Monday, 19 March 2018

Learnings - Pascoe Vale 2 South Melbourne 2

Because I squandered 7,000 words on that other post, and since nobody likes a waffler, let's keep this post reasonably short and sweet.

What have we learned so far in 2018 about what this team is?
  • We have no Plan B. It's the same subs trying to fix the same problem, which is mostly players running out of gas. We have no meaningful depth, which makes implementing a tactical adjustment very difficult.
  • We look great at the start, fresh and lively and dangerous. We actually look really good, and one can't actually say otherwise. Then it gets a bit iffy. We maybe concede a goal and drop our heads, lose our way quickly. Then as the game wears on, all of that disappears. Before we run out of gas, if we lose the ball anywhere, we're quick to win it back. When we lose the ball after the hour mark, the ball zips up to the other end in a flash. Our defensive transition becomes woeful.
  • Our crossing is garbage. That's been the case for a long time anyway, but this season it has been much worse than usual. We also don't have a set piece taker. Again, this has been a problem for a number of years, but this year even our usual tolerable option (Marcus Schroen) isn't available. Now in terms of corners, that's near enough to a lottery anyway. But whether you hate or merely tolerate him, the Peoples' Champ is not a free kick taker.
  • Last year it was the right hand side which was a mess, this year it's the left. And when Brennan runs out of steam and gets subbed off, both wings go missing, as Oliver Minatel hasn't yet done anything of note.
  • The striker insurance plan is in as much trouble as last year, and every year since we've relied on Leigh Minopoulos to be the one and only back up to Milos Lujic. If it's true that Giordano Marafioti has suffered a season ending knee injury, we're in even worse shape.
  • Some people got a little bit too excited about Christos Intzidis a little bit too quickly. Despite only having played against two of the smaller and weaker forward lines in the league, people - and not just our own fans - saw his good side and were talking him up big time. But the Intzidis and Konstantinidis partnership was always going to come up against sterner tests. Why couldn't people just be a little more patient?
There is that one possible saving grace that last year we had fewer points and also put up some garbage performances. Just awful really. Remember the 4-0 loss to Port? How about that abomination that was the loss to Avondale? We had five points from the first five rounds, two very ordinary performances wins against lower league FFA Cup opposition. We've already got five points on the board, and the team has looked more capable of winning games than at this point last year.

On the other hand, last year other teams were also tripping themselves up, and we're already streets behind teams that are winning all their games and winning them well. So, for those hoping for an unlikely first place finish, I'd let go of that wish for now. It's the way we've been dropping points so far that's the concern, coupled with the lack of depth, the sense of doom after Taylor's sacking which was temporarily alleviated by the win against the Chinese and the decent looking performances of the first couple of games.

But at least last year you had the idea that the team was playing so badly that at some point they could only play better. Does this team have that capacity?

Next match
Away to Northcote on Saturday. Please note that the kickoff time for this game has been changed from its original 3:00PM timeslot to a 6:30PM start. Also, a good deal of John Cain Memorial Park is under redevelopment, so the western end of the ground seems to be inaccessible to spectators.

FFA Cup news
The fourth round draw was held last Tuesday. This is the stage of the tournament where ourselves and the other Victorian NPL teams enter the competition. We have been drawn away against Hume City. It looks like the fixture has been set for Friday March 30th (the Good Friday public holiday), with kickoff at 5:00PM.

A-League expansion "news"
Um, so apparently this is back 'on' now. Looking at adding two teams in 2019/20, about ten bidding groups and maybe more coming out of the woodwork once the bidding process is made official or whatever. This is the bit I'm most excited about:
"Specific criteria for application will be released"
Though sadly this will only be released to the parties bidding for licences. But, come on, specific criteria at last! A carefully worded framework which has to ensure that the current A-League licence holders pass the mark, while also being set up in such a way to ensure that South doesn't qualify.

Assuming of course that we are even any chance of meeting A-League criteria of any sort.

And to any member of a bidding team out there who wants to sneakily pass on the FFA's expansion bid checklist this blogger's way, that'd be terrific. Utmost discretion will be practiced.

Our former journalist friend Matt Windley (late of the Herald Sun) has joined the South-East Melbourne A-League bid team. Need to find another journo to suck up to.

Around the grounds
Thank goodness the state leagues begin this week.

Final thought
If I hear the word "hektik" one more time this season...

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Summary of March 2018 AAFC roadshow Melbourne edition

Introductory remarks
Derisory as I am of the idea of promotion and relegation in Australia, attending the Association of Australian Football Clubs roadshow event in Melbourne last Thursday seemed like a no-brainer. This meeting was meant to be held in Sports House in Albert Park, but a text message received while I was on the train up there said that a burst water pipe had necessitated the relocation of the event to the South Melbourne FC social club.

Of course. What else could they have done at such short notice?

Nursing my gin and tonic I had not intended to tweet much about the event, but rather take some brief notes on my phone (I'd not bothered to bring pen and paper as I do for say, South Melbourne AGMs), but after getting a polite request and checking that I had enough battery left on my phone, I decided to give it a go. I did note that Shouty Mike was also in the room, and though long since blocked by him on Twitter, I guessed he would tweet at least some of what was happening on the night, so there's always that if anyone wants an alternative view of proceedings.

There were also summary notes taken by freelancer/interested onlooker Matthew Galea, if one cares to go back far enough in his time-line, and there has been a positive overview of the night by journalist Jonathan Howcroft on Football Nation Radio. Also on Football Nation Radio is an interview with Tom Kalas.

Through my limited internet trawling, there appears to have been very little comment made about any of the roadshow meetings outside the Melbourne event. I'm not sure why that is the case - was the roadshow not publicised well enough, or is there just inherently more interest in these matters in Melbourne? One thing which came across during the Melbourne meeting is that there were at least slightly different messages given to different AAFC constituencies. This makes sense because, as I'll reiterate later, each state's experience of the National Premier Leagues, let alone Australian soccer, is quite different from each other.

The crowd built up to about 40-50 people, mostly in casual (non-club) gear, with a few exceptions. I recognised (and learned over the course of the night) that there were representatives present from South Melbourne (Andrew Mesourouni and Leo Athanasakis), Northcote, Heidelberg, Goulburn Valley Suns, Bendigo City(!), and North Geelong, but not much more beyond that. There were some non-club representatives - that is ordinary fans, and one bloke from local Greek media who I see around a lot but don't know the name of nor who he works for - but otherwise the audience seemed to be mostly committee members of various NPL teams.

It is interesting that more ordinary fans didn't show up. That being said, AAFC only has a couple hundred more followers on Twitter than I do (I have no idea about their reach on Facebook), so maybe this was actually about as good a turnout as one could expect. Indeed, we were told on at least a couple of occasions that the Melbourne meeting had the biggest attendance of any of the AAFC roadshow sessions up until that point, with only Newcastle yet to come. Why was that the case? I suppose it helps that Victoria has one of the larger NPL setups in terms of numbers of clubs, at over 30, and more NPL teams means more people likely to turn up.

(As an aside, when AAFC representatives were asked who were the Victorian NPL teams not under the AAFC umbrella, it was noted that Whittlesea Ranges and Sunshine George Cross were among them. Ranges I could understand, I guess, from their Victory/sponsor connections - though Moreland Zebras/Victory man Joe Mirabella was in attendance on the night - but the Georgies one has me a bit stumped to be honest.)

There's also a continuity in recent times in terms of Victorian clubs getting together to fight the establishment, namely, the (mostly) united front by leading and aspirational clubs against Football Federation Victoria's original NPL framework. Indeed, two of the key figures in that campaign - Tom Kalas and Nick Galatas - are now key members of AAFC. There's probably other factors for the larger turnout too, like the more obvious seething antipathy in Victoria for Football Federation Australia compared to other states, which would extend to the general distrust of New South Wales' dominance of Australian soccer. Neither do Victorian clubs, even the powerful ones, have anything like the facilities (on field or off) of the wealthier New South Wales clubs. Add in existing under the Aussie rules hegemony, and I guess everyone feels a bit more vulnerable than they'd like to admit.

(As another aside, FFV president - and according to one source, also currently acting FFV CEO - Kimon Taliadoros was absent, due to a competing engagement. FFV had some representation at the meeting in the form of Gary Cole, recently hired by FFV as "Manager, Football Strategy and Special Projects". While an FFA representative attended AAFC's Queensland roadshow meeting, it was speculated out loud that FFA were not likely to attend a Victorian meeting due to the hostility they were likely to receive from members of the audience.)

Representing AAFC on the night on the front table/panel of sorts were Dean Hennessey, current Pascoe Vale technical director, ex-coach and TD of a few places; Tom Kalas, ex-South Melbourne board member, interim AAFC chairman during parts of 2017 and frequent spokesman for the group; Nick Galatas, South Melbourne chairman until very recently; and AAFC chairman Rabieh Krayem, one time Northern Fury chairman. Oddly, of those four only Krayem offered any significant contribution to the night's proceedings, with Krayem at times sharing the stage or delegating proceedings to AAFC treasurer Christo Patsan of Northern New South Wales.

