28 December 2005

A Hectic Break

While Sydney has been galavanting about Japan during their impressive Club World Championship run, they and the other seven A-League clubs have made several interesting moves over the 'inactive' summer break. Here's a quick summary of how each team has fared over the past few weeks:

Adelaide United - No doubt confident that they have almost clinched a final two spot, Adelaide has quietly gone about its nose-to-the-ground style of work, training hard and maintaining a low profile. Angelo Costanzo and Robert Bajic may have had a bit of a tiff on the training ground, but niggling incidents like that have been occuring all year at Hindmarsh. Besides, perhaps moments likes those all just part of John Kosmina'a mind games. Looking further down the track, Adelaide's final game of the regular season against Sydney shapes up as a grand final preview.

Central Coast Mariners - While looking forward to the return of Tom Pondeljak and Paul O'Grady, the Mariners have definitely lost Nick Mrdja for the rest of the season. In the face of adversity, the way they've held their team together over the past few matches has been extremely admirable. It makes sense to think that things can only improve from here. Word is that ex-Leeds United starlet Jamie McMaster is about to sign on a short-term contract with the club, along with teenager Brad Porter. McMaster has youth international experience with England to his name and talent to burn. If he attunes to Lawrie McKinna's preferred set-up, he's a fantastic capture.

Melbourne Victory - Everyone at Victory HQ thinks they're good enough for a top four finish, but with their unhealthy recent record, the loss due to suspension of apologetic captain Kevin Muscat for the next three matches, injury to Carl Recchia during a trial match versus a select Victoria XI, continual pressure on coach Ernie Merrick, displeasure among supporters, speculation about the future of Archie Thompson's contract and various other matters it seems that their confidence has been superceded by delusion. About the only positive news was the unexpected turn out of the full squad at the putatively 'voluntary' Boxing Day camp. A measure of Melbourne's commitment, desperation or both? A new injury replacement signing for Recchia is expected to be announced soon - someone from the Victorian Premier League, you'd have to think.

New Zealand Knights - The situation the Knights administrators have gotten themselves into is truly astonishing. Discussing the club's lack of performance, the harsh comments from their new shirt sponsor JUST marketing spoke volumes about the political economy of football, NZ Knights style. Meanwhile, Danny Hay and Simon Yeo have joined Ronnie Bull and departed the ailing club, both clearly wanting to get as far away from Auckland as possible. Yeo returned to his old League Two side Lincoln, while Hay has indicated he'd like a move back to one of his old stomping grounds too: Perth Glory. Don't be surprised if more names join the exit list over the coming weeks. The bigger questions are who Adshead and co. intend to bring into the club next year, and more importantly what organisational, managerial and tactical strategies will they adopt in order to bring the club back from the disaster zone?

Newcastle United Jets - Extending key midfielder Richard Johnson's contract and fending off the advances from Busan for Nick Carle have been largest on the agenda for the Jets during the break. Like Adelaide, Newcastle have benefited from modest exposure due to their small market, and look to have a decent chance at the title on current form. The experience of big name veterans like Ned Zelic, Ante Milicic, Vaughan Coveny and Johnson is quite an edge for the Jets, who are more than capable of pulling off a few surprises in February's finals.

Perth Glory - It's always frantic and a little messy when a coach is sacked, no less so at Glory after Steve McMahon was given the boot as soon as the break commenced. New interim coach Alan Vest and his player-assistant Damian Mori have kept the team focused on the bigger picture, namely making the A-League's final four. The departure of Matt Horsley has been offest with the signing of David Micevski, a left-footed midfielder from the local state league. Daniel Vasilevski, Milan Jovanic and Steve McMahon Jr were all told their services were no longer required, with each tabled for release at the end of the season. Sweeping changes, then, over in the west, with early hints suggesting that Mori may well take over the full managerial reins next year. We'll also see if Stuart Young gets a more prolonged run than the few minutes the previous manager gave him all season.

