Season 2012/13 has come and gone for the Sky Blues. Some amount of dust has settled since events at Suncorp. What to make of it all? In some way it has been a classic Sydney FC season. Dramatic highs – the inaugural Sydney derby win 1-0 on enemy territory, 35,000 opening home crowd, signing Joel Griffiths and the Socceroos Captain, 5 consecutive homes wins, and some guy called Alessandro Del Piero. Followed by the devastating lows of a coaching resignation, awful defending, injury after injury, poor away form, questionable contract decisions, an overall lack of consistency and quality, as well as being unable to leverage the biggest asset the competition has ever had- on the field.
Pre-season began with a new coach wanting to release the shackles from the Lavicka era and play an open style of pass-and-move “sexy” football. The problem however began prior to Crooks appointment. Although it feels like a lifetime ago, it is important to track the timeline of events when analysing the whole season in context. The bottom line was Ian Crook did not want to be head coach. He loved to coach, to work with youngsters and develop players. He was reluctant to take a head A-League position because he feared his personality did not suit the pressures and requirements of the role. His gut instinct was the right one.
Preceding these events was the search from head office to find a coach. Many names were linked. Some were pursued at great lengths much to the dismay of rival clubs. The Graham Arnold saga became exactly that when negotiations became very public. Details leaked out and rumours emerged until it became clear Sydney were not willing to go above and beyond to secure his services. The whole drama of Arnold and Sydney left an unsavoury taste in the mouth for all concerned. The Mariners felt disrespected, Sydney felt a bit jaded and I’m sure Arnold felt angry that he was not given the full endorsement at every level of negotiation to take the reigns of a club who needed 100% clarity in its direction. Even before Arnold won The Golden Toilet Seat, it was clear this club needed a strong personality with a proven record.
Although it is easy to forget, the club also pursued Newcastle Jets manager GVE. This told supporters in no uncertain terms that the club did not know a) what it was doing b) how to negotiate and most importantly c) what it wanted. I remember at this point thinking how demoralising it was to be rejected by a coach who had fleeting success a number of years ago, but whose stock would not be sold for much more than a bag of peanuts. The argument would be made that there is consistency- to go local and have knowledge and experience in the A-League. But the reality is there is light years difference in the quality of coaching between GVE and Graham Arnold. When GVE won the Grand Final, Arnold was fresh from being the right hand man to Guus Hiddink. I was not alone in feeling the standard of coach sought after dropped once Arnold refused.
The common consensus surrounding off-season recruitment and the make-up of the squad was geared towards austerity. The wage bill was important, to develop the younger talent and to grow a team organically. With Brett Emerton and Pascal Bosschaart there was European experience to supplement the local players like Antonis, Ryall, Grant, Chianese and Powell. Add to this some underwhelming signings in Fabio and Abbas and it looked very much like a season of transition. Then the mother-of-all cats were thrown amongst the pigeons.
I remember the evening tracking on twitter to see the Del Piero name emerge. Surely he was going to join his old mate Gattuso in Switzerland, or the MLS or grab some petro dollars in Qatar? As the story was confirmed, then denied, then confirmed again, the impossible became the improbable. To be a fly on the wall with Tony Pignata for those few days would have been quite something. When Liverpool tried to hijack the deal and swoop in last minute, you feared the worst. But to stop for one moment and realise that Sydney FC were competing for the services of a player in the transfer window against a high profile EPL team was amazing in itself. Once it was known that the smoke did in fact contain a source of fire- hopes went through the roof. Then it happened.
All of a sudden, in the middle of the rugby league season, Alessandro Del Piero was front and back page of the papers. The Herald did a magnificent “La Gazzetta Del Piero.” What was happening here? Did the whole city of Sydney just take an overnight flight to Turin without anyone noticing? Did the mainstream sports media have a crisis of confidence or suddenly became bipolar? I’m sure if you asked most people in this country “What is Serie A?” they would probably reply “a new app for the iPhone.” This was magnificent. Our club had pure box office. And nothing against David Beckham- but this was a World Cup winner and icon encompassing all that is beautiful about Calcio, when there is often reason to belittle it or be disappointed by it. A winner, a statesman, a visionary on the field with a desire to be one off it. And he was ours.
