In a season of new beginnings, the A-League must put fans first

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Adailton lifts FC Tokyo into AFC CL knockout round (2:15)

FC Tokyo cement second spot in Group F thanks to a 1-0 victory vs. Perth Glory. (2:15)

The A and W-League seasons are drawing ever closer, so the ESPN Australia and New Zealand football wrap is back for another week to give you the round down on a range of the big topics. This week, crowds on the way back and why it matters, Del Boy, the A-League's growing Japanese presence, Perth's ACL fallout, Mabil in Europe and Gielnik on working with Goodship.

Where No Fan Has Gone Before

Football fans, and club coffers, received a significant boost on Monday when the New South Wales government officially moved to allow 100% capacity in outdoor stadiums. Combined with existing allowances in Queensland, it now means that seven of the league's 12 clubs will be able to host capacity crowds -- should they sell enough tickets -- from the 2020-21 season's commencement.

Victoria's capacity currently sits at 25%, although Melbourne City, Melbourne Victory and Western United may have some good news on the horizon with reports emerging on Wednesday that talks were underway surrounding an increase in crowd size at the Boxing Day test -- ostensibly lampshading increases for all sports.

The absence of fans across football has been a stark one since COVID-19's arrival; even the world's best leagues and broadcasters unable to come close to finding an adequate replacement for the atmosphere they provide.

And it's been felt on the field as well.

So far this Premier League season, away sides have taken the chocolates 44% of the time compared to home side's 37% success rate, while in Serie A away teams are winning 38% of games compared to home side's 35%. In the Bundesliga, home of some of the world's strongest supporter bases, visiting side's 32% winning ratio exactly matches their hosts.

In the other two members of the European "Big Five", La Liga and Ligue 1 home clubs have continued to win more games than visitors but the ratio has shrunk compared to the 2018-19 season, and away sides are increasingly winning contests that historical data shows they otherwise would have drawn.

"It makes a massive difference, having a home crowd," former Socceroos striker John Aloisi told journalists on Tuesday. "Not even a home crowd, just having a crowd there is huge.

"Some of the best games, the comeback games, you will see the crowd push you over the line.

"As a player, there was nothing better than playing in front of a big crowd and a noisy crowd -- a crowd that gets behind you. I'm sure that, with the number of local derbies coming up [this A-League season], it's going to be quite entertaining to have the crowds in."

So who will gain the biggest advantage from the return of fans in the stands in the A-League?

According to the PFA's 2019-20 A-League Report, which surveys players on a range of issues regarding the season gone by, Western Sydney Wanderers' Bankwest Stadium routinely provided the competition's best atmosphere, followed by games at Sydney FC's Jubilee Stadium and Adelaide United's Coopers Stadium.

"I didn't get to experience a Sydney Derby, I got to experience a Melbourne Derby and I have to say that that was for me, in Australia, that was the highlight when I was playing," said Aloisi.

"It sounds silly to say, [but] I have to give credit to the players that played in front of no crowds, [because] sometimes it is hard to get going. You'll see some players will struggle a bit at the start of the game, but if there's a crowd there they give you that energy."

A Taste of Freedom

Though the economic boost they provide to clubs is, of course, a welcome factor for the leagues, the return of fans carries with it something much more important.

Football is the beautiful game -- jogo bonito if you're an advertising executive -- not just because of the spectacle delivered by the artisans on the pitch, but because of the emotional response that it elicits from those watching on. Passionate and invested supporters create an aura that is impossible to deny no matter your affiliation, job or attitude.

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For these fans whose presence at games has been so sorely missed, the act of going to a football match possess a far greater purpose than just simply watching their team compete. Matches become a celebration of a collective spirit, ethos and identity that uses football as a vessel to manifest. Attendance transcends the action on the park and instead becomes a revelling of a shared, collective identity championed by 11 avatars and a badge on a shirt. It's emotional anchoring that allows 1,000 people to sound like 100,000, and its absence can make 100,000 sound like 100.

Unfortunately, these moments of collective euphoria have been increasingly rare in Australian football in recent years even before the pandemic. Demonization by certain segments of the media, a disjointed ecosystem, fatigue with seemingly constant infighting, a lack of marketing and failures of communication between club and league officials and supporters have all served to slowly sap the competition of some of its loudest and most passionate advocates.

