Monday, 7 April 2008

Trampled Tykes echoes of shattered Palace

Barnsley's brave run in the FA Cup came to a sad, but predictable end last night as they fell out at the penultimate hurdle at the hands of fellow tier-two Cardiff City. Having climbed death-defying twin peaks to knock off Liverpool and Chelsea, the Tykes lamentably stumbled on the gentler hills of North Wales.

For Barnsley, the balance of the season becomes no longer a quest for fame and glory but a grim struggle to stay in the Championship, for when Sheffield Wednesday grabbed a point at Scunthorpe on Saturday, Barnsley quietly slipped into the relegation zone on the eve of their semi-final.

I'm reminded of 32 years ago, when my team Crystal Palace became one of few third division teams to reach the semi finals of the Cup. A glorious, breathtaking run had brought unlikely away victories at Leeds, Chelsea and Sunderland, and the Eagles soared into the giddying heights of the last four, where they met second division Southampton, with a real chance of a Final berth against Manchester United or Derby. After playing well above their station in the previous rounds, third division Palace put on a semi-final performance worthy of a ... third division club. A straightforward 2-0 win for the Saints, who subsequently proceeded to cause a boil over and beat Man U at Wembley.

For Palace, the Cup run inflicted great damage to their Div.3 promotion aspirations. The Eagles had soared through the first half of the season, and turned into the New Year of 1976 with a comfortable buffer at the top of the table. The distraction of the Cup saw their league form falter, and by the time of their cup exit they were in a gritty race to grab the third promotion spot. Notwithstanding huge Division Three crowds at Selhurst Park to watch their run in, a series of stumbling home draws and away losses condemned them to another season in the third tier.

I hope Barnsley can pick their season up, and for their heroic efforts in the Cup translate into status-saving league success. But like Palace 32 years ago, I'm afraid that the suffocating anti-climax they will now undoubtedly suffer may work against them with potentially miserable consequences.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Tykes in dream land

The words "FA Cup" and "romance" have been inextricably linked over the years. And if you think that this has been rather cliched, well it's not about to go away this year.

Barnsley FC has written its own chapter in the Cup's rich history this season by eliminating two of the Big Four. On Saturday it followed up its thrilling Anfield elimination of Liverpool with a home success over Chelsea.

And so the Cup this year will have a winner from outside the despised top four clubs for the first time since Everton's success in 1995. And with three of the four semi-finalists being from outside the Premiership, there are good chances of a winner from outside the top flight for the first time since West Ham in 1980.

The Barnsley captain remarked before the Chelsea fixture that if they achieved scalps of two of the top four they should be just about given the Cup in recognition. Their semi-final opponents will be known tonight, but I'm tipping the Tykes to be knocked out at the final hurdle. In my view, it will be too hard for them to mentally prepare for a fixture against a lesser light, even if it is lowest-ranked Cardiff City. But we'll see.

I'll be watching keenly to see the response of the mainstream media to the final stages of the competition. In recent times , the press has become so top-four and Premiership focused. Today's coverage in the Melbourne Age concentrated more on the all-Premiership clash at Old Trafford, rather than Barnsley's heroics at Oakwell.

I'd love the Tykes to go all the way. But I'll just enjoy seeing teams other than Arsenal, Man United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Presumably, eight isn't enough

Football Federation Australia announced this week conditional approval for two new Queensland teams to compete in the A-league from season 2008-09. Provided the backers behind each of Gold Coast Galaxy and the Townsville-based Northern Thunder can jump financial and other hurdles in the next two weeks, then the eight-team A-league will become ten, with the FFA apparently planning to go to 12 teams at some point before too long.

The eight-team league has proved frustrating for football fans, serving up only 21 rounds plus finals. Frustrating also for players, who find the lengthy off-season detrimental to career progression.

And so the A-league, the great white hope of Australian league football after 28 highly-flawed seasons of the old National Soccer League, appears set to tweak itself for the first time. World-weary cynics like me shudder a little, remembering the former NSL managed to tweak itself about 20 times over those 28 seasons.

A primary concern is that the playing standard will be diluted. Adding another 45-50 players to fill out the two new squads will be achieved either by raiding existing A-league clubs or by importing players of the ilk that has so under whelmed expectant supporters in the past three seasons. Fair weather Australian football supporters who turn up only for the big World Cup qualifiers, who presumably are nourished on a TV diet of English Premier League, and who often complain of the relatively poor standard in the national league will hardly find greater attraction under this scenario.

A corresponding concern is the financial well-being of the clubs, old and new. Odd that Queensland clubs will account for 30% of the new league. It's hard to see the Gold Coast team not taking supporters away from Queensland Roar, which will surely revert logically to a Brisbane moniker. Funny to think that in the old NSL there were several seasons in the late 80s and early 90s with no team north of Tweed Heads.

The old NSL saw no fewer than 42 clubs breeze in and out over its lifetime; 15 of those are now defunct and the carcasses of most others litter lower state leagues. The A-league has brought a new level of professionalism and excitement to Australian football that was never present under the old spluttering model. Let's hope the survival rate this time around is appreciably higher.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

On the road to find out

This Wednesday sees the start to another World Cup qualifying campaign for Australia. Rather like ring marks on a tree, I often muse on marking my life as a series of Aussie qualifying campaigns - how many left for me, I wonder?