From then to now
The evening began with an address by Rabieh Krayem, giving an overview of AAFC's progress and success up until now. He outlined the reasons for the establishment of AAFC, a summary of AAFC's rise to (relative) prominence, and noted the ongoing unity of AAFC member clubs. This theme of unity was returned to throughout the night, out of a certain degree of truth no doubt, but also in its own way acting as a polite reminder to AAFC member clubs that anything which would undermine that unity would be detrimental to their collective aims.

But as with so much of what AAFC is about, it's about adding a positive spin to everything that they do; thus extolling AAFC's ability to unite so many disparate soccer clubs, and celebrating an unprecedented collective effort in "putting football ahead of self-interest". This was reiterated by comments such as the unity of the AAFC clubs apparently confusing FFA. Added to the repetition of the need for continued unity were the virtues of focus and patience; not everything would happen at once, and the keenness for reform from NPL clubs needed to be properly directed.

Krayem went on to list the three broadest issues which the NPL clubs suffer under and which AAFC hopes to fix:
  1. Unsustainable NPL model. 
  2. The high costs of junior soccer. 
  3. The limitations on growth for NPL clubs under the current system.
Some of these issues were covered in relative brevity, either by the night's two main hosts, or during the workshop period of the meeting. As best as I can recall, no specific details were offered in terms of fixing points 1 and 2, but point 3 was addressed in detailing what AAFC hoped to achieve as part of its aim to help create a truly national second tier.

The Championship/Second Tier discussion
After announcing its initial framework for a second tier model (among other demands) last year (see my take here; or the guest point-counterpoint here), AAFC announced at the roadshow meeting that it is in the process of creating a working model group for the second development stage (out of three) for its second tier/Championship model. The intention is to finish this stage by June, and seeing as how AAFC met its own October 2017 deadline for releasing its original/stage one proposal, we can be optimistic that we'll see the results of stage two sometime in mid-year.

Sceptical as I am about many facets of this plan, one development (or the absence of) I was interested in seeing was whether other relevant Australian soccer parties - federations, players, etc - would become involved in trying to develop a second tier model. And this is where one of the more interesting - and as it turns out, also contentious - parts of the meeting took place. AAFC claimed that it would be working with FFV, Football New South Wales, and Professional Footballers Australia to develop the model; indeed, that those three groups would also provide funding for the necessary research. Apart from the (however vague) political vote of confidence that such a collaboration implies, the news that there would be pooled funding for the working model group caught the attention of a few onlookers both at the venue and among those observing online.

Later on though there emerged conflicting reports about whether FFV had actually agreed to provide funding for the working model group, as opposed to merely providing moral and/or logistical support. In communications I had with different people, from the AAFC side there was insistence that FFV (and even FFA) had committed to funding the working model group, while two sources from the FFV side insisted to me that no financial commitment had been made by FFV. Confusing things further, from the AAFC side I later received "clarification" that AAFC was still in discussions with the different groups about the possibility of funding the working model group.

When combined with the suggestion, made at the Adelaide meeting, that AAFC member clubs would be asked to contribute financially to the working model group, there seem to be mixed messages floating around about how the working model group will be funded.
So far, AAFC has apparently spent $90,000 on research - originating I assume from a mix of club donations, but principally from the generosity of some of its wealthier patrons. It's an expensive business getting together not just the conceptual framework for your new competition, but also putting together the mechanics of how you claim it will all work.

It's also necessary, not just from a "prove the doubters wrong" aspect, but also from a "putting in a competing framework to the only one that currently exists" aspect. When the NSL Taskforce Report was released many years ago (perhaps the most overlooked document in Australian soccer history, because everyone keeps focusing on the Crawford Report, the latter of which was related to governance, not the league), it had the added heft of being based on the research of the PFA, at the time "the most stable and cohesive institution within the game" according to Joe Gorman. The PFA model is what the A-League was born from, albeit not in its pure form; nothing is ever taken straight the shelf, much like the FFA governance model wasn't a direct lift from the Crawford Report.

The main point however is that long ago the one prominent organisation in Australian soccer that had not been sullied by Australian soccer's reputation of mismanagement and corruption was the only one that came up with a plan, funded by itself. In a moment when confidence in Australian soccer's leading institutions is once again at a low ebb, AAFC has the opportunity to do something similar to what the PFA did in the past, by transitioning from being a fledgling advocacy group to something which has its own intellectual property in the form of a firm plan - not just ideas - about how to improve the game in Australia. In an environment where the best ideas anyone else can come up with to rejuvenate the A-League and by extension Australian soccer are "maybe we should add a couple of teams, maybe..." and "all we really need to do is have an independent A-League" - as if either of those alone would be anything other than short term solutions - a bold, costed, detailed and logical plan would stand out.

If some observers of my Twitter feed were upset by the suggestion that FFV and/or FNSW would use "junior fees" to pursue the dreams of a collection of rebellious/ambitious/arrogant clubs, it wasn't just those people that had their jimmies rustled by information provided during this segment. When a slide was put up showing a comparison of current NPL club costs compared to possible Championship model costs, some in the audience were a bit stunned by the figures of current NPL costs, thinking them too high, especially in terms of wages.

The broad range offered by the AAFC's slide claimed that current player wage bills were up to $800,000 a season; the exclamation from some in the crowd was that most clubs would be paying, at best, half that amount. Along with questions about how AAFC got those figures, reasonable comment was made from the floor that this section of the presentation should have included "bands" of spending to more accurately reflect current spending trends. And I agree that there should have been more detailed information about how many clubs were in different wage spending bands, (as well as other costs) and that this data should have also included a breakdown of these details by state, so AAFC members and interested onlookers could see a more complete economic picture of Australian soccer at the second tier level.

Of course, this means more clubs opening themselves up to the kind of scrutiny that few clubs at this level would be comfortable with, but what price the greater good?

With costs, including wages, obviously rising across the board for a national second tier model, it felt to me for a moment that for some clubs the penny may have finally dropped about how realistic participation in a national second tier would actually be for them. But then the discussion moved on to whether second tier teams would be obliged to spend that much, or whether they'd be allowed to get away with spending a lot less. And therein lies one of the problems to be worked out among those arguing for a national second tier. There is a very broad spectrum of people discussing things like a second tier and associated reforms, ranging from a complete laissez-faire approach to something much more regulated, but which side of that ideological ledger will AAFC's second tier model prioritise?

Among those who criticise the A-League, much of that criticism centres around things like the salary cap, the salary floor, minimum player wages, and the assortment of other measures which see the A-League operate as a cartel like the top competitions of the other major Australian football codes. (This includes what might be called the Rolls Royce model around fan experience, stadiums, etc). Apart from disagreeing with that cartel approach from the position of "it's not how a real soccer economy or system works" or "it doesn't replicate the global standard", the argument also claims that the cartel approach entrenches mediocrity. Teams that struggle on the park have less incentive to immediately do better in order to secure their position in the league; successful teams have artificial barriers preventing them from actually putting out the best product that they can, because they must be kept in relative check with all the struggling teams

Cost is one thing, revenue quite another. Of course a lot of the doubters are wondering where the money will come from, especially as costs increase. While some potential national second tier clubs are reasonably well placed to cope with the wage increases (and some will have the benefit of less travel than potential competitors), there will still be significantly increased costs which will need to be covered. In the discussion which reiterated the preferred administrative model for the hypothetical national second tier, there was also some discussion about pooled revenue and profit sharing. Uneducated as I am about these matters, it nevertheless seems to imply a certain degree of cartel discipline, and thus a step removed from a no-holds-barred spending model. It also says something about the fact that AAFC believes that there will be profit to be shared.

But where someone like me sees problems, AAFC sees opportunities. AAFC is frequently on record with talking about how much money is generated by its member clubs for the Australian soccer ecosystem (some would counter that by claiming that it's mostly generated by the junior fees paid to NPL teams), but also about the limitations placed upon teams outside the A-League because of Australian topflight soccer's closed shop. Almost inevitably, AAFC expects that increased sponsorship opportunities will emerge for teams participating in a national second tier. But aside from that, AAFC believes there is an opportunity to take advantage of a changing media landscape, which for me is code for non-traditional (and non-terrestrial) broadcast media.

Previously, if not from AAFC itself than from people advocating for similar outcomes, the idea (or hope) was that SBS would be a partner of a national second tier, an idea which I never had much confidence would be realised. For starters, SBS's Australian soccer content - indeed its soccer content outside of its lone EPL game a week at midnight Saturday -  has now regressed to an almost negligible existence. What could possibly prompt them to spend the necessary funds to show a second tier competition with limited opportunities for recouping any investment? This suggestion, which goes back years before the existence of any tangible second tier movement - and which was originally formulated around showing live state premier league games - has always left me stumped.

Should this subtle rhetorical shift in emphasis - from securing a traditional and established broadcast media partner to a non-traditional equivalent - concern prospective members of a national second tier? It's something that certainly bothers me, but I'm already long gone on the prospects of this thing even working. For those more open-minded on these matters however, it should still be something that they keep an eye on - every cent that The Championship model doesn't get from a broadcast deal is that much more revenue that will need to be collected from other sources to make up for it.

