The A-League is back in all its glory ... which of course means the biggest story has come off the field. Nonetheless, it's been a super busy start to the season and, as ever, ESPN Australia and New Zealand is here to run you through it. This week, independence, kids, Milos, the Roar, Victory, Bulls and CLANGA!
The biggest news in the opening fortnight A-League action didn't actually happen on the field at all ... which is perfectly on-brand, in hindsight.
Finally, a formal announcement arrived at 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve that the long-awaited unbundling of the A-League, W-League, Y-League and E-League from Football Australia had now been completed -- ending a two-plus year battle over the fate of Australia's leagues that had, at some points, looked like it could push Australian football to the brink.
Even at this late stage, negotiations were arduous, perhaps why the declaration was delivered at the media equivalent of the witching hour: late on a Friday evening just before the focus of the news cycle turned to the new year.
Nonetheless, the final, severing blow has been made, and Australia's leagues are now set to be run by a new entity known as the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) -- headed by former Football Australia leagues boss Greg O'Rourke.
It's tempting, given how labyrinthian the legal implications involved in the unbundling were and for everyone's collective sanity, to give the various parties a moment's respite for a job well done. Perhaps we could even take a moment to celebrate as a game -- because this is undoubtedly good news.
But time waits for nobody, and with the league and federation's conscious uncoupling finalised, never before have the game's powers that be required the presence of a constant, annoying voice in their ear, reminding them that uniting the game doesn't just mean blind acquiescence to the throne.
It also means listening to fans, participants, volunteers, coaches and more -- stakeholders that didn't get a seat at the unbundling negotiating table as the Australian football world was twain -- and being made to deliver on their assurances.
For the APL, now in control with the "shackles off," this means bringing about a speedy resolution to the farcical Newcastle Jets ownership situation, and the less pressing, but still important, Central Coast Mariners ownership affair. Talk now needs to be replaced by action and the repeated promises of the past few years -- greater advertising spend, digital engagement, media outreach, facilities, players, youth, fan engagement -- need to be delivered upon.
Owners can't simply be allowed to withdraw into the background, with the unfairly maligned O'Rourke as a handy sacrificial lamb to be pulled out in a pinch, as they make vague promises and declarations for the future as they eye their new fiefdoms.
And that same need for scrutiny needs to apply to Football Australia. With running of the leagues now out of their hands -- albeit with some level of oversight retained -- attention must now quickly turn to their reform agenda.
The introduction of a domestic transfer system to bring Australia back into line with the proven mechanisms of player movement used throughout the globe are needed, which took a step forward on Thursday with the release of a white paper that will "serve as the basis for discussion and consultation with key and relevant stakeholders over the coming months."
We already know one of the battlegrounds in these consultations, with Professional Footballers Australia previously telling ESPN that the introduction of such a system was incompatible with the maintenance of an A-League salary cap.
Also critical for the federation, especially with the top-tier going independent, is an acceleration in planning of a viable national second division, which FA CEO James Johnson has flagged as a priority post-unbundling. Preliminary investigation of the feasible introduction of a workable system of promotion and relegation primarily based on sporting merit -- at minimum between a first and second tier -- could then also begin.
A strategy to tackle the soaring price to play football must also be formulated, steps taken to increase opportunities and facilities for the growing number of women and girls playing and coaching, and an examination undertaken of how the games' limited resources can be best utilized and streamlined across a national, state and local level.
On top of this, the games of the 2023 Women's World Cup still need to be planned in a manner that ensures a lasting legacy, and a critical lack of competitive football for Australian junior sides, boys and girls, needs to be looked at -- especially in the light of the 2021 Under-17 and Under-21 World Cups.
Oh, and pretty every aspect of the game's television rights is up this year as well.
Undoubtedly, the biggest story to come from the on-field opening of the 2020-21 season has been much-ballyhooed delivery of minutes for younger players.
And the youngsters have mostly delivered.
In back-to-back games to open the campaign, Adelaide United head coach Carl Veart ran out players aged 17, 19, 20 and 21 in his starting XI en route to taking four points against Western United and Melbourne City. Alou Kuol, 19, who two years ago was leading the line of NPL2 Victoria side Goulburn Valley Suns, started up front for Central Coast Mariners in their pair season-opening triumphs and netted the winner against the Newcastle Jets on New Year's Eve.
