The time is now for the A-League to think big

The A-League is just two weeks away but the red hot topic amongst the fans is not the impact Paul Okon may have in Gosford or whether this Perth Glory squad is the strongest we’ve seen (just quietly I think it might be). No, the chatter has once again turned to a second tier and promotion and relegation.


Edgeworth Eagles and Western Sydney Wanderers players prior to their Round of 16 FFA Cup clash Source: Getty Images

Mike Cockerill editorialised on it for Fairfax, and social media is, as usual, tearing each other apart about it.

Even A-League executives are speaking up in favour of the concept. And FIFA are in town - looking at this as part of an overall "health check". 

This is nothing new. 

The debate has rumbled on for some time now, as the "closed shop” of the A-League continues on its way to a new broadcast deal and a bright future.

But what feels different this time is that the tide of opinion appears to have swung away from the long held belief of maintaining the status quo, into a position where a second tier isn’t just preferable, it’s essential. 

The FFA Cup is undoubtedly playing a part as the winds of change blow through the game. 

The sight of NPL sides going toe-to-toe, and often overcoming A-League sides, has stirred the romantic in all of us. 

The thought of Melbourne City heading to Sydney United, or the Wanderers travelling to Adelaide City on a regular basis is actually exciting, and I speak as a man whose only experience of the NSL was a rather dispiriting evening watching the dying embers of Parramatta Power.

The A-League has done many, many, things well. 

The league is stable, aside from the usual suspects where mistakes of the past continue the haunt the present.

Players are being produced and are beginning to make an impact overseas and in national colours. 

The spectacle, at the top end, is great, and in Melbourne Victory, we have one of the very top clubs in any sport in this country. A strong, forward thinking, classy organisation. 

There is no doubt, however, that fatigue can set in over the course of the season - with the same fixture patterns, involving the same clubs towards the foot of the league, with very little on the line.

That is no good for the clubs, the fans, the broadcasters, or anyone. 

That’s why a second tier, with promotion and relegation, will inject excitement and unpredictability to a league that needs a point of difference.
One of the arguments against - is the same tired old mantras about ethnic clubs and violence.

But we’ve had state league representation in the FFA Cup for three years, and the sky hasn’t fallen in quite yet. 

What we’ve had is vibrant, authentic football and crowds, in a competition that despite having some teething problems, still, is a genuinely exciting addition to the football landscape. 

Another argument against is finance. 

These clubs will go broke. Why? They currently operate on models that, appear form the outside at least, to be sustainable.

Travel costs will increase hugely of course, but so will revenue from sponsors, gate receipts, broadcasters. 

You would be getting established clubs, with established structures and established fan bases, no matter how small or large.

Expansion cannot be guaranteed to deliver this though, and you only get one Western Sydney Wanderers in your lifetime. 

And we’ve hardly been immune from financial issues in the salary capped A-League as it is.

Operate your club well, and you’ll be fine. Operate it poorly and then the trouble starts.
Population base is important too - 'certain places are too small to have teams'.

The size of your town doesn’t equate to the success of your club.

It took Paris decades to find a consistently successful top tier side. Whereas Villarreal, a town with a population smaller than Bendigo and Coffs Harbour, has challenged the giants of Spain and reached a UEFA Champions League semi-final.

Find where the passion is, and strike there. It’s why Western Sydney worked.

Of course it’s easy to advocate, harder to implement.

There’s no simple way to launch a second tier tomorrow and it’s understandable, given the FFA’s financial position over the past decade, to be cautious.

But what must start now is the plan. The road map that will take the game to a new era, and to really provide the point of difference to the rest of the Australian sporting landscape.

A new broadcast deal and the return of Tim Cahill will give the A-League a big shot in the arm, but it can also be used as a springboard for the future.

Now is the time to think big. 

More teams, more games, more players, more pathways, more fans. Everyone wins. 

The former NBA basketballer, turned politician, Bill Bradley, said “ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”

The football family are in the car ready to go. Just show us the road.

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5 min read
Published 22 September 2016 at 1:20pm
By Stuart Randall