Same Crap, Different Bucket
An Englishman's adventure in the land that Chocolate Digestives forgot.

HAL 2010 (“What are you watching, Dave?)

The vuvuzelas have barely droned their last parp and the bruises on Andres Iniesta’s shins are still pansy purple, yet here we are on the verge of another football season. Football widows rejoice – it’s back already. 

However, fans of Hyundai A-League clubs have had a longer wait than most to see their clubs in action again. Over four months have passed since Sydney FC won the championship with a penalty shoot-out win against bitter rivals Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final. It still seems a bit soon though. Not enough time has elapsed between the end of the World Cup and the start of the new season to build up the requisite levels of anticipation. Most A-League teams were already playing friendlies while England were still in the competition. 

This is a big year for the A-League. Last season, average attendances dropped to their lowest since the competition began in 2005. A disappointing performance by the Socceroos at the World Cup will have done little to win over casual fans, and the season starts at a time when the inexplicably more popular football codes of Aussie rules and rugby league are still in full flow. The FFA will be banking on A-League newcomers Melbourne Heart to provide added interest and bolster flailing crowd figures. 

Heart and Central Coast Mariners kick off season six tonight. The newest franchise have assembled an impressive squad, including the spine of Sydney’s championship-winning team (goalkeeper Clint Bolton, defender Simon Colosimo and creaking national treasure John Aloisi) as well as Socceroo Michael Beauchamp and the highly-rated Josip Skoko. Coach John v’ant Schip has declared that Heart will play a 4-3-3 formation in the ‘Dutch style’, presumably without the chest-cavity-crushing martial arts moves. Heart will be vying for local fans with Melbourne Victory, already established in the city and with a fine A-League record. 

For the first half of the season Victory will be without their main source of goals – Archie Thompson. Still recovering from a serious knee injury sustained in the Grand Final, Thompson last week reported that his rehabilitation has included time in the swimming pool made famous by Eric the Eel at the 2000 Olympics: ‘It’s no use”, he complained, “black people can’t swim”. We look forward to hearing more of his views on racial conundrums as he recuperates (white men can’t jump, Asians can’t drive, Mexicans can’t play snooker etc). In his absence, Victory will look to the promising Robbie Kruse and 2010 player of the year Carlos Hernandez to fill the void. Hernandez is a throwback to the era of salad sceptic mavericks – as capable as whipping a free kick into the top corner as blacking out while watching someone fill out a gym membership form. 

Victory also have problems at the back. Talented goalkeeper, Mitch Langerak has departed for Borussia Dortmund and pantomime toe rag Kevin Muscat looks increasingly vulnerable when faced with opponents boasting the full compliment of legs. He will, however, be motivated to stamp his authority all over of the first fixture (probably while the referee isn’t looking), as it comes against his arch nemesis: Sydney FC.

Despite the departure of several influential players (and John Aloisi), Sydney fans are optimistic for a repeat of last season’s achievements. Much of this expectation rests on the shoulders of creative midfielder Nick Carle, who has returned to the A-League after three years in Europe. Judging by his alarming tangerine hue, Carle appears to have spent much of this time in the tanning studios of South London, but his pre-season performances have been encouraging. 

Vítězslav Lavička’s team is well-organised and effective but not always riveting. At one fixture last season I watched a middle-aged woman studiously completing a colouring-in book as Byun Sung Hwan and Stephan Keller rolled the ball back and forth to one another for what felt like a significant period of time. Hopefully, Kofi Danning, an enthusiastic but raw winger, will provide some excitement and hold the attention of Sydney’s felt tip pen wielding fans. 

Before completing the signing of Carle, Sydney briefly made bedroom eyes towards Robbie Fowler, who found himself on the shelf when North Queensland Fury ran into financial grief and terminated the contracts of six players, including Fowler’s (he’s now suing the club and the FFA). Mercifully, before the millionaire property tycoon was forced to sell his children for spam, Perth Glory stepped in and signed him.