Queensland Roar - It's all about Reinaldo. With no firm idea how good he can be, what position he might play nor how much time he'll spend on the field over the coming weeks, it's startling just how much pressure has been put on the Brazilian youngster since his arrival just a few weeks ago. Perhaps it's a way of taking the heat off Alex Brosque, who it seems is still undecided where his future lies, with Queensland or Sydney (contrary to numerous reports that Sydney has already signed him, with the transfer window already closed no less). Looking into my crystal ball I actually see Royce Brownlie popping up with the much needed goals for the Roar, but they'll probably be all too little, all too late.

Sydney FC - The conquerors of Al Ahly return from Japan on a substantial high, even though they failed in their mission to meet Liverpool in the semi-finals of the CWC. With a lot of help from the top shelf performances of Dwight Yorke, Clint Bolton, David Carney, Sasho Petrovski, and Mark Milligan, Sydney were fine ambassadors for our fledgling league, although we shouldn't forget that they represented Oceania, not Australia or the A-League! Kazuyoshi Mirua and Alex Salazar didn't return from Japan, leaving Pierre Littbarski with 18 players in the squad, including backup goalkeeper Justin Pasfield and Australian U-17 defender Wade Oostendorp who haven't touched a ball in the competition (John Buonavoglia is on the books but ineligible to play.) Sydney may have to come to terms with over-confidence issues and find a way to penetrate on the left flank if they're to topple Adelaide, Newcastle and the other threats to the championship that many seem to think is already theirs.

21 December 2005

Sydney Gets Brosque

The Australian reports that Queensland Roar's Alex Brosque has come to an agreement to sign with Sydney FC at the end of the season.

If true it's good personal news for Brosque, who due to Sydney's strength up front will surely be encouraged to move to a wider position on the left wing rather than remain out of position as a striker. It only fuels this speculation that Pierre Littbarski has to date been quite adamant about playing David Carney on the right side of midfield rather than the left, where he is more naturally suited.

Given the restriction of the salary cap it is likely that someone will have to make way for Brosque. For a while now, rumours have been flying around about the departure of unfit co-captain David Zdrilic if Brosque were to arrive. It will be interesting to see how this develops: the Knights are one team with a pressing need for a decent target man, while Queensland's desperation for a proven goal scorer will only increase once Brosque heads south.

In other transfer-related news, the Knights have declared their interest in the K-League. I'm all for high quality Korean players joining the A-League, but quite rightly this new admission from the New Zealand executives is likely to catch the ire of those who imagine the Knights as a vehicle for supporting home-brewed talent. The recent stellar (comparatively speaking) emergence of Jeremy's Brockie and Christie has been one of the few annotations in the plus column during the Knights' woeful inaugural season. Probably half or more of the circa 2,000 supporters still dutifully attending the home matches in Auckland are there specifically to see how their fellow countrymen fare against the largely Australian contingents of the away teams. Nationalism has no place in my worldview, but even I would be happy to concede to pressure from the fans and release a statement or two about the club's scouting activites surrounding around the local game. The Knights have employed scouts to keep an eye on the New Zealand domestic competition, right?


UPDATE (Dec 22): The World Game indicates that Brosque may have already joined Sydney for the remainder of the season, which would certainly boost their championship aspirations. If true, this is especially good news for Sydney when you consider that Dwight Yorke is likely to be unavailable for part of the finals series due to international commitments with Trinidad and Tobago.

16 December 2005

Lack of Stars Does Not Imply Darkness

There's been some concern about player unavailability for Australia's forthcoming Asian Cup campaign, which is set to kick off on February 22 next year - a non-FIFA international date. Seeded fourth, Australia could feasibly draw Japan, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, all previous World Cup qualifiers. (Somehow I think we will manage to avoid Japan, one of our World Cup 2006 opponents in Group F.)

If it comes down to the crunch, Australia will have to assemble a team from (a) players based in lower-tier leagues overseas who manage to negotiate an international match release from their respective clubs, and (b) A-League teams not participating in the domestic finals series, which conflicts with the first Asian Cup tie.

The first category is difficult to speculate about. For example, Leicester's backup goalkeeper Paul Henderson may be able to gain a release, while starting eleven teammate Patrick Kisnorbo may be denied. Clubs nearer the top of the table will probably be less willing to allow their Australian players an international exit, especially if the match is played in East Asia as opposed to the Middle East. In any case, Graham Arnold may need to apply the pressure to certain club managers in order to force the issue on behalf of Australia, and that is sure to be interesting!

