A-League: Better than the Prem?

For many years now, spectators of Premiership football in England have complained that the league is becoming less and less competitive, and that as a genuine competition, is becoming less and less exciting. They might have a point too, as only the top four teams realistically have a chance of winning the title, and while there are quite a few teams who could have seasons poor enough to see them relegated, it soon becomes clear who will be the main contenders for this battle too.

This leaves maybe just under half of the teams in the division to play out for the spots from say 5th-13th in relative mid table obscurity. Sure they can all look longingly at the European spots and dream of a good cup run, but in terms of domestic league success, it seems to be an impossible dream, at least at the moment.

The same certainly cannot be said though, of the other league that I follow, the Hyundai A-League. Now going into its fourth season, there have so far been three different champions, and this years competition looks set to be just as open and exciting, with all eight teams separated by just seven points after eight games (teams play each other three times in a season).

My team, Wellington Phoenix, who debuted with a bottom of the table finish in last years competition, are currently seventh in the table, and yet also only one point off the ‘Play Off’ spots. Likewise last years champions Newcastle currently sit fifth and glamour club Sydney (who took the first title) can only manage third place at this stage.

And this looks set to continue. The Phoenix, though tipped to do well after a good pre-season, started poorly but have since upset Sydney and Central Coast in recent weeks, but also lost to Perth, widely regarded to have been the poorest team in the league consistently over the last few seasons. So if it is an open title race that you’re after, the A-League could be right up your street.

Unfortunately though, the A-League doesn’t really satisfy my football cravings. This is no doubt partly down to the fact that I have been raised to eat, drink and sleep Everton Football Club, but also, it does lack a few of the ingredients that make a league truly exciting.

For a start, it is the only fully professional league in Oceania and thus, even for the teams that finish bottom, there is absolutely no threat of relegation. Instead they try and erase that season from their memory and try and mount a better title challenge next time around. And though, as an Evertonian season ticket holder during the nineties and early ‘noughties’, I came to dread our yearly flirtation with relegation, it also made it so much more exciting. We had six pointers week after week. If we lost to a rival then all week would be spent agonising over the league table and upcoming fixtures – could we survive? Indeed my single most euphoric moment as a football supporter came not when we won the FA Cup in ’95 (sure, I was only six) but when we avoided relegation by the absolute skin of our teeth in the 97/98 season.

As well as missing the almost masochistic threat of relegation, the main reason why the A-League isn’t adequately satisfying (indeed, it’s downright frustrating) is the overall quality of the football on display. The gulf in quality between the two leagues is startilingly obvious whenever I watch a match from each over a weekend. Oceanic teams just cannot pass the ball to a team mate with anything like the consistency to produce genuinely flowing football, and as such, genuine chances on goal are few and far between – coming often as the result of genuinely painful defending.

This isn’t though, a criticism of the A-League or its teams. It is a very young league, and one that does not benefit from anything like the financial reward of the Premiership (most of the population of Australia and New Zealand are too busy chasing eggs to care about their local sides), and thus cannot attract the quality of player that we take for granted. No, instead this article is intended to remind the Premier League fans who grumble about the league’s lack of excitement just how lucky they are.

Week in, week out, you get to watch the world’s top players facing off, playing wonderful football and scoring great goals. There is so much to play for, and such an excellent football culture that even if the football isn’t great, you can still enjoy the football coverage like Soccer AM and Soccer Saturday – a privilege we in Oceania have to do entirely without.

And the Premiership isn’t that bad anyway is it? Sure, the title is a four horse race. But Hull City and Tottenham Hotspur are living proof that things don’t always unfold as you might expect them to. Hull would surely have been most people’s (even Hull fans, if they’re honest) favourites for the drop and yet they are currently flying high, having beaten Arsenal! And Tottenham, who were comfortably looking forward to making an assault on European football find themselves rooted to the foot of the table.

Newcastle fans must be fed up with the constant twists and turns of their club and may even bite your hand off for a bit of settled and boring mediocrity at this point. This weekends fixtures saw lots of goals (5-0 and 4-0 etc.), spectacular goals from Zaki and Belleti, controversial disallowed goals and sendings off (Richardson and Valencia), and on a sour note, a referee being hit with a coin that was meant for a manager – tell me that’s not an exciting weekend of football.

So Premier League fans, don’t be so quick to grumble. The Premier League is the envy of the world, there is a reason why its fixtures are broadcast all around the globe, and why I get up at ridiculous times in the middle of the night to watch them. Maybe in quite a few years time the A-League will be a league to rival it, but for now we will continue to obsess over the premiership and its vast array of stars and beautiful football, so make the most of it if you’re lucky enough to be directly immersed in it – otherwise, quit moaning and come soak up some sun!

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