But, wait a minute. Wasn’t this a time of austerity? Surely the Brisbane Roar model changed the landscape. A handful of quality yet unassuming imports spread across a lot of local talent coached by a local. That was supposed to be the formula. A moment ago Ian Crook had the time to shape and mould a young group and develop with the team. Next second he had to win the league. Amongst all the euphoria and press surrounding the signing, the practicality and logistics of introducing such a presence to the group was always going to be an issue for management. No blame can be put on the club for the biggest coupe possible. Where the problem lied was the environment to which Alessandro was walking into.
The first game in Wellington exposed the team warts-and-all. It wasn’t the 2-0 loss that was most concerning, but the limp nature of it especially to the Nix who were always going to struggle. The heavy reliance on ADP as well as the complete lack of leadership from others on the field would unfortunately be an all too common theme. The 35,000 plus opening home gate was supposed to be the 2nd chance at the real start to the season, but there is something about Sydney FC and big home crowds that doesn’t end well in a result. The Del Piero free kick will remain in the memory for all Cove members forever. Yet the defence was too poor to leverage ADP’s class. I remember one fan yelling “How can you not pick up Heskey?!” when the Jets had a corner at the Cover end. It got a laugh, but the frustration was there for all to see. A 3-2 loss and 0-2 to start the season.
It has to be said that the consequent wins over the Wanderers and Perth were fortunate, but obviously much welcomed at the time. Western Sydney had yet to hit their straps and whilst the defensive blocks were well set, they were not able to threaten the goal or transition anywhere near as well prior to their Premiership run. The Glory win at ANZ was memorable for Brett Emerton’s magnificent chip, but also the unsavoury image of Del Piero exploding with rage at the ineptitude of his teammates with goalkeeping coach Spider Kalac. It highlighted what many were thinking at the time and despite his calm manor and elegance, he’s a winner and expects others to be as well. Even as fans of A-League clubs who understand we aren’t watching Xavi passing to Iniesta, seeing Sydney FC unable to string more than 2 to 3 passes and expecting the 38 going on 39 year old import to carry the weight of the team was infuriating. And who could blame the man?
So 2 wins and 2 losses looked a lot more respectable- steady as she goes right? Well the Central Coast Mariners put paid to that idea. A 7-2 drubbing was evidence this group was not fit for A-League football. The back four had no protection, the goalkeeper had no clue, the midfield offered nothing going forward or back and Del Piero aside, no striker or winger knew what was required or how to work in an unworkable environment. It was clear Crook was out of his depth. The following weeks 3-2 loss to the Victory was the final straw for the man himself. Melbourne battered the Sky Blues for 90 minutes and had to somehow fight back to score 3 goals in the final 10 minutes. Yet the most amazing comeback still didn’t feel like it due to their complete dominance over the whole game. It was Sydney’s 2-0 lead that was the injustice. Crook walked.
It was one of the saddest press conferences I’ve ever witnessed. The truth came out- he wasn’t up to the challenge. Crook is one of the genuinely nice guys in the game and it was painful to see him have to go through such an ordeal. The elephant in the room though was the simple question: “why?” Why did Sydney FC appoint a head coach who was reluctant to take the job? Surely the board would have feared such an ending as a real possibility. As usual, it left more questions than answers whilst another unproven coach who admitted to not being ready took over as caretaker with Steve Corica.
After defeat away in Brisbane and at home to Adelaide, it was announced that Frank Farina would be given the role until the end of the season. This news was greeted with a fair amount of apathy and in some cases strong opposition. My take was the old “beggars cant be choosers.” A quarter of the way through an A-League season with a squad in disarray, there is no Ange Postecoglu sitting in the pundits chair to take the reigns. Talk of Oswaldo de Oliveira began to circulate as the Brazilian expressed an interest in coaching in Australia. Rumours about a return for Pierre Littbarski, who seemingly remains without a job, was also met with a fair amount of enthusiasm. Yet after the success of Postecoglu and Arnold, mixed with recent appointments of Popovic and Aloisi, it became clear that the popular thing to do was to have an Australian as coach. Littbarski would have been the fans favourite and mine as well. With one title in one season, it ended far too quickly for the German and given where German football has risen too recently it would have been the perfect fit.