In the second category, we can safely include players from the languishing Knights, then probably also those from the the Roar, Victory and ... my guess is the Mariners.

In my opinion, we can bring together a pretty decent squad from these two broad categories. Purely for the sake of alleviating needless concern about the state of the national squad and its chances versus Asian opposition in February, here is a potential lineup for the match:

F: Paul Agostino - Archie Thompson
M: Alex Brosque - Paul Okon - Tom Pondeljak - Jacob Burns
D: Mark Byrnes - Michael Beauchamp - Chris Coyne - Paul Reid
GK: Danny Milosevic

Bench: Adam Griffiths, Chad Gibson, Adrian Leijer, Carl Valeri, Mark Robertson, Kaz Patafta, John Hutchinson, Joel Porter, Brett Holman, David Williams, Jess van Strattan

Not a bad effort. For an outfit like this, the best sides in Asia may still present extreme difficulty, so obviously we'd like to avoid drawing or running into them in the first round if possible. (Teams like Japan and South Korea will also be without their European-based stars, however.) Against a minnow football nation like Chinese Taipei, though, we will surely be in very safe hands even with a 'C-grade' team, which I am loathe to call any lineup featuring the likes of Thompson, Brosque and Pondeljak! If anything, the biggest problem will be finding a left fullback, with Sydney FC flyer Alvin Ceccoli certain to feature in the A-League finals. Aside from Byrnes, no better than a stopgap solution, perhaps the consistent but relatively unheralded Dean Heffernan may find himself in prime position for one of the most fortunate national call-ups of all time! (On evidence of the World Youth Championship, anything is a better solution than Trent McClenahan, currently with the MK Dons.)

12 December 2005

Chivalry is Dead

If the rumours are true, New Zealand Knights striker Simon Yeo is heading back to Football League Two in the UK. Yeo has been linked with a January move to his previous club Lincoln City or Oxford United, presumably on a free transfer deal following a mutually agreed upon termination of his contract with the Knights.

It's hard to judge if this would be bad news for the Knights or not. Yeo has been one of the better forwards at the team but that isn't saying a lot. Importantly, his departure would free a spot on the roster for a new recruit next season. We have to assume his wages are quite substantial, so freeing them would also be good for the club. Question marks about the recruitment strategies of the Knights persist, however. At this moment, there is no guarantee that a decent player will be signed to replace Yeo. The Knights have not released any statements regarding their prospective player clients for next year, meaning that they are once again asking for the faith of the FFA, the press and the fans, all of whom have had their confidence in the management of the club stretched to oblivion. It's too much, I feel, for the Knights administrator to continue their merry 'trust us, we'll get it right' attitude. I would like to see a great deal more transparency evoked, starting with answers to questions about the length of current player contracts (*), their wage bills, and proposed strategies (beyond the dartboard method) for signing quality individuals for next season.

To make matter worse, once rumours about Yeo's departure surfaced they were quickly followed by comments from Knights CEO Steve O'Hara to the effect that captain Danny Hay is not welcome back at the club!

I am a supporter of a New Zealand team in the compeititon, but given that doubt is rife in Auckland at a time when the Australian continent is right behind Oceania's A-League representative at the Club World Championship, all I can say is that the Knights have created their own miserable mess, a situation that is fast becoming an entirely negative and pathetic state of affairs.

* Update - contract lengths have in fact been disclosed to the New Zealand Herald. Players with loyality and/or performance problems are highlighted in red:

Three-year deals: Darren Bazeley, Danny Hay, Danny Milosevic, Simon Yeo

Two-year deals: Ronnie Bull, Sean Devine, Neil Emblen, Steve Fitzsimmons, Noah Hickey, Joshua Rose, Frank van Eijs

One-year deals: Jeremy Brockie, Zenon Caravella, Ben Collett, Naoki Imaya, Josh Maguire, Glen Moss, John Tambouras, Cole Tinkler, Xiaobin Zhang

I take it Jeremy Christie and Kris Bright have appeared on injury replacement contracts.

