Sunday, 29 December 2013

Off-Season Digressions - Melbourne Aces vs Sydney Blue Sox/Baseball

Proudly brought to you by Penola Catholic College - where 1 part Catholic education meets 99 parts Broadmeadows stupidity.

How boring is the off-season? Yes there's a lot of politics and transfer rumours and uncertainty. And yes, we managed to get out to one meaningless pre-season game featuring the 21s and Selangor. But until things started gradually ramping up when everyone gets back from their holidays in January, there really isn't very much to do. So we decided, for whatever reason, to go to the baseball. Steve from Broady managed to get some free tickets (I don't think they're really that expensive anyway) from one of his contacts at Penola, and me and Gains joined him.

Part of my reasoning for going to the baseball (apart from my usual gimmick sport summer experience) was that as a western suburbs lad, I've driven past the Melbourne Ballpark in Laverton so many times, and never gone in, never seen what it looks like from the inside. It's always seemed to be just a white elephant sitting in the middle of nowhere next to the train line, an unusual landmark visible on your left as you take the shortcut to Merton Street from Kororoit Creek Road, or a little less convenient if the underpass is flooded and you're forced to use the freeway.

The view from along the third base line. The two scoreboards
can be seen in the distance. Photo: Paul Mavroudis
Parking sets me back $5, which is a bit pricey but who's complaining when you get free entry? The venue itself is functional without being anything fancy. The seating - which is limited to the areas behind the plate, and along most of the first and third baselines - is all elevated, with the exception of those areas at the bottom for the corporates. The elevation and hence the sight-lines and viewing angles are quite good, but the protective nets can be annoying, especially as they can make viewing the small electronic scoreboard difficult.

Looking across towards Melbourne Ballpark's 'premium' seating.
Photo: Paul Mavroudis.
Disappointingly, and for reasons which I can't figure out, the roof only extends to those seats behind the plate, those classed as premium seats. The seats themselves seem to be your standard MCG/Great Southern Stand variety, which as has been pointed out by one of our Twitter friends, were the same as used for the old BJS, Knights Stadium, Heidelberg, Preston, etc. So, if you do for some reason end up heading out to a game at Laverton, and aren't willing to stump the extra few dollars for a premium seat, bring your sunscreen, hat and an umbrella, in preparation for whatever Melbourne's weather throws up.

The game
Of course, rocking up to an Australian Baseball league fixture one is well aware that you will not be seeing the creme de la creme of baseball talent. But as an Australian soccer fan who largely ignores what happens above outside our shores, that doesn't really phase me. The teams seem to be made up of some locals (obviously), as well Americans and Japanese dropped down from the major (maybe even minor) leagues for some extra game/development time during the off-season.

Baseball is a weird game in an Australian context. It's been here for a long time, and the Claxton Shield has been played for 100 years in one form or another. While never a really popular spectator sport as far as I can tell, it did have a niche carved out for itself as a participant sport, especially for cricketers in their off-season, with Bill Lawry in particular extolling the virtues of cricketers taking up baseball in their off-season. There was also of course the old Australian Baseball League which went broke in the mid 1990s or whenever it was. These days the ABL seems to be largely funded by Major League Baseball, who presumably benefit from having a low pressure development league in their off-season, as well as being able to tap into the Australian baseball talent pool, which has provided its fair share of exports down the years.

Like cricket, if you're not on the correct angle, it can be difficult to discern the movement of the pitches. Eventually and rather quickly, once you start getting a feel for it you can be pretty sure about whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, but you won't necessarily be able to tell how the ball is moving through the air. However, perhaps this is at least partly due to my very poor eyesight. Like ice hockey and cricket, there is an auditory quality to the game that is present at a live fixture in ways that would be absent on TV. In cricket's case, it's the crack of willow on leather; in ice hockey, the skates on the ice, and the crashing of players into the glass walls; in baseball, it's the smack of the ball into the catcher's glove.

