Thursday, 27 February 2020

Nobody happy - South Melbourne 5 Eastern Lions 2

Come on, Pierce, give us a smile! You're playing for South Melbourne!
Photo: Luke Radziminski. 
It was said a few times after this game, but when was the last time we put five goals past an opponent and yet felt this bad? The playing squad's morale might be the best it's been in years, but the fans I'm blessed(?) to interact with are pretty much all doom and gloom. I mean how else to explain being two rounds in and this already being a must win game? How dreadful, how vile, how... sickening. And I mean literally sickening - when we were 2-1 up, and Lions' had a free kick saved by our goalkeeper Pierce Clark, I felt like I was going to have a massive spew. A good thing that soon afterward Harrison (Harry?) Sawyer completed his hat-trick, and the game was pretty much put away.

Before that there was plenty of entertainment for those who'd made the trip to the club's lone Sunday home game for this season. Chris Irwin scuffed an early chance which by his own admission he should've buried, but we got the opener soon enough anyway thanks to what looked liked a mysterious penalty at the time. On replay, you can see the shirt tug on the player attempting to make the run into the box during a corner, and more importantly, you can see the referee looking right at that shirt tug.

You can argue that it was charity, you can argue that it was soft, and you can argue that those sorts of things happen all the time. And if you argued that, you'd be right, but why should it happen at all? My argument has long been that if officials were stricter with punishing that kind of shirt pulling that it'd get rid of it pretty quickly. Now having seen yellow flag after yellow flag thrown in the NFL for holding, and no obvious reduction in players trying to get away with illegal manoeuvres of that sort, my thinking may be more wish/desire oriented than anything based in reality. But even if punishment doesn't act as a deterrent, it at least acts as punishment, which within the context we're dealing with, is a good enough starting point.

Irresponsible treatment of beer. Photo: Luke Radziminski.
Having taken the lead, we were rocked out of our very temporary complacency by Lions equalising with a free kick that didn't look all that convincingly taken at the time. Even looking at it afterwards, I don't know what happened, and why goalkeeper Pierce Clark seemed to latch on to it so late. We retook the lead very soon after, which only settled the nerves ever so much because, as noted above, Lions took another dangerous free kick, this time well dealt with by Clark. After a false dawn and a premature beer shower for a goal called offside, we eventually pretty much finished this game off with Sawyer's third, like his second goal a header from a corner. And the beer shower for that goal was at least legit.

Responsible treatment of beer.
Photo: Luke Radziminski.
Three first half goals essentially from corners then - one indirectly thanks to the penalty, and two direct, which is the kind of thing we didn't see enough of last year. Sawyer probably has a knack for this kind of thing, but by the Lions' assistant coach's own admission on soccer-forum after the game, the away side put in some terrible efforts at defending set pieces. Good delivery aside, and keeping in mind that scoring from corners is pretty much a lottery at the best of times, I just can't see us being marked that slackly for the entire rest of the season. Still, if any future opponents wish to be that generous, I'm happy to let them oblige.

The second half was pretty much a stroll - except for late substitution Matthew Loutrakis, who got a kick in the face from a Lions opponent - just waiting for that fourth goal to really make sure of it. After that came the fifth courtesy of a showboating team manoeuvre, which highlighted how poor Lions were on the day defensively. To their credit, the away team fought it out, but their lack of quality across the park was obvious for all to see. Not to disparage a club which has done exceptionally well to reach this level - nor to write them off after two games - but who were most of their players? A lot of clubs who make the step up end up recycling at least a few blokes who've been around the Victorian top-flight merry-go-round before; but the only names of theirs I immediately recognised were short-term ex-South keeper Keegan Coulter, and former South trialist and firebrand striker Amir Osmancevic.