8 December 2005

McMahon Gets the Boot

Perth Glory and vilified coach Steve McMahon have parted ways. McMahon's son, defensive midfielder Steve Jr is expected to hang around until the end of the year, but he may find it difficult to keep his current place on the fringe of first-team selection and apparently he will not be receiving a contract extension. In addition to the unrest this news is likely to cause among players and staff, the inbound coach will also need to cope with the departure of insiprational defender Matt Horsley and a persistent calf injury to left-sided fullback Scott Miller. All of this means that the task of making the final four remains tough, especially with an improving Mariners outfit so close in the overall standings. One player sure to be refreshed by the exit of McMahon is Daniel Vasilevski; the midfielder hasn't been in the manager's plans all season and is yet to kick a ball in the competition. In individual cases like Vasilevski's you've got to wonder if the 20-player roster limit isn't so restrictive after all! Of course, what they indicate are problems in the recruitment strategies of the club's. Vasilevski, like Sydney's Alejandro Salazar, may simply not be good enough.

McMahon is likely to be replaced by Glory assistant Alan Vest until the end of the season, although one tongue-in-cheek Glory fan has already suggested another candidate: Paul Gascoigne!

7 December 2005

Beware the Purple Monster

In their first game at the Club World Championship in Japan next week, Oceania's representative Sydney FC will face Costa Rican CONCACAF champion Deportivo Saprissa (aka The Purple Monster), an accomplished team that features half-a-dozen World Cup bound national team players on their roster. Ronald Gomez, Walter Centeno, Alonso Solis and co. are likely to cause immense headaches for Sydney coach Pierre Littbarski and his team as they attempt to reach the semi-finals and a showdown with UEFA champions Liverpool.

If they happen to lose to the Purple Monster, Sydney will then face either CAF's Al Ahly from Egpyt or the AFC's Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia in a game to decide 5th place. A match-up with the latter would be quite exciting since it would offer us a glimpse of what's to come when we finally enter the Asian Champions League in 2007.

There's really not much pressure on Sydney to perform at the CWC, given that they're a new club competing on a world stage with some of the giants of the game. Obviously it would be terrific to advance to the Liverpool showdown, but in reality the Costa Ricans are going to be very tough to beat. The recent Japanese language and culture lessons might help the boys accustom to local practices, but it's the fascinating systematics of Central American football that they will have to get used to in a timely fashion if they are to progress.

Here is the Sydney FC squad for the tournament.


Clint Bolton - one of the best in the domestic game

Justin Pasfield - Bolton's backup

Mitchell Blowes - just for the experience


Iain Fyfe - on the verge of national squad selection

Alvin Ceccoli - industrious left fullback who likes to get forward

Mark Milligan - promising right fullback with the world at his feet

Jacob Timpano - young central defender with a cool head

Mark Rudan - experienced centre half and occasional striker

Matthew Bingley - utility defender/midfilder, been around forever

Wade Oostendorp - teenager last seen at the U-17 World Youth Cup


David Carney - livewire switching flanker with all the skills

Steve Corica - creative attacking midfielder with J-League experience

Terry McFlynn - determined anchor man from Northern Ireland

Ufuk Talay - the kid returns (from the Turkish league)

Andrew Packer - right-sided player with excellent range

Robbie Middleby - left-sided roamer out of favour with Littbarski

Ruben Zadkovich - strapping U-20's athelete seeking longer contract

Dustin Wells - another attacking midfielder with plenty to prove


Dwight Yorke - don't be surprised if he starts in central midfield!

Kazuyoshi Miura - just as sharp on the field as off, not bad for 38

Sasho Petrovski - gifted and aggressive striker with a touch of flair

David Zdrilic - a star diminished by injuries and a lack of fitness

John Buonavoglia - dynamic spark off the bench for a tiring attack

Alejandro Salazar - returning to the US after the CWC

6 December 2005

Mrdja Out

Contrary to my expectations below, Central Coast Mariner's striker Nick Mrdja is definitely out for the rest of the A-League's short inaugural season.

It was all looking so good for Mrdja, who scored a pair of hat-tricks in the pre-season. C'est la vie.

