Friday, 20 March 2020

Press Pause - Altona Magic 1 South Melbourne 1

Late, late, late, not that anyone cares, least of all me. There are bigger things to worry about these days, but nevertheless, to the game itself. Oh, dear. A late flurry of activity doesn't make up for the fact that before that it was slop central from both teams. That would've been fine, well not fine but bearable, well maybe not even that, had we not gifted Magic with the opening goal of the game.

Picture this: Daniel Clarke down and injured in the other half of the field for some time, the referee not stopping the game, it's his prerogative I suppose. You assume that the South players are aware that Clark is down, and should at least kill the play, after all, there's only a short time left before halftime, and who'd want to concede at that particular moment?

But Jake Marshall clears up the line instead of out, the ball comes back our way, and if Moses faced a Red Sea made up of South defenders he wouldn't have needed his magic rod or God's help to get through to the other side.

Turns out the only way to get back any sort of dignity is for two unlikely things to happen, most of which involve a short corner. The corner is played short to Melvin Becket, who doesn't trip over the ball, doesn't sky it, and doesn't shank it. Instead he chips the ball expertly to Brad Norton, who the Magic defense treated with due social distancing respect by being nowhere near him. Norton headed it, it went in, and we got a point we were probably due, but geez it felt crap getting it anyway.

And as I realised a little later than I would have liked, here was Brad Norton scoring from a short corner, five a half years after I'd admonished him for taking a short corner in Shepparton.

There must have been some latent belief among some of the players that they were better than a side like the battling Altona Magic, but where was the proof of that on the day? Nowhere to be found, of course, and whatever positive vibes the squad may have brought into the season must've be near gone. So we've only lost one game, gone unbeaten for four games in a row, but damn if we don't make scoring look like an absolute chore, among our sundry other deficiencies.

But that's all by the by now. The real question last Saturday, the one that went more or less unspoken, was should anyone have even been at the game? Was the presence of the two teams and the smattering of supporters who turned up just being selfish, merely kidding themselves that the COVID-19 social distancing recommendations didn't apply to them, or just following orders in the vacuum of decision making created by the slow moving state and national federations?

I admit to feeling selfish being there, as if actually, being at a South game is an optional experience, not a mandatory unless absolutely unavoidable one. Would I have gone tomorrow to Dandenong tomorrow if the game was on? I'd like to think at this stage probably not, but also: maybe? What would people think if I coughed or sneezed. What would I think about myself? It's not a flattering thing to think about oneself, but at least this matter has been taken out of our hands.

Now there's the matter of what happens now, and what happens next. Who's paying the bills, who's due bills, and once we get through the other side of the pandemic, will anyone or at least enough still care?

Next game
Not until at least after April 14.

Final thought
So what do we do now?

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Middlebrow - Port Melbourne 1 South Melbourne

Not that anyone's happy about it, or that anyone should be happy be about it, but given the last two and a bit years, did anyone expect us to be any better than one win, two draws, and one loss at this stage of the 2020 season?

In a battle between an upper-middlebrow side and a lower-middlebrow side, I think you'd be more upset with a draw if you were the former. Neither of these two sides is particularly good, and Hellas fan trademark histrionics aside, neither of these two sides is particularly bad either. It being the case that there are 14 teams and six finals spots in this competition, Port might sneak a finals place by virtue of their being less mediocre over the course of the home and away season than several similarly equipped teams. Not seeing our side as being that capable, I don't believe we'll be a serious contender for sixth, but barring some disaster on a slightly bigger scale than what we've become used to, we probably won't be in the bottom two or near enough to cause us extended angst.

So hooray for optimism and all that. Nevertheless, four games in I am struggling to figure out where the improvement will come from this season. All I can see happening is more shuffling players on and off the starting eleven, and on and off the bench. I used to half joke that it was foolish and unfair to expect better from players at this level - after all, with the odd exception, if these players were better than what they are, then they probably wouldn't be here in the NPL. Sadly, the joke now seems to have been extended to if these players were better than what they are, they would be playing for someone else in this competition.

That's all very cruel sounding from someone like me, who can't kick a ball, jog, or see further than a a few metres. But, to wit - we fielded two players on Friday night that had played for Port last season, one of whom was a bench option for us when we were good, and who now has a starting eleven sport ahead of someone many of us assumed would be one of our rare junior to senior success stories. And the other Port pickup hasn't done much yet either, and I am not counting the Eastern Lions game because they still managed to score twice, and chances are that everyone will beat Eastern Lions this season.

