It’s not quite been a winter of discontent in the southern hemisphere, but the A-League off-season has posed some serious questions as to the continued health of the young competition.
Financial viability remains problematic for several of Australia’s 10 professional clubs, with the situation at Brisbane Roar and Newcastle Jets the most perilous.
Roar, for so long the benchmark on the pitch, are desperately trying to find new owners. The Indonesia-based Bakries family say they can no longer afford to run the three-times champions and have spent the last few months trying to offload the club, without success.
Late payment of wages and lapsed superannuation contributions have displeased both Roar’s players and the governing body, the FFA, which is keeping a watching brief on developments in Queensland. Already, midfielder Luke Brattan has demanded release from his contract and others may follow. New coach John Aloisi has, so far, been able to bring in only Jamie Maclaren. A difficult season may follow unless the impasse is resolved.
Newcastle Jets are already in FFA hands after Nathan Tinkler was relieved of his licence in May, leaving a trail of debt behind. A consortium led by Dundee United owner Stephen Thompson is favourite to take over. In the meantime, the FFA has appointed ex-Fulham assistant Scott Miller as the club’s new head coach.
The other eight clubs aren’t exactly flush with cash, either, and although FFA CEO David Gallop has kept hinting that a new, lucrative TV deal is imminent, the current contract with Fox Sports and SBS is still in place.
By world standards, the value of the contract is modest and the growth of MLS has seriously impacted upon the A-League’s ability to attract major stars through the “marquee” player rule.
The FFA has tried to soften this rule by allowing clubs to sign a second overseas player outside the salary cap – beforehand, one had to be Australian – but, so far, there has been little enthusiasm to go for broke, in the way Sydney did with Alessandro Del Piero.
The biggest name to arrive this coming season so far is Thomas Sorensen, the former Aston Villa, Sunderland and Stoke City goalkeeper, who joins Melbourne City, along with ex-Fulham defender Aaron Hughes and Australia internationals Ivan Franjic and Michael Zullo.
Elsewhere, Sydney replaced the departing Marc Janko – last year’s Golden Boot winner – with Slovakian striker Filip Holosko, while Serbian attacking midfielder Milos Ninkovic is the sort of player who could attain cult status.
Defending champions Melbourne Victory have kept the majority of their squad intact, but captain Mark Milligan is now in the UAE with Baniyas. Keeper Danny Vukovic is, so far, the only new arrival.
Western Sydney Wanderers, whose domestic campaign was badly hit by success in the Asian Champions League last year, have had the busiest pre-season. Coach Tony Popovic released no fewer than 16 players, bringing nine in, including Spaniards Dimas Delgado, Alberto Aguilar and Andreu Guerao Mayoral.
Adelaide United suffered a major blow when coach Josep Gombau left to take up a role with New York City, although he is replaced by former Barcelona man Guillermo Amor.
Perth Glory, looking to recover from last year’s fiasco when they were thrown out of the finals after breaching the salary-cap rules by quite some margin, have made some interesting acquisitions, the pick of which is Spanish winger Diego Castro. The flip side is the loss of top scorer Andy Keogh, who is now in Thailand.
Central Coast Mariners are another club keeping a beady eye on the books and their recruitment has been modest. Irish B international Roy O’Donovan will need to find goals if Tony Walmsley’s team are to challenge.
Wellington Phoenix have lost A-League Player of the Year, and their leading goalscorer, Nathan Burns, to Tokyo. His replacement is Jeffrey Sarpong, but given the Dutchman has netted only four times in 79 games during a stop-start career he may struggle to fit the bill.
FFA chairman Frank Lowy will stand down in November after over a decade at the helm of a game that has been revitalised under his watch. Whether the next 10 years will be as successful, only time will tell.
Regular season starts: October 8, 2015
Regular season ends: April 10, 2016
Finals series begins: April 15, 2016
Grand Final: May 1, 2016
By Simon Hill