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After coming under fire from a rival coach, rookie coach Vitezslav Lavicka had the last laugh

Last September, after Sydney’s 2-1 home win over northern rivals Newcastle United Jets, losing coach Branko Culina unleashed an extraordinary tirade at the way his team had been beaten.

Culina fumed: “I don’t care what their coach says – and the fact that he’s on A$500,000 and I’m on 50 bucks or whatever it is – but if that’s what the foreigners are going to bring to this game, let’s have more local coaches.”

The reference was to Vitezslav Lavicka, the 46-year-old Czech with impressive records at Sparta Prague and Slovan Liberec, who is the only imported coach in the 10-team A-League.

The dignified and mild-mannered Lavicka didn’t react. But if he were a man easily given to laughter he would be having a rollicking last laugh six months later after steering Sydney to the championship in his first season, with a team that, for the most part, he inherited rather than built.

Lavicka took over a disunited rabble of a squad which the previous season, under former national captain John Kosmina, missed out on the play-offs completely. He slowly and painstakingly fashioned the team into his way of playing which, a year later, became
the envy of the competition.

But it was no stroll and it wasn’t until the final stages of the campaign that the team finally ripened, winning it in a thrilling finish that was a scriptwriter’s dream come true.

The home straight included four captivating games in four weeks between the season’s two big rivals, Sydney and Melbourne Victory, representing the country’s two biggest cities – a kind of Real Madrid versus Barcelona hotbed in a more modest Antipodean sense.

The first of the four came in the final round of the home-and-away series; a 2-0 home win for Sydney climaxed by a screamer from John Aloisi, the league’s top earner who managed only two goals last season but became Sydney’s top marksman under Lavicka. It gave Sydney a first-place finish by one point and secured a berth in the Asian Champions League.

Melbourne then triumphed in their home-and-away clash in the play-offs, winning 4-3 on aggregate, before Sydney re-emerged to meet Victory again, at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium to win the Grand Final 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

The epic punchline to the campaign restored a great deal of credibility to a league which was not entirely untroubled in its fifth season, with its brave expansion, from eight teams to 10, a less than total success.

On the field the two newcomers, Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury, were not disgraced, especially Gold Coast who, bankrolled by entrepreneur Clive Palmer, one of Australia’s richest men, debuted in an elegant third place. Fury, with less brash financial backing, finished two points out of the final play-offs in seventh.

But off the field both were a disaster. Gold Coast struggled to attract more than 5,000 fans to their home games, while North Queensland almost went to the wall, owner Don Matheson throwing in the towel at the season’s end under the weight of a personal bleed that included a hefty salary paid to former Liverpool star Robbie Fowler.

The Fury were bailed out and kept afloat in the end by a combination of support from a group of local investors and Football Federation Australia (FFA), which dearly wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a failed attempt at expansion.

A bright light was the league’s foreign appendage, Wellington Phoenix, from the New Zealand capital, who played to large, buoyant crowds. In November, New Zealand qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years with more than half the national team made up of Phoenix players.

Wellington made the play-offs for the first time and, in front of a capacity 40,000 home crowd – the biggest-ever football attendance in New Zealand – beat Newcastle Jets, only to lose their next match in Sydney.

Despite the uneasy debuts of Gold Coast and North Queensland, the FFA expansion programme continues, with a second team from the Victorian capital, Melbourne Heart, joining next season. It’s an ambitious franchise and player recruitment is now underway with another foreign coach, former Ajax star John Van’t Schip.

Player of the season
Carlos Hernandez (Melbourne Victory)
The 27-year-old Costa Rica midfielder has been the A-League’s best player for two seasons and in February walked away with the peer-voted player of the year award. A playmaker in the classic No10 sense, his immaculate technique, intellect and ferocious shooting makes him a most feared opponent. Neutralising Hernandez is a prerequisite for beating the Grand Finalists.

Coach of the season
Vitezslav Lavicka (Sydney)
Although Melbourne’s Ernie Merrick was named coach of the year before the finals series, by the end of the season Lavicka, a Czech import, had established himself as the league’s best coach. This was not just because he carried Sydney to the title, but for also having brought a level of technical and tactical sophistication to the league that it had not experienced before.

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