This is on top of global trends of homogenisation and pursuit of profit that are slowly bleeding the game of a tribalism and passion that lifted it to the point where such money chasing was possible in the first place.

Australian football seems to be very big on new beginnings at present: Football Federation Australia's switch of branding to Football Australia, the leagues going independent and the FFA Cup all but certain to get a new name. As part of this time of renewal, it would be nice if attempts to bring back and empower the fans in the stands to provide the atmosphere that makes football unique were a part of it.

I Second That Emotion

The UEFA Champions League campaign of he and his FC Midtjylland teammates may have ended with just two points -- the Danish club fighting back from a goal down to draw 1-1 with reigning champions Liverpool on Wednesday -- but Awer Mabil's first foray into the group stages of club football's premiere competition remains more than worthy of celebration.

Winning and scoring a penalty in his side's 3-1 loss to Ajax on matchday four, Mabil became the first Australian since Scott McDonald to score in the Champions League and just a select group of Antipodean players to have accomplished the feat.

For a nation that's profile in top-flight European football is increasingly fleeting, the presence and success of the former Adelaide United man is worthy of celebration and, if anything, his accomplishments have been somewhat underappreciated by mainstream Australia in recent months.

The list of great players, nevermind top Australians, that never got the chance to feature in the Champions League or its predecessor the European Cup, let alone score in it, is long. But now, Mabil isn't amongst that number.

And should Mabil stay with the Danish powers, there's no reason this year's foray into the Champions League has to be a one-time thing: the club currently two points clear of Lawrence Thomas' Sonderjyske in the Danish Superliga.

A Flight to Remember

Former Melbourne City defender Harrison Delbridge is exploring a possible move to the K-League, sources with knowledge of the situation have told ESPN.

Having first signed with the club midway through the 2017-18 campaign, Delbridge's contract with City ended following the conclusion of last season's 1-0 Grand Final loss to Sydney FC -- a contest in which he believed he had put his side ahead early, only for VAR to subsequently wipe the goal away.

Delbridge made 60 league appearances across his three seasons in Bundoora, starting 49 of them, as well as a further five appearances in the FFA Cup. But, with under a month until the new A-League campaign begins with the Wanderers hosting expansion side Macarthur FC, Delbridge now stands as one of the most high-profile players from last season still yet to find a home.

Besides City, it's understood that several A-League sides have enquired after the 28-year-olds signature this offseason, including his former crosstown foes Melbourne Victory, who sought to sign Delbridge ahead of their Asian Champions League campaign.

However, overseas opportunities combined with misgivings Delbridge held over becoming just the second-ever senior player to switch over from City to Victory served to scupper the deal.

Outside of the A-League, according to sources, the defender has also been engaged in talks with at least two K-League sides, and a number of big-money Chinese and South Asian sides since his contract in Bundoora ended.

Talks remain ongoing about a possible move to the Korean peninsula but ESPN has been told that Delbridge, having settled in Melbourne with his partner and with the COVID situation around the globe still uncertain, remains open to the possibility of remaining in Australia should the right circumstances for he and his family present itself -- with at least two other A-League clubs joining City and Victory as active suitors of the Appalachian State alumnus.

Delbridge isn't the only central defender to depart City this offseason, with the club announcing last week that Richard Windbichler had mutually terminated his contract, leaving Curtis Good and Rostyn Griffiths as the starters-elect heading into the coming campaign.

Windbichler's exit means that City still has one foreign player spot open on their roster after the recent arrival of young Japanese attacker Naoki Tsubaki on loan from J-League side Yokohama F. Marinos.

Future Stock

Tsubaki is one of two youthful Japanese players to have recently arrived in the A-League on loan, with young attacker Riku Danzaki completing his mandatory quarantine and joining his new Brisbane Roar teammates in training this week.

Though, in theory, Tsubaki joins City on loan from Ange Postecoglou's Yokohama F. Marinos (and with the City Football Group a minority shareholder in the Japanese club, negotiations were no doubt intense), he has actually spent the past previous two campaigns on loan at Fukuoka-based J2-League side Giravanz Kitakyushu, where he made 39 appearances.

Announced in November, Danzaki joined the Roar on loan from J-League side Consadole Sapporo after being used sparingly by the Hokkaido-based club over the past two campaigns: making a single start and two substitute appearances during the last campaign.