Round Fifteen Report

The good got better as Adelaide and Sydney strecthed out their lead at the top of the table. Newcastle were stunned by the Reds, who banged in two late goals for another amazing come-from-behind victory. Melbourne, whose recent form is quite terrible, were royally thumped by a rampaging Sydney, who now look forward to the Club World Championship in Japan. There was excellence all over the park for Sydney, who on the basis of this, their most recent performance, might just be capable of beating CONCACAF's Deportivo Saprissa to set up a semi-final showdown with UEFA champion Liverpool. Centre-half Jacob Timpano is a potential exclusion from the match, however, due to a groin strain suffered in the first-half, which - incredibly - wasn't inflicted by Victory's 'killa' Kevin Muscat. It would be nice to see how Timpano stacks up on the world stage against Ronald Gomez and co. but if he isn't ready to go, Sydney has all the experience of Mark Rudan on the bench (or they could possibly promote Andrew Packer and move Mark Milligan to the middle, where he filled in reasonably well on the weekend).

Perth Glory's final hopes were almost severely dented by the Mariners, who took a rapid 2-0 lead in their match, which saw the Glory fight back to salvage a 2-2 draw in Matt Horlsey's final professional game. Glory fans may well have been hoping for a loss since if the side fails to make the top four it will be so much easier for the club to rid itself of coach Steve McMahon. I'm no fan of McMahon, but this might be taking things a little too far! If the team can gel and come up with the results to put itself in the hunt for the finals, then surely the coach is at least doing a respectable job, if only barely! For the Mariners, meanwhile, things are starting to look brighter. Tom Pondeljak and Nick Mrdja are scheduled for possible returns early after the December lay off, and while they've been away the team has been putting together some decent results. They looked too good for Glory early on, and but for a defensive communication error they may well have hung on and taken full points. It's probably going to be a race between these two teams for the fourth and final spot, between the momentary brilliance of the Glory and the athleticism of the Mariners. I know who my imaginary money's on, but I'm not telling.

As for the dregs ... Victory and Queensland Roar have joined the Knights in a bottom three that seems decidedly fixed to me at this stage in the competition. Roar's struggles started much earlier in the season when they failed to put a string of results together, and it should be mentioned that they've failed to gain any points from their matches against top shelf opponents Adelaide and Sydney. They've imported a Brazilian who could be great, or could equally be yet another disappointment in their front line. Alex Brosque, Seo Hyuk-soo and Tom Willis have been marvelous individual performers for the Roar, but Miron Bleiberg's lack of a cohesive gameplan from week-to-week has seen the talented squad flounder at critical moments.

If any team can catch the front runners it's Melbourne, but with question marks over the future of Archie Thompson, the failure of the club's foray into the transfer market as the deadline approached last week and the apparent absence of width in the midfield (especially on the left) it's going to be tremendously difficult. A home win over Perth in the first game back is absolutely vital, which means at least that the attendance at Olympic Park should be massive. Unfortunately, Victory has a nasty run of four consecutive away matches to contend with straight afterwards before a final home game against the Knights. That, in all likelihood, will be a dead rubber.

Oh, the Knights, the Knights, what can one say? Their performance last week was nothing special yet they managed to carve out a draw with Queensland. Let's hope they can put some more points on the board, if for no other sake than prosperity. I for one would like the world to think our league is a whole lot closer than it stands at present. Mobile underdog Jeremy Brockie has had a talismanic effect on the squad the past few weeks and he well deserves praise from the fans. But it's the 'big name' players who have to step up and earn their keep if the Knights are going to develop some respectability around the league. Hay, Bazeley and Emblen (remember him?) are reputedly the self-appointed anti-management unit responsible for stoking unrest in the squad, and they're also among the three highest paid players in the team. Emblen has been injured, Hay has gone AWOL and while Bazeley has been consistent he has rarely shone. Frankly, these three experienced heads haven't responded at all to the pressure that has been thrust upon them in the Knights season of misery. I think they need to regroup and ask themselves again: To damn or be damned?