There is no middle of miidfield. Flawed potential saviour Marcus Schroen is injured. Luke Pavlou is serviceable, but serviceable isn't commanding, dominant, or game changing. Melvin Becket, bless his enthusiasm, was so enthusiastic when he came on last week that ran around like an eight year old chasing the ball everywhere, and found it tangled within his legs at the one time he found himself in the actual correct position on the field. Just as troubling is that considering that we have a squad full of wingers, we got torched on the wings, and probably our second most-capable winger (Chris Irwin) got his face cut up so bad he had to come off before half-time. Our most seasoned and one well-credentialed winger (Nick Krousoratis), who came on to replace Irwin, was probably *this* close to being replaced himself for his continued ineffective performance.

Gerrie Sylaidos, trying to make things happen. Photo: Cindy Nitsos. 
Our actual best winger (Gerrie Sylaidos) is being shuffled between number 10 and the wing, with fans complaining about the wisdom of both moves. Yet in the first half, it was he who created and scored our one good chance single-handedly - you'd be generous to give Amadu Koroma an assist credit for his throw in - and when moved out to the left in the second half, looked lively again as we sort of walked back from the cliff edge we peered over during the minutes 15-45. And where's Peter Skapetis? Now without pretending that Harrison Sawyer is the Second Coming of Milos - and these days even Milos barely looks like Classic Milos, and that was against a whole of team effort that was seemingly begging him to score - the service to him has been mostly been dire.

But we didn't lose, and that's what I'm taking out of this. Not one South person is genuinely quibbling about the result or how we got there. As upset as anyone can be for the penalty that was awarded against us - which even with the modified, pro-cruelty handball ball, seemed beyond harsh - Port should've scored at least two or three around that goal. And that extra bouncy ball lifted over Pierce Clark, which took an off-break towards goal, and somehow managed to bounce over the crossbar? There's good luck and bad luck, and we had our fair share of both.

When you were growing up, you probably thought your life would turn out, turning up to three-quarters-dark sporting reserves in the suburbs - seriously Port, are you planning to host witness protection cells in the corners of that pitch? - to watch semi-pro footballers fumble about frantically. Maybe you dreamt of being an astronaut, systems analyst, or military strongman, but we're all in this together until they shut the league down along with the rest of society - assuming of course, that NPl Victoria is considered part of society.

Next game
Saturday evening away to Altona Magic. Some say Magic are a very poor side, close to the same level as Eastern Lions. Others say Magic are not that bad, and are more capable of creating chances, and even producing some solid enough defence. I mean, you tell me what to make of any team after four games, especially one 99% of us haven't paid much attention to. Whatever happens on Saturday, we'll get upset.

Soccer Saturday Football Friday
It seems strange to think of now in these days of multiple content streams, but there used to be a time when people in Melbourne  - or at least Australian rules fans in Melbourne - yearned for the days when all or most VFL games were played on the same day at the same time. You'd go to your preferred game on a Saturday afternoon, and rush home to watch extracts from two or three other games on television in the evening.

Those days are long gone of course, even for local soccer. Once upon a time top-tier senior soccer in Melbourne would've been all on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, midweek cup and tour games notwithstanding. But we've long been accustomed to the situation of having some combination of Friday nights, Saturday afternoons, Saturday evenings, Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons, Sunday evenings, and even that most cursed of all timeslots, Monday nights.

But change being the only constant, things keep evolving. And so for a variety of reasons, we've seen more and more teams migrate senior games to Friday nights. Last Friday we had six of the round's seven matches being played at close enough to the same time, mostly staggered (probably by coincidence more than anything deliberate) at kickoffs of 15 minute intervals.

There's not much that Football Victoria can do about this. They set rules about how early or late games can kick off on a proscribed match days, but otherwise leave fixturing to the clubs. Which is fair enough - clubs should have the ultimate say in when they think they'll get their best turnouts, and how best to manage the load and availability of the fields they have at their disposal. Now some people might complain about not being able to get to other NPL games, but if I'm being honest here, that doesn't seem to be the main complaint people have with this arrangement. I mean, one can't simultaneously say that NPL crowds are crap (which they are) and then posit that simultaneous matches are inhibiting attendances for all but the most sick NPL attendees.