Much is expected of Perth Glory this season, as it is every season – they are the closest thing the A-League has to a sleeping giant. Whether an ageing Fowler is the right person to bring glory back to, um, Glory is questionable, but one thing is certain: the sale of Liverpool replica jerseys will provide a massive boost to the economy of Western Australia. Who needs the mining industry when you’ve got a legion of muppets willing to spend $100+ on lurid polyester garments?

Finances were also an issue for Gold Coast United during the off-season, with the publication of the 2010/11 fixture list being put on hold whilst the FFA sought assurances from controversial owner, Clive Palmer, that he would continue to bankroll the franchise. Last season the team coped admirably with the distraction of Palmer’s rich Texan routine, and remained in the title race until the final few weeks. United’s challenge was largely down to the passing and vision of Jason Culina and the goals of Shane Smeltz – the league’s top scorer. His prolific season, coupled with his energetic performances for New Zealand at the World Cup, earned him a transfer to Chinese club Shandong Luneng. However, just five days into his new contract, he had an attack of the ‘Joey Beauchamps’ and returned to Australia, claiming his family were unable to settle. Just how bad can Shandong be? Smeltz has now re-signed for United, but would be well advised not to take any holidays to Shandong in the near future (not that he would, obv). Assuming Clive Palmer doesn’t announce he’s turning their stadium into a monster truck water park, Gold Coast will again be a threat.

Before he realised how hard it was to get a Bondi Burger in China, Smeltz spent much of the summer with the coach and players of Wellington Pheonix in the form of New Zealand’s World Cup set-up. Ricky Herbert’s Pheonix are more attack-minded than Ricky Herbert’s New Zealand and less reliant on long punts to a pointy-elbowed centre forward. Pheonix play an intense pressing game and are a formidable prospect at home. In Paul Ifil they also have one of the league’s most exciting players. Yes, Paul Ifil. He’s all drag-backs and nutmegs and thirty yard screamers these days.

Central Coast Mariners’ failure to qualify for the 2010 finals series resulted in a coaching re-shuffle. Lawrie McKinna was ‘moved upstairs’ and former national coach Graham Arnold was hired. He’s since signed a group of largely unfamiliar players, including Patricio Perez from Defensa y Justicia in Argentina, which sounds like the kind of place you used to get sent to for criticising el presidente. Further up the motorway, Newcastle Jets will aim to build on last season’s Finals finish under Branko Culina. Newcastle haven’t escaped the drain of talent to Melbourne Heart, losing their captain Matt Thompson. However, their prospects are bolstered by the return of striker Michael Bridges – a man whose injury record makes Samuel L Jackson’s brittle-boned character in ‘Unbreakable’ seem like Joe Jordan

Brisbane Roar endured a torrid end to last season, plummeting down the table amid managerial controversy (Frank Farina was sacked for drink driving offences) and player revolt (old hands Charlie Miller and Craig Moore flouncing out of the club after falling out with replacement coach Ange Postecoglou). Since then, they have lost their three brightest youth prospects (including ‘The New Harry Kewell’, Tommy Oar) to FC Utrecht, and their top scorer, Sergio van Dijk to last season’s bottom club, Adelaide United.  

2009/10 was Adelaide’s worst season in the A-League so far, but it ended positively with consecutive wins and a creditable display in the Asian Cup. Following their own financial meltdown in 2009, the club are currently run by the FFA who, in keeping with their fascination with all things Netherlands, hired Dutchman Rini Coolen as a replacement to coach Aurelio Vidmar, who took up a role as assistant manager for the national team.  Adelaide should improve on last season’s insipid showing, but their fiscal situation remains a concern. 

With no clear favourite, plenty of fresh players, a host of mysterious foreign coaches and a brand new club playing in a proper rectangular football stadium, it promises to be an intersting season. Now let’s just hope that some buggers turn up to watch it. Paaaarp!

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