favour of the Mariners, could be justified in feeling aggrieved.

But the obscurity of the final will be the most alarming factor for fans and administrators. Since the A-League began in 2005, there have been relatively few seasons in which the league has not been variously described as suffering “crisis”, “ennui” or “irrelevance”. Broadcasting rights have never exactly been coveted, and they’ve passed hands much like a 40-pass tiki-taka chain. Currently, the broadcasting rights rest in the relative boondocks of Channel Ten’s subscription streaming service, Paramount+, though Ten’s free-to-air channel guarantees at least one live match each week. The deal was struck in 2021, after Foxtel declined to renew its contract because there just weren’t enough eyeballs.

Fretting about the health of the domestic game has assumed the quality of an endless purgatory. There are very few seasons in which dwindling crowds and game quality aren’t solemnly referenced, or that the game’s administrators don’t publish revised corporate visions or mission statements designed to reinvigorate the game. The endless hand-wringing, and subsequent volumes of jargon, have an amnesiac and soporific quality.

But in one of the world’s most competitive sporting markets, A-League crowds actually aren’t terrible. They’re dwarfed by the AFL’s, of course, where in Victoria, at least, the sport vibrates with a similar level of cultural relevance and intense fandom as the round-ball game does in Britain. But compare the A-League’s crowds to those of the Netherlands’ premier league, the Eredivisie, which is home to one of Europe’s most successful clubs: AFC Ajax Amsterdam. This is the country of Johan Cruyff, Clarence Seedorf and Arjen Robben. The country of Total Football, three World Cup final appearances and one European Championship. And yet its finest domestic league has an average crowd attendance of fewer than 11,000 people. Across the border, Belgium’s top league averages less than 10,000.

The most recent A-League Men’s regular season averaged about 8000. In the eight seasons before Covid, the league’s attendance remained relatively stable, averaging between 10,000 and 13,000 a season. The recent decline is partly attributable to the crowd ban imposed upon Melbourne Victory for last year’s riotous pitch invasion and the abandonment of the league by some supporter groups protesting against the selling of the hosting rights. But assuming a slow return to pre-Covid averages, the A-League Men crowds aren’t terrible if you look around the world.

Of course, if crowds remain stuck at an average of 8000 people – barely half the high-water mark of 15,300 reached in the 2007-08 season – then perhaps there’ll be cause for alarm. But the A-League Men’s is almost 20 years old. We have plenty of data about the game’s status in this country. It has never rivalled the AFL, nor the NRL for that matter, and the game’s administrators might need to accept that it never will. Of course, such resignation is anathema in the corporate world, who must forever speak of “engagement” and “enlargement” and be seen as optimistically energetic. At what point is this simply denial? The game occupies a secondary status in the country; there’s no shame in admitting it. But we seem incapable of this honesty, preferring instead to voice absurd, corporate Pollyanna-isms. “Fundamental to our strategy is a determination to ensure that we connect and engage with every Australian,” APL chief executive Danny Townsend said last year. Good luck with that. At some point the embrace of existing fans should take priority.

This might be considered offensively meek to Ange Postecoglou, who this week became the first Australian appointed to manage an English Premier League club when he signed with London’s Tottenham Hotspur. It is an extraordinary ascension for a man who effectively exiled himself from Australia; a man whose truculent self-belief and indifference to charming the media often made him unpopular. Ultimately, his red-hot, unapologetic desire to elevate football’s status in this country made him enemies. Postecoglou’s ambition was bold, fierce and often humourless. He felt Australia suffered from low expectations, and too many had accepted mere qualification for the World Cup as the ultimate goal. This was treading water, he thought, and he experimented grandly with the Socceroos, which annoyed plenty. “Don’t be using the national team as an experimental laboratory,” Fox commentator and former Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Bosnich said. “It’s not there for that. It’s too important for that.” Bosnich was not alone in his criticism.

With justification, Postecoglou seemed to carry a great chip on his shoulder. Arriving in Australia as a five-year-old from Athens, he had long witnessed the racist dismissal of the game that he’d devoted his life to. In Australia he could be considered too ambitious and romantic; overseas he was dismissed and condescended to as a mere Aussie.

As Brisbane Roar coach from 2009-12, he not only secured back-to-back premierships but also the league’s longest unbeaten streak, at 36 matches, and he did so with a liquid, aesthetically exhilarating style of play. But criticism was never far away, and in 2017 he quit as the Socceroos coach just days after qualifying for the World Cup. The departure was sudden and rather mysterious, but last year Postecoglou revealed a little more about his reasons: his greatest success with the national squad, winning the Asian Cup on home soil in 2015, barely seemed to register. “The reason I was obsessed with winning the Asian Cup was because I thought that could be a watershed moment for Australian football, because I think winning is everything,” he told Stan Sport. “I equated it to the Euros. When a nation wins the Euros, irrespective of how strong a nation – could be a Denmark or Greece – it’s a seminal moment in that country’s evolution because, all of a sudden, they feel like they’ve achieved something … I thought [that] would then give me the power and also allow me the opportunity and give us as a nation to stand up and say, ‘Okay, this is who we are now’ … [But] I misread what happened … the impact it would possibly have.” (Similarly, the Socceroos’ World Cup campaign last year – its greatest ever – did not translate into any greater interest in the game’s domestic league here. The status of the Socceroos and the A-League seem curiously, and stubbornly, unrelated.)

One felt Postecoglou’s ideas were too grand for Australia and he moved to Japan, where he transformed J-League club Yokohama F. Marinos. They won the title in his second season, their first in almost 15 years. After three seasons in Tokyo, the Scottish giant Celtic employed him.

And here it was again: the condescension. Some Glaswegians did not take kindly to having an Aussie in charge of their grand club, and Postecoglou suffered the slings and arrows of contemptuous suspicion. He was grossly underestimated. In his two seasons with Celtic, he led them to consecutive Scottish Premier League titles, and this season became only the fifth Celtic manager to win the domestic treble. In short time, the Aussie became a folkloric figure in Glasgow.

The English Premier League is something else entirely. It is the world’s elite domestic competition, and the 57-year-old finds Spurs in a state of angst and demoralisation. But it is thrilling to contemplate his position there, this prickly, romantic and maniacally devoted man who has long felt like an outsider wherever he is. We probably didn’t deserve him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Beleaguered A-League".

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