As for us, it's been only two games, and yet I think we have a pretty good handle on what this South team will be able to do. Certainly not a front-runner, and probably lucky to make finals. Even though you never know what might happen, it's a squad with too much depth to be in serious relegation danger, especially when you have teams like Lions and Altona Magic whose budgets restrict them in what they'll produce. Goodness knows if well be able to produce anything in the middle channel, especially on smaller and narrower grounds - and this is what frightens me - especially if we fall behind. If we manage to go up, and force to teams to open up as they chase the game, we'll probably be the game

Next game
Oakleigh at Jack Edwards on Friday night, beginning our customary run of early season away games. No one's expecting us to win this game, and no one's expecting us to draw, and pretty much everyone's expecting us to get spanked; the idea behind that being, apart from Oakleigh looking good, that we couldn't beat them there even when we were good, so six losses there on the trot will become seven. I'd like to be more optimistic than that, but I'm struggling.

Alternative reality
Why was the live stream initially displaying a backdrop of Central Coast Stadium? For those watching at home, it must've been a confusing affair. I know we did try and take over the Mariners a few years ago, including the farcical proposal to split games between Melbourne and Gosford, but callbacks to gags seven years ago seems a bit of a stretch. What's more, once the stream was sorted out, home viewers had to deal with the commentary stylings of Greg Blake, Australian soccer's one time sort of answer to Aussie Rules' Sam Newman - in the entertainment sense, not the try-hard non-PC gimmick sense.

Mispronunciations of player names aside - and the one person who was upset that Blake referred to South on several occasions as "Hellas" - the audience feedback on Blake's style seemed to be fairly split down the middle. People either loved it, or hated it. While I can see the appeal for some in Blake's schtick, I'm more in the latter mode. But I guess part of the appeal of the NPL live streams for those not of a gambling mindset is the variety of commentary styles - I like Dan Lonergan's energetic style for example, which a few people find too much like listening to footy or horse racing. Still, I wish Blake was quarantined to Heidelberg games.

Claim and counter-claim
I suppose the one good thing about last week's continuing coverage of our alleged wage theft was, if you can frame it that way, that it became so bogged down by claim and counter-claim that even the niche audience that was nominally interested in the story has mostly moved on. And in Australian soccer, there's always something new to latch on to and gawk at.

On an unrelated note, thank you Tony Sage.

But for us remaining South fans, our focus remains resolutely on South. Following on from last week's match report post on the blog, the club released a statement that in the famous words of David Byrne, had both "good points, some bad points". The good points? I guess for me that's mostly in noting that the players are on professional contracts, as opposed to the (implied) pseudo-amateur contracts that other clubs up and down the lower tiers have their players on. There's also the club's support for a more formal process for wage issues between clubs and players.

If you were in a more generous mood than I, you may also say that the club managed to pick up on the vagueness of the allegations made in Tom Smithies' article. An annoying aspect of that vagueness is that it was picked up on by some of our fans, who have pursued the I suppose logical extension of "why don't the players pursue the matters via legal channels"; an idea easily refuted by the fact that lawyers cost money, and for young players especially that's money they don't necessarily have at hand. And considering the relatively small amounts being alleged (admittedly not small to the players themselves), likely to be swallowed up by any legal action.

The bad points? The digressions into the allegations of conspiracy, which plays well to parts of our membership, but makes us look deranged to outsiders. The demand for a journalist to reveal his sources, which I guess someone drafting this press release must have thought was a good idea. The not coming out outright and saying that the club do not owe former players any monies, leaving that as an assumption rather than as a definite statement of fact. The club instead noted that it was "very comfortable with its position regarding all past and current players", whatever that means. I'm not good at reading between the lines.

Anyway, Smithies followed up his first article with another one, which notes that:
... it [Professional Footballers Association] is involved in "a number of disputes with South Melbourne" and that it is seeking the involvement of both FFV and Football Federation Australia after previous attempts "to resolve the matters amicably" had not worked.
Who knows how true this all is, nor who the relevant players are. As much as some of us would like to heap scorn on the committee, it is possible that everything is actually legit. Like the claims by former player Liam McCormick from a couple years ago that he was owed wages - this could all be a result of the current relevant players signing what they thought was simply a standard form with some boilerplate clauses, not realising what they were signing - even though the forms are pretty clear as far as I can tell. Because McCormack decided to put his name to his claim when this issue flared up in 2018, the club - apart from knowing it had the law (technical or otherwise) on its side - clearly felt comfortable in leaking McCormack's player release forms, damaging the credibility of both McCormack and Clement Tito, the journalist who wrote the article at the time.