Some of the outfield play left a bit to be desired. the Aces' left-fielder in particular had a bit of a shocker, but according to one of the more knowledgeable fans there, that wasn't his regular position. There didn't appear to be much depth in the pitching stocks for either side, but especially the visitors. A small roster and being the final game of a four game series probably didn't help, as the Aces' managed a late rally with three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead going into the eighth, eventually winning 4-3.

There were of course American accents, and an American flavour to many of the day's proceedings, from the announcements, to the food (see below), to the presentation style. Normally I'd find that kind of thing really off-putting, but the fringe nature of the experience - like they were Christian missionaries in the remotest parts of Darkest Africa - made it seem less gimmicky than the equivalent Melbourne ice hockey experience (albeit I've only had the national team experience there, not the Ice or Mustangs just yet), and I've also never been to a local basteball game to make a valid comparison there either.

The fact that the crowd was very small - I'd say no more than 300 outside of the corporate areas - also gave it a quaint sort of vibe. With an already limited appeal for all sorts of reasons (standard, location, lack of media, cultural obscurity, unfavourable comparisons to cricket), it must also be hard competing directly against the local suburban competitions which run at the same time.

Women In Sport Day
No other sport does pointless fan gimmickry quite like baseball. Of course, in Major League Baseball there's 160 odd games each team has to play, so a crowded schedule means having to find all sorts of ways to get people in off the street, especially if your team ain't doing too well.  At the Aces for example, there's a tradie's day, AFL day, bring your dog to the game day, etc. Two weeks prior to our visit, the Saturday doubleheader was apparently the multicultural/diversity day, during which I believe there was going to be ethnic dancing - how I miss ethnic dancing at Australian sporting contests. Those were the days.

Anyway, the main slant of trying to promote women in sport was the attempt to raise some funds to get the women's softball team to Japan for the world championships or some such endeavour. To that end, they tried auctioning off some Aces' jerseys and signed bats - none of which did very well. There was also money donated when one of the softball girls did the worm from in front of the pitcher's mound to home plate. It kinda made me feel ill seeing female athletes have to beg like that. There was also a tug of war and some kind of bowling pin hitting activity. All pretty low rent, but kinda charming in its own sincere way.

This is where Steve from Broady's food report was supposed to go
Since he had the most food of all of us that day - and used trips to the canteen as an excuse to not watch a game he was obviously not enjoying - I had delegated the task of reviewing the food at Melbourne Ballpark to Steve. Unfortunately, he has failed to come through on this front, so it's up to me to give you the rundown.

The range of food at the venue is pretty ordinary. It's the usual dim sims, hot dogs, chips arrangement, at slightly less extortionist than normal stadium prices. The main difference to your run of the mill stadium food was the fact that, thanks to a recent sponsorship deal with Hormel Foods, for an extra $1 you had the option of adding some Stagg Chili to your chips or hot dog. I decided to pass on that front. Perhaps the most worthwhile item, even at a slightly exorbitant $8 considering the serving size, were the nachos, which were actually pretty good.

Former South fan watch
We managed to spot the ex-SMFC fan known as Strauchnie sitting in the premium seats. Small world and all that.

Would I do it again?
I wouldn't say no. I'll say this - I enjoyed it a lot more than my experience of one day cricket. I can see how drinking would help enhance the experience of watching the game, especially if you were going to watch a double header, but it's hardly necessary. It was a genuinely relaxed day out, with very low expectations, and I actually kinda had fun.

I have the theory that some games are better experienced live in the flesh, some better on TV, and some even work best on radio (especially cricket). For me, baseball is dead boring to watch on TV, would probably work in the background on radio ala cricket, but is a perfectly adequate game watched live - provided you have a decent seat and a couple of mates to talk crap with for three hours.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Six Solid Seasons Of South Of The Border

Six years. My how time flies. I didn't think I'd last a month when I started this. This year we had two regular and two semi-regular contributors, getting closer to what I'd hope this blog would be when I started it. I think my writing may have also come along just a little bit this year.

