Improving young locals, imports and coaching
22 April ~ In the last minute of added time in the last regular game of the A-League season, Alessandro del Piero flicked a through-ball past William Gallas for Richard Garcia to give Sydney FC a barely deserved 2-1 win over Perth Glory. The win secured Sydney's place in the final play-offs – a low bar given that the top six qualify in a ten-team league – and left Perth with the familiar feeling of failure in eighth place. It was a short-lived glimpse of success for Sydney, as they were eliminated at the first hurdle the next week, but the identity of the three players and the fate of their teams tells you something about where the A-League is up to.
Despite Del Piero's huge appeal and frequent bursts of brilliance (plus some bravura diving displays), Sydney have manifestly failed to progress during his two years at the club, going through three coaches and offering up some almighty dross to their often disgruntled fans.
Gallas contributed to everyone's enjoyment of the season, first with a memorably breathless interview that hinted strongly at his fitness levels, then a comical error that gifted a goal to the Western Sydney Wanderers. And Garcia's honest efforts added another piece of evidence to the question of what contribution former Socceroos returning from Europe can make to the A-League: the answer increasingly seems to be that it's a peripheral one at best.
It's been a season of mildly encouraging progress for the domestic game, with A-League crowds slightly up, competitive performances from the three qualifiers for the Asian Champions League and the establishment of a knockout cup competition alongside state league reorganisation, both designed to strengthen the often fractious relationship between the A-League and the rest of Australian football.
The improvement in A-League coaching has been recognised by the choice of Ange Postecoglou as Socceroos coach and reinforced by the achievements of his unheralded successor at Brisbane, Mike Mulvey, and the impact of the eccentric, Barcelona-schooled Josep Gombau at Adelaide. Although Adelaide finished only sixth, those two clubs in particular showed why the era of attention-grabbing ageing imports is, or should be, over. By far the most effective foreigners in recent A-League seasons have been much less well-known players such as the German Thomas Broich and Albanian Besart Berisha at Brisbane, Dutchman Youssouf Hersi at Western Sydney and Adelaide's Marcelo Carrusca (Argentina) and Sergio Cirio (Spain).
Similarly, the outstanding local contributors have been at the younger end of the scale, despite the solid efforts of returning Socceroos such as Brett Emerton and Mile Sterjovski, both now retiring alongside the more celebrated but less effective Harry Kewell. Three Australians led the goalscoring charts, of whom Newcastle's Adam Taggart (20) and Melbourne Victory's James Troisi (25) have a decent chance of going to the World Cup, as does Western Sydney's 22-year-old Tomi Juric and several others who have played all their senior football in Australia, or rediscovered their best there.
The league's future must lie in developing young players good enough to go to top overseas leagues, but keeping them in Australia long enough to develop a strong connection with the public. Add smart coaches and interesting imports with something to prove (rather than star names whose legs have gone) and the competition will keep growing.
Leaving aside the unknown quantity of Manchester City's influence on their new acquisition Melbourne Heart, the only club in the league that seem not to have realised that is Sydney FC. At the time of writing rumours suggest they are considering extending their Del Piero fetish – this time as a replacement for coach Frank Farina, widely assumed to be on his way out. Mike Ticher