In terms of player recruitment for The Championship, Krayem was adamant that it was "not designed as a retirement home", and that rules would be set up in order to promote younger Australian talent. This was clearly a riposte to the geriatric progression of the A-League, but also perhaps a critique of the NPL as it currently functions with regards to player recruitment. For example, does the luring of players from Queensland to Victoria help Queensland soccer? It may help those individual players by having them play in a higher standard competition, but it also weakens the standard of Queensland soccer. And what does the Victorian appetite for recruiting players from outside Victoria - previously British backpackers, currently Queenslanders and players from smaller states - say about the lack of opportunity given to Victorian players? And in the case of bringing in players from Tasmania, might this actually be much more justifiable? It's a lot to chew on.

Regarding questions from the floor about the transfer model to be used in The Championship, and Australian player transfer reform in general (as part of the now longstanding grievances state league clubs have about their players being poached by A-League teams, including the latter's designated NPL sides), the short and only answer given was that this was something that would be worked on.

The Championship would be a summer competition, with men's and women's components. I was not able to ascertain on the night whether successful applicants for The Championship would need to field both men's and women's teams as part of their participation. (update: see the comments section for clarification) This is an interesting point for how women's soccer exists in Australia. More often than not, the wealthiest soccer clubs in Australia (below the A-League level) are those which have a long tradition of successful male teams, with their female teams, where they exist, being an afterthought. Meanwhile those state league clubs which have historically been most successful at running female teams - often by women themselves and existing in the void left by the absence of a strong senior mens' program - would struggle to find the means to support a grandiose venture such as ongoing participation in a national second tier competition.

There was no elaboration on the matter of promotion and relegation to and from the A-League, or from and to the extant NPL competitions. While perhaps this meeting was neither the time nor the place for an explanation of how the different league layers would be formally linked together, it did leave a gaping hole in the area most casual onlookers (admittedly not in the room, but among those observing online) wanted to know. Krayem said that the NPL would persist; insofar as my understanding goes, this positions The Championship as the mechanism by which Australian soccer begins to achieve a necessary realignment of the its competition hierarchy.

Christo Patsan said that the founding principles and intent of the NPL and National Competitions Review were sound and largely still relevant and worth pursuing. I'm not sure that feeling is shared by everyone. If I was to summarise what I think AAFC want, it is a nationally consistent NPL approach (and eventually second tier) where clubs have the ability to control their identity and destinies. Are the ideals of a consistent framework and the freedom for clubs to do their own thing compatible concepts though?

That the NPL competitions would continue means that there needs to be a lot of work done to sort out how this is all going to come together. I mean, that much is obvious to everyone. Even among the advocates for a promotion-relegation regime however, there are a range of views of how this would work, ranging from a "quasi-cartel, necessary criteria to be met" model, to something much more cut-throat and free-market. At the moment. it also appears that apart from Victoria and New South Wales, most states are only paying lip service to AAFC's aim of a second division. Cue the NSL conspiracy again. Should the Championship become operational, AAFC says its administration would be based in Melbourne, a deliberate challenge to Sydney's dominance of Australian soccer administration.

(And while really not important from the fact of its obvious implausibility, it is worth noting that there was also the odd call from the floor - with slightly more than muted approval from the guests in attendance - that if FFA and everyone else didn't want to get a second tier up and running, that the clubs should just breakaway and form their own competition. This idea had cold water poured on it from AAFC panel members, but it does highlight that there are very diverse views and attitudes to Australian soccer matters within AAFC's constituency.)

The most left-field proposal on the night...
Was AAFC's desire to hold an annual junior tournament for AAFC member clubs. The age range would be 13-16, for both boys and girls teams, with the event held in a single location. The annual extravaganza would also include conferences and seminars. Aiming to start in April 2020 - one assumes over the Easter break - this is a logistically bold, perhaps even insane proposal. It would require accommodating thousands of travellers (kids, parents, coaches, support staff), would cost a lot of money to organise, would require a lot of grounds, and all sorts of other things which someone like me who has never organised or been involved in such an undertaking could possibly think of.

Credit for the scope of the idea, but its scale is such that I'd love to see how this would all come together. Reading online, this idea was a hit with the Canberra people in particular.

FFA Congress progress
Another one of the key issues was the status of reform to FFA's Congress. FIFA and the AFC representatives had recently been in the country and left again, and looking in from the outside it appears that not much has changed. Naturally those involved closer to the action have a better idea than us mere plebs. In terms of AAFC's hope of getting a seat on FFA's reformed Congress, it all seemed to depend on who was speaking for AAFC. Krayem said that Victoria was the only state federation which was for AAFC having a vote on FFA's Congress, while Queensland was happy for AAFC to have observer status.

(A non-AAFC source later told me that most state federations were happy to let AAFC have observer status, until such time as AAFC could "prove themselves", whatever that means. I assume it means in part holding itself together through what will be the much more difficult phase of actually getting some of its grand schemes up and running.)

Krayem was hopeful but cautious about whether AAFC would get its seat in the FFA Congress, but Nick Galatas, making one of his rare contributions during the evening, piped up to say with uncharacteristic confidence that AAFC will get there. This belief is based on the support that AAFC believes it is receiving from FIFA and the AFC; they certainly aren't being made to feel welcome by FFA and the A-League teams, and probably quite a few of the states. This international support gives AAFC a kind of leverage that forces their inclusion into discussions.

The issue of representation
Every state and region is going to be different when it comes to its soccer experience; in fact, this is a problem that cuts across almost every aspect of Australian sport, that rather than anything resembling a uniform and universal sporting culture, we are instead a nation of micro-sporting cultures. One thing I didn't note earlier on about the make up of the audience was how overwhelmingly male it was. I don't think there were any women present at all. Intentional or not, it is not a good look for an organisation that will need to argue that its attempts to reform Australian soccer also include the best interests of women and girls, and not just high level senior male players. Indeed female football was very much an afterthought to the entire evening's proceedings, with AAFC talking heads mentioning little about the topic, and the questions from the floor referencing nothing about women's soccer at all.

This is a serious issue, and I don't doubt for a second that those representing AAFC don't take it seriously. However, apart from the issue of optics - never mind female participation and professional pathways being the zeitgeist of Australian sport - the lack of any almost any reference to the female side of the game plays right into the hands of those who would oppose AAFC solely on the accusation that the group was merely a front for a collective of culturally regressive ethnic clubs who had been unable to keep up with the times. And to be fair, some of those accusations would not be too far off the mark. The room was made up of at least some clubs who represent conservative or traditional ideas of what soccer is about in Australia on this and other issues. Related to those clubs would be those who, like South Melbourne perhaps, espouse a cautious modernism in its approach to women's soccer.

(Albeit a modernism as yet untested by what happens when the female program's principle advocate, in South's case Gabrielle Giuliano, moves on. The matter of cultural and club continuity has always been at the forefront of women's soccer.)

At the same time, apart from your different flavours of ethnically derived conservatism and cautious modernism, you have clubs which exist outside those frameworks, and those which go across several demographics. So while there are clearly clubs in the AAFC movement with a chip on their shoulder about FFA's treatment of ethnicity, there are also those clubs for which ethnicity is not even close to being at the top of their list of complaints. Then there are the clubs from regional areas. The ambitious clubs who have no NSL history. The clubs from states and regions which have never had national representation of any sort, and no obvious development pathway for their talented kids. All of these groups are being presented by AAFC as a unified collective with a common purpose, and not as the motley collection of clubs that this group actually is.

And it's not all smooth sailing. There was some discomfort from the floor about some of the decision making and negotiating processes of AAFC, namely that it does not consult as much as it could or should with its member clubs about key issues.

(I'd also add in the strange and sometimes unprofessional social media antics of AAFC. I think they'd be better off sticking to a conservative online approach - discussing only their affairs, and avoiding clogging up their timeline with stuff outside their immediate remit of being a representative organisation for second tier clubs. At present their social media efforts lack focus - probably operating on the whim of whoever's in control of the relevant social media accounts - while also coming across at times as petty. They need to at the very least get an off-the-shelf social media policy.)

But for the time being, in those narrow schemes where people actually pay attention to any of this stuff, AAFC is winning. It's winning the ideological battle because it is presenting a positive outlook for Australian soccer (even while often talking down present day Australian soccer); it's winning because its opponents have been successfully portrayed as out of touch and stagnant. And whatever the flaws with its social media/PR game, AAFC has also succeeded in having its public face, its front office if you will, obscure whatever disquiet and misgivings clubs under the AAFC umbrella have.

We are all in this together, but for how long?
Unity and patience are the virtues preached, but old habits and attitudes die hard. The nature of soccer in Australia has been, at least since after the migrant lead boom, one of self-interest and self-preservation. (The A-League has been the notable exception to that.) The pursuit of excellence (in all its forms) applies first to your club, and good luck to the others trying to catch or keep up.

But at one point during the meeting Krayem made the salient point - the kind of comment that can deflate a room full of fighting optimists - that "what may be good for football may not be good for your club". Amid the positivity and reinforcement of what it is that AAFC is trying to achieve, it's a message that cuts through, and it's certainly a message that we will look back on if and when a second tier gets up and it's not to everyone's liking.