For the record I still like these pieces

Those who contributed articles anonymously. I hope you got a kick out of doing it.

Kiss of Death - its output was severely reduced this season due to competing demands, but the work that it did put out was solid. This piece still does the trick for me.

Manny, our resident comic artist. Still don't know who you are, but you added something cool to this project, and something I'd been waiting a long time for.

Costa from Goal Weekly for using stuff from here and commissioning further work.

Mark Boric, for providing encouragement - about time you started your own blog!

Arthur of 442 and soccer-forum, for his guidance on NPL Victoria matters.

Walter Pless, still the benchmark for this stuff.

Pave Jusup for his moral support. Likewise, Bill Vandermey. Hell, anyone that wrote to us, or about us, saying that they appreciate what we do here. Also thanks to the people I met along the way, such as Athas Zafiris and Joe Gorman.

Thanks to everyone whose photos I used at some point.

Thanks to everyone who reads this blog, especially if you left a comment - in particular this year, Justin Mahon, who provided interesting contributions on the legal arguments of the NPL Victoria scenario, all while dealing with some occasionally hostile banter from others.

Thanks also if you re-tweeted this stuff or spread the word somehow. I write my portion of this blog for me, for the vanity of leaving behind a shonky historical record, but the fact that some people still read it makes it easier to keep coming back.

Huge Thanks
Steve From Broady. My goodness, how quickly did his star rise? From being an occasional source of stupid stories I'd use to pad out an entry, and from him doing stats at Altona East in return for free food and a passing grade in 2012, to writing for me and doing stats, to becoming an official part of the SMFC media juggernaut. Thanks buddy for a great year's work. Will I be able to keep him next year?

Gains, for providing sanity (do I say this every year?), a belief that this club might end up somewhere good, and his match report from the home game against Port, which I missed because I was visiting my brother in hospital. Thanks also for providing one of the more disturbing moments of the year - the admission that he read the horror that was the 2008 season, just so he could live through some of what he missed before he became a South fan.

Ian 'Ivory Tower' Syson.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Monday, 16 December 2013

Sunrise, Sunset, Sunrise, Sunset...

Firstly, congratulations to SMFCTV main man Paul Zarogiannis, who was awarded the Sam Papasavvas Award for volunteer work at the club. Well deserved.

That happened during the Gala Ball last Saturday, which I'm not going to complain about, because I did not pay my for my ticket.

Now, for a couple of ins and outs for 2014.

  • Peter Gavalas, 2013 FFV goalkeeper of the year, due to increased work commitments. He will be missed.
  • Fernando De Moraes, whose retirement has been made official. We'd like to make a big song and dance about Fernando, but hopefully we can do that next year, because we anticipate - nay, demand - that the club hold a testimonial dinner in his honour in 2014.

  • Steve from Broady. Admittedly, this is not South related, but apparently he's landed a job at my very own place of employment. There goes the neighbourhood.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Practice Match - South Melbourne (of sorts) 0 Selangor 4

With apologies in advance to all my new Malaysian internet friends for not being very  accommodating to you, by not knowing who any of your players are, taking some really awful unusable photos, and instead pursuing our usual rambling blog stylings.

Now, this fixture was advertised as being at Lakeside Stadium, last night at 6:00pm, with the private word being that it was a closed doors affair. And all of that was kind of true, except for the parts that weren't.

The match did not start at 6:00. It started at 7:20. The match was closed doors - they kicked everyone who was an athlete out at 7:00 or thereabout - except for all the parents and such of the kids playing in this game, and the odd South official such as Tom Kalas and Andrew Mesorouni. It was also good to see senior coach Chris Taylor keeping an eye on things as he prowled up and down the sideline.

And of course me and Gains, who managed to stay inside by the sheer fact that we got there so early that we blended seamlessly into the crowd. It wasn't quite the epicness of Steve from Broady walking in for free at Olympic Village a few years ago, but it was a start.