(though clubs who have come to rely on fortnightly visits by George Katsakis and his chucking fifty bucks on the bar and canteen might have a more valid complaint - I mean, not even George can visit all six games on a Friday night)

No, the biggest gripe seems to be from and for those poor souls who prefer to stay home and watch the NPL live streams. Switching between two or three games? Easy. Between six? Much harder, especially as NPL Victoria is still well short of being able to produce an NFL RedZone production. But even though the live streams have at least anecdotally hurt NPL attendances, it's hard to know how much of an impact they've had because no one's done and no one's really capable of doing the due research.

But the live streaming is an important thing to consider, because with this national second division that's set to come in some time within the next few years, the people who want an NSD need to get their heads around who's going to come and watch their games, and who's going to pay to watch their product on some sort of screen. And proper fixturing of games, including spreading out games, will become a key element of that, though I figure that an NSD will see Melbourne teams have a lock on Fridays, because the other states generally don't seem to play games on Fridays.

Until I was disabused of my assumptions by someone more in the know, my assumption was that far fewer Australian soccer fans are interested in watching NPL (and even an NSD) than certain groups would like to think, and that goes especially for live streaming. Counting incidental ultra-short-term views on Facebook as having a value beyond their measure seems like a dangerous form of self-delusion. Plucking out numbers without context and comparing them at all as like for like with free to air and pay television seems like a recipe for self-delusion. Apparently however, most of NPL Victoria's viewership - around 80% - comes from Victorian sources.

That apparently changes significantly for Monday games, after gamblers in Asia collect their paychecks. (Monday is apparently payday in many south-east Asian nations). Not being the kind to watch these games on Facebook, I can't say much for the comments left there which might indicate who the audience might be. But recently on NPL Victoria's YouTube streams, the comments have been opened up again after being locked for all of last year, and the results indicate very little local or Australian audience interaction. Like YouTube streams of Tasmanian games, which tend to leave their comments sections open, Monday's standalone NPL match between Eastern Lions and Dandenong Thunder held few surprises in terms of the audience.

And that audience seems to be mostly made up of overseas gamblers taking advantage of games  being played outside the time slots of most football leagues. So apart from the comments that are in Arabic or Cyrillic scripts, most of the rest is easily intelligible. People claiming to have inside knowledge, people alleging rigged games, and people confused about what level they're actual watching, with comments running the gambit from expecting VAR to be part of the experience to the assumption that no one is being paid, and that the league is completely amateur.

These idiots actually go to games. Photo: Luke Radziminski.
To be fair, when you see utes moving around in the background, it can be easy to assume that the competition is amateur, however the cruelty of some of the comments - poor standard, poor players, poor stadiums, poor crowds - is probably not the kind of commentary Football Victoria, the broadcast teams, and even fans of the comp will want to have spread, even if fans of the competition especially already think and post much the same criticism. The live stream is, after all, meant to function as a form of promotion of the talents of the players and commentators and the local game as a whole, not matter how funny it is having some guy going "i have corona virus who wants some" in the comments.

I've noticed that...
The club has put up a notice on its Facebook page that:
"South Melbourne has been working with all stakeholders Football Victoria, the AAFC and Football Federation Australia & more recently PFA to see Australia return to a football structure which embraces and encourages aspirational football. 
We believe the NSD is critical for the development of Football. We are looking forward to continuing our participation in the next phase on this journey, including the submission of South's Expression of Interest, which will enable South to once again play regularly on the national stage."
Which is fair enough I suppose, though you kinda wish they could put something up on their website, not least because the website hasn't been updated since February 24.

Final thought
It was really a very minor thing, but I heard some news about South the other day that was so unexpectedly positive, containing evidence of the club's attempt to be morally upright and legally compliant in a way that any normal business should be, that my first reaction was not joy, but rather shock and disgust.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

That's Entertainment! Oakleigh Cannons 0 South Melbourne 0

Once more, forgive the lateness and brevity and crapness of this report, only some of which can be put down to the grinding boredom of this game.

Consider this: in the lead up to this game, our supporter base was beset by consistent predictions of us going home with a minimum three goal loss. So it stands to reason that after we escaped Jack Edwards Reserve with one more point than most away teams are likely to get there this season, near everyone has maintained their resolutely grim outlook on life.