This time none of these players has come forward, and thus it makes it harder for the club to just come out and use the same tactic, assuming that the relevant players have in fact McCormacked themselves, and assuming that the club is even sure who the relevant three players are. And surely a journalist with the seniority and experience of Smithies wouldn't make such a rookie error as Tito did, by trusting the word of the players without corroborating evidence.

What's strange and slightly counter-intuitive about this situation is that the real, original, and genuinely noteworthy story - Chris Taylor's win at FIFA, pending an appeal from us - has receded into the background. Taylor's successful (so far) litigation is, without knowing what's owed to anyone else that may be owed any sum of money, by any stretch of the imagination a much more tangible and newsworthy event than the (so far) small sums allegedly owed. Like the Avondale senior team wage spreadsheet leak from last year, this story offers a peek into the kinds of money being paid to run a senior team at this level, the kind of detail that mug punters almost never get to see. In that sense Smithies' article, which on some level appears to be an (understandable) opportunistic follow up story pushed by representatives of the ex-South players who allege they are owed money, is a much messier and "he said-she said" kind of situation.

As for fan responses, they seem to have generally fallen into three categories. Those who've used the story as an opportunity to bash South, and occasionally by extension the proposed national second division and/or ethnic clubs; those who have sought to defend the club, mostly South people but not always, seeing a witch-hunt and conspiracy against South, and occasionally by extension any notion of a national second division and/or ethnic clubs; but there's also a third faction, made up only of South fans - and most of whom seem to be on - which while not completely trusting media reports on these matters, also do not trust the board and are unwilling to give the board and its version of events the benefit of the doubt. For them, having lost most of their faith in the trustworthiness of committees, it's going to be a long way back before they believe anything that comes of a South committee person's mouth.

If You Know Your History is back
Mine and Ian Syson's little radio show on Football Nation Radio has resumed for 2020. This year we're on Tuesdays at 8:00pm, but you can always catch up with whatever is we've been doing by checking out our blog.

Final thought
Wild scenes when one of Ian Syson's sons has been to a South game more recently than the old man.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Journey to the centre of the earth - South Melbourne 0 Heidelberg United 3

Photo: Luke Radziminski.
For those people who were worried that there'd be drastic changes to the South Melbourne experience in 2020, this game was endlessly reassuring.

Isolated striker? Check.

More wingers than you can poke a stick at? Check.

Blokes playing out of position? Check.

Gerrie Sylaidos getting subbed off too early, and thus any chance of central corridor play being used to get back in the game? Check.

Melvin Becket having high energy but no end product? Check.

No end in sight to our goalkeeping issues? Check.

Copping a goal and falling behind early, and having increasingly diminishing ideas about what to do to score after that? Check.

Now there were things about this performance that I did like, mostly from the first half hour before we conceded the opening goal. I think the wingers we have on hand are faster than we had last year, which at least gives you a tactical option independent of skill. Provided he aims for raw power over swerve, Stephen Folan looks dangerous from free kicks. Harry Sawyer works hard, and I want to see him in a team that looks more organised before judging his skill. Lirim Elmazi was very good in his South debut, and looks an excellent pick up.

But everything else was all too familiar. After several successful seasons, Heidelberg are in a transition period, having seen much of their regular squad depart and a lot of new faces arrive. And by a Berger insider's admission (made while we were having a chat on the tram after the game), it was the worst or weakest Heidelberg side for about a decade. And their own performance never reached any particularly great heights, except for their finishing.