Now, I have recently purchased a smartphone, attempting to join the rest of you if not in the present, than at least somewhere in the not too distant past. However, because I am a very cheap person, I went for a phone with a pretty ordinary camera, and thus all my photos of anything further than a couple of metres away were just crap.

The various South juniors in their warm up.
Photo: Paul Mavroudis  (and why would anyone
else want to claim credit for it?)
Now, we had been informed by our friend Steve from Broady (who decided to boycott this match for reasons unknown) that there would be no senior players there, as most were on holiday/not in the country/washing their hair, and when we saw a ton of South under 21s and assorted juniors on the ground, we kind of figured out what was going to happen.

And that was that there would be a lot of different South junior players getting 15-30 minutes on the field. The only exception to this rule was the appearance for the first 30 minutes or so of Iqi Jawadi, who while of course qualifying for this team in terms of age, was also a regular senior player for South during the second half 2013 after his transfer from Dandenong Thunder.

Now, apart from the novelty of seeing a Malaysian team playing against us, I was interested in seeing what kind of style, if any, we would see from the South boys. What was our hotshot academy teaching them? Well, actually for the most part it was rather attractive football with some caveats.

They almost always tried to play the ball out from the back. There were very few long balls, especially desperation stuff over the top of the midfield. They did play some wide passes to the wing, especially the right hand side when there was space available, and generally tried to keep the ball. The skill level of the players was also quite good.

The caveats? Sometimes you just gotta clear the ball instead of piss farting around with in it defence. Selangor were on top in the early stages precisely because of this, and probably should have scored more than the one goal that they had at that stage.

After the first 5-10 minutes however our boys settled down, and started getting used to both the pace and style of their opponents. Several South boys commenting after their on field stint made note of the speed of their opponents.

Now, I'm no expert on South-East Asian football, but from what I have gathered, playing a higher tempo pressing game is not exactly the most effective thing to do in tropical conditions, so it was interesting to see Selangor use that approach. For the most part however, our boys handled that well.

While playing the ball out well, South would often get stuck in the transition between midfield and attack. Partly this was due to ostensibly playing with only one up front, but it was also due to the organised play of Selangor's defenders, who were able to cut off most of the wide attacking moves that we put together - and we had almost nothing going through the middle.

Selangor walk on to the field. Photo: Paul Mavroudis.
The thing is though, that against all the different combinations of South juniors, Selangor got very little of note happening in attacking sense - aside from careless South play in defence - until the last 15 minutes or so. Their second goal was their best bit of team work, winning the ball in midfield, and slicing through the middle of the over-committed and overexposed South defence, ending with a nice chip goal. It was interesting as well to see in this phase of play the South defenders lose their nerve and start diving in with tackles instead of trying to slow their opponents down with proper marking.

Part of the problem also for Selangor was their finishing. There were times when they should have just taken a shot, but instead their forwards preferred the extra pass or dribble. Just shoot the damn thing! Which they did for their third goal, an absolute rocket from maybe 25 metres out, which no keeper would have saved.

Selangor added a fourth goal just before the full time whistle. Overall, a pretty intense game for what was not much more than a bit of pre-season kick and giggle. No players from either side stood out, except the South keepers after the first one, and the Selangor player who went down and was actually injured as opposed the stereotypical Asian rolling around after a feather hit them nonsense (there was a little bit of that too, but not much, as it wasn't a very physical game).

To emphasise how low key this was - there weren't even any lines on the field. It would have been nice to be able to stay behind and maybe have a quick chat with Mehmet and some of the Selangor players and personnel, but the very late start kinda made that irrelevant, especially as I was keen to get some dinner at a not completely rubbish place.

No such luck.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

South Melbourne vs Selangor tomorrow night?

Well, this is an interesting development. A little birdy sent us a link to a Facebook page, which included talking about how Malaysian football side Selangor - one of Malaysia's more important and successful teams, currently coached by former South technical director (and champion South and Selangor player) Mehmet Durakovic - would possibly be playing against our very South Melbourne.

