APL Grand Final announcement takes fans for a ride, is it for the last time?

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In a landscape as fractured and tumultuous as the online world of Australian football, you will rarely see everyone across all channels united behind one idea. But, that’s seemingly where we are today following the Australian Professional Leagues’ (APL) announcement that Sydney will host the A-Leagues Men’s and Women’s Grand Finals for the next three years.

The backlash has been seething.

The major social media platforms have been inundated with furious fans, responding to an announcement that claims to be favouring those very people.

It’s now just over a week since thousands of Australians packed pubs, lives sites and AAMI Park to watch the Socceroos take on Argentina in the final 16 of the World Cup in Qatar, with support at a fever pitch across the country.

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The message was clear in the debrief: support your local team, and how can we translate this raucous love for World Cup football into support for our A-Leagues, into our local sides and into consistent following rather than simply engaging once every four years?

Eight days after that game, the answer is seemingly lost on us. Any excitement and goodwill generated by the Socceroos has evaporated as the online football community descends into a fury over the administration of our elite leagues once more.

During the World Cup, group chats with my friends for once talked about A-Leagues players and their talent and there was the glimmer of hope that maybe we can start to draw these people in.

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Fast forward to today, and instead I get text messages from those same people trying to understand why on earth the overlords of our much-maligned competitions would do it.

At its heart, today’s decision is about money, because of course it is. None of us who follow the A-Leagues would dispute that the competition is in need of funding, and we have spent the last month crowing about the lack of government investment in football and how something needs to change at both a state and federal level. But not like this.

This initiative is not ‘for the fans’, it’s not about ‘tradition’ or ‘time to plan’. It’s about money, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of what is a relatively unique part of our sport in Australia. The top-ranked side in the grand final getting to host the showpiece has generated some of the best atmospheres our competitions have seen in their relative infancy.

Adelaide Oval bathed in red for the decider in 2016, the orange wave in Brisbane for three straight years (including one that didn’t exist), 56,000 in Perth a couple of years back, McKellar Park packed out for Canberra v Brisbane, the effects mic dying after Berisha scored at AAMI Park in 2015.

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We have a tradition, and now we are seemingly going to fall in line with the sports around us that we so often seek to create a point of difference from.

Referencing the pilgrimage to Wembley Stadium for the FA/EFL Cup Finals is a logical fallacy that takes us for idiots; Australia is 32 times the size of the United Kingdom with a many times poorer inter-city transit network.

And an increase in time to plan? In the current climate, I am not booking travel essentials without knowing my team is in the Grand Final, simply because I know it will be in Sydney. I will still end up with a week to book after my team qualifies, and airlines and hotels will still jack up prices because they know I want to go. It remains unaffordable for many, particularly someone in Perth whose team is now hosting a Grand Final 4,000 kilometres away.

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As much as anything, today’s announcement was an exercise in poor communications and an apparent lack of respect for the game’s most important stakeholder, the fans.

The game needs money, and we know it, so tell us that is why the decision was made and how the money will be used to improve the game in the future.

Do not gaslight the fanbase and claim the decision was made for us, when it became crystal clear in just minutes that almost no fan agreed with the move, even those living in Sydney.

From talking to people around the leagues today it appears that clubs were hardly consulted or given appropriate time to provide input on a decision that has huge ramifications for the competition and what clubs play for during the regular season.

People working in the game are frustrated and jaded, knowing it is they who answer every weekend to the fans, not the APL board. Craig Goodwin shone on the world stage in a fantastic advertisement for our domestic competitions and has already distanced himself from the announcement he was in, seemingly blindsided by the concept he appeared to represent.

Supporter groups have already begun to plan walkouts, and you do not need to go far on social media today to find those who are ready to give up on the competitions after so many years of false starts and self-implosion.

The league now finds itself in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. It would be akin to political self-immolation to walk away from a financially sound deal after so many years of deriding the lack of government investment, but it feels equally as unviable to stand by and defend the decision after today’s backlash.

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Decisions have been made over the years that frustrate fans, but none have felt quite as polarising or impactful as this. People have talked about frustrations with the league for years, and of walking away or giving up on their team, but have stuck it out, clinging to the hope that we will return to the glory days of the league at some point.

The problem today, is that it feels many may not walk back.

Feature Image Credit: Ngau Kai Yan

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David Jordan
David Jordan
Former Media Manager of Canberra United and Central Coast Mariners. Get in touch at @DavidJordan33.

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