Everyone loves a good redemption story and the first chapter of the script was written. To be caught on a drink-driving offense whilst coaching the Roar was a sin of great proportion- and so it should be. It showed immense unprofessionalism and exposed a culture of a “boys club” that Postecoglu was ruthless in dismantling. The fact Frank had been in the footballing wilderness ever since told its own story. Like two single parents out on a blind date, it very much felt like two desperate parties coming together in the hope something clicks.
The coach/manager of the football club symbolises so much what a club is about- their identity. Are they aggressive or defensive, proactive or reactive, physical or elegant. Questions were posed to Farina about this and the response was brief- I’m here to win, to get results. In an ironic way not answering the question actually did answer the question. Practicality would be the order of the day to grind our way into the top 6. Given the cards Frank was dealt it seemed a fair approach. But we all knew the day would come when putting out the fire was not enough when the house had to be rebuilt.
With sleeves rolled up it was top 6 or bust for the group and Frank. He oversaw the dire scoreless draw at home to the Heart before having to be officially given the title. Reports of intense double training sessions in the heat was encouraging, although the reality of what could follow was concern for a later day. Like a batsman who kept getting out playing over elaborate shots, it was a case of defence first. Create an environment of teamwork and discipline- round pegs in round holes. His first official game in charge was a tough 2-1 win in Wellington. Not pretty, but effective. Was this the sign of things to come?
From a personal standpoint, the first Sydney Derby at home was a special occasion. I had the privilege of taking my Wanderers supporting roommate into the Cover with me. Whilst it was bizarre that he was told he had to leave on the basis he has a WSW jersey while being in the FC end, you could feel the anticipation of a club with momentum coming to face a club who had a new sense of direction. The Red and Black Bloc came out in force and apart from a few Victory clashes, it was the first true moment where a Sydney FC match had an intensity about it. But on the night it was the visitors from the West who were clinical and pounced on some dreadful defending. The 2-0 loss was the end to the shortest of honeymoons for Farina.
With a big fixture pile up occurring over the Christmas period, it was going to be a big test for the coaching staff and players to manage their form and their bodies if top 6 was to be achieved. A 2-1 loss on the road to Newcastle was another inept performance that left a lot to be desired. From the outside looking in, it felt that too many senior players were selected on reputation and a number of the younger brigade weren’t stepping up to the mark. Blake Powell showed small moments of class followed by ineptitude of epic proportions. Chianese battled with fitness and form whilst the likes of McFlynn and Emerton were no more than passengers. And the big question still remained- what team are they trying to be? We could not counter attack, keep the ball, play long or short effectively. Not very encouraging.
From such a dire situation, it would be fair to say the 1-0 win over the table-topping Mariners came as a major shock. The Central Coast were certainly a level below their usual form and lost their discipline, which was very out of character. But the credit had to go to Sydney. The defensive structure and calculated pressing was executed tremendously well and gave the Mariners little time on the ball. There was only going to be one winner and Emerton’s finish was sublime. It felt like a ‘now or never’ moment and they got the chocolates. Was this just another false dawn or could the team build momentum?
A 3-0 demolition away to Adelaide New Years Eve was the worst way to end a poor 2012 for the Sky Blues. Whatever good football we produce one week was disposed off as soon as we hopped off the plane. We were catching the disease of the Glory, Heart and Nix. For a season of bad performances, Adelaide away was up there. “Burn the tape- that didn’t happen” was my advice on Twitter that evening. Bring on 2013 please.
By the time of the away trip to Perth came about there were a few positives quietly emerging. Janjetovic in goal was a calming presence and a big upgrade on Necevski’s wobbles. Aaron Calver in the centre of defence for a 16 year old was a big bonus, for both the present and future. And Peter Triantis was the vibrant young central midfielder we were crying out for. Although he did not have the best technical qualities, he had many other attributes that were highly regarded once upon a time. Yet the bench looked awfully thin. Besides running down the clock, in what scenario is McFlynn effective off the bench?