Olyroos hopefuls Denis Genreau, Josh Nisbet, Noah Smith, Joe Caletti and Louis D'Arrigo have played every minute of their club's opening games, while Dylan Wenzel-Halls and Rahmat Akbari were amongst Brisbane Roar's best in their win over Melbourne Victory. Ramy Najjarine looks like a shrewd pick up for the Jets, Connor Metcalfe continues to grow, Dylan Pierias looks destined for an extended run of games, Ayom Majok and Kusini Yengi made their debuts and Tass Mourdoukoutas appears set to become an anchor of the Wanderers backline.
Lachlan Rose's rise from NPL2 NSW Blacktown City to Macarthur, meanwhile, has quickly made him a cult favourite, while Calem Nieuwenhof's wonder-strike for Sydney FC served as a highlight reel introduction to A-League life.
There's nothing quite like seeing a local lad come good and, in a global ecosystem in which Australia is a very small fish, the hope, promise and unknown levels of potential that they bring can't help but generate excitement amongst fanbases. Academy prospects, in particular, bring out the tribalism in all fans that is the lifeblood of football: "He is one of our own."
Playing them doesn't necessarily carry any more risk than throwing out a journeyman signed "because they know the league" -- but it does take that extra bit of courage from coaches at the start, as well as skill to identify just when they're ready.
The Bubble Boy
Of course, as good news as youngsters playing and thriving in the short term is, attempting to sell Australian football to the mainstream on the back of Nisbet or Mirza Muratovic, bless 'em, probably isn't going to work. Definitely not in the short term, at least, but that's where the APL's other marketing promises should come in.
However, there's a reason youth development must always be looked at as an investment, not a cost. Mark Viduka didn't become a household name in Australia because of dominant performances with Melbourne Croatia, Harry Kewell wasn't a marquee figure because he was a highly rated prospect at Marconi and Tim Cahill's vision wasn't born at Sydney United.
It was their subsequent moves to Europe and the international success that they tasted in Green and Gold that really helped bring the Australian game directly in front of the eyeballs of the Australian public; helping create the momentum that reinvigorated Australian football.
Thus, in the long run, youngsters getting minutes in the A-League absolutely can bring it to prominence. But with the FA's Performance Gap report finding that over 50% of players under 23 that end 2250 minutes in a season are sold for a fee, they might just might not technically be in the A-League when they do so.
"From a national team perspective I think in five or 10 years' time, COVID's going to be the biggest blessing we've ever had," Central Coast Mariners' coach Alen Stajcic said after his side downed Macarthur FC on Sunday.
For as much talk as there has been about the young stars, however, the A-League still possesses some savvy, veteran talent that is worth the price of admission.
None more so than Sydney FC supremo Milos Ninkovic.
Even if it's not normally their forte, every A-League observer should, on at least one occasion, take the opportunity to closely watch the 36-year-old go about his work during a Sky Blues' game. They should observe the positions that he takes up with and without the ball, when he decides to make a move and when he doesn't and what kind of body angles he presents to both friends and foe.
Age may have robbed Ninkovic of some physical tools, but the mind is always the last thing to go and when you pay close attention, the sharpness of that brain is obvious. Be it presenting his teammates with an attacking option, serving as a creative outlet, taking on the initiative to progress the play or control the tempo or take up a position where he won't get the ball but he knows will take a marking opponent out of the game, it always feels like he's doing something to make the Sky Blues' lives easier.
This, once again, was in display against Wellington Phoenix in their season opener last weekend -- the maestro going about his business as highlight goals from Nieuwenhof and Luke Brattan stole the show.
According to reports that surfaced at the time of his re-signing in 2019, Sydney is keen to move Ninkovic into a role with the club's academy when all is said and done and, if they're smart, they'll look to get him involved with the youngest possible sides they have. Sure, he can probably teach players on the cusp of senior football a lot of valuable lessons, but the instincts of the best foreign import in A-League history should be shared far before that -- gifted to a cohort still developing theirs so that they can soak it into their own DNA before other habits can be encoded.
After the doldrums that were mined watching Brisbane Roar in attack under Robbie Fowler last year, it's been encouraging to watch the stylings of Warren Moon's side in their opening games of the 2020-21 season. Unlucky to not take anything from their game against City, the Roar were deserved 3-1 winners away to Melbourne Victory on Saturday night and given the raucous, pent up energy that permeated AAMI Park, that evening that was no small feat.
Moon's second-half adjustments, in particular, were worthy of praise in that game, shifting the balance of power back in favour of his side after Callum McManaman had swung momentum the host's way. The pairing of Wenzel-Halls and Scott McDonald looks set to excite this year and Akbari's and Riku Danzaki's two starts have been promising.