Whereas the move by City to bring in a young attacker on loan when they just lent out Ramy Najjarine and Moudi Najjar could leave them with egg on their face, the decision to bring in Asian cover by both sides is logical. Both City and Brisbane are competing in next year's Champions League and, with club's depth already set to stretched thin by the fast and furious A-League schedule, anything they can do to lessen the load on their squads while also maintaining competitiveness in all their competitions is a boost.

The pair's addition bring the number of Japanese- and Asian-born players in the competition to three, with the duo joining Western United defender Tomoki Imai in representing the Land of the Rising Sun in the A-League. That Japanese contingent, though, could move to four in the near future, with team sheets from Central Coast's recent preseason hitout with Wellington Phoenix revealing that Tasuku Sekiya was trialling with the Gosford-based club.

A name instantly recognisable to followers of the National Premier Leagues, Sekiya has been a standout in every competition he has played in since touching down in Australia, with successful stints at NPL NSW side APIA Leichhardt, NPL VIC side Avondale FC and NPL QLD side Olympic FC all under his belt. In 2018, it was his goal that propelled APIA past Melbourne Victory in their famous FFA Cup upset.

Though it can't be taken as writ, especially given the reluctance of A-League clubs to truly tap into the ranks of the NPL in the past, but if Sekiya was Australian-born instead of from Japan, and thusly didn't occupy a foreign slot on rosters, it's likely he would have been in the A-League years ago.

ESPN understands that Sekiya continues to trial in Gosford, and will feature in a friendly against his former side APIA later this week.

The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings

Perth Glory's first Champions League hitout may not have delivered much on field results -- part of a trend in Australian football -- but coach Richard Garcia has still taken a lot from the endeavour.

Speaking to ESPN from his 14-day mandatory quarantine, the Glory gaffer explained how the tournament had served as a valuable learning experience for him as a coach, as well as instilling a greater sense of comradery in a squad that has undergone significant upheaval this offseason.

"The biggest thing I got out of it was trying to manage players and make sure that they're all physically well," he said. "Making sure that we're preparing for two things: for the games ahead as well as the A-League season. That balancing act was quite a good experience for me.

"I think I learnt a lot about the players, how they are positionally and how they fit into the team. That was a big thing. I learnt more about the players individually and how they'll fit into the A-League system and where they fit into the squad."

Unlike Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, who have both secured arrangements that will allow them to train while they undergo their mandatory 14-day quarantine on returning to Australia, the Glory have not been so lucky -- restricted to their rooms for the duration.

The situation not an ideal one -- the Glory not scheduled to play their first game until Jan. 16 against Adelaide as a result of the circumstances -- but Garcia, his staff and players are doing what they can to attempt to prepare for the season as best they can during their stay; conducting workouts, tactical sessions and film over Zoom.

"[The ACL was a] great competition to have been able to go to and play in," said Garcia. "Besides quarantine, it would have been a perfect preseason. The ability to go away and play against good quality opposition, to set you up and to get your fitness within games.

"Players like to play games. They don't always like the physical element of preseason but when you're doing it in games you forget about the running and just get on with it.

"As far as preparation for your body and your mind, because I think in the preseason you need to manage your mind and get back into the routine of playing and even just your awareness, to be able to get some good quality games under our belt was fantastic."

How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back

One of several Matildas that have bucked trends and returned to the domestic scene for 2020-21, Brisbane Roar's Emily Gielnik has her sights firmly set on Tokyo 2021 and beyond.

Helping this, the attacker told journalists on Tuesday, was a combination of the environment fostered at the Roar and her own self-drive would be key in keeping her sharp enough. Also aiding her is her partnership with second-year head coach Jake Goodship, whose approach has Gielnik excited heading into the coming campaign.

"I think he's the first coach in a really long time that I've heard verbally that encourages extra training and wanting to develop players," she said. "Of course, every team and coach wants to develop players, but there's always that sense of scientific background -- you're doing too much, you're doing too much.

"But he seems to be on the same page as me and it seems as though I'm going to be exposed to a big workload to get the best out of me. I've already [liked] what I've heard about him so far and I'm really looking forward to working with him.

"I'm really eager and really excited to get out there and make sure that the W-League stays at a high standard and, most importantly, that stems from the training environment."

In other W-League news, Melbourne City announced the signing of Matilda Jenna McCormick on Thursday morning. The 26-year-old will join American defender Samantha Johnson and another soon to be announced signing in the heart of the defender champions backline in 2020-21.