With the end of the A-League season drawing on apace and the prospect of an expanded league next season, excitement is really starting to build. That is encouraged to a large extent by the huge amount of hype built up around one of the new clubs joining the league: Gold Coast United. Seeming set to become the moneybags and most hated team in the competition, they have attracted a formidable set of players to their club and are many people’s tip for next season’s Champions.
The club’s chairman Clive Palmer though, has gone one step further. Not content with predicting his side to win the league (quite a demand considering it is their first season and they’ll have to gel), he has actually gone one better and said that they are aiming to go through the competition unbeaten!
I must admit that their side is impressive. I’m amazed at the calibre of player that they have gathered together, especially as they have managed to do so without exceeding the wage cap, despite having a number of players who would surely have taken marquee status at other A-League clubs. However, no matter how good a squad they have assembled on paper, I think it is a ridiculous prediction to suggest that they even have a chance of going through the season unbeaten.
For a start, they are a brand new club! They have not yet played a game and indeed half of their players are still competing for other clubs in the league, while others are abroad. They will not be able to gather their entire squad together for quite a while, and even when they do, they will not be truly tested until the season proper begins. Pre-season training and friendly games are all very well, but they simply cannot prepare a side for the actual competitive atmosphere of the league proper.
Playing friendlies against regional Aussie sides or even touring other regions like Asia or further abroad will not give them the experience of competing as a competitive unit. For a start, the sides they will face will usually not be as strong as A-League sides, and even if they are, they are unlikely to field a full strength side in a friendly anyway, often taking opportunities to blood youngsters or trial new signings.
Even the A-League’s official pre-season cup cannot be taken as a genuine prelude to the season proper. Although it is a respected competition and winning it is an achievement, the teams fielded by the A-League clubs are rarely full strength and often experimental. Indeed, this season the final was contested between Wellington Phoenix and Newcastle Jets (the Jets won on penalties) and yet Newcastle have had a shocking season and the ‘Nix are struggling to try and grab a top four place.
What I’m saying then, is that no matter how much football they play before the season kicks off, there is only a certain amount of preparation that the GCU as a club can do. The real crunch time of any new squad is when they kick off their league campaign. Suddenly the pressure will be on, it will really count and the football will be more intense than what they have so far experienced. I very much doubt that GCU will go through the first couple of weeks of a season undefeated, never mind the season in it’s entirety.
For another thing, the A-League itself is such an unpredictable animal, that to make a prediction for one side to be so consistently good to avoid defeat entirely is laughable. The downfall of Newcastle this season has shown that tehre are no constants, and indeed the ‘smaller’ clubs like Wellington and Perth have taken a lot of points off the bigger boys like Sydney and Central Coast this season. Clive Palmer will have to be supremely, indeed unreasonably confident in the consistency of his side if he truly believes they can come through unbeaten. Everyone has bad days, and occasionally any team in the A-League can look like world beaters. By the laws of averages at some point GCU will lose a match, I would bet almost anything on that.
Indeed, the prediction itself may even serve to damage the chances the team has of fulfilling it. For a new group of players learning to play together to be given such pressure can surely not be a good thing. They will now feel that rather than just not winning the league being a failure, they will feel that as soon as they lose a game they will have failed to meet the season’s objective. That’s sort of pressure can be crushing for players, they will probably end up trying too hard, busting a gut to try and make things happen in matches rather than trying to play their normal game and letting their instincts rule. I always find when I’m playing that as soon as I get too worked up and try and rule my instincts, nothing will go right. Often it is best to trust to your talent and let the football flow, and by heaping such pressure on their players, GCU may have compromised that mentality.
The next season of the A-League looks set to be very exciting indeed then. Not only will we have new clubs to watch, new players to see and more matches overall to get excited about, there will be new rivalries and a new club for everyone to despise. It will be fascinating to see how Gold Coast United stand up to the expectation that weighs over them, and good to watch the development of the altogether more understated and perhaps more sensible North Queensland Fury.
First though, we have the end of this season to contend with. I still remain desperately optimistic in my belief that the ‘Nix could still clinch a top four spot, and with the Minor Premiership yet to be decided and two other clubs in the running for the fourth place, there is still plenty of excitement even before the play offs themselves get under way. If anything the closeness of this seasons league surely stands as the most compelling argument against Palmer’s claim that GCU will go undefeated. At this point, the overall Championship is open to six of the eight clubs, and that makes for a thrilling league. I am fully confident that GCU will lose matches next year, and more to the point I hope they do, because for one team to so dominate the league would ruin the best thing about it – that it is there for the taking.
The excitement lies in unpredictability, and hopefully Palmer’s predictions will fail simply because of the innately unpredictable and exciting nature of the beautiful game.