From one Big Three to another. Leave Cronk, Smith and Slater to the winter months; the sun is shining, the round ball is out, and it’s time for Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono to take centre stage.
The A-League is in an awkward position of having to build anticipation in the time of year when the major football codes hog the limelight most. But the 42,000 that made their way to the Docklands for the season-opening Melbourne Derby tonight shows that the domestic league is no small fry on Australia’s sporting landscape. Far from a pimple on the bum of Australian sport. Still niche, but undeniably relevant.
Hearts raised a few eyebrows with their convincing 2-1 triumph over their Victorian cousins. Losing John van’t Schip appeared a major blow, but despite John Aloisi’s inexperience, he has a rare blend of European experience and Australian knowledge that should get the best out of his Candy Stripes. Across town, optimism abounds with Ange Postecoglou in the dugout and Marcos Flores – perhaps one of the top two players in the land, alongside Thomas Broich – on the books. There’s evidently work to be done, but they will be incredibly difficult to beat if Postecoglou can apply his Brisbane doctrine in the Victorian capital.
Back in Queensland, Brisbane shouldn’t miss a beat considering Rado Vidosic – the author of the Roar bible – has been installed as manager. With no major personnel changes, they should return to the pointy end of the ladder. Their two primary challengers last season – Central Coast and Perth – are perpetually written off, but continually conjure something, especially the Mariners. Can they do it again, with a host of improving sides breathing down their neck? Gazing into my crystal ball, they’ll be competitive, but not elite.
It should be a similar story with Wellington, who can bank on a raft of points accumulated at home, and Adelaide, on the back of another terrific Asian campaign and with a caffeine-charged John Kosmina barking instructions from the sideline. Newcastle won’t be so lucky. Heskey is a huge name but, as the cliche goes, couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo. As the headline act in a threadbare squad, Heskey will likely be re-acquainted with his familiar position in the lower reaches of the ladder. Lucky there’s no relegation Down Under, Emile.
Ono’s Wanderers have been met with equal parts optimism and derision. With Lyall Gorman, the maligned ex-FFA administrator, in the director’s chair plenty of people were expecting a comically inept performance for the hastily assembled franchise, but their early movements have been refreshingly professional. They have assembled a credible best XI that will win plenty of matches, especially early (as a Sydney FC fan, it is clear they will be primed for their first meeting with their big brother and might replicate Heart’s success over their intra-city rivals). But a lack of squad depth routinely exposes new clubs and Wanderers will fade badly.
What about Big Del and his Sky Blues? Exciting, that’s for sure. But while he’s (correctly) commanding the column inches, there are a series of back up singers busily preparing themselves, too. Coach Ian Crook will prove an excellent appointment: talk about a blend of European pedigree and Antipodean nous, the former Norwich fan is the perfect fit. Crook has set about filling gaps in his squad with a cache of useful signings – including, obviously, the big fish. 2011-12 was as bad a season as Sydney could possibly endure. But even then, they came within a bee’s diaphragm of knocking off Wellington to reach the second week of the finals, from which anything could happen. Therefore it reasons that any improvement at all will send the Sky Blues deep into the finals.
Or maybe that’s just the desperate optimist in me speaking.