"If you look at the game as a whole, we obviously didn't play the way we wanted to in the first half," Moon said midweek.
"We addressed that at half time, changed a couple of things and performed how we thought we could going into the game. If our performance is there, we're happy because we know we're going to create chances with the players we have. Last week our performance was good without any reward -- this time, especially in the second half, we were able to take our chances.
"Tactically we changed a couple of things at half-time. A couple of changes made an impact. Sometimes it requires someone different to come on and change things up -- [Substitute] Jesse [Daley] was definitely a big contributor in shifting the balance of the game."
With Japanese attacker Masato Kudo still waiting in the wings, Moon, part of the vanguard of NPL coaches getting a shot in the A-League, has a side to watch this year.
While one game does not a season make, Victory's second half against the Roar does provide something of a baseline for Grant Brebner's in-game management bonafides in the months ahead.
In the ascendency at the main break of what was his first game in charge of not simply attempting to limp through a hub, Brebner's side was as unable to prevent Daley's addition from swinging the game back in the Roar's favour in the second half and Brebner's use of three, one-man substitutions also meant that he was unable to use the full five at his disposal when he may have very much needed them.
Speaking after the game, the gaffer pointed the finger more at fatigue than any deeper-lying problems in the wake of that game, believing a lack of friendly matches forced by the club's quarantine post-Asian Champions League had hurt their ability to compete.
Nonetheless, starting with Victory's next game -- coincidentally also against Roar -- the rookie coach's ability to manage games, make second-half adjustments and respond to the thrusts and parries of his foes will be an important thread to follow to see if Victory are capable of returning to the A-League summit under the Scot.
Admittedly, he had a few shaky moments against City, but Adelaide United goalkeeper James Delianov's opening two games of the season have gone almost as well as the 21-year-old could have hoped.
Delianov put in a man-of-the-match worthy display as Adelaide played out a 0-0 draw with his former side Western United on the opening day of the season before doing his bit as his side downed preseason title-contenders City, another one of his old employers, 2-0 on Sunday evening at Hindmarsh.
A consistently highly-rated product throughout his rise through the junior ranks, Delianov has looked as though he was ready for senior football in 2018 while still a teenager at City and has already been capped at under-17 and under-20 level by Australian sides during his career.
"I've said all along when Paul Izzo left and went overseas, I said to Bruce [Djite, Adelaide's director of football] let's sign James," Veart said after the Western United game.
"I know James I worked with him with the Young Socceroos and I know he's got huge potential and unfortunately for goalkeepers they don't get an opportunity until they're quite old."
Delianov's emergence as the Reds' No. 1 creates an intriguing battle between himself and incumbent Tom Glover as first-choice keeper for the Olyroos. With a potential start in Tokyo later this year on the line, the competition should be fierce -- and will no doubt be to the delight of Olyroos boss Graham Arnold.
The Serenity Now
Two games in for the A-League's newest side and there's good news and bad news.
In good news, Macarthur FC won their opening grudge match against new foes Western Sydney Wanderers. But in bad news, they lost their first home game to the Central Coast.
Against the Mariners, their possession was largely formulaic and uninspiring, with players rotating the ball and taking up positions off it in a manner that was far too easy for the defence to key in on and seemingly indifferent to attempting to actually take a risk and break a line. Indeed, the Bulls never really looked like scoring that day, and the visitors were and to hit them on the counter.
"It was a slow tempered game, we didn't shift the ball, we were very lethargic, we didn't do enough to break that block - not enough movement," Bulls boss Ante Milicic said after the defeat.
"The first 45 minutes were slow. They got behind the ball and they were very direct. We spoke and [worked] on this during the week. The goals were disappointing as it was something we'd spoken about in the lead-up."
Possession for the sake of possession was, at times, a hallmark of the Matildas and Young Socceroos sides under Milicic. A regression to this habit, as well as efforts to actively facilitate it as Stajcic did last weekend, is something to watch for as the veteran Bulls seek to become the first-ever expansion champions -- something that on paper they have the strength to do.
And, of course, then there are the cowbells. Clanga.
A lot of people have complained about the Bulls fans' new signature instrument, and seemingly a lot of people love them but, in all honesty, unless you're a Macarthur fan, player, coach or official, your opinion probably doesn't matter. It's their club and their ritual.
As an aside, though, yes the cowbells are unique but please, let's not pretend they're organic as time goes by. Little branded versions were on tables at the slick luncheon where the club's bull name and logo was announced before a single ticket was sold.