At the risk of a stinging rebuke from the ultra stylish Seal, I’m going to start my final column for the season by saying: ‘‘Thank God that’s over.’’
At the start of the season when I sought opinion from people who I respected, and whose opinions I valued, about whether I should continue to write this column while working for the Newcastle Jets, I had some small concerns.
Little did I know!
If I had known a coach would be sacked three days before the season started, a marquee player’s contract set aside, and an A-League licence handed back, I would have ditched the project quicker than a Kardashian marriage.
Given my situation I opted to let the expert reporters sift through the off-field dramas and concentrate on events on the pitch and I would like to thank you, the reader and my editor, for understanding and not trying to force my hand.
Even as I pen this final piece for the season the future of the Jets is in limbo, and as I wrote last week, we have to trust the integrity of those charged with the development of the game to find a viable solution.
Given the backdrop to the season I outlined, it would be easy to surmise that Newcastle’s finishing position wasn’t so bad given the circumstances, but having just watched a grand final that Perth Glory might well have won, I couldn’t help but think of opportunity lost.
If Perth could go so close to wresting the crown, surely the Jets could have done the same? Yes, there would be four or five teams who could mount a similar case, and therein lies my point: this was an even, winnable competition.
Were Brisbane and the Mariners better than they were last season? Did they drag the standard of the A-League up, and raise overall levels?
Brisbane lost six times in the regular season, compared with once last year, so I doubt you can mount a convincing case to say they were better.
The Mariners began as though they were heading to another level, but the toll of Asian Champions League football, Olyroo commitments, and the sale of two of their most influential players brought them back to the pack at the business end of the season.
Let’s be honest, Gold Coast, Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory were below par this season.
The Jets and Sydney were probably at a similar performance level to the previous season.
Wellington were Wellington, that is solid, disciplined and resilient, and they improved on the road.
Melbourne Heart reaped the benefits of investing in potential last year and played some very good football in this campaign.
The great improvers from not just last season but from their entire A-League history were Perth Glory, whose turnaround was a credit to coach Ian Ferguson and his staff.
Ferguson, who was criticised in some quarters when appointed, and under increasing pressure mid-season, found the formula that suited his individual players and his squad, guided his side from ninth to third, and had a genuine shot at a top-two finish at one stage.
The Glory carried that momentum into the grand final on Sunday, and given that Brisbane had home-ground advantage, great crowd support, and Perth’s main man, Shane Smeltz, had to carry a severe facial injury for most of the match, they gave their fans a grand sight of victory.
Perth were disciplined, tactically sound, sensibly aggressive, and only 10 minutes from a triumph, as their coach lamented after the match.
But 10 minutes can be an eternity in a football match, just ask a certain other Ferguson in Manchester, about that after the 4-4 draw with Everton.
Brisbane were not at their best, Perth’s tactics had a bit to do with that, and my pet hate, poor playing surfaces for important matches, also had considerable effect.
Conditions were not conducive to quick, assured ball movement, one- and two-touch passing, and creating opportunities in tight areas through mobility and accuracy, and they were key areas of prospective advantage for Brisbane.
Sure it’s the same for both sides, and the high stakes and close nature of the game gloss over some facets, but I can’t help feeling that asking teams to play on a less than ideal surface is in some way cheating them and the paying spectator.
My old man said to me the day before the game that the final should be played at a neutral venue.
‘‘Don’t be silly,’’ I countered.
‘‘That would take away the deserved advantage of finishing top two.’’ But maybe he has a case.
I still believe the first team through to the grand final should host it, perhaps on the provisos that the ground capacity is large enough and that their pitch is untouched by any event for at least two weeks before the match.
I acknowledge that is a difficult ask, given dual occupancy, ACL commitments, etc, but the other codes do not rely on the actual playing surface to the extent football does to provide optimum performance and entertainment.
Having said all that, and despite a valiant Perth Glory, and the controversial last-minute penalty, the right team won the grand final.
For 80 minutes it looked like the experienced pros in the Perth side might just hold sway. Danny Vukovic was top-notch in goal, captain Jacob Burns controlled the battle in midfield with stellar help from Irishman Liam Miller, swapping his usual silky contribution for 90 minutes of hard yakka.
Billy Mehmet led the line really well, using his physical presence to great effect.
Central defenders Bas Vandenbrink and Steve Pantelides were good for 80 minutes.
You’ll note that most of those mentioned attracted attention for stoic defending or combative discipline.
Smeltz battled bravely with a nasty injury, but Perth’s goal came from a deflected cross, and it is difficult to recall Brisbane goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos having to make a save.
Brisbane wore Perth down, and when coach Ange Postecoglou made substitutions, and allowed Thomas Broich to operate centrally, the game changed.
Broich had threatened sporadically, Besart Berisha had cut a frustrated peripheral figure, but when crunch time arrived the best supplier, and the most prolific finisher, in the A-League stood up.
Make no mistake, the Dean Heffernan dismissal and the penalty decision – which was correct, by the way – did not decide this match. There was only ever going to be one winner after Brisbane’s equaliser.
Well done to the Roar and commiserations to Perth.
Fingers crossed for Jets fans, one way or another it should be quite a news week.