Of course what the common good is insofar as Australian football goes depends on who you ask, and I'm in no good position to answer that. To me it's at best a nebulous concept, one that's been tainted because more often than not it's been used as a weapon rather than as the vague ideal that it is. For whatever it's worth, I don't think Krayem used the "good of the game" argument here in any sort of malicious way, more as reiteration that even within this group of (for now) united clubs, there would be winners and (at least relative) losers from AAFC's plans.

A word on the "NSL conspiracy"
There are some few pushing the line that AAFC and all of its associated antics are merely a front for getting ethnic NSL clubs back into the national soccer system. At the most extreme end of that argument is the accusation that AAFC is a front specifically set up to get South Melbourne Hellas back into the Australian topflight.

Such thinking (whether directed at ethnic NSL clubs or South Melbourne more specifically) requires two pre-existing notions in order to get off the ground. First, it requires the ethnic NSL teams having the necessary political, financial and grassroots clout to re-emerge from their otherwise terminal decline and irrelevance to Australian soccer (a terminal decline and irrelevance diagnosed by their detractors no less). Second, that these clubs would have the capability and competence (again, both of which their detractors claim these clubs lack) to establish and sustain such a complicated and unwieldy campaign in order to get back into the national league system. Needless to say, I find such conspiracy thinking beyond laughable. Truly, it is at the level of the conspiracies cobbled together by the so-called "bitters" of Australian soccer over the past decade and more.

Whatever else AAFC's faults, or the disagreements one may have with the aims of AAFC, it has been established and managed to succeed beyond the limits placed upon it by its detractors and opponents for a number of reasons. We have already mentioned the support AAFC is receiving from FIFA and the AFC, however much that support may be overstated by AAFC representatives. It has also managed to keep its broad constituency together for longer and greater ends than many people expected. Just as importantly, in an Australian soccer situation which reeks of stagnation - especially with regards to FFA and the A-League - AAFC is putting forward the boldest and most optimistic view of what Australian soccer could become. Whether their approach has gained any traction with people outside those few interested in the narrow field of Australian soccer politicking is almost beside the point; within the demographic that does care about such things, they come off looking more often than not like the good guys.

Something rather obvious that gets missed however is that AAFC exists to represent clubs which exist in a rather strange and hitherto unprecedented "between space" in Australia's football chain of command. The NPL clubs play under the auspices and control of their respective state federations, while at the same time participating in a system largely designed by the national federation. While in cases like Victoria, NPL clubs are able to perhaps organise well enough to exert a measure of influence over the running of their state federation - and thus alter elements of their own NPL environment more to their liking - they have no ability to act as a collective to put pressure on the body which set up the NPL framework in the first place, that being FFA.

Because of this bizarre operating system, no state operates NPL in the same way. When one person from the floor of the Melbourne roadshow complained (fairly enough) about A-League teams having more visa players at their disposal when they play FFA Cup matches against Victorian NPL teams, Krayem noted that when Victorian teams played against Queensland teams in the same competition, that Victorian teams had a PPS cap of 200 compared to Queensland's 170. Meanwhile other states have no restrictions on visa players. Not all of this is FFA's fault, and the clubs themselves - certainly in the case of the Victorian NPL - are also to blame for the mess that NPL has become.

But the point is, while ethnic ex-NSL clubs may be best placed to push for national second tier participation, they are not the only ones doing so. Neither are all of the former ethnic powerhouse NSL clubs best placed to take advantage of any changes. The goal here clearly is to start a competition which adds value across the country, and not just in forgotten suburban pockets of Melbourne and Sydney.

But still, what is it that South Melbourne Hellas is trying to do?
(I included this section because Leo Athanasakis asked what I thought was an unusual question, on the matter of potential A-League expansion and NPL/second tier queue jumping. While this was directed at other A-League consortium bids, I felt the queue jumping element could have - and indeed already has - been directed at South itself. Also South of the Border is a South Melbourne blog, so you know...)

When the campaign against FFV's original NPL model was begun by Green Gully and Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne - represented on this issue by one Tom Kalas - notably took a different tack, preferring to remain what it called "in the tent", believing that it could effect change more effectively from within the system rather than fighting against it from the outside. Then, like magic, South gradually changed its position to the point where it (and to be fair, a whole bunch of other Greek clubs) somehow became the leader of the movement against FFV and its NPL model.

Among those clubs who care to remember that this happened at all, there is understandably distrust and resentment about how that all played out; that the more obnoxiously regressive clubs on all sorts of issues who stuck their necks out on principle (however misguided that principle may have been) only for a bunch of Greeks to come in and take all the credit for getting not just a solution to the NPL impasse, but credit as being the leaders of a re-found boldness for clubs to stand up to the post-Crawford federations for their rights.

Me, I liked the fanciful idea that I invented that it was all coordinated; that certain clubs that had a more uncompromising ethos when it came to rejecting forced modernity would do the initial head kicking and grunt work, allowing more palatable alternatives - ie, us - to come in and finish off the job.

But the truth is that ever since it was compelled to vacate its position in the Australian topflight by the forces which took over Australian soccer, as well because of its own decrepit state, South Melbourne has had one distant goal in its sights above all others: to get back into the big-time, as soon as possible, and by any means necessary. So we bid for the second Melbourne A-League licence under the Southern Cross gimmick, losing out to Melbourne Heart. We tried to buy out the then failing Central Coast Mariners, under a scheme which may have included keeping some games in Gosford for however long it took for people to realise it was a stupid idea and just have all our games in Melbourne. Then we tried buying out Melbourne Heart, and failed there too. Currently, we've thrown our hat in the ring for the zombie A-League expansion process which may not even have ever existed.

They say that you miss all the shots you don't take, and when it comes to failed attempts to get into the A-League, no one's taken more shots than South. And yet, for whatever reason, South has never been at the public forefront of AAFC, other than by proxy association. To its own members, South has played AAFC and promotion-relegation issues as low-key affairs, preferring to put up a wait and see approach. The emphasis has always been on first and foremost getting into the A-League under its own steam (even if details of those attempts provided to members are sparing), and not through wholesale reform of Australian soccer's league structures.

And yet in most recent times, those paying attention to the social media contributions of especially our president Leo Athanasakis indicate a shift in our prior reticence to openly support a promotion-relegation model. Such a shift leads easily to the allegation from within the AAFC tent and from promotion-relegation fellow travellers alike that South Melbourne is not really ideologically committed to the principle of promotion-relegation; rather, South Melbourne is only committed to whatever South Melbourne believes will get it back into the topflight soonest. And if that happens, the rest be damned.

While not serious enough to threaten the unity of the AAFC revolutionary project by itself, it's the kind of fissure that people will need to keep an eye on; when persistent calls are made about unity and its virtues, any deviation from that ideal invites the possibility of infighting and sniping.

The question of heart and soul
I tried to write and re-write this section a number of times, never to my own satisfaction. So I'm going to try to keep it short and sweet.

Community, authentic, grassroots, corporate, franchise, elite. Words like these and many others can be useful in describing the cultural schisms that afflict Australian soccer. Used carelessly however, instead of clarifying the ways in which Australian soccer is divided, these words serve mostly as an act of self-justification.

By any measure, FFA and the management of several A-League teams have treated NPL teams poorly. There are countless examples of this, some of which were given on the night. But it's possible also that NPL teams are seen in a similar light by teams far lower down the food chain.

Claiming the moral and ethical high ground is a dangerous business. Anyone making claims for their own purity of support of the game is on dangerous ground. Resorting to the kinds of rhetoric which filled up forums a decade ago, and which paints simplistic pictures of an "us and them" which does not actually exist, is a tactic fraught with issues.

The focus should be on the actual examples of disrespect given by the top tier towards everything below it. Emotive language which loses sight of that should be avoided.

Final thought
During the aftermath over the next few days, it was funny to see the same info I'd received from different parties via Twitter DMs and text messages - sometimes intended for clarification, sometimes intended for further dissemination - make its way out to the public domain via other trusted vessels. It was like a proxy social media battle in the broader war for hearts and minds, except that I don't think anyone but the already interested even noticed.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

It's not the end of world, yet - Oakleigh Cannons 4 South Melbourne 1

Necessary note
Anyone looking for the post on the Melbourne edition of the AAFC's roadshow, it's not included in this post. Probably tomorrow.

Was Andy Brennan subbed off at halftime, or did he merely
 transpose himself to another dimension? Photo: Mike Owen.
Omens, I don't believe in them, but...
It didn't start off well. First, the galette place off Flinders Lane I was going to have dinner at was closed for renovations. Then upon arrival at the ground, an apprentice loan shark handing out home loan pamphlets n behalf of a bank inside the gate couldn't take 'no' for answer after I told him that as a student I didn't have the secure financial standing of taking out a home loan. And then in the middle of a conversation about trains and public transport that I was having with (ex-South player) Gavin De Niese's dad, some bloke starts talking to me about the Macedonia issue, when if he'd waited five minutes he could have had that conversation with the kid wearing the blue Star of Vergina t-shirt.

But enough about omens of no meaning. Nothing gets the juices on the South forums going like a loss, so I guess there's that to be said for Friday's loss. Three games in, and everyone's an expert on season 2018, which is good for me, because I don't need to write any more South match reports for 2018. The gist of it is this. We play a different, cuter brand of football, one with a higher potential upside, but equally frightening possibility of getting mauled. It was apparently visible in those parts of the pre-season which I missed, and it has only be reinforced by our first three games.