The discussion was in Malay, with a lot of slang, so Google's translation tool didn't work all that well, but the indication was that any possible game wouldn't be any time soon. Except that by checking Selangor's twitter feed, it appeared as if they were already here!

Selangor training at Lakeside Stadium. Photo: Selangor twitter feed.

Furthermore, it appears as if Selangor (who will be here until December 16th, as part of their pre-season preparations) have scheduled a match against us tomorrow evening at 6:00PM. Will it be open doors? What kind of team would we possibly field at such short notice? I'm guessing yes to the first question, and probably some cobbled together youth outfit for the second.

So, depending on how desperate you are to see some South action, you may want to head to this affair - with the full knowledge that it may be a closed doors session and of absolutely no consequence whatsoever considering who we'll have on the park, with our actual senior likely not starting pre-season training until some time early in the new year.

My mail suggests this is a closed door session.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Book Review - The Blinder, by Barry Hines

Barry Hines' debut novel The Blinder focuses on 18 year old footballing prodigy Lennie Hawk. Lennie is on the verge of becoming a star in the First Division for his home town team, the representatives of an unnamed northern English mining town, who haven't seen success of any sort since the end of their golden generation some 40 years prior.

But Lennie is not just a great footballer - he's also academically gifted, and a large part of the novel deals with the decision he has to make on whether to take up a full time football contract or pursue university studies. And he has to do this while dating the daughter of one of the club directors, while also seeing the lonely wife of one his teachers on the side.

Written and set in the mid 1960s, Hines describes a football scene on the cusp of entering its modern era - the maximum wage cap for footballers is gone, but players are still by and large ordinary people, being able to walk down the street, have a drink at the local pub, and date local girls without the paparazzi tracking their every move.

Clubs from smaller towns can still make an impact, if not so much in the league, then in the cup. The spectators are split between the haves and have-nots - those who can afford the seats in the stands, and those who must survive the crush on the terraces behind the goals. In a terrifying scene late in the novel, police are helpless to prevent ticket-less fans storming the gates of a sold out match, trampling each other to see the big game.

Hines himself played for the English Grammar Schools side, and he ably conveys Lennie's on field joys and frustrations. Where some see Lennie purely as a commodity, Lennie sees himself as something akin to an artist - talented and unorthodox, the latter attribute is useful but also dangerous. It doesn't help that Lennie's also a smartarse, always ready with the quick reply. No one is immune from his unnaturally cool detachment or ready wit.

For much of its duration, The Blinder veers uneasily between social realism and boy's own adventure. Hines (who grew up near Barnsley) throws a little bit of dialect in, but not very much - it's still a long way from Trainspotting or Purely Belter. The most experimental part of the novel occurs when there are several voices in conversation at once, without much indication of who's saying what - but after a bit, the reader become used to it.

Class conflict plays a major role, most notably in the contrasting depiction of Lennie's father, recently laid off from his colliery job, and that of Mr Leary, club director, paper mill owner, and father of Jane, Lennie's girlfriend. But for the most part the working class don't exist in abject poverty, even when they're unemployed or complaining about conditions at the local factories. Indeed, Lennie's father is more in awe of the coaches and staff of the football club than he is of Mr Leary.

Most of the secondary characters have little depth, being mere caricatures. While Lennie complains about everyone wanting something out of him, he also uses and discards many of those around him for his own ends, or his own amusement. Lennie is a problematic hero, one that we want to to cheer for, but whose actions and manners often coerce the reader into wanting to grab him by the scruff of the neck to shake some sense into him.

By the book's final act though, Hines has decided to choose one narrative style over the other, and thankfully the right one - providing both Lennie and the story with a moment of lucid clarity. While The Blinder is often uneven, it's also entertaining and well worth a look.

A Brief Note
I had borrowed this book four or five years ago from Ian Syson. Why it took me so long to read I don't know. Very poor form from me. The novel is long out of print, but seems to be easily obtainable secondhand from online sources.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Co-Sig clubs get their way it seems

While much of the detail remains to be sorted out and disseminated to the general public, it appears on the face of it that Sheriff FFA has ridden into town and sorted out the black hats in the FFV.

