Sunday, 16 December 2018

Not that any of that matters

So, no A-League for South Melbourne.

Look, I'm not going to say "I told you so", mostly because I didn't tell anyone so, and we should all know by now that no one equivocates on South Melbourne Hellas matters more than me. That it was a long-shot would've been obvious to anyone who's followed the South Melbourne exodus saga these past 14 years, but exactly how long those odds were could only be tested by putting forward a bid. You've got to be in it to win it, otherwise people will always ask why you didn't even try. But there are at least a couple of journalists floating the idea that South was never even close to being seriously considered by FFA, which of course makes one think in a conspirational way.

In 2004, thanks to being in administration we were in no position to put our hand up to even try to apply for the inaugural A-League Melbourne licence. Since then there has been the Southern Cross bid, attempted buy-outs of Melbourne Heart, Central Coast Mariners, and Wellington Phoenix, and now this attempt to get in under our own name under our own steam, with some outside investment help. The funniest thing though is that each time we play the game, FFA gets something out of it. They get to push up a licence fee, force a minority shareholder to go the whole hog, or put pressure on an existing franchise that they don't really want to sort itself out. They can put forward the illusion of a contest, a fair process, or engagement with 'old soccer'. So we play the game, because we feel that we must, but it's not our game.

So we're still left out in the cold. Only the people directly involved with the bid know how good it actually was. Most South supporters are left to do as they always do, which is speculate based on what limited information we've been made privy to, and then filter that through our preexisting prejudices.

Speaking with one former board member way back when about our chances in this bidding round, they acknowledged that the real value lay in information gathering. That pragmatism wasn't something reflected in the way the bid was presented to the public or to the broader South Melbourne family, but maybe this reconnaissance can be taken to the next bid, or perhaps more realistically, to the push for the second division and promotion relegation. Granted, I'm not a believer in the viability of promotion and relegation in Australian soccer (though I'm more cautious on a standalone second division, a discussion for another day) but there are people who do believe in those ideas. Considering the effort put in to this bid - an effort more than a few South fans consider was expended to the detriment of the core business of the club - it would seem negligent to cast aside the value of that information and experience.

Then again, there's also an argument being made that the expansion course taken by FFA this week makes promotion and relegation less likely to happen in the short term. I have said that part of the reason that FFA decided to take up the expansion course was due to the pressure which came from outside the A-League, namely the Association of Australian Football Clubs, who managed to bring matters to a head. Part of the game then became who would be able to shape Australian soccer in their own image fastest. While all reports suggest that the AAFC are still aiming for a 2020 start to their national second tier competition, FFA's particular choices in expansion are designed to further entrench the existing ownership and operating model. And while there will be changes to the latter when the A-League achieves its independence from FFA next year, it's basically more of the same of what's 'worked' lately for FFA: growth corridors, lots of cash, rejection of small markets.

To be fair, FFA had a difficult choice to make under difficult circumstances, albeit some of those difficult circumstances were of their own making. They have a league that has the feeling of stagnation, disgruntled licence holders who have lost millions propping up their teams and the league, and a television audience that seems all but maxed out. They don't want to expand, because they cannot afford to; yet they cannot afford to not expand. Under pressure from fans, extant licence holders, player unions, broadcasters, and myriad other groups, FFA were offered a dozen or so choices for expansion, all flawed in one way or another, all encompassing some degree of risk.

It was fairly obvious that in the context of Australian soccer's culture wars, our bid was a risky proposition for FFA. Not much has changed on that front for more than decade. But on another front, picking South would've been a conservative, risk-averse decision for FFA to make. An imperfect but nevertheless extant stadium; a supporter base with finite potential for broad engagement and growth, but nevertheless a supporter base that was somewhat tangible; the inclusion of a club that offered something familiar, and yet with also enough of a point of difference so as to add something new to the A-League.

But if people think that the two successful bids - Western Melbourne Group, and MacArthur South-West Sydney - are absurd, illogical choices, destined to fail - let us never forget that famous old mantra which haunts the rhetoric of the 'bitters' even more so than "No South, No A.P.L.", that being "three years tops". The goalposts for the A-League's imminent demise keep moving, but the league keeps going. And maybe these new teams will succeed, proving everyone on our side of the fence wrong again.

Only a few will ever know for sure why the South bid was rejected, and the circumstances in which that happened. At some point our bid team will be briefed by FFA on the process; maybe FFA will tell the truth, or only a part of it. It could just be a case of, in the words of the AAFC on their own second tier model, "what may be good for football may not be good for your club". I doubt that we pleb supporters will ever find out the reasons, which means that rampant rumour-mongering will continue much as it already has during the process. Let us not forget the refrain from some people that Team 11 had it in the bag, that Southern Expansion's largesse would see them through despite their absurdity of their three home ground bid, or that Brisbane City would get it for Queensland derby-metric purposes.