It was the same lineup for a third game in a row, and though you wouldn't change a winning team unless you had to, you know that for the time being at least it's going to be the same lineup unless forced to be otherwise, and what's more, it's also going to be the same substitutions unless compelled otherwise. So, Brennan off for Minatel, and Pavlou on for Jawadi, and names pulled out of a hat or not at all for the third sub. Short of suspensions or injuries this is going to be it for at least until the mid-season transfer window, or until Marcus Schroen is ready to come back into the lineup.

That's not an out and out complaint. The first eleven is good enough to play well and do well, and the board has made what seems like a deliberate attempt to at least pay more than their usual lip service to youth development by having some youth players on the bench. But it also means that there's not nearly enough depth at the moment to implement Plan B when Plan A goes astray, only the chance to rest some players should Plan A be going along well enough during a game that such luxuries as putting on players promoted from the youth team would do no harm.

The first half, barring the fact that we didn't manage to score - thanks to the ball somehow not crossing the line in our best attack, and some crappier than you'd like crossing - was good enough. We had the better of the play, we looked decent going forward, and we won the ball back well when we had to. We were getting more pressure on us on the ball than we had the previous two weeks, but we still looked good, especially in moving the ball around midfield. Then the second half started with conceding a lobbed goal - people disagree on how much the keeper should be blamed, I'm on the side of not much after watching the video - and you didn't know which way this was going to go now. Getting the goal back only to concede again within seconds was sealer, in fairness.

Just on Oliver Minatel's equaliser. Yeah, there's an argument for wanting the dodgiest goals possible against your opponent, especially in a big game like this, but I was very close to the incident and I didn't feel much like celebrating. A large part of that was because for a while I was sure that one of the officials would eventually overrule the goal - after all, it was as blatant a handball as you could get. But there was another, secretly moralistic part of me that was kind of sickened by its shamelessness, because it didn't even look like Minatel needed to punch the ball into the goal, because he could've easily headed it in.

The officiating was pretty ordinary all around to be honest. How neither of those two karate leg chop attempts by Oakleigh within seconds of each other didn't get a yellow card says volumes about what is acceptable in Victorian soccer. To be fair though, Oakleigh looked a different team in the second half to what they've been putting up so far this season, and they played well. Lot of people caning our defence for this loss, and there's something to that - what was Konstantinidis doing dribbling along the edge of the box like that - but for mine more blame should go to the midfield, which disappeared from the field for long stretches of the second half.

Part of the problem was Brennan going off - either because of form or because of an injury - because even if he wasn't having a blinder going forward, he was doing well with Foschini in winning the ball back, and forcing Oakleigh to cough up the ball in midfield. When we fell behind for the second time, all sense of structure and attacking synchronisation went out the window, and we went back to long balls and not really believing that we could get back in the game.

Still, in my estimation it's not quite wrist-slashing time yet. Anyone moving the dial forward on the South Melbourne Hellas doomsday clock just because we lost another game against Oakleigh at Jack Edwards probably doesn't deserve to be in charge of said doomsday clock on the first place.

The one day of the year, which seems to be at almost every time we play away from home
Decent crowd at Oakleigh on Friday night, a few more than I expected upon kickoff because it looked like there was no one there when the game was starting. Fair enough, everyone loves to come see South lose, or win, or most likely whatever, because most of these people will only go to this and maybe one other NPL game for the season and not give it a second thought afterwards. It is what it is, and it's going to continue being what it is unless someone unlocks the secret of actually getting people to NPL games outside of a gimmick game.

There's no point getting too upset about it. It's funny though when you see Kingston and Oakleigh people having a go at a poor Bentleigh home crowd on the same night, when as if the roles were reversed that most of the people attending Friday night soccer wouldn't be Kingston Heath instead to watch a Green-South game, with the Oaks crowd lucky to get get intro triple figures.

As I noted on said forum:
Let's be honest, most teams in this league and the one below it have stuff all home support, less than stuff all away support, and rely on the visits of the two or three teams with slightly above stuff all support to bump up their attendance figures a couple of times a year.
And giving Pascoe Vale stick for not bringing away support when none of the minor Greek teams bring pretty much anyone ever to away games further than a five minute drive away is really something.

Next game
Pascoe Vale away at CB Smith Reserve in Fawkner on Friday night. Keep in mind that this game has a kickoff time of 8:15PM.

The word going around the terraces on Friday was that the club attempted to get special dispensation from FFV to sign Nikola Roganovic as an injury replacement player for Alastair Bray, but the FFV said no. I'm hearing also that we'll be appealing that decision, Normally I'd be all for telling teams - any team, not just South - to suck it up, but in the case of an injured keeper over an outfielder, I'm more sympathetic. But if we were to get knocked back on appeal, one hopes that this is a standard that gets applied to all clubs from now on.

But I ask you, what is a contract?
For whatever it's worth, and who knows if it's actually worth anything, Matthew Foschini has been signed up until the end of 2020. So that's the right back slot sorted for the next few years. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile 2: Is he or isn't he?
While we're on the subject of contracts with mysterious and possibly disputable clauses, they say that Chris Taylor is set to become Green Gully's coach soon, with Arthur Papas set to depart for more lucrative lands. What a time to be alive.

Or not.
The good thing about the internet is that it gives you the full range of options when it comes to believing something about a particular person, circumstance, fact, and yet to be even tested fact.

Speaking of which
It's kinda cute when someone without access to certain long closed off founts of all Victorian soccer knowledge and innuendo sends you something as if you didn't see it three days before.

I'm not judging, but it is funny. And to be honest, there's much lamer behaviour on the internet.

Perpetual Motion Outrage Machine Dumpster Fire Car Crash
As far as the timeline of @smfc Twitter mentions go, there are good weeks and bad weeks, and there are quiet weeks and busy weeks. This week was bad and busy. I'm prevented from seeing a fair chunk of it, due to being a blocked by a regular poster to that timeline, but geez louise even I could figure out that there was a massive pile on Shouty Mike. Before that, people got sucked in to fighting with a Glory-supporting alt-right wannabe, arguing with him for what seemed like days, but was probably only a solid 36 hours.

As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time online, there are some lessons to be learned from this week. On the former point, never, ever tweet. On the second issue, don't engage with people whose only purpose is trolling. I mean, people are free to do as they wish on social media, it's their free time, but is hammering away at someone who isn't going to change their mind worth that much of your time and effort?

Around the grounds, not this week
With both Knights and George Cross on the road this week I was looking forward to a weekend away from Knights Stadium. Then I looked up the FFA Cup fixtures, and saw Strathmore Split playing Bell Park at Somers Street, and I was all ready to go - until I saw it was set for the outside pitch. Any other day I would've been there with bells on, but with the mercury well over 35, it was a no from me. Shame, as there were a few goals in that game.

Final thought
Maybe a South of the Border t-shirt would be a good idea, but I'm no graphic designer.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Debbie Downer Special - Dandenong Thunder 0 South Melbourne 9

I had every intention of finishing this up last night, but I somehow ended up drinking bourbon and coke while watching season one episodes of Law & Order SVU on TV, back when they used a blackboard instead of fanciful electronics, and John Munch's presence on the show was still meaningful. So it goes.

The post-mortem on a game as lopsided as this one can go one of two ways. The first approach emphasises how good the winning team was, while the other looks at how poor the loser was. In this case the emphasis, even for a South blog, can't help but be about how bad Thunder were. They were abysmal, about as bad a side I've seen play against us since we re-entered the state leagues 13 years ago.

First up, Thunder were slow. Parking an overweight Theo Markellis in midfield was a bad sign, but across the ground we were able to outrun them with and without the ball. And their setup, described by more observant punters than me as having three at the back, was a disaster waiting to happen. Against a three pronged attack of Milos Lujic, Leigh Minopoulos and Andy Brennan, it failed miserably. I guess their plan was to clog the midfield and play the ball wide. From our point of view - or at least what I thought was happening from my sideline vantage point in the first half - we wanted them to head inboard, where they would hopefully cough up the ball.

And cough it up they did, repeatedly. We know that Iqi Jawadi and Matthew Millar are able to perform that task well enough, it's their bread and butter after all, but Nick Epifano's attitude in the first couple of weeks means that our pressing approach has that extra dose of effectiveness. Playing in a version of the central role that Chris Taylor had tried to use him in every so often, but which had never quite worked, the People's Champ is perhaps on the way to his best season. It's been more of a free floating midfield role - one observer likened it to the kind of role Fernando De Moraes used to perform - and it seems promising at this early stage.

But nearly everything has seemed promising about this early stage of the season, apart from of course Milos' finishing in the first game and Alastair Bray's injury. But there are tougher tests coming up, and we'll start learning more about the team in the next two weeks. Bulleen we knew were going to be one of the strugglers, but I don't think we expected Dandenong Thunder to be that bad. The idea in my head was that coming into the game I expected a tough affair. This was a Thunder side even if they weren't considered a finals candidate, they could at least be counted on to give a better account of themselves than did St Albans and North Geelong last year.