Someone piffed a flare over the fence near Gate 1 towards the end of the
 game. Who knows why they bothered. Photo: Luke Radziminski. 
But tactically we were outdone once again. Once Heidelberg took the lead - somewhat against the run of play, not that that makes things better - they were content to sit back and absorb our increasingly flimsy attacks. Once Sylaidos was subbed off around the hour mark, things got worse as we retreated exclusively to the wings, and the Bergers were happy enough to squeeze us onto the touchline. We got past the squeeze on occasion, but then our crossing let us down.

So it might have been a bad day, a bit of bad luck conceding the first goal, and a scoreline made worse as a result of having to chase the game. These things happen, and maybe 2020 won't be a replica of the last two years. A couple of inclusions to the midfield spine, like Luke Pavlou or even Marcus Schroen, and maybe we won't be so one-dimensional and reliant on Sylaidos having to do everything in the middle. Maybe some better crossing.

Oh god, we're one game into the season and I'm already into "if this" and "if that" scenarios.

Next game
Eastern Lions at home on Sunday. Were it not for Avondale's point deduction, these two teams would be last and second last, but as it is, Lions are ahead of us and out of the relegation zone by virtue of alphabetical priority.

Digging deeper still
While some South fans on social media have rightly caned former supporter of the club (and now cursed apostate) George Calombaris for the wage theft proclivities of his businesses, the old wisdom of "be careful what you mock, lest you become it" has sprouted its head again -  and because it seems that they're not cognisant of the fact, that goes for fans of other clubs too, who are enjoying this bit of schadenfreude.

Because over the past week or so our own alleged shoddy behaviour when it comes to paying wages has come to fill out newspaper column inches, and all you can do is hope that it's all very, very wrong, and that the players who are still with us or especially those who have rejoined us are incredibly naive or know something that we pleb fans don't.

But past examples like Kevin Nelson and Adam Van Dommelle successfully claiming moneys owed to them by us (and perhaps others who were naive enough to sign a waiver when seeking a transfer out) don't fill me with much confidence that the club has learned anything from prior experiences.

First up is the still(!) ongoing matter of Chris Taylor's sacking. At various points since Taylor's dismissal in early 2018, South Melbourne Hellas supporters have been told by the club that Taylor was owed nothing more than the week's notice he was paid out upon his sacking; and furthermore, that Taylor's attempt to take the club to a FIFA tribunal (if the club admitted that such a thing was actually happening) was unlikely to succeed.

Well, news came in last week that Taylor had won a FIFA tribunal case which states that he must be paid out approximately $80,000. The article does note that the club is considering taking the matter further, but boy, what another dent to whatever's left of our reputation. To be fair, we weren't the only club named in the article - Sydney Olympic also got its comeuppance with a coach it had sacked - but at least Olympic were able to say that they'd won a championship in part because of that decision.

Meanwhile, we've floundered in a mess of our own making, with high player turnover, poor morale, and no discernible middle let alone long-term on-field direction. Now maybe the decision to sack Taylor was absolutely necessary, even though those of us outside the board meeting which made the decision will probably never know either way. But it does show the perils of giving anyone, even someone as capable and as successful as Taylor, a five year deal in the first place.

Of more immediate concern is what this means for the club in terms of its finances and its alleged liabilities. Much was made at the recent AGM of the deep audit made of the club's books, and the plans to pay off the club's debts. Now here's another one, to be paid for how? With more director loans? And if you believe even some of what's being said out there, there's possibly another coach looking to be paid what they're owed, as well as persistent talk about players being owed money, and who knows who else.

In the Daily Telegraph it's being reported (behind a paywall which I'm not sure how I circumvented this time) there are at least three players seeking money they believe is owed by us. Just as concerning is that in terms of the comments made by public officials from various angles on this matter, there's no way of getting around that what the club is saying doesn't match up with what representatives from Football Victoria and the Professional Footballer's Association are saying.

While South president Nick Maikousis is (according to Tom Smithies' article) claiming that "Our governing body, the FFV, has not made any comment or contact in relation to these matters, nor has the PFA" the PFA and Football Victoria CEO Peter Filopoulos are on record as saying that the opposite is true. And matters aren't being helped when Maikousis attempts to turn this issue into one where the club is the victim rather than the players who are owed their rightful wages - which Maikousis unhelpfully says add up to "a relatively small amount". If the amount owed is that small, then why not pay what's due and avoid this drama?

