2016: The Year of the Footballing Underdog, but will it happen in Australia?

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2016 really has been a remarkable year in sports. The footballing world has been turned on its head, with bookies, fans and managers alike left scratching their heads as teams that have been written off by all but the most die-hard followers have gone on and done the unthinkable.

Leicester City’s remarkable feat in the English Premier League started things off, going from relegation certainties to champions in one season. It is the way they did it that is the most extraordinary part of the story though.

Credit: uk.businessinsider.com

They won by 10 clear points, something that has only been bettered three times in Premier League history (by Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal). They also achieved this success not by opening their cheque book but by playing an attacking, open style of play and having the right players to suit that system. It may be a football cliché, but round pegs in round holes has never been more apt. They built the team from the foundation of a strong defence, but no one could accuse them of playing defensively. Instead, they hit teams on the break with pace and precision.

Ronaldo may not agree, but Iceland recently successfully followed the same winning formula at the Euro 2016. With practically no household names and coached by the lowest paid manager at the Euros, Lars Lagerback, they progressed unbeaten from the group stages before pulling off one of the biggest shocks in world soccer, when they beat England 2-1 – who was coincidentally coached by the highest paid manager at the tournament, with an annual salary of 4.1 million pounds.

Credit: www.skysports.com

 

Wales are another perfect example. Yes, they have the likes of Bale and Ramsey, but not many neutrals would be able to identify many more from the Welsh side. Like Leicester and Iceland, Wales have played a high-tempo, attacking game, a combination that took them all the way to the semis. Team work, belief in your teammates’ ability, and a desire to win seems to have displaced multi-millionaire superstars all around. And there aren’t many people who will say that is a bad thing.  So, is this a one off, freak year that will see normality return when the players return from their breaks later this year? The bookies aren’t expecting a repeat performance, though they hardly covered themselves in glory last season. But what about over here? Who is going to step up, take on the big boys and “do a Leicester?”

 

The A-League 

A quick look at the Hyundai A League shows there are a few obvious candidates, if only because of their disappointing history to date.

Credit: www.insideworldfootball.com

 

Wellington Phoenix, fresh from securing their place in the league for another 10 years will be looking to use the momentum from that achievement to push them up the ladder in 16/17. They may be without overall success so far, but the Phoenix came oh so close in the 2009/10 season, losing in the Preliminary Final against Sydney FC. That year, they made Westpac Stadium a fortress, conceding a record low number of goals – 7. The 2009/10 season also saw the conclusion of their incredible record for the longest undefeated home run in the league, when they notched up 24  games without a reverse (24, stretching from 23rd November 2008 to 3rd November 2010). After a disappointing showing last year, a return to form next season will need them to once again make the Westpac a place where other teams fear to tread.

Perth Glory are the holders of the unwanted record for the most defeats in the history of the league, having endured 105 so far. Despite success in the NSL, the Glory haven’t been able to recreate it in the A League. A solid run last time out however, and a busy time in the transfer market has a lot of people tipping Kenny Lowe’s team for good things in 2016/17. With some extra time for the new additions to bed in, the team appears to have a good mix of exciting young talent and experience. Watch this space.

Another side which will be hoping to build on a promising season is Melbourne City. John van’t Schip’s free scoring side was one of the most exciting to watch last year, scoring a record 28 goals away from home. If they can continue with their impressive offence, while tightening it up at the back, they will be hoping to go one better at least next season.

 

Westfield W-League

No doubt about it, it was a season to forget for Melbourne Victory last time out. Not only did they suffer the ignominy of finishing bottom with a paltry 7 points, they had to watch rivals City cruise to championship success in their very first season. Welshman Jeff Hopkins will be hoping to take some of the spirit showed by his countrymen and turn the tables on City this time out.

Credit: www.w-league.com.au

The only two sides who have never troubled the historians when it comes to success are the Western Sydney Wanderers and Adelaide. Neither has even qualified for the play-offs, but both will be hopeful that next season will be different. Adelaide will be encouraged by the steady improvement they have shown under Jamie Harnwell. It isn’t that long ago since the Lady Reds lost all ten of their games. That 2010-11 season they managed to net just 4 times, while shipping 32 at the other end. An impressive 5th place last season shows what progress has been achieved, with the added boost of Kaitlyn Savage picking up the golden gloves award. Jamie and everyone at the club will be confident that they can get into the Final Series at worst, next season.

Fellow underachievers Western Sydney Wanderers will also be hoping to make at least the finals next year, building on a solid if unspectacular last season. Though they finished 7th, they were only 1 point (admittedly with a poorer goal difference) behind the Jets and Adelaide, and Richard Byrne will be hopeful, that just a bit more luck at the right time, and an extra couple of percent in all areas of the park will be the difference between another season of disappointment and success.

Credit: www.w-league.com.au

 

Leicester’s achievement in the EPL should not be viewed as some kind of fairy tale. It should be held up as an example for every non-fancied team. For too long, there has been a school of thought in sports that money buys success, but recent events have proven that not to be the case. Yes, money can make success easier, can take away a few obstacles and give you a shove in the right direction. But nothing can replace a good work ethic, the right players in the right positions, and a style that suits the team and the players. If you have all that, and a little bit of luck, then any one of these teams could be held up as the new Leicester City come this time next year.

 

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