Shane Smeltz would hit form just at the wrong time to snatch the Glory a deserved 2-2 draw. Good moments were cancelled out by a lack of concentration and quality. The late 2-1 win back at home to the Heart was what makes football so special. It was a dire game played in poor conditions with the season seemingly falling away without any fight. Late goals from Emerton and the ever-battling Rhyan Grant to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat was a bit of a lift that a regular 2-1 win doesn’t give you. Often the manner of the win is just as vital as the win itself. How this carried onto our next game- dismantling the Nix 7-1. A record win, a record number of goals- both for the team and individually. 4 goals from the Italian maestro was quite something to behold and to have witnessed it at the ground was something very memorable. Yet it was hard to decide how much it meant given the fact Wellington did not show up. As a fan its vital to enjoy these moments, but as a realist you had to view it in context. Joel Griffiths’ long awaited debut had immediate impact. Del Piero needed someone to share the burden up top and this was the ideal start.
Consistency still alluded the team- in a good way at least. If winning at home and losing on the road was consistency then we had that down pat. Victory away on Australia Day is becoming a great tradition and event. But its always a battle and it proved too much again. Although the refereeing was highly questionable, discipline was lost- 2 reds to Calvano and Fabio. This continued onto Newcastle away as a 2-1 lead was thrown away in the dying minutes, with another red to McFlynn.
The back-to-back home games with Brisbane and Adelaide were shaping as must wins. Not entirely because that was the mathematically scenario, but because needing points on the road was proving far too difficult. The momentum at home continued beautifully- two 2-1 wins and 6 points from 6. Peter Triantis and Terry Antonis demonstrated quality beyond their years by scoring the decisive goals in each game respectively.
Filling the media pages between fixtures was the rumours linking Socceroos Captain Lucas (Laca$h to his friends) Neill with either the Melbourne Heart or Sydney FC. Having been dumped from his club in the Middle East and in the twilight of his career, it would be fair to say there was mixed reactions to his value for either club. But being 3 years Del Piero’s junior and still being the incumbent National team Captain meant that he was going to be a valuable commodity for a club pushing into the top 6. Despite a great amount of squad change and rotation, Farina and Sydney pushed the boat out to secure his services and they did so.
Regardless of the efforts and performances he has put in with the Socceroos, it is not hard to figure out why Lucas has so many detractors. After leaving a stable environment (at the time) at Blackburn Rovers, the reality is he has chased the pay check. From West Ham to Everton and Galatasaray before the Middle East, it became evident that Lucas Neill was always looking out for Lucas Neill. Yes the same can be said for all footballers in that respect, but the term “mercenary” was designed for people like him. You can only jump ship so many times before people realise that its time you stayed on a boat and help to keep it afloat. Having said all of this and being a football fan- yippee! It was a good signing.
The Lucas Neill Heart v Sydney saga helped to draw a rare healthy Yarraside crowd for a change. Aloisi felt aggrieved and I’m sure he had reason too. It fired up the locals who destroyed Sydney again 3-1 with another inept away game. Travelling further west the next week brought no more joy with Smeltz grabbing another goal against the Sky Blues. If finals were any hope we had to grab points on the road after trying to maintain our great home form.
With Antonis providing quality from an inside-left midfield role, he was instrumental in yet again another home win over the Mariners. McFlynn started to demonstrate some quality with Triantis closing down attacks and pressing when needed. Although he wasn’t scoring the goals, Joel Griffiths absorbed a lot of pressure. Goals to Ryall and a nice finish from Chianese on the break saw a 2-0 win. But points were dropped at home for the first time in a long time, held 1-1 to the Victory, despite having many chances on goal. Yau was proving useful with pace and finishing off the bench, but fixtures were running out. The 3rd Sydney Derby was going to be pivotal.