But they were done almost from the outset. It helps that unlike against Bulleen, this time we got our goals early and took away whatever initiative and fight Thunder may have had. Thunder had a handful of shots late in the first half, and one or two chances in the second, but there was never a risk of a comeback. Perhaps Thunder got promoted in the wrong year? Had they been promoted the year before as they should've been, maybe things would've been different. Taking advantage of Dandenong City's choke has perhaps seen them come up not as well prepared, though there were also people saying their last year's team was stronger. Who knows?

The crowd, which mostly seemed to be South fans, was excited in the early parts of the game, muted in the middle, and then celebratory and cautiously cocky by the end - including a bit of dry-humping of one of the goal stanchions by one frisky supporter. There was some discussion about the improved early season NPL crowds, especially as parts of the A-League are seemingly faltering, but this crowd was disappointing in its size. The first home game back in the top flight for Thunder after several seasons, I would've expected double the 500 odd that turned up, but it was not to be.

Dandenong Thunder goalkeeper Sermin Sadikovski comes flying in
 kamikaze style on Oliver Minatel. Photo: South Melbourne FC.
We were 4-0 up at halftime, but kept adding goals almost at will after the break. At 8-0 up and the game winding down, the most surreal moment of the match unfolded. Dandenong goalkeeper Sermin Sadikovski - up to that point the one blameless Thunder player - embarked on a kamikaze mission the likes of which I have not seen for some time. A long floating ball was being contested by Oliver Minatel and a Thunder opponent, and all of a sudden there was Sadikovski, flying in with a lunging studs up tackle ten metres outside his own area. He of course got his marching orders, and Minatel fortunately managed to avoid serious injury. That's why they invented shin pads. Having made all their subs, veteran Thunder goal scorer Veton Korcari put on the gloves, noting to the South fans behind the goals that since he wasn't likely to score a goal he may as well try and stop some. He managed to hold onto an on target but tame Foschini shot, to the applause of those same South fans, but his clean sheet was soiled soon after when Epifano managed to slam one home from a slight angle.

Apart from Thunder being abysmal, what did we learn from Saturday? That we have goals in us, from multiple angles, that we are definitely playing a different style, but we kinda figured that out the week before as well. Everyone seems to love Christos Intzidis, with South and non-South fans alike noting the difference in the way he moves around and surveys the field compared to local players. Still, I'm concerned with two elements of our defensive efforts; the first is what happens when our fullbacks especially get stranded upfield - do we have the processes right where the wingers know they have to cover without being told?

(it's a pet hate of mine of Australian soccer players have to constantly be told to do things which they probably should be able to think of for themselves. This isn't just an issue at this level of course, but at higher levels from what I can tell from the little that I watch of Australians playing in better competitions.)

But I think we look our most vulnerable at the moment when teams push us back onto our 18 yard box, and we've let the two otherwise mediocre sides we've faced so far get a look in either with shots or with time enough to make passes through. But I'm not arrogant or stupid enough to think we're going to go through entire games without the opposition getting a sniff at all, and it's too early to make the jump from coincidence to trend.

Depth is the thing that seems to be bothering people the most. Centre-back is covered well enough with Konstantinidis and Intzidis, as well as Ajdin Fetahagic and the injured Jake Marshall. If something happens to one of our wing-backs? Yes, Konstantinidis can play either full back position, but would you want to break up his partnership with Intzidis without just cause? Can Josh Hodes play senior NPL football? It was impossible to tell from Saturday night, and you'd never want to write someone off based on 25 minutes of an increasingly decrepit match. Our wingers are talented, but do they/will they have enough gas in the tank to run out games? And still we pray and hope that Milos Lujic does not get injured or suspended, at least until Giordano Marafioti is ready to come back from injury. Depth is going to be the issue that's going to follow the side throughout the year, as the matches pile up, and as risks with tired and injured players get taken.

New scoreboard for a record score. Photo: South Melbourne FC.
I had turned up to the gate in my Shoot Farken t-shirt, which the gate attendant loved the sentiment of, though he clearly wasn't aware of the website. He probably wishes now that we didn't have the chance to shoot (farken) so often. Thunder also had what looked like a new electronic scoreboard, which got a workout no one was expecting, the scoreboard attendant not even bothering to update it to 9-0 at the end of the game. That final whistle was an overdue granting of mercy to not just Thunder's players, or its fans - those few who had stayed to the end - but also to everyone else. This game crossed the line from where a thrashing is enjoyable to where it's almost tedious, pitiable even, where doubts about your own's team efficacy emerge to compensate for how poor the opposition were. Are we really that good? At halftime I was thinking yes, possibly; at full time, I wasn't sure; by the time I got home two or so hours later, exhausted, I could only look ahead to the next few weeks and better opponents and hopefully some clarity of where we stand in 2018.

Of course the other approach is to stop over-thinking it, and just enjoy the win!

On penalties
We got three of them on Saturday, and I thought that maybe a couple of the penalties we got were a bit soft, but you know what? Maybe we've been conditioned to think that a penalty should require a more robust kind of foul than anywhere else on the field. But why? A foul in the box is no different to a foul anywhere else, right? It's the same rules, yes? And if we happen to be on a trajectory where we receive an above average amount of penalties, it's only because we actually get into the box, surely? Remember the Gus Tsolakis years, where we didn't ever get in the box? Once we're in the penalty area, it's up to the opposition defenders to behave themselves, and if we get past them, maybe not nudge bodies or tug at shirts. And I would say the same for our defenders at the other end of the ground. Maybe stricter enforcement of fouls will mean that players will have to learn to defend better.

Next game
Oakleigh away on Friday night. Oaks have lost their opening two matches, an unlucky loss against an at this stage improved Knights, and a narrow loss to Bentleigh, so they're under the pump at the moment. Some will point to our rubbish record at Jack Edwards in recent years - I think that our last win there, apart from that cup semi-final win against the Bergers, was back in 2013 - but this is a different team and a different style which may be able to get a win over Oakleigh here at last. Apart from losing both their league games, Oakleigh are also dealing with a mini-injury crisis, with both their starting centre-backs being injured in the first week, and midfield enforcer Wayne Wallace also coming off hurt against Bentleigh. Who knows how many of those injured players will line up against us? Oakleigh keeper John Honos has committed costly howlers in both games so far, so he'll have a blinder on Friday. They still have a lot of firepower in midfield and up front though.

Alastair Bray out for the season
Coming into this season having recovered from a shoulder reconstruction, goalkeeper Alastair Bray will miss the rest of the 2018 NPL Victoria season after the injury he received late against Bulleen was revealed to be an ACL rupture.
There is talk that the recently retired Nikola Roganovic may come out of retirement to help bolster our keeping stocks. One assumes that if this is true, that it will be as a backup option to Coulter, but stranger things have happened.

Puskas film update
I've been told that the Ferenc Puskas in Australia doco I spoke about last year is going well. Plenty of the notables have been interviewed, and the insights and memories collected sound terrific. But Rob Heath and Tony Wilson still need to get homemade footage from South fans. Apart from costing less than having to buy footage from the ABC and SBS, homemade footage of Puskas and that era of South Melbourne at Middle Park will add a real layer of authenticity that commercial or professional footage just can't match. So if you have footage, or photos, or just a good story to tell about that era, please do not hesitate to get in contact with me. Your archival material - maybe even you yourself! -  could end up in a great little film project, paying tribute to one of the greatest soccer players of all time, as well as the club he called home for three memorable years.

Also, if anyone knows who owns this YouTube account, please get them to contact me, Tony, or Rob.

AAFC roadshow hits Melbourne this Thursday
The Association of Australian Football Clubs, the upstart collective of NPL teams making a big racket around the issues of promotion-relegation and the FFA's congress issues, is in the middle of a national roadshow. The roadshow arrives in Melbourne on Thursday, so if you didn't manage to get a ticket to the Jordan Peterson thing or you don't have to attend soccer training, this AAFC thing might be worth a look. I'll probably be there, arriving with an open mind, and hopefully keeping up that facade for at least three seconds.

The event is being held at Sports House, 375 Albert Road, Albert Park, near MSAC, with the meeting starting 7:00PM.

Around the grounds
Same Knights time, same Knights channel
In lieu of the flyer that was attached to my windshield for
 a concern by some Cro singer coming out to Australia, I'm
 putting up this Croatian bank ad up instead.
Another decent crowd in for a 7:30 start at Somers Street, though clearly not as big as the week before; last week I was forced to park my car on the back fence, this time I parked in my usual spot of the quarry side fence. Ex-South man Shaun Timmins got himself sent off on seven minutes for slapping a Pascoe Vale opponent on the wing in front of quarry hill, and got an earful from teammate Nikola Jurkovic for his troubles - more on Jurkovic later. Pascoe Vale's front three of Van 't Schip, Bernabo-Madrid, and Osmancevic couldn't get much going because Pascoe Vale were playing the most garbage kick and chase football I'd seen since, well, the last time I saw it. Let's just say 2017  Avondale for the sake of it. Knights were holding their own despite being a man down, but then gave a penalty, fell behind, and then looked a bit rattled. On half time Pascoe Vale also went a man down, a denial of clear goal scoring opportunity card that Ben Surey (sitting near me  in the stand with a broken foot) though was only given because of the earlier red card. Now that I've thought about that response in more depth, I've come to the conclusion that that attitude is probably why Surey and his Knights friends get sent off so often. Knights looked the better team when it was 10 vs 10, and equalised thanks to a goalmouth scramble back heel from an uncleared corner. The game had actually got watchable by this stage, and then Knights decided to shoot themselves in the foot when Jurkovic (who else?) got himself sent off. The home side coughed up the ball in defence with five minutes to go, went behind, and in the 95th minute desperation sent everyone up for a last ditch corner, The ball fell to the feet of a Pascoe Vale sub who looked about 15 years old, who ran up the field being chased by the Knights keeper; the aforementioned sub rolled the ball towards goal, and Van t' Schip tapped it home. Then everyone got splashed by the sprinklers as we filed out of the grandstand.