Now there's little doubt that we are the only club at this level that will fall behind in wages at one point or another, while other clubs are paying wages far beyond what is appropriate and sustainable for this level. But until we enter a league or competition with some semblance of cartel discipline and a sustainable operating model, all we can do - all that we should do - is make sure that we operate our own business in a proper and dignified manner that avoids such things becoming an issue.

And if that's not possible in this post-shame world, than at least start backgrounding journos off the record about the shonky behaviour of other clubs, and get them into the limelight as well. The next members' forum should be interesting.

Reaching new depths
On field, off-field, in the kitchen - is there anything this club can do right at the moment?
I'm not one to dedicate too much time to the food that clubs offer, so long as it's relatively prompt and more than nominally edible. Now I can't see the former being solved any time soon at South, but at least the burgers have been good enough. But the souvs? The souvs have been ordinary for a while now, and I made the same mistake that local soccer commentator Chris Gleeson made last week by ordering one. How could they get everything about it so wrong?

The souv was so bad that we've sunk beneath the old "don't eat at Green Gully" level. The bizarre thing is that a solution to their problem of mushy pita and indistinguishable meat content is right there in front of them - ditch the pita except for those ordering a plate meal, and use bread rolls instead with the lamb skewers on the menu instead of whatever it is that was passed off as meat last week.

Maybe we should hire Calombaris to work in the kitchen - it might not solve the wages issue, but it might at least solve the food issue.

Final thought
I find it funny - but not "haha" funny - that after all the effort that went into pushing the A-League bid and trying to draw attention to ourselves, often in the most shameless ways, that we'd complain about someone writing an article about us because they're out to "get" us.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Death and its malcontents

I'm tired of the old shit 
Let the new shit begin
Eels - Old Shit/New Shit
I had begun writing up a post about last week's final friendly, but it was maudlin and stiff to the point of self-parody. Normally that would only bother me a little bit, but there are times when I feel like I've pursued that angle as far as it will go, and that I need to lay off it lest the blog becomes emotionally monotone - especially when there's a whole season to go, where we can all be as pantomime miserable as we like.

So before re-writing the sections I'd already written, I thought I'd write the thing that I should have been writing about in the first place, that being the reason for my break.

Three weeks ago, my father died.

He had been battling pancreatic cancer for the better part of a year, and for most of that time was holding up relatively well; but as was explained to me by the oncologists in what turned out to be the final couple of weeks of his life, at some point the body can no longer fight the fight. The blog's hiatus came on the day before his death, though at the time I only knew that dad's time on this earth was limited, and not necessarily that his end was imminent. So it goes.

I could write about my father's life in great detail, but my telling of it would be incomplete, and besides which, this is not really the place for it. Suffice to say, he was born and raised in difficult circumstances, worked a series of back-breaking jobs throughout his life, and spent most of his life - 49 out of 72 years - in a country he never was able to quite get his head around. It's a story a good chunk of my readership will be all too familiar with.

But there was joy, too, and one of the things that brought my father joy was soccer. His village in Greece, now close to collapse from population decline, was large enough then to have its own soccer team, and in one way or another dad's interest in the game remained for the rest of his life.

Arriving in Australia in 1971, the football scene he saw here was past its 1960s state league peak, but it was still healthy enough for there to be good players and good entertainment. Dad picked Alexander as his club not because he was from the north of Greece - though that became more important later on - but because when he first arrived in Melbourne he lived in the inner-north, in Collingwood. It was about as good a time to get on the Alexander bandwagon, as for the next decade or so they would be at their peak. Later the combination of distance (it's a fair hike from Altona North to Olympic Village), work and family commitments (my brothers have no interest in sport), and off-field politics (Macedonia issue, NSL and Soccer Australia bull-crap, internal club stuff) which gradually wore down not just the Bergers as a force, but also my dad's diminishing optimism about the game's prospects.