Another fantastic atmosphere was guaranteed. I was fortunate enough to park on Church St and join the RBB march to the stadium, taking some memorable videos along the way. Being right on the edge of the six meant there was little room for error. The tempo was quick with a lot of cards coming out. Del Piero’s classy finish was cancelled out in the end by a former blue in Shannon Cole. For some reason he hasn’t be given the dead ball opportunities as often as he should have given how well he hit them when he burst on the scene. 1-1 was the right result on balance, but needing a result in Brisbane was not what the doctor ordered.
The 3-1 defeat and subsequent results ended the season in major disappointment. It would not have been right if we scraped through due to other results because our campaign simply didn’t merit it. For Sydney FC to fail making the top 6 in only a 10 team league is nothing short of embarrassing. It was time to reflect and look at what happened.
The Good –
Del Piero 9/10 – The biggest name in the league lived up to the hype. His quality was always going to show and for great parts of the season he carried the team. Thankfully he will retire a Sky Blue end of next season and it is vital the club makes every effort to improve to leverage his time with Sydney. If you’re being critical and analysing all weaknesses, it is not unfair to conclude that having ADP in as a number 10 does have its complications without the ball, as at 39 years of age he doesn’t have the legs to close defenders down. But given his ridiculous qualities on the ball, he deserves to be forgiven as the other outfielders should pick up the slack.
Rhyan Grant 8/10 – A standout season for the quiet achiever. Being a utility can have its pluses and minuses. He excelled at left fullback when the team needed work ethic and discipline. Always gave 100% and was forever reliable in a squad that had too few of them. The aim next season is to nail down a spot, and I think left back is that spot.
Aaron Calver 8/10 – Perhaps too high a mark for only a few games, but the kid is 16 going on 36. Wise beyond his years, the South Coast junior looks at home in the A League. With the squad having a number of older defenders, its crucial the club finds some quality young players in this area. He is one to hold onto.
Terry Antonis 7/10 – His form was so good at the end of the season, Parma paid up his release clause and he’s gone. Found his mojo towards the end and played as an inside-wide player cutting in and terrorising defences. Will be missed and will be hard to replace.
Peter Triantis 7/10 – Showed desire, commitment and maturity. He was thrown in the deep end and coped with the pressure well. Although not technically gifted, he is tactically clever and is an improvement on what has gone before. Will only get better if given the right coaching.
Seb Ryall 7/10 – Amongst some moment of calamity, Seb fought for everything. He loves to drive from the back and puts others on their toes. Its unfortunate he ends up with so many own goals, mostly because he’s the one trying to make up for someone else’s mistake. Right back should be his spot to lose.
Vedran Janjetovic 7/10 – Having been at the club as an understudy for a while, it was surprising to see Vedran come in and look comfortable. There was the odd mistake, especially being caught in traffic, but so far so good for the shot stopper. Perhaps the only thing he needs now is proper competition.
Joel Griffiths 7/10 – Worked his socks off. Did not score as many as he would have wanted, but he absorbed so much pressure and did a lot of the donkey work ADP couldn’t do. Should improve with a preseason with the club.
Yau 6/10 – Not always the most composed or technically gifted, but scored goals at important times, and boy, could he run quick. A shame he was only here on loan.
The Bad –
Lucas Neill 5/10 – Had some good moments, particularly for Derby III. But even by own admission it has been an unconvincing return. Injury hasn’t helped and his quick introduction has been in keeping with a very scattergun approach to signing players. A decision on his future must be made soon for all concerned. It would be best advised for him to consider his club career for the sake of his club too, not purely as a means to achieve his personal goal for the Socceroos.
Jason Culina 5/10 – It would probably be best to put Jason in his own category as “bizarre.” The fall out with the coach came at a time when the season looked like it was stabilising. Showed quality and the supporters really got behind him on his return, which was quite an emotional moment. When news broke of the dismissal my initial reaction was outrage at Farina. Whilst it was strange Frank demoted Jason to a reserve team situation, it didn’t warrant his dummy spit. Even if confidence in Frank is limited, the coach needs to be respected. Its such a waste to see him throw away the opportunity given how shockingly treated he was at Newcastle. I hope he returns to the game for whichever club.
