Two fairytales to end stellar A-League season and more vindication for finals system

It was a perfect finale to a great A-League season. Western Sydney Wanderer’s successful debute season that saw them finish top of the ladder remains untarnished while Central Coast Mariners get the championship that they really deserved after three prior attempts. In the face of increased criticism, the need for a Grand Final and the finals system itself was also vindicated.

Let’s remember that while the romance of seeing WSW being declared champions was obvious, CCM only started slipping in the league once they were compromised with Asian Champions Leagues games. Other clubs were hurt by injuries or just poor form. The luck that is ascribed to finals wins is just as relevant during the season. To win a championship by placing high on the table and then to win such a high-pressure game like a Grand Final, it actually becomes the hallmark of true championship teams. We saw CCM’s coach Graham Arnold expressing great satisfaction to achieve the fairytale after three previous misses and despite CCM already displaying two stars of their shirts for their previous Premiership Plates. They should go and be replaced by one gold star. Grand finals matter.

Some of the angst with the finals was no doubt due to the change in format for this year that could see the top 2 teams eliminated after one game, whereas previously they had a two-legged playoff for the winner advancing to the GF and the loser a second chance in a preliminary final. The FFA felt this protracted the finals and saw too many repetitious matches. Typically the top two would reach the GF anyway, so would play again after playing twice already in the finals series.

The format this year is definitely better as it keeps the top two apart until the GF and still gives a huge advantage. For teams 5 and 6, they must win two away games to reach the GF while teams 1 and 2 only need win one home match. We saw that the top two were untroubled. Of course, that could change in future years, and conceivably there’d be a cry at the injustice.

The small tweak that is needed is polish the format is to play the semi-finals over two legs to effectively give the top two a double chance and further emphasising the “wildcard” status of teams 3 to 6. Wildcards they effectively are as the top two are rested while the wildcards face a sudden death elimination round. Such a system drives even greater incentive to finish top two and also rewards the wildcard round winners a home match too – an important reward for teams 5 and 6 who would never play in front of their fans in the recent formats.

While much focus this season is on the flaw of the potential instant elimination of the premier, there’s an obverse flaw that was totally ignored: the two’s passage to the GF is just too easy. One match? That hardly is major triumph that a finals series should provide. In all other codes using a finals system at least two matches are required to reach the championship game. Actually, two wins are required, both matches being home for a top ranked team. It’s fitting the top two A-League teams at least venture through a playoff. Even with one of those matches away, they still only need the lesser result of winning the tie on aggregate.

The reason Australia has finals is not just because of any perverse tradition, it’s because it keeps the season alive for more teams and for much longer. Those that demand the premiers be recognised as champions never ponder the reality that the season would be over for several teams by the end of December. Would fans of Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne H, Wellington and Perth really turn up to 3 months of dead rubbers? No. This season all teams were alive until the second last week. Without this, the league format not only runs to quick conclusion for many teams, the quest for a true champion is compromised because of all the dead rubbers. Teams start resting players, experimenting and expediting off-season surgeries to in-season. Leading teams that play more of these bottom teams later in the season would then have a huge advantage. No, league winners as champions can’t work. It would ruin the vibrancy of the competition.

For the system to change, Australia would need multiple divisions, extra Cup competitions, and far more ACL places. If you look at the way Australia structures its elite football codes, that’s unlikely to happen even if football became the dominant code. The AFL and NRL don’t do relegation, and neither do any American sports. The focus is on an elite league with elite teams to win elite matches. Rather than more teams to cater for popularity, the drive is for teams to get bigger to cope with the popularity. Crowds of 40,000 would be come the norm, with crowds of 80,000 for the bigger matches. At best there would be a 16 team league with a 30 match season. State leagues would be the structure under-pinning the league, much as college sports do in the USA.

The Grand Final itself proved a clinical display by Central Coast. They dominated much of the Grand Final and were deserved victors. Western Sydney’s only real spell of dominance was early in the second half, and even then failed to create many meaningful chances. The pivotal moment was the missed handball just a minute after CCM’s first goal that should have been a WSW penalty. That could have really opened up the game. Since the sport is so loathe to have video challenges, there can’t be any complaint for such injustices not to be corrected. Who knows, in a future GFs, WSW may benefit, so it equals out. That’s the argument right? Try telling that to players on the day that might never get another chance.

It was also curious to see Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the game and not presenting medals. Was she more in fear of being booed or copping a kiss on the forehead like John Howard received several years ago? Come on, it’s sporting culture to always boo our leaders.

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