As many have suspected all along, the kids are all right. Better, actually, if the A-League’s opening fixtures are a barometer of young local talent.
Even Australian football’s perennial navel-gazers had reason to peer outside themselves for 73 minutes this week when Calem Nieuwenhof turned his A-League debut into an exercise in execution so concise it had Stefan Marinovic on the block in a manner the New Zealand goalkeeper might have experienced from any seasoned international anywhere in the world.
The long-range strike – remarkably outdone by Luke Brattan’s subsequent set piece – was undoubtedly quite a moment for those Sydney FC fans who had not followed their club’s AFC Champions League campaign, throughout which the 19-year-old midfielder played every minute among Asia’s best in his first foray into senior professional football.
It was but one instance of a fresh generation.
The debut of the Macarthur winger Lachlan Rose, a 21-year-old former junior tennis player plucked from the NPL2, was a clear sign of untapped potential at state level. In fact, the Bulls’ inaugural match – a 1-0 win over a promising-looking Western Sydney well known for their academy products – was an ode to the aptitude of a title-contending team featuring the Australian youth internationals Alex Susnjar, Denis Genreau and Milislav Popovic.
Central Coast, too, can laud the displays of Alou Kuol, Jordan Smylie and Josh Nisbet in the low-budget club’s first back-to-back wins – against Newcastle and Macarthur – in a season for the first time in more than three years.
These were all ideal advertisements for a league – except that many of them have not been that well advertised.
There is nothing wrong with the quality of this competition. Rusted-on fans know this well. Anecdotally, those who have never tuned in, or not done so since its infancy, are pleasantly surprised. The perpetual problem is that not enough fall into that second category.
Well-known faces such as Macarthur’s Mark Milligan help, as do the return of favourites such as Sydney’s Brazilian top-scorer, Bobo. The reality, however, is that big names remain a large lure for the casual viewer who follows the English Premier League and Europe’s other big clubs but essentially nothing else.
Without the hook that comes with a major marquee player, Al Hassan Toures could fall from the sky in their thousands and only a small proportion of sports fans would even know to look, and consequently marvel, then return for more.
According to Media Week’s figures from Saturday, 19,000 watched Sydney beat Wellington 2-1 on the host broadcaster Fox Sports and a further 46,000 on free-to-air partner the ABC. In total, 65,000 watched Nieuwenhof’s worldie live. None, of course, saw Mirza Muratovic’s equaliser after the broadcast went black right on the 20-year-old’s moment.
Some 26,000 Fox viewers saw Dylan Wenzel-Halls’s late goal seal Brisbane Roar’s win over Melbourne Victory. In the Big Bash League, also on Fox on the same evening, 319,000 watched session one and 227,000 session two of the Sydney Thunder’s shock defeat of the Brisbane Heat.
Less tangible comparisons with other major men’s codes in Australia are also worth considering.
In the NRL last season, the Penrith Panthers debutant Charlie Staines sent a Forbes pub dry as the Post Office Hotel offered a free beer to every patron for every one of the 19-year-old’s four tries against the Cronulla Sharks.
In the AFL, Gold Coast’s mercurial Izak Rankine, 20, became a breakout star.
These bright young things are talented indeed, but no more so at their chosen craft than their A-League counterparts are at theirs. That is not a comment rooted in an inferiority complex, rather a reality that must be considered by the competition’s new powerbrokers.
With the official unbundling of the A-League from Football Australia at the turn of the year comes opportunity to find a carrot that dangles at just the right height to reel in the public. The marquee debate is a tired one, never more so than now when money is scarcer than ever and the age of Covid-19 is limiting matchday experiences. It is also not the sole solution to creating cut-through.
There is also a reason the conversation does not cease. Granted, the A-League must learn, over time, to stand on its own two feet. Coaches have, in recent seasons, tended to steer away from using their marquee spots for ageing stars in favour of value for money on the field.
But at what point must decisions be made to benefit the whole game? A marquee might be a shameless grab for audiences and revenue, but it will also generate exposure for other emerging narratives that could well keep peripheral fans invested. Perhaps with their new autonomy over their financial future, owners can rediscover the confidence to increase on-field investments.
Gems have been unearthed already and there will be more; let’s just make sure they are given the attention they deserve.