Final thought
That is some birthday cake.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Well, there goes this season - Bulleen Lions 1 South Melbourne 1

It was short sleeve weather for most people last night, for Bulleen's now annual early season payday against. At least they put some of that to good use by seemingly cutting down some of the tress and bushes at the southern end, possibly having the effect of improving the lighting on that side. I don't know, I'm no scientician. But they've also installed a new synthetic pitch in place of the old one.

While sporadically watching the under 20s curtain raiser, you could tell that this was a much better field than the former offering. The bounce was much truer, albeit probably keeping a little low, but at least it was predictable. So there goes Bulleen's unique home ground advantage, right? Well it certainly seemed so during most of the first half. Players like Braedyn Crowley aside, Bulleen aren't expected to do particularly well this season, and as for us... well, new coach, a few new players, the common sense consensus would be that it would take time to gel. But we looked pretty damn good. Good, but also different.

Now I don't think I've seen anything of our senior team since Chris Taylor got the sack - not that I would've been paying enough attention in any case - so I can't say with any certainty what Sasa Kolman's tactical approach would be. And going off the Bulleen game provides only a very small sample size, against what was pretty ordinary opposition. But if this is going to be the new normal, it's going to be a lot of fun.

Not that the Taylor era wasn't fun - winning lots of games and titles and cups after not winning crap for years is a hell of a lot fun - but Taylor's "love it or loathe it" pragmatism wasn't for everyone, and it had its own drawbacks, especially when it came to taking risks. Kolman's style is seemingly based around keeping possession, but also moving the ball around the middle of the park with short passes. A key part of that last night was Iqi Jawadi, who apart from his bread and butter breaking up of opposition play, was also in the mood to draw defenders toward himself when in possession, and move with the ball in different directions rather than always play the ball quickly backwards or sideways.

When both Leigh Minopoulos and myself are in short sleeves at a game, you
know it's warm night. Photo: George Kouroumalis.
But it wasn't just Jawadi keeping the ball or taking chances. The fullbacks, especially Matthew Foschini, would often go very high up the pitch. The work rate and teamwork between Foschini and Andy Brennan was working very well from the start; the left hand side, with its unaccustomed paring of Brad Norton and Leigh Minopoulos, is going to need some time to work itself out, though our goal did come from that side.

Against a better side, especially one that's better at pressing, this short passing, possession based, risk taking game plan could backfire, but last night it looked promising, not least because Nick Epifano, playing centrally instead of out wide, worked his backside off in midfield. Whether that's because of a gradual improvement in his defensive efforts over the past year, or because he was playing at his old junior club only time will tell.

Defensively we looked solid enough, with Kristian Konstantinidis and especially Christos Intzidis impressing as our centre-back pairing, though you fancy that there'll be much toughter assignments for them than Bulleen's forward line. Intzidis' performance in particular won the favour of South fans. The goal we copped had some so much luck going for it, that it's understandable that we lost our way for the last ten minutes of the first half. In this case losing our way meant deviating from the game plan, reverting to hopeless long balls, not looking up, and generally looking dejected as all hell.

We recovered in the second half, and once again played Bulleen off the park. We got our equaliser, with a bit of luck of our own - Milos Lujic, on the goal line and in an offside position, attempted to get a foot onto Millar's shot, but fortunately was adjudged to have missed it. It was a stinker of a performance all round for Lujic, who squandered every chance he had, even the ones which would've been disallowed for offside. Here's hoping it was just a bad night and not a sign of things to come for this season.

The most disappointing aspect of last night, apart from not picking up all three points, was the serious looking leg injury sustained by Alastair Bray, in a stupid attempt at a challenge by a Bulleen player. Depth is also going to be an issue this year. Kolman made just the two subs last night, and I'm not sure we were in a position to make many more. You can't predict when injuries will happen, but we at least have to get out of the habit of picking up stupid yellow cards. Apart from whatever other cards we picked up, Brennan was lucky to get away with a huge shirt pull in the first half.

Apart from Bray's injury, there are kinks to work on and weaknesses to manage. Andy Brennan, as good as he was last night, was gassed out by the 35 minute mark of the first half, and while he recovered in the second half, he couldn't run out the game. Is this a pre-season fitness issue, or something more permanent? Millar's shooting was wayward again. Epifano was in charge of all our set pieces, which is a step sideways as much as anything from what's been on offer the past few years. We didn't get to see enough of Oliver Minatel to say one way or another what his contributions will be like.

But as I'm fond of saying, if they were better than what they are actually are, chances are that they wouldn't be playing here. And that goes for every other team in this league as well.

Where’s my souva?! - guest match report by Savvas Tzionis
Having written some pieces for South of the Border, I thought it was time to finally write a South Melbourne match day report (my only previous match day report was for Sydney Olympic vs Blacktown in relation to my trip to Sydney).

What helped prompt this was the fascinating situation where five of my friends, from my days growing up in microcosmic (in relation to Australia’s demographic breakdown) Blackburn, had developed a rabid interest in local NPL soccer. (Interesting to note that they are all primarily Australian Rule supporters).

This stemmed from various sources, such as their knowledge of the old NSL, and South Melbourne’s place in it, and a handful of them having attended some remarkable games in recent years (Heidelberg’s 4-2 come from behind win against Bulleen in 2016, and last year's FFA Cup match against Sydney FC).

So, without me having to cajole anyone, there we were at the Veneto Club, having a few beers in the bistro. A mix of married, divorced, but mostly single blokes, from various ethnic backgrounds including my Italian friend whose parents were from the Venice region itself! Ironically the only other Greek was a Heidelberg supporter, whose claim to fame was that he and Damien Mori played on opposite flanks during their junior days at Box Hill.

The weather was near perfect for such an occasion, and we eventually made our way to the outer side in the grandstand, near the scandalously understocked (in relation to beer and Canadian Dry!) canteen. This became a bugbear for my friends who couldn't understand why Bulleen didn't cater for the typically big opening round crowd against South Melbourne. I mean, this was the third year in a row and they knew what to expect! Perhaps the semi professional nature of the NPL, especially amongst the slightly lesser clubs, induces such ‘unprofessional’ situations.

The game itself had the frenetic start you would expect from an opening round fixture in front of a large crowd (I am no good with picking crowd numbers but it appeared to be as big as two years ago, and bigger than last years crowd). The play was so electric that it elicited comments from my friends that “This is better than the A League”. We were so close to the action you felt like you part of the game. There is no other ground like Bulleen in that respect.

South was clearly the better team, but had no finishing touch. South’s play, especially initially, was expansive; long accurate passes and plenty of speed and strength. But I remarked to a friend at the 30 minute mark that we were starting to get a bit bogged down, and soon after Bulleen scored.
We didn’t start the second half in any better shape than we ended the first. Again, I made an observation, this time that Minopoulos was, as is often the case when he starts a game, not very prominent. But then soon after he was heavily involved in our equalizer, which was engineered by the player that impressed my friends more than any other on the pitch, in Andy Brennan.

Whilst hoping for a sting in the tail, unlike previous years, it was not to be, and both teams had to settle with sharing two points, instead of the hoped for three points on offer. I think Bulleen will struggle this year. They were clearly the inferior team, and with the league set to be an improvement on last year (North Geeling and St Albans having been replaced by the expected to be better Northcote and Dandenong Thunder), they will probably be in a relegation dog fight.

I was very impressed with Christos Intzidis. Whilst he wasn't challenged by Bulleen’s midget like forward line (have they ever had a forward even close to being six-foot tall?), he was very comfortable to the extent I felt he indulged on the ball towards the end, when he could have easily back passed to the keeper. I have a feeling he is too good for this league. Could it be that the emigration of vocationally talented Greek’s from Greece is now including Soccer players?

Whilst I didn’t think the game was that great, my friends were fully satisfied with the whole experience. They have voiced interest in other games, asking about other grounds and where they are in relation to Blackburn. I told them this ground, Bulleen’s, is the closest they will get. Which got me thinking about how things have changed for South Melbourne in this regard.

In the NSL days, traffic was not as hectic as it is now. Our supporter base could travel from anywhere to watch us, and have time to spare. Traffic conditions have changed now. The constriuction of freeways has made it easy to travel to certain places in much less time. For instance, the Peninsula, but for travelling within the suburbs of Melbourne, it is a far more difficult exercise. It’s no wonder some people have found it easier to attend games at grounds of the Greek clubs that they live near, such as Oakleigh or Kingston.