To be a little fair, when you're up a man for 80 minutes you should at least be getting a draw. You should also be getting at least a couple of shots on target at some point. But as someone who is not particularly confident about this season amounting to anything more (or less) than mid-table mediocrity, I'm happy to take a point from this game and move on, knowing that there's always the possibility of greater and more genuine humiliation just around the corner.

Of course there is the ongoing concern about just how we're going to score this year if Plan A doesn't work. For those who haven't been paying attention so far this season, Plan A is basically to use speed and overlapping play on the wings and wide areas to send in dangerous crosses to our target man, or if things really go our way, somehow dribble the ball into the box from those aforementioned said wide areas.

Plan A depends on a few things to make it work. Speedy wingers and full-backs with decent crossing. Wide grounds to give said players more space to exploit their advantage in speed. Preferably a target of size and talent. And perhaps most importantly in a competition like this, Plan A opposition sides which are ignorant in the way in which we choose to play, or which are so poor that any knowledge they have about our game style is rendered moot.

So far in 2020, the wingers have been speedy, but the crossing - except from the first half corners in the game against Eastern Lions - has been poor. Against Oakleigh, the narrowness and smallness of the ground, and the home side's defensive discipline once they went down to ten men, made the execution of Plan A much more difficult. The target man was starved of service and quality, and his two half chances ended up a) wide, and b) stubbed.

It's also fair to say that in this game, Plan A wasn't really adjusted despite Oakleigh going a man down. A defensive and cautious set up persisted throughout the game, with no obvious change except for what some people consider puzzling personnel swaps in the second half. Plan A on Friday night was to move the ball from one side of the ground to the other and back again, working our way up the ground until such point as there was an overload or overlap on one of the wings.

Who knows if it was meant to be done as slowly as it was, but on a narrow ground against an experienced and disciplined Chris Taylor coached team, this relative slowness of ball movement made things harder than it should have been. Some better crossing would've helped, but for the vast majority of the crosses produced on the night were of poor quality. One can eviscerate Harry Sawyer for what you perceive to be his deficiencies, but just about any forward is going to struggle under the circumstances that Sawyer found himself in on Friday night.

Never mind that there is almost no meaningful play down the middle of the ground by the team. It's ironic that the one time the team did manage to get through the centre channel, Gerrie Sylaidos' through ball to Sawyer resulted in the Oakleigh player getting his marching orders. But like most of his teammates, Sylaidos struggled to create much after that. His super-fans might say his talents are being wasted with him being played out of position - the argument being he's a better winger than number 10, but if you have no other option, Gerrie has to do the job, especially when the squad has so many wingers.

It can also be true that there's an instruction to the team to avoid taking players on, especially in the middle of the field. Taking players on, playing more risky passes - all these things are being weighed up against the idea of "what if something goes wrong?". And while the those on the hill screaming obscenities and abuse towards their own team and especially its coach probably have little impact on the game, it does highlight one thing - if we're going to be mediocre, could we at least be mediocre in a way which gives us a chance of achieving something, or of at least being entertained?

For instance, having taking Sylaidos off (a move guaranteed to raise the ire of a good chunk of our fans), why not insert Melvin Becket in his place? Sure, Becket's hardly one of my favourite current players, but things tend to happen when he's on the field. Things tended to look better when Ben Djiba got on the field for Amadu Koroma, which makes some people wonder why Djiba hasn't been in the starting ahead of Koroma.

Defensively, the team was generally solid, and Lirim Elmazi looks like the best pick up we've in the off-season. Still, there were a couple of times when Oakleigh were able to break down the wings because the channels that Taylor-coached teams like to use were not closed down. Of more concern is some of the defensive set ups from set pieces. We've already conceded a goal from a free kick this year, and on Friday night playing against ten men, we found ourselves gifting Oakleigh a great chance by letting them have a free man in the box from a corner.

Ultimately though, it's the coach's prerogative about how a team plays, and if rolling the dice isn't part of the plan, so be it. And for most of the game, the team was disciplined to a fault in a way that South teams over the past couple of years have not been. And as long as there's a steady accumulation of points or at least a trickle, any frustration with this overly cautious approach will be tolerated, until such point that the utter boredom at its heart crushes all our spirits.

Next game
Tomorrow night away against Port Melbourne. Please note the senior kickoff time of 7:45 - there is no curtain raiser, as the reserves game is being played on Saturday.

Final thought
Thanks to Emile for giving me and Gains a lift back to the city.