Thus he gradually drifted away from the local game; never completely losing interest, but never doing much to reverse that trend. When I came back to South in 2006, dad came with me for a few games, but eventually for all sorts of reasons - not least because I'd managed to attach myself to Clarendon Corner and the smfcboard bunch - his attendance at the soccer became minimal. He would still keep up to date via the Greek papers and radio, but most of his interest in soccer regressed to what was available on free-to-air TV. For a while there in the early-to-mid 2000s, I was headed much the same way, but turned that around in a story I've related in a number of places already.

My love of the game exists both because of, and in spite of, my father's relationship to the game. It exists because of his love for the game, because the game as it was for a good chunk of his first twenty years in Australia, contained a language he understood both in terms of what was happening on the field as well as off it. It's not that he didn't like Aussie Rules, but he had no cultural connection to that game. I only went to one footy match before I was 18, and that wasn't with my dad. When we went together to see a sporting match, it was inevitably a soccer match.

So we went to soccer matches. At Paisley Park initially, where we saw Altona East win the Hellenic Cup on its home turf. Then to Middle Park and Olympic Village and Olympic Park, and even after the Bergers were kicked out of the NSL, he would take me to South games at Lakeside. Dad had the habits a lot of his generation had. Park miles away from the ground and risk a parking ticket instead of paying for parking; never pay for a grandstand seat; always time your run to get to the ground five minutes from kickoff, and always start getting ready to leave five minutes before the end of a game, regardless of the score. So many of these things infuriated me, and still do, but it's just the way he was, and none of my nagging was going to change things.

Besides which, I had found my own way to annoy him. I became a South fan instead of a Berger because I saw the 1991 NSL grand final on TV, and because the team did well after that, too, and because there were enough nearby relatives at the time who were also Hellas fans to keep me attached to that. The novelist Christos Tsiolkas relates the story of how the first time he disappointed his father was when he chose Aussie Rules over soccer, and I guess my picking Hellas over Alexander was something dad could never quite get over.

Dad kept that feeling buried pretty well though, still taking me to South games when he could, and using the line (that was only a half a lie) that watching a good game of soccer, and watching talented players, was more important to him than his team winning. He'd use the examples of someone like Ulysses Kokkinos, or Branko Buljevic, or Dusan Bajevic when he came out here with AEK. The Bajevic example he loved to roll out a lot - on that day the Olympic Park pitch was a mud bath, and yet Bajevic came off the field without having gotten dirty at all. Why? Because Bajevic refused to make an idiot of himself and chase balls when people should have been playing the ball to his feet.

But when I say it was only a half a lie that dad preferred entertainment and quality over the glory of victory, it was because deep down my dad really was a Berger tragic. In 2008, the Bergers' 50th anniversary season - and probably the last proper Bergers game my dad went to that I can remember - the home team came from behind and beat South 2-1. As their second goal went in, he smiled in a way that I hadn't seen him ever do, and he even did a little fist-pump. I didn't even know that he had a fist-pump in his gesticulation repertoire. The ride home in the station wagon from the Village to Altona North was almost unbearable for the smugness in that Kingswood, the years of being humiliated by South during the 1990s melting away for him during the trip back.

But our trajectories as followers of local soccer nevertheless drifted further and further apart. He had a passive aggressive tendency, too, with my attendance, especially because I would take public transport to most grounds. He both wanted and was happy for me to to go all sorts of soccer games; but there were also times when he was befuddled by the notion of my taking a lengthy public transport journey, which would see me return from the other side of town in the early hours of the morning. "Why do you need to go, when there'll be other people there? Does the team specifically need you there?"

And like a lot of the older generation, if it was raining, so much the worse! Why would someone deliberately go out and get wet for no good reason? And don't get me started on what he thought about anyone who would be stupid enough to volunteer at a club, and especially anyone who trusted anyone on a committee, ever. At some level, what my dad would've considered as my crazy and now decade-plus renewed dedication to South Melbourne Hellas and soccer - in terms of attending, writing, and thinking - is my attempt to make up for lost time, and to avoid becoming so jaded that I stop caring about something that matters to me so much. I'm trying to make up for all those games I didn't get to see during the NSL years, for all the soccer friends I didn't have in the 1990s and early 2000s, and for the culture I was not as connected to as I wish that I was.

