Neil Sherwin2 Comments


Neil Sherwin2 Comments

I’ve mentioned it more than once in articles for IBWM – the A-League off-season is a pain in the arse. Lasting the best part of six months, it drives fans crazy as they look for something, ANYTHING, to keep themselves occupied.

This time though, it hasn’t been *that* bad, thanks in large part to the hype surrounding some of the players set to grace these shores in the coming season.

Alessandro Del Piero. Shinji Ono. Emile bloody Heskey!

The signing of Del Piero in particular is quite simply the biggest thing to happen to the A-League since its inception, and surpasses the likes of Robbie Fowler, Dwight Yorke, Romario (briefly) and, ehhhhh, Brian Deane (that one’s a joke by the way).

So far, Sydney FC has sold more than 30,000 replica shirts while memberships are selling like hotcakes ahead of the big kick off on October 5.

The Del Piero deal was very much a case of “will he, won’t he?” for a couple of weeks as clubs such as Liverpool, Celtic, Sporting Braga and Sion were all sniffing around the World Cup winner and Juventus legend. And why wouldn’t they be? Even at the ripe old age of 37 Del Piero still had something to offer to a Juve side which won Serie A in 2012. The fact that such a household name opted to move to Australia has a nation buzzing. Of course, a reported offer of $2 million a season didn’t do Sydney’s bid any harm…

Del Piero arrived in Sydney Airport on Sunday, September 16th and was met by hoards of passionate supporters desperate for a first look at the man who has firmly put the A-League on the proverbial map as media outlets across the world run the story of his signing. With a large ethnic Italian community in Australia, he is a marketing dream, and there were thousands in attendance at the club’s official jersey presentation afternoon at Allianz Stadium last week.

While Del Piero will put arses on seats initially, his performances on the pitch will need to be good to make sure the club gets results to please its notoriously fickle supporters.

The Football Federation of Australia (FFA) has jumped aboard the Del Piero bandwagon immediately, and used the official A-League social media accounts to dub the first day of general public ticket sales “Del Piero Day”. This understandably went down as well as Besart Berisha’s dive in last year’s Grand Final, with fans of other clubs expressing their annoyance at the choice of marketing for a day supposed to be about all teams. Indeed, Brisbane Roar took it upon themselves to challenge Del Piero Day with their #back2backchamps tweets.

Roar will again be the team to beat having won the whole thing in both 2011 and 2012 but they’re going through changes at the moment, none bigger than at head coach where Rado Vidosic has filled the very big shoes vacated by dynasty builder Ange Postecoglou. Seeking a new challenge, Postecoglou has headed to Melbourne Victory where he will try rebuild a side that endured a miserable 2011/12 campaign. Last year’s marquee Harry Kewell was released and has been replaced by Marcos Flores. The Argentine won the hearts of fans across the country following some dazzling performances with Adelaide United two years ago, culminating in a Johnny Warren Medal for the league’s best player.

Back to the ‘glamour’ signings though, and Emile Heskey has made the move Down Under to join the Newcastle Jets in a move that has been met with equal amounts of praise and ridicule. Michael Bridges is still heavily involved at the Jets and no doubt had a hand in the deal, which is worth $1 million for one year with the option for a second should things work out.

At 34, Heskey is past his best. Indeed some might say that he’s been past his best for years; however he could be the perfect signing to play alongside the Jets’ exciting youngsters. The tendency lately has been to bring in quick, pacy strikers and move away from the big, bustling target man types so in some Heskey is an “old school” signing. Even well in to his 30s though, Heskey should still have more than enough to play well and score goals at this level.

Or he could be the next Mario Jardel, we’ll have to wait and see.

The new kids on the block this time around are, to give them their full title, the National Roads and Motorists' Association Insurance Western Sydney Wanderers Football Club (or Western Sydney Wanderers for short). Put in to a football mad area of the New South Wales capital, they will play their games at Parramatta Stadium and are being bankrolled by the FFA.

Having flirted with Michael Ballack for the best part of a month, the Wanderers finally settled on 32 year old Japanese international Shinji Ono as their inaugural marquee. While it’s a slightly less exciting signing than a former Chelsea player and German international with 95 caps to his name, Ono is technically excellent and will be very important if an average side is to avoid the wooden spoon.

Of the other sides, beaten 2012 Grand Finalists Perth Glory got their business out the way early in the offseason and will again be there or thereabouts, thanks in large part to experienced internationals Michael Thwaite, Jacob Burns, Liam Miller and Shane Smeltz.

Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne Heart both made the finals last season and a similar performance for both would be more than acceptable, though the former looks a better bet than the latter at this stage.

The perennial bridesmaids from the Central Coast look to have missed the boat in terms of a Grand Final window having lost key players Rostyn Griffiths, Matt Simon and Alex Wilkinson. The excellent Mat Ryan is still between the sticks while Nick Montgomery has arrived from Sheffield United, but overall their lack of strength in depth should put paid to any serious challenge and Mariners fans will be left to again lament defeats at the final hurdle in 2006, 2008 and 2011.

Adelaide United could lose key striker Sergio van Dijk to Indonesia and may struggle, while Gold Coast United…actually, they don’t exist anymore so nevermind.

Overall, this is shaping up to be a very close run campaign. With six finals spots up for grabs, there should still be plenty to play for as the regular season draws to a close in March and that will hopefully give supporters reason to keep going to matches once the initial hype over the new signings has died down.

Until then though, we can bask in the glory of finally being seen as a respectable league with the ability to attract big names.

Well played A-League, well played.