After a lean week with border restrictions limiting the competition to two games, the A-League is back with a vengeance in the coming days. A number of huge derby games on the agenda to whet whistles and get fans enthusiastic for what's ahead. As ever, the ESPN Australia and New Zealand Australian Football Wrap is here to keep you informed of everything that's going down.
The Spite Store
Nothing else in sport has the potential to enthral quite like a derby.
At their best, meetings between local rivals carry with them a symbolic resonance, tribalism and weight of history that are enough to allow one to briefly forgo the armour of broader cynicism that is so often a prerequisite for modern football. They epitomise everything good about the game; clubs that serve as the custodians of a collective identity going into battle for pride and love of the shirt against that most contemptible of foes: a familiar one.
Thus, though the actual lines of demarcation are significantly more nuanced and blurred -- cultural homogenisation one of the 21st century's most infernal of curses -- it's easy to see why the narratives that can be weaved have made meetings between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers quickly become the marquee fixture on the A-League calendar.
Ask a Wanderers fan, and they'll with barely concealed contempt describe Sydney FC as a bourgeois side of the privileged East that was handed control of the city on a silver platter when the A-League was born. Venomous accusations that they remain the darlings of league and federation officials would be made, as would declarations that the Sky Blues are unable to match the spiritual connection that the Wanderers fan base holds with their club.
"The derby is formed on history," Wanderers' fan and matchday MC Michael Turner told ESPN. "The east and west intrinsically divide Sydney and the two teams' utter hatred of each other stems from that cultural history."
Sydney FC fans, conversely, look upon their foes from the West as an uncouth and noisy neighbour that has done little to deserve the big club status they so fiercely claim, sniping that the club's 2014 Asian Champions League has come to mask over half a decade of futility.
This coasting off of past glories, in Harboursider eyes, also extends to their counterparts in the famed Red and Black Bloc, whose presence as a visceral and intimidating mass of humanity at the backs of their team has shrunk in recent years (although this is indicative of ongoing trends surrounding active support).
"The Sydney derby is arguably the best derby in the league right now," Sydney FC fan Michelle Morris said. "The Wanderers are very fun and easy to hate, but nothing makes me happier than knowing we lifted [the 2019-20 A-League title] in their stadium."
The Lefty Call
Joel King, 20, grew up as a fan of Sydney FC: Arriving two hours before kick-off at the club's home games in a starstruck effort to grab a picture with the players as they headed from the car park to the dressing room. He's still getting to games early these days, only now it's because he's risen up through the ranks of the club's academy to become a regular senior contributor.
However, though he's already an A-League premier and champion, King's still looking for his first win over the Wanderers, after the side in Red and Black won two and drew one in 2019-20.
"Obviously we didn't go too well last year against them so this year we want to take nine points from the three games against them," he told ESPN. "The boss [Steve Corica] has mentioned that a few times.
"We know that we did well last year to win the league but, of course, we want to give the fans what they want and beat our rivals every time.
"I can't remember what year it was, but I remember I went to a game at Pirtek Stadium [as a young fan] and that was crazy. I'd never seen fans or an atmosphere of that kind before. Once I watched that, I always wanted to be a part of it and last year I was lucky enough to be a part of one, so I was buzzing.
"I wasn't a big fan of [Wanderers], I didn't really like them and I guess not much has changed, so I'm keen to get out there and go hard."
Saturday's fixture will be the first derby for new Wanderers boss Carl Robinson, as well as a host of players that the Welshman has brought to the club as the club undergoes its latest rebuild of the post-Tony Popovic era. It's a transition that's been greeted with significant excitement by the Wanderers' faithful, buoyed by the impressive turnaround the Newcastle Jets experienced under the 44-year-old in the tail end of the 2019-20 campaign.
"To be honest it feels like they say this every year," King said when asked about the noise coming out of the West. "They're always changing their team, every year they say: 'Oh, we've got a different team, new players, this is our year.'
"And then the same thing happens.
"Our culture [at Sydney] is and we keep our players for quite a few years and we keep the same core players so we build good connections and I think it shows on the field.
"Coming through the youth team for two or three years I knew exactly how we played, so coming into the first team it wasn't totally foreign. It was more picking up the speed of things and trying to be quicker on the ball. It wasn't too much of a change because I knew what to do already."
The Special Section
Saturday afternoon's Sydney Derby is, however, just one of two on-tap for Saturday evening. Immediately following the final whistle in that contest, Western United and Melbourne City will recommence hostilities in the first A-League fixture in Melbourne since the city entered a COVID-enforced lockdown back in March.
Although Western has actively positioned itself as the club of Melbourne's West ever since its birth, establishing the same kind of emotional cut through that marked the entrance of Wanderers to Sydney's West has proven much easier said than done. This hasn't been helped by playing a number of home games -- including multiple derbies -- at AAMI Park this season due to what the club says are the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, while ultimately it's the end-of-season table that matters (see the Sydney Derby), victory over local rivals is one of the easiest ways to establish some sort of connection with a fanbase; giving fans something to brag about to their rival-supporting neighbors.
"Derbies are very special," Western striker Besart Berisha told ESPN. "I take them very seriously, the boys take them very seriously. Of course, we want to win the game, but the most important thing I believe is when the season finishes and who is on top, they are the ones in control of the city."
For United boss Mark Rudan, the growth of the Western and City rivalry into a meaningful local derby will require a few, key ingredients.
"Fans first of all, going out and supporting their club and being really passionate about being who you support," he detailed. "And if there's a clear distinction on identity. I believe that's an area, because if you look anywhere in the world, you're representing an area, and that's huge.
"I think that's where City kind of struggled with their identity and understanding where they're coming from and where their fan base should be and I think [not] being clear and concise on that area, like we were right from the outset -- we're a team from the West.
"So, fans are the first one, and we're still building and growing that, both teams are. [Melbourne] Victory had a huge head start on all of us. But now with these two [City recently