It's also my attempt to not fall into the trap of self-defeating cynicism that my father fell into. My friends and readers will know that I love to complain, that I instinctively first see how things could go wrong instead of how things could get better, and that I am prone to being openly caustic; but I've seen the alternative, and I'd rather be attached to the glorious mess of Australian soccer than be apart from it. In other words, unlike my dad and so many of his generation - and later generations - I'd rather be mumbling to others at a ground that things will never get better, rather than sitting at home mumbling to myself that things will never change.

But we still talked about all the off-field and on-field happenings, and we would still watch most of the major world tournaments at our disposal. I remember him taping Greece's first World Cup game in 1994 against Argentina, and then when I woke up and asked about it, him telling me it was not worth watching because we'd been smashed. I remember sitting in my uncle and aunt's lounge-room in 1997, where in the only time I ever believed he had any clairvoyant ability - because he'd make these kinds of predictions often, whether one way or the other - he picked Iran's coming back from 2-0 down.

We were both stoked when Australia finally qualified for the World Cup, and like everyone else we watched the Socceroos with awe in Germany, and with less awe in later World Cups. But the best time was probably the 2014 World Cup, where we stayed up late and woke up early and I watched far more of a World Cup than I ever had before, and my dad became a sort of ancillary character in my sleep-deprived narration of events, waking me up for games, and supplying me with tea and biscuits.

The final confluence of our soccer interests was the most unlikely set of circumstances I can think of. Throughout my extended career as a university student - a botched stint at Melbourne University in 2002 and 2003, and a much more successful stint from 2007-2018 - the things I was studying almost never came up in discussion. When I was writing my doctoral thesis on Australian soccer literature, for the first three or so years of that he must've just assumed that I was doing "something", but who knows what. But one day he asked what it was that I writing on, and after I'd explained it his face lit up and he started talking about his own poetry.

Now I knew that he had once fancied himself a poet, and that he had been published in Neos Kosmos in the early 1990s, writing poetry on a variety of subjects - such as the commercialism of the modern Olympics, and the Macedonia issue - but the key here was that he remembered that he'd written a soccer poem, an ode to Heidelberg United Alexander while they were having a difficult season. Not only that, but it had been published in Neos Kosmos in an abridged form, and a Bergers committee member had seen it and was so moved by it that my dad was offered a double pass to their next home game.

But that wasn't the whole of it - dad had also written a poem on what he saw as the unjust sacking of Jim Pyrgolios as Hellas coach and Pyrgolios' replacement by Frank Arok; as well as a lengthy poem on Altona East PAOK's Hellenic Cup win in 1992, which was printed and placed on the window of the wooden portable which was then PAOK's social club space. The Pyrgolios poem and the PAOK one survived in draft form, but the Bergers one I was never able to trace down a complete version of, except for a couple of stanzas in a draft. Maybe when Neos Kosmos completes its digitisation I can finally find the rest of the poem.

Now to be honest, the quality of dad's poetry was firmly in the category of doggerel; but since one of the points of my research was its focus on what existed in terms of Australian soccer literature, rather than the quality of what existed, I was stoked to learn about his soccer poems, and that some of them had survived. I transcribed the remnant drafts, transliterated them, added them as an appendix in my thesis, and cited the poems as works and my father as a writer in the main body of my thesis. I used my dad and his work specifically as an example of how hard it was to find examples of Australian soccer literature by non-English language writers, but also how important it was when one did find examples of them.