More than every other failed attempt to re-join the top-flight, this failure sees South Melbourne at a significant crossroads. Ideologically, does the club at last abandon its plans to work within the system for its own progress? If so, does it throw its weight more openly and wholeheartedly towards the second division and promotion-relegation push? Structurally, what does the next board of South Melbourne look like? With long-serving president Leo Athanasakis set to retire from the board and the presidency - and under whose leadership this return to the top-flight strategy has been enacted - will his successor make a clean break with this approach?

And will A-League bid chairman and Hellas board member Bill Papastergiadis stick around? Initially brought in to sort out the contractual mess with regards to our leases at Lakeside, Bill stuck around to try and achieve something many of us dream of even while we doubt its plausibility. It's required non-stop politicking, but now that that's over, what is his role?

The reaction from South fans on social media has been a mix of disappointment and anger, with more than a dash of the sort of squawking, entitled petulance that's straight out of 2004/05 era TWGF. In its naked, shameless display of raw emotion, much of that outpouring of grief has been hard to look at directly; it has a pathetic quality, both in the sense that one might feel pity and sympathy, but equally in the alternative definition of something miserably inadequate. It hasn't been helped by our failure resulting in all the anti-South trolls coming out to play.

Remember that four of the other bids in the final six didn't even exist as actual teams, being scarcely more than concepts no-one really asked for. Their existence was entirely conditional on winning an A-League licence - and thus the only 'fans' making serious arguments online for or against something were either 'neutrals', or Canberrans and South fans. And the vociferous nature of some of our fans on social media, along with the PR stunts and boasting of our own bid leader, made us an easy target for ridicule and scorn.

(and as I and others have previously noted, there's a certain irony in South board members imploring our supporters to not embarrass the club with poor behaviour during games this year, when the bid team's antics arguably did as much if not more harm to our reputation, and the behaviour of some of our fans on social media made us look simultaneously arrogant and desperate)

But if nothing else, FFA's decision at least put to bed the value of those clickbait internet polls which benefited only the ad revenues of those news agencies running the surveys, showing the importance of Australian soccer's social media argle-bargle to the game's decision makers being close to zero. As I noted two years ago:
The discussions around the future of Australian soccer which take place online are very niche discussions. Within those discussions there even more niche discussions, which while promoted with quantifiable passion, make no ripple whatsoever on the greater whole of Australian soccer. Promotion/relegation, second division, NCIP, the NYL - like those people who keep making petitions to bring back Toobs or the KFC tower burger - their enthusiasm and its attendant clamour more often than not obscure the fact that there are not actually very many of them: it's just that they're louder.
The episode on Facebook with the Greek Orthodox priest from Moonee Ponds was the most farcical point, encapsulating the most crucial problem of this saga - and not just the last two years, but the past 15. We go back to a bit from an older post:
In time the greatest betrayal of the ethnic clubs, if one can use such a provocative term, comes not from their own or the governing bodies' incompetences, nor the disinterest of the general public who had no obligation to follow them, but from those younger supporters who turned their back on their fathers’ clubs.
It's not just the young people of course. The broader point is that if we actually had the support we claimed to have - or that we used to have - we probably wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. If we had 2,000 people turning up to games instead of 200, the quality and vitality of our optics and our metrics would all be harder to ignore, or to treat as a fabrication.

It's worth revisiting this point for an interesting micro-phenomenon which has taken place during the immediate aftermath of this failed A-League bid. There have been current and/or latent South people vowing to give up their A-League season tickets and come back to South. This sounds grand, magnificent, like the beginning of a movement which could make Hellas great again. Even more appealingly, it's a positive move, not just more useless complaining, but actually doing something for the betterment of South Melbourne.

Except human history is littered with short bursts of mass penance after a disaster, most of which never lasts. I'm reminded of Agathias' comments on part of the aftermath of the devastating Constantinople earthquake of 557,
Agathias also claimed there was a short-lived effect on the attitude of the population: the wealthy were motivated to charity, doubters were motivated to pray, and the vicious were motivated to virtue, all in an apparent effort of propitiation. Agathias reports that soon enough everyone lapsed into their former attitudes.
So while we all hope that people come back to South, and stick with South, the reality is that the numbers will likely be small, and most of those returnees unlikely to be permanent. It's going to be a massive challenge for the club to appeal to people to come and support it, or to continue to support it, when so much hope was invested in the A-League bid and the promise of a brighter tomorrow, and soon. Instead we're back to another season of NPL, our 60th anniversary season set to be spent crossing from industrial back-block to fringe suburban paddock, alternating that with our presence at a boutique stadium which we are destined never to fill again, except on very special occasions.

As the dust settles on this latest attempt at regaining our former glory,  these are the things that matter.


  1. Good write up as usual Paul. The FFA have shown their contempt for us and what we represent. Giving a license to the WMG whose main motivation will be making money out of a parcel of land more or less swindled from Wyndham council on the 'promise' of building a purpose built football stadium in the middle of fucking nowhere. Great in theory but it's simply not that easy. These things take years to finalise and work something the game cannot afford at the minute. The football franchise component will be the 'side dish' for this group. The FFA should be concerning itself with football matters not the grandiose plans of Sticca and his 'mysterious' property speculator mates. It'll be a disaster and we'll be left scratching our heads how South have been screwed over by the 2 dud Melbourne franchisers chosen ahead of us. But hey a few individuals have made some good cash along the way so its all cool. Some serious thinking ahead for South. A proper functioning social club must be the priority as it has the capability to attract people to the club.