Adam Griffiths 5/10 – At times Adam looked composed and worked well with Calvano. But he had a habit of losing concentration. A surprising cut from the squad in the sense that he still gave some depth and flexibility, and his brother remains on the books.
Tiago Calvano 5/10 – Like Adam, Tiago had his moments. Yet his lack of pace cost the team goals and you could understand why the Jets let him go. Given a more mobile partner it will be interesting to see how much he’ll feature in the future.
Pascal Bosschaart 4/10 – injured for almost all the campaign. One of the few people who will enjoy a long offseason. Has to be fit for next season.
Blake Powell 4/10 – The odd moment, but nowhere near enough quality. If he doesn’t work hard next season he’ll be out.
Joel Chianese 4/10 – Battled with fitness, but still struggled when given a chance. If Farina decides he isn’t reliable enough in the striking role, then he’ll have to be coached as a wide midfielder.
Mitchell Mallia 4/10 – Almost non-existent. Burst onto the scene late last season, but hasn’t kicked on at all. Like the other younger players, has to step up next season or its bust.
Terry McFlynn 4/10 – Will probably get a few to be critical of a 4 mark, but regardless of a small spell when he gave some good performances, the reality is the rest of the league has gone beyond the level of Terry. A lovely bloke, a great servant, but these aren’t attributes that examine his contributions on field. Why he was re-signed is beyond me, and given how long and late that decision took it was clear how reluctant the club were to do so. The captaincy is not a major issue and it should not come into calculations when judging McFlynn. He divides opinion and the personal vitriol goes too far, but I remain baffled at his re-signing. He is also impeding the development of the likes of Gligor who hasn’t been given much opportunity.
Brett Emerton 4/10 – Many have written Brett off, but as opposed to McFlynn, Emmo has runs on the board in his career at a much higher level and I hold out hope he can reach 70-80% of what he was. Injuries are the main concern and its impossible not to think they contributed to a big dip in form. If you’re not confident in you’re body it doesn’t matter how good you are. Like Bosschaart, he needs to recover and use the offseason wisely. If he doesn’t have the pace for a wide midfield role, then either something centrally or even in the back four could be the option.
Ivan Necevski 4/10 – Had a decent spell towards the end of the season, but literally threw away his place earlier on. Has never been a convincing number one.
The Ugly –
Ali Abbas 3/10 – Too many poor performances mixed in with ill discipline. Brought in by Crook, but you could see why Newcastle got rid. Still officially on the books at time of writing.
Paul Reid 3/10 – A stopgap signing in every sense. Was a good player at Adelaide, but never fitted in or showed enough to warrant a longer stay.
Fabio 2/10 – Defensive disaster.
Trent McClenahan 0/10 – Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Kruno Loverk 0/10 – he came, played a few minutes then left. Was he real or a figment of our imagination?
Recent news of Nicky Carle and Matt Jurman returning to the club is positive. Nicky can take a lot of the creative burden from Alessandro. The question will be how both can operate together. In Farina’s usual 4-4-1-1 there is the possibility to play ADP as a 9 upfront to accommodate Carle in his favoured role. Depending on striking options will determine how such a scenario pans out. Jurman on the other hand was frozen out by Mulvey and had a mixed time in Brisbane. His departure was a blow at the time, and at 23 whilst only on a one year deal, this is a good time to return.
The capture of Del Piero made it a remarkable season in so many ways. The club was front and centre across mainstream media, which was a huge achievement in and of itself. Yet that made the disappointment all the more stark. People have already been cut at admin level, not to mention some of the deadwood in the playing squad. Strong rumours persist with Rado Vidosic coming into assist Farina once more. It is probably a good thing to have an experienced assistant as Corica and Kalac learn their trade as coaches. Re-signing Farina as coach prior to the end of season and without making the finals was not consistent with the noises made during his appointment. He will be under enormous pressure to comfortably finish top 6, with top 4 being more the aim. Everyone at the club is under the pump to produce- and I cannot wait to see if they can.Google+