Passing my doctoral thesis was an ordeal - I had wildly disparate examiner's reports - so the day that I got notice that the third examiner had passed me with minor corrections, I was more relieved than elated. But the day I graduated was a joyous moment, because I got to share that with my dad, having written a work which had him in it. Like many of the people who followed soccer in this country, my dad's experiences, memories and thoughts of the game will soon be lost. It's in Australian soccer's DNA that we keep forgetting the past, and keep attempting to re-build Troy on top of the rubble and ashes of the cities which  came before. And the nature of most theses is that once they are finished, they will soon fade into irrelevance or insignificance - but knowing that I was able to preserve my father's work and part of his life in some format was reward enough for the effort.

As for last week's friendly...
Returning for my first bit of South Melbourne action for the 2020 campaign - or more correctly, preparation for the 2020 campaign - I felt that not much had changed in the months since I last watched a South game. The greeting at the door before I pick up membership pack was the same.  There were the same old faces sitting in the social club, and later watching the game, in this case a friendly against NPL2 side Northcote. Not everyone was there - more will be back this week - but there were no unfamiliar attendees except for the subbuteo faction on the futsal court, and even they've been there before.

If there were changes to be noticed, they were subtle ones. The complimentary scarf is longer than usual. The faces behind the bar are a little different, but they're still pouring spirits somewhere between a shot and a free-pour. The burger is much the same, including the wait time. At one point, social club manager Vic had Clutch(!) on the social club's stereo system. Outside, the sun-and-rain-bleached blue of the athletics track has been touched up to be of a more robust royal blue hue, while the city skyline to the north was clouded in smoke.

But the meaningless of the hit-out, bushfire relief aspect notwithstanding, was much the same. Whether pre-season form is magnificent or disastrous, there is no oracle which can reliably predict what it will mean for the season proper. But I asked those who had been to more pre-season games than I had this year to offer their assessment of what they've seen anyway, even if I knew that the answers would be non-committal. The most optimistic refrain was that it seemed that at least the team no longer hated each other and themselves which, if true, would be a step up from last season and the season before that.

Then again, give it five minutes and anything could happen. It's a very long season and a very large squad, and all the woodfired pizzas in Shepparton might not be able to prevent internal schisms should things go wrong.

On the field, I don't think it was a full-strength line-up for us. Peter Skapetis was out there, and initially at least he ran harder than I'd seen him do at any point for us last year. Chris Irwin played further up the field, as a pure winger, than he usually did during his previous stint with us, where he was much more likely to be used to as a wing-back. Harrison Sawyer is big, runs hard, and has spindly legs that I predict he will repeatedly trip over, Melvin Beckett looked exactly the same as last season, a lot of sizzle and not much steak. Marcus Schroen was not out there, so someone else was taking corners, free kicks, and penalties.

The tempo was high throughout the friendly, but you know what I think about high tempo at this level - that it's the Max Power Paradigm - not the right way or the wrong way, but rather the wrong way just faster. Both sides created a ton of chances in part because of this high tempo, which has freaked out the kinds of people who treat pre-season friendlt games against lower tier opposition in which we don't run them into the ground (with what I assume is nowhere quite near our likely starting eleven) as an ominous portent of doom for the coming season. Of course, had we belted our NPL2 opposition, the calls may have been that it was not a real hit-out against a comparable opponent. I say let's just wait for the Bergers to bury us on Friday night before we get legitimately panicky. 

Aside from what has been happening on the field, it has been as low-key a lead-up to a Victorian top-tier season that I can remember, apart from the bizarre Avondale points deduction which happened very late. There is no buzz. It's not just us, either - pretty much the whole league, and the federation, too, has approached 2020 as if there is nothing to get excited about, nothing to look forward to. Of course it doesn't help matters that most teams in this competition have no fans to get excited about anything, but even those clubs with what might be classed as "actual supporters" have mostly been quiet.

So is this it? Is this the end, the point where everyone finally, genuinely acknowledges the futility of state league football? One can only hope, though we'll have probably have to wait until after the game against the Bergers to be sure.

It's official
I am glad to say that I am once again officially accredited by Football Victoria to provide the public with South Melbourne Hellas nonsense. Also other nonsense, too, I assume, but I'll have to check the accreditation agreement.