Best of Round Fifteen:

Player: Carl Veart (pictured) - despite a missed penalty exemplified Adelaide's fightback with his determination and sharp play up the field; having a real throwback of a season

U-20 Player: Jeremy Brockie - another diehard performance from the dreadlocked utility man

Coach: Pierre Littbarski - getting his troops pumped and firing on all cylinders before the Club World Championships

Match: Sydney FC vs Melbourne Victory

Referee: Matthew Breeze

Goal: Royce Brownlie - Sydney had the spectacular goals but Brownlie's delicate touch on his diving glancing header had to be perfect, and it was

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

John Hutchinson - Sasho Petrovski
David Carney - Carl Veart - Dwight Yorke - Hiroyuki Ishida
Alvin Ceccoli - Ned Zelic - John Tambouras - Jade North
Danny Milosevic

Subs: Angelo Costanzo, Travis Dodd, Alex Brosque, Jason Petkovic

3 December 2005

Nicky and the Magnificent Nineteen?

With news this week that the K-League's Busan I'Park are about to table a transfer offer for Nick Carle, questions concerning the A-League's restrictive $1.5 million salary cap have again been raised. Carle has been quoted saying that money does indeed matter, hinting that he's likely to accept an offer rumoured to be around a quarter of a million dollars, which is about twice what he currently draws at Newcastle.

In a barely veiled rebuke, Remo Nogarotto, football director of the Jets, slammed the potential offer from Busan and the K-League. In Nogarotto's books, the K-League may have the money but as a 'second-tier' league it doesn't have the pedigree nor the football quality to provide a decent home for our best players. His proposed solution to the dilemma is quite interesting: The FFA, he believes, should independently rank the top 20 players in the league and allow the wages of these individuals to be topped-up beyond the limitations of the salary cap.

Several problems with this scheme immediately surface. Are only Australian players involved in the rankings? If so, is it an unfair instrument to wield against clubs seeking expensive foreign players to sign under the cap? How will the objectivity of the rankings be guaranteed? Who will do the picking and what factors will they bring into consideration? For instance, will there be ways to subvert the mechanism to protect players with transfer potential (e.g. relatively young players like Carle) rather than use it to offer talented but generally unsaleable players (Damian Mori, Carl Veart) a higher salary? Will players in the latter category feel unjustly served if they cannot have their wages increased, while some young whipper-snapper like Carle or David Carney strikes it lucky? Also, will there be a way to surmount the static nature of a ranking system? Given that salary contract renewals occur just once a year at best, surely that time-frame is too large for the dynamic incorporation of any half-way accurate rankings. Before the season, for example, who would have thought that Alan Picken would emerge as one of the best defenders in the country? Furthermore, isn't it somewhat arbitrary to include 20 players? If such an idea was ever to go ahead, the FFA would probably want to ensure that there is an even dispersal of ranked players among the eight clubs, regardless of absolute accuracy. Sixteen or 24 players seems a far more serviceable figure to me.

Nogarotto's concept is a good one that should be examined in more depth, but it does avoid a couple of issues that are worth noting. Firstly, we must presume that Carle wants to manufacture a move overseas. He's a great player that deserves a spot on the world stage. If the A-League is not quite at the point where it remains attractive to elite players, then the onus is on the FFA to develop it further. The players themselves should not feel obliged to stay. Rather, that would be a natural step once the league has accomplished some international stature. Secondly, in order to offset the loss of Carle, the Jets simply have to ask a large transfer fee for him and stick to their guns. There is no need to whinge about our economic disparity with other leagues when the ball is in our court. Busan might offer $400,000 for Carle. Is that enough? Given Nogarotto's outburst, it doesn't seem so. Then why not just say no? If the Jets buckle to a small offer or fail to negotiate better terms, I don't see how they can blame anyone but themselves.

We have to realise that our domestic clubs already exist in a competitive global environment with their international rivals. The FFA may step in here or there to amend things and help out in small ways, but it's really each club's responsibility to raise money, manage contracts and promote their entertaining product to a regional, national and growing international audience as they see fit. Any failures along the way have to be taken on the chin and should not always be attributed to the governing apparatus. Here's a couple of questions that warrant some thought: if the salary cap were abandoned today, could Newcastle even afford Carle's higher wage request? Would other players (Jade North, Richard Johnson, Matt Thompson?) demand substantial increases commensurate with Carle's? Does the club have sufficient sponsors and advertising to cover these extra costs? Are the proceeds of the league's TV rights with Foxtel expected to grow over the next few years? Or will ticket prices be raised, with fans paying the ultimate price for the pleasure of experiencing a decent football league in this country?