This time around has a particular resonance, since it has the somewhat novel distinction of coming off the back of a successful campaign last time . Somewhat novel, but not unique, as I remember the last time this happened, with the qualifying campaign for the 1978 World Cup.

There was a similar euphoria when Australia qualified for and played in the 1974 World Cup. The buoyant mood helped provide the momentum to kick off a national competition, the Philips Soccer League in 1977.

With the national team, things were less rosy. Political infighting (largely NSW versus the rest of Australia) had contrived to produce a new national coach that in fact none of the states wanted - a Mr Nobody from the north of England called Jimmy Shoulder.

And thus we entered another qualifying campaign through Asia. First of all, there was the matter of dispensing with Taiwan, Fiji and New Zealand, then into the final qualifying group comprising South Korea, Iran, Kuwait, Hong Kong and Australia. In July 1977 I tripped along to Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide to see the Aussies breeze past Hong Kong 3-0, with local boy John Kosmina scoring twice. The Aussies were untroubled but not terribly convincing.

Fast forward 31 years, and Australia faces a rather different challenge in its hopeful path to South Africa in 2010. It's back in Asia for WC qualifying for the first time since 1977. (It would have faced Asian opposition in 1981 had it been able to get past New Zealand).

It's been slightly surreal to see Australia's first-up opponent Qatar training assiduously in Melbourne with its entire squad intact, while Australia has a most splintered build-up for this qualifier. It appears likely that nearly the entire eleven who kick off on Wednesday will have arrived only one or two days prior to the match, and be subject to the tactical desires of a new coach for the first time.

Back 31 years ago, Australia drew strength from its playing squad, all home-based, getting very used to playing with each other. These were the days when it was still not unusual for the national team to organise tours around the world to help the playing group gel.

I recall the first time that Australia made a particular point of rushing back overseas players, in this instance player, in the case of Eddie Krncevic for the critical qualifier against Israel in 1989. It failed - Krncevic, our most credentialled player, failed to spark, and Australia disappeared from the qualifying race.

So it's not the ideal set up for the Aussies in their first hit out. And frankly, there's not much latitude for Australia to have a shaky start, with Qatar nominally the weakest of our three opponents in this group. A draw at home would put pressure on from the outset; a loss, even scarier to contemplate.

Pesky Sydneysiders will point to Melbourne being a "bad luck" venue for the Aussies, harking back to the failed play-offs in 1997 and 2001, although Melburnians could point to Sydney playing its part in failures in 1981, 1989 and 1993! Thinking of Asian opponents and that 1977 campaign, I recall the wheels started to fall off in Melbourne when Dave Harding missed a penalty against Iran, who won 1-0.

By all accounts, the Qataris will be defending solidly and hoping to catch Australia on the break. It's likely to test the patience of Australia to find a way through Qatar's defence. Celtic's Scott Macdonald could be key to converting whatever chances Australia can manufacture. Tim Cahill will be another important element.

The road to determining Australia's 2010 destiny starts on Wednesday. It could be a nervy night.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

FFA's telling, foxy ways

Frank Lowy is a man of integrity. Aside from his major achievements in the corporate world, he has been the single biggest factor in the rise of Australian football and its administration from its tawdry NSL days.

It's a pity then to see the FFA demonstrating a lack of integrity on two fronts in the A-league in recent days, in both cases compromising fairness in favour of commercial interests. Firstly, we had the exciting prospect of the top four teams going into the final round level on points, with everything to play for. With such a close situation then, it was astounding that the FFA had scheduled the final four fixtures all at different times.

Listening to Simon Hill of Foxtel being interviewed on ABC radio about this aspect, it was quite clear from his comments that it was Foxtel dictating that the last round the matches remained staggered. This is extraordinary. Any league or other football competition with any integrity would ensure that the last round is played with the same kick-off times. And why? Because there are several well-noted cautionary tales regarding the "convenient" results that come about when it's not done that way. The "day of World Cup Shame" at Gijon in Spain in 1982 is perhaps the most poignant example of what happens when a result can be engineered to the satisfaction of both teams, in this case Austria and the former West Germany at the expense of Algeria, but there are plenty of others.

Another decision made last week which was all about boosting the FFA coffers in favour of treating all teams fairly was the decision that should Newcastle or Central Coast win the major semi-final, then the grand final would not be held at either's home ground, but in Sydney instead. This because the Sydney venue can hold a lot more than the other venues. Again, a rubbish decision of which the FFA should be ashamed. So we have the prospect at time of writing that should Sydney FC reach the final, they will be at a decided advantage despite their being ranked lower then the team they will be facing. For football followers outside Sydney, this would leave a bad taste similar to what occurred in the A-leagues' first season when the FFA bailed out Sydney FC's losses at the end of their title winning season.

The FFA finances are presumably not in a great state at present. But that is no reason to devalue the A-league competition by putting the dollar above all other factors.