Whilst waiting for the Metro to be built (which will give Lakeside its own station so to speak) South Melbourne could cultivate a stronger support base from areas which can easily travel to our ground. This would require some nuanced marketing. Just a thought.

To finish off, the funniest thing, other than the many attempted insults my friends directed towards number 4 of Bulleen (Hair Bear!) and the linesman (get a suntan!), was the pre game discussion about one of my friends' utter disappointment that Bulleen offered no ‘sou-ver-LARRKI’!! Maybe he heard that this league is sometimes referred to as ‘The Souvlaki League’ and expected them to be served at every ground?

Next week
Saturday night away to Dandenong Thunder who, at least according to the radio broadcast I was listening in to last Thursday, were matching Bentleigh Greens until goalkeeper Fraser MacLaren got himself sent off early with Thunder leading 1-0. Also, the time I had listed initially in my fixture list was wrong, it's not an 8:00 kickoff, it's 7:00.

Just quietly...
Was anybody else compelled by the ticket sellers at the Veneto Club to purchase an adult ticket for people who were eligible for a concession ticket? I got in with my media pass of course, but I was told by one South fan that the Bulleen ticket people refused to sell him concession passes for the two high schoolers he had with him.

That's made my season, there's nothing left to do, see you all next year.
During the second half one of Bulleen's defenders, who had a very boofy hairstyle, was dubbed Sideshow Bob, followed by chants for "Kill Bart" and "Die Bart, Die", which pretty much took away any anxitieis I had about the rest of the game. Until I got back on the bus to go home again, but small mercies.

Hot on the heels of Matthew "Apples" Millar, last night saw the debut of "Cakes" for Kristian Konstantinidis. I'm boycotting that one as well, as well its subsidiary "Nikos (Cakes)" nickname.

Nick Galatas steps down as chairman
Those who listen to 3XY Radio Hellas' Sunday sports program have passed on the message that club chairman Nick Galatas has stepped down from the board. That's been confirmed by the club on the official website, with the official line being that Galatas wants to focus more on his AAFC duties.

This South of the Border correspondent thanks Nick for his eleven years on the South board, and the occasional chats we had about various off-field issues, the highlight of which was attending court proceedings South was involved in where he was representing us or the rebel/anti-FFV NPL model clubs.

Should former South player Dane Milovanovic be serving a suspension in 2018 for something that happened in 2015?
A keen-eyed reader of the blog asked this question late last week:
The incident in question related to a contentious bit of referee interaction on Milovanovic's part at the end of that game. I was initially confused as to why Davey would bring this up at all; it's a South game we'd rather wish was obliterated from our collective memory, but Davey explains that Milovanovic has signed with Gully. Here's the FFA tribunal report, a very lengthy and detailed document (with photos!). The relevant part of the punishment handed down is as follows:
46. In these circumstances, the sanction the Committee imposes has two elements: 
(1) The period of the sanction is at least four months from the date of the
(2) The player must serve a 12 match suspension during a period in which
matches are played in the 2016 Victorian Premier League season. 
47. The consequence of the sanction is that if the four month period does not begin,
because of a non-playing period provision (or similar provision), until the
commencement of the 2016 Victorian Premier League season, then the sanction
will run for four months from the date of commencement of that season and in
effect will run much more than 12 matches of the 2016 Victorian Premier League
season. On the other hand, if the sanction (due to administrative rules)
commences with effect on 19.09.2015, it is the intention of the Committee that its
sanction must not conclude until the expiry of the 12th match of the 2016 Victorian Premier League season.
This was confusing to me, but I think I've got handle on it now... and I think it means that Milovanovic is allowed to play from the beginning of the 2018 season. Of course my grasp of things like this is always prone to faltering. It seems odd that a player can get around the problem of a serious suspension like this by plying their trade overseas for several years, but it could be that the suspension applied only to an Australian context, which if true, would mean that Milovanovic has served his suspension, even if he didn't really spend any time serving it at all.

Albert Park Master Plan update
Another keen-eyed reader saw this in the paper - basically, the state government or Parks Victoria or whoever has backed off the idea of reducing the Albert Park golf course from 18 to 9 holes.  Not that I've been able to glean much information from either government or club sources about the Albert Park Master Plan means for South Melbourne Hellas, but clearly taking a reduction in the size of the golf course off the table means there's a huge limit to what can be achieved in terms of opening up the park to different groups.

SMSCMaster YouTube collection gone
Apparently this happened late last year, but I only came across this fact when I was looking for that video of South players during training under Ange Postecoglou playing a footy-style game with a round ball in the wet at Lakeside. It looked a lot like AFLX to be honest...

Anyway, it's sad that for whatever reason the channel's owner has taken down all those videos, not just the South stuff but also the other soccer videos and assorted Australiana. Hopefully they'll reconsider their decision at some point in the future. I just wish now that I'd downloaded stuff from there; the lesson here is, as it is always, to never assume something is going to be on the internet forever.

Around the grounds
It's not everyone's favourite segment, and I'm aware that this is the part where some of you skip ahead to the end. And this section is unusually long this week, probably because I haven't got bored and disillusioned with the season yet.

We are all blind men touching different parts of the same elephant
The big question coming out of this game seemed to be 'what game were you watching mate?', and by 'you' they mean of course 'me'. It's only round one, so it behooves us to forgive people their sins, even if part of that forgiveness is couched in the selfish hope that they will forgive you yours. And being 'only' round one, everyone gets a bit excited about soccer being back, the weather still being warm, the size of the crowds looking good, and the hope that this season will be better than the one that came before. For Knights fans, surely this season could not be as bad or even worse than 2017? Even if someone like me, who has doubts about the positive prospects of everything, still doubts that Knights will be a force in 2018, faith in a better tomorrow is what sustains the lives of others.

Oakleigh look like they've reinforced their squad with some good inclusions, and they started this game like a house on fire. They could've had two or three goals in the first ten minutes, but had to settle for one. No matter, they still had the better of the first half, but as the game evened up, their one dimensional game plan - long balls from defense into space for their wingers to run onto - got found out. You know every slur directed at Chris Taylor's ultra-pragmatic attacking tactics? People should really be directing that vitriol at Cannons' co-coaches Tsolakis and Tangalakis, whose side became aesthetically bankrupt once things tightened up a bit. To be fair, Oakleigh did suffer the unfortunate situation of being forced to make two substitutions in the first half, with both starting centre-backs having to come off. They also got themselves into trouble with some stupid challenges which saw them rack up a few yellow cards. But Knights only rarely seriously threatened in the first half, and assuming that Oakleigh would re-compose themselves for the second period, I wasn't really seeing an obvious Knights comeback.

Cue then the less obvious comeback. An early second half free kick whipped in and headed home for the equaliser, and the game changed. Then as the two sides try to find the leading goal, with Oakleigh unable to implement either their long ball game or a shorter passing game through the middle, a chance presents itself to the Cannons to retake the lead. They stuff it up, the ball scoots up the other end for a like-for-like chance to Nate Foster, who puts Knights in front instead. That's soccer in a nutshell, it's why we love and hate the game in equal measure, and every other cliché you want to throw in the mix.

The pivotal moment, if there is such a thing, came when John Honos committed an all-time-great goalkeeping howler. My view was a bit obstructed (also I can't see very well), but one observer with keener eyesight and a better attention span tells it like this:
My own delayed appraisal of Honos' blunder, with my trademark rhetorical flourish, went like this
Oakleigh got a goal back late, and could've/should've equalised, but didn't. So Knights picked up three points, and a lot of people were not only pleased, but also impressed. I seem to have a reputation of sorts for not being so easily impressed

Now some have taken my remarks on Twitter on this game to imply that Knights were not the better team, and that they did not deserve to win this game. On the contrary, they did deserve to win, probably. Perhaps my reserved feelings on the quality of the game overall, or my putting the result of the game mostly onto Oakleigh's deterioration over the 90 minutes than on anything Knights did to adjust, has confused some readers. These things happen.

More goals than the average AFLW game; that's not a good thing on either front by the way
Believe what you want: I'm going to maintain that I went out to Somers Street for a second time within 24 hours, while the rest of you can believe that I slept in the car in the car park. Georgies are playing out of Knights Stadium this year, and they were hosting the overclocked Altona Magic. Rubbish game this for a good part of the first half, Magic content to try and beat the offside trap, while Georgies were doing I'm not sure what. Magic went ahead about a half hour in, ushering in a flurry of goals and action, as Georgies levelled with a sneaky set piece, fell behind again, then equalised with a corker of a half volley from the edge of the box into the opposite top corner. All of a sudden this was a cracking game. Then Georgies imploded in spectacular fashion. A red card, conceding a goal within 30 seconds of that red card, and then another before half time, and yet another just after half time, and this game was cooked. But it was going to get much worse: another red card, and a lot more goals conceded. It finished 9-2 to Magic, in a game that went from bore-fest, to ring-a-ding-ding battle, to "stop, stop, he's already dead" over the course of 90 minutes.

Final thought
There was a bloke walking around the Veneto Club with a Carlton SC shirt, and only much later on (like, when I got home) did I realise it was journo Joey Lynch. And there we were saying things like, "gee that shirt would be worth some money", but also "geez, and people tell South fans to move on".