All I can make out so far is the suggestion that the re-branding of VPL and state league 1 into NPL 1 and 2 will take place, with the current clubs as is, no zones, and the addition of some regional teams.

Amid the celebrations however, I am reminded of the old Chris Rock bit, where he talks about the African-American response to the OJ Simpson verdict:

We won! We won! We won! What the fuck did we win?

Wait and see, as per usual. The true result will not be felt in the first year, but in the third year, and the fifth year, and the tenth year, and so on.

Still, it's nice to be able to avoid the Supreme Court action, mind. That stuff is expensive.

Monday, 2 December 2013

AGM 2013 - South still with one arm tied behind its back - but putting up a good fight

As usual, I'm conflicted about how much I should spill into a public forum about matters which the general South member would prefer remain in house. Of course, I have my principles about openness, but the process must also be respected. Then again, people will blab anyway.

Membership includes an entitlement to attend AGMs, an entitlement of course denied to non-members. Non-attendance of members complicates the issue - either people had more pressing issues to attend to, or just couldn't be stuffed coming. How do you cater to both? So once again, here are some general thoughts on what happened at yesterday's AGM.

It was good to see, for the first time in several years, a proper membership list and security presence at the door. Unlike previous year, this AGM was not hampered by the board trying to rush through the different points. Indeed, this meeting went to the other extreme, lasting for four hours, with a small break somewhere in there. 90 minutes was spent on the financial statements alone.

It was an exhausting process, but for the most part unavoidable, since there were so many crucial issues to discuss. However, going over old issues, such as the signing of the MOU (which happened four years ago) and the Toumbourou affair (which was settled last year) didn't help matters. Still, this is what the day is for.

A motion was put up by former board member George Kapnias, that in future years the annual financial statements would be mailed out along with the notice of an AGM. The reasons given were that it's not like they're not available from the ASIC website anyway, and that unlike the Melbourne Knights AGM, papers aren't collected at the end of a meeting. The motion was carried.

The lease situation remains much as it was, though I fancy things are likely to come to a head sooner rather than later. If we took the government's offer of a 21 year lease, we could sign tomorrow. But we agreed four years ago to 40 years, and the general consensus around the place is that we have a right to the 40 years as stipulated by the MOU. The intention is to fight for that part of the agreement, and rightly so.

There was an NPL Victoria update, presenting the picture and the possibilities which may unfold depending on several different outcomes happening. This week will be fairly important, with the co-signatory clubs meeting again this week, a further response by the FFA, and a court date of sorts next week.

The board explained the kind of workload they're dealing with, and the way they've split up the different projects among themselves. The double whammy of the NPL and lease issues has meant that resolving the women's team issue, or working on reform of our constitution, has basically been impossible.

With regards to players staying and players going, the big news is that apparently Fernando De Moraes has finally called time on his outdoor career - though I would like to see an official announcement of that before we get all justifiably misty eyed. Nothing beyond that was divulged, though we have apparently signed a couple of players.

There was discussion of the youth program and its alterations with regards to costs and coaching. Mistakes were admitted. Integration of the under 16s and up with vocational qualifications is a welcome development.

Lastly, George Malamas joined the committee. Over the years, Malamas has been one of the more vocal people at AGMs. I often disagree with his positions, but never doubt his passion for South. It will be interesting to see what impact he will have on the committee.

The mood overall was passionate and generally positive, especially with respect to the effort the board members put in, as well as for many of the decisions that they have made over the course of the year. A variety of people asked questions, to the point where afterwards I was told that I wasn't as vocal as in previous years.

One Last Thing 
This was from after the meeting. Looks like the Hellenic Cup will once again not go ahead. Or at least, that seemed to be the chat going around, as little to nothing has been heard about it. There are apparently offers from interstate to go and play a game or two during the pre-season. We'll see how that develops.