    1. Thanks Nick. It'll be interesting to see how the property acquisition and development aspect of this WMG thing works. This isn't just for the various business and political deals that will be involved with making it a reality, but also how a stadium that will in that bid's own words 'be only for football' will remain a viable financial concern based on 15 usage days a year.

      But I would never write anyone off in the A-League. Players go round and round, teams somehow keep afloat, and the league keeps getting tv deals.

    2. To the point on the bid's value in information gathering and reflection, I hope the club can see operational change as a result as early as this season - on your point on the social club, one of the things the bid pushed was a 365 lakeside experience. There is no reason we can't get the social club pumping.


  2. Paul, such a well written piece. Excellent. Unfortunately the last paragraph left me in a cold sweat — I guess that's reality for you. Last Wednesday night, I took a walk around an empty Lakeside with my son, checking out certain vantage points along the way and wondering if we'll ever see a decent crowd at a South Melbourne match ever again. One day. Well, here's to another season. Cheers.

    1. It can be dispiriting. Chatting with a Melbourne Knights supporting acquaintance of mine yesterday, one conclusion or aspiration we seemed to agree with was that even if it was unrealistic that South or Knights would ever rejoin a topflight competition, that our potential is nevertheless not being realised by being in this state based competition. Well, now that this phase of A-League expansion bidding is behind us, one assumes South will redirect its efforts towards the AAFC's second tier plans, especially since we have two former board members involved with that anyway.

  3. I appreciate your write up, Paul.

    Hasn't been pleasant, and it sucks that I'm dreading another year at Lakeside where folk are at each other's throats for what has now passed.

  4. I guess we will all enjoy watching Messerounis kid light up lakeside next season

    1. Probably won't be alone in one way, as it seems to be a lot of emphasis in the little press put out by the club on the younger players we used the seniors in 2018.

  5. I always shook my head at the "three years tops" thing. It was pretty clear that like the big banks the A-League was clearly marked too big to fail, and if necessary Socceroos revenue, or more levies and taxes on juniors and "member federation clubs" would have been drawn upon.

    1. Let's not forget the so-called 'Northern Spirit rule'.

    2. Whilst true (I too shook my head at the 3 years statement), there really should now be a '10 years rule'. Perth Glory's plateauing (reduced?) crowds occurred around the 10 year mark. So did the A League in general.

      What is the 'Northern Spirit rule'? I have a personal interest as I was there for their first (and only decent) year.

    3. I think SMFCMike may have coined the concept a few years ago; he certainly made use of it back on the old days of smfcboard. I forget it's exact nature, something about an initial burst of interest in 'broadbased' clubs, sustained by hype and free tickets, before the bottom quickly fell out of the whole thing.

  6. I always assumed that South's financially parlous situation in 2004 was primarily to do with the NSL's generally bankrupt state plus not being able to field a team for 18(?) months. Are you saying that even if the NSL was to survive another year (for instance), then South would have been in the same (or somewhat reduced) trouble?

    1. The lack of income coming into the club because of that forced break was a big problem, but we owed a ton of money to the tax office, which seems like the kind of problem that wasn't going to go away even if we had a league to play in during the 2004 winter season. Others that were much closer to that situation however will be able to tell the whole story a lot better than I ever could, provided they could get the legal clearances. It's not really my area of expertise.

      The broader point however is that when Frank Lowy and John O'Neill deviated from the recommended 10 team league (with two teams each in Sydney and Melbourne) for the 8 team model with one city, one team approach, everyone just assumed we wouldn't be the team picked for Melbourne. But we didn't even apply, I assume in large part because we were incapacitated; yet the story persists among some quarters that we were formally rejected by FFA, when I don't think was the case. Certainly I can't recall us putting in a bid alongside the Melbourne Victory and Melbourne United bids. I stand to be corrected.

    2. I would surmise that the stench around the NSL and 'ethnics' was so profound that our club would've been too embarrassed to put in a bid, even if we were in a better position overall. A bit of Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps.

    3. If we go by news reports and such from the last season of the NSL, it seems as if the club and then president Peter Mitrakas went from being cautiously optimistic that the club could make the grade in the proposed new competition, to realising that making the grade according to Lowy's standards was going to be very difficult for the club, to eventually coming to believe that the club was no chance of winning the sole inaugural Melbourne A-League licence. Not being accepted into the VPL in 2004 compounded feasibility issue.

    4. After exiting administration, I guess survival was the main point. This article from November 2004 is really interesting.

      Basically, George Donikian hoped to leverage a redevelopment of Lakeside Stadium as the launchpad for a ground-sharing/revenue-making enterprise which would set South up as the logical next choice for the next A-League Melbourne licence, whenever that was going to happen.


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