Without survival of fittest A-League Men will keep ending with a whimper | Joey Lynch
There is a haunting presence in the A-League Men. Shuffling from ground to ground clad in tattered purple, orange, or red and black regalia, they are the ALM revenants: those whose seasons have long since died but continue to walk amongst us. Their hopes and dreams dashed, their only purpose now is to haunt the rest who still draw breath.
This is the reality of what confronts Perth Glory the Western Sydney Wanderers and Brisbane Roar as the 2021-22 season concludes. With little to no hope of finals football, supporters watch on as their beloved clubs, once so full of promise, go through the grim motions before they can mercifully be put out of their misery. Should Newcastle Jets fail to beat the Wanderers on Wednesday, they can be thrown on the pile as well.
While the Glory remain the only side mathematically eliminated from the finals race, the three teams have combined to win just a single one of their last 15 matches and all, for varying reasons, are fundamentally flawed. Or deeply flawed, in the case of injury-ravaged and imploding Perth, who conceded six goals for the second time in three games as they meekly surrendered to Western United on Saturday evening. This came just days after Glory owner Tony Sage accused beleaguered fans of being “keyboard warriors” and forced chief executive Tony Pignata and interim coach Ruben Zadkovich into damage control … again.
Sage’s blast, ironically delivered via a keyboard, was a bold move given fans are under no obligation to support any club and increasingly voting with their feet. Just 4,212 scattered across CommBank Stadium, for instance, as the Wanderers threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Central Coast Mariners on Wednesday. With its occupants long since disillusioned with their club’s ability to deliver bombastic yet ultimately hollow promises of success, the crown jewel of A-Leagues stadia sat largely empty.
By virtue of having a finals system that reserves space for 50% of the league, the ALM does attempt to delay the onset of this morbid state of affairs as long as it can. But in a season which will be memorable in all the wrong ways, the inevitable lull that is occurring as teams begin to wind out the clock to mostly empty stadiums and little external interest is biting even harder than normal.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Melbourne City, Western United and Melbourne Victory appear set to stage a gripping, three-way battle for the Premiers’ Plate as the season enters its home stretch. Six sides are still battling it out for three playoff places on offer behind them. Then, the sugar hit that is the finals will begin. There are narratives there.
Things will also be better next year, it has been promised. More stability, more investment and broadcaster Paramount+ might even add a pause and rewind option to its live streams.
Fundamentally, however, the very nature of the ALM’s model means that, without change, the final part of each season will never offer much reason to pay attention to about a third of its clubs. Without the prospect of relegation to a lower tier, the existential stakes that produce some of the most gripping football on offer around the world simply do not exist.
Coaches may be sacked, executives shown the exit and players moved on, but the club will always get to come back next year and pretend nothing happened. There is no tension and no stick demanding improvements. It is a scenario that allowed Melbourne Victory to essentially abdicate the tail end of the 2020-21 season with Steve Kean at the helm. It is what allowed Central Coast owner Mike Charlesworth to fail to properly invest in the club for years as the team crashed to wooden spoon after wooden spoon.
It reinforces a sense of entitlement. Some clubs – their fans, history, homes and ability to contribute – are deemed more valid than others because they possess an ALM licence.
And at this point that will not change, because Australia does not even have a national second division to which clubs might be relegated. An open pyramid is years away and will require a significant runway to allow for financial and infrastructural standards to ensure clubs that do rise have the capability to survive.
But with Football Australia promising a second tier in 2023, progress is ostensibly being made. And as the 2021-22 season winds down and a growing list of clubs head to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this all to blow over, the benefits that an introduction of jeopardy, both from an entertainment and survival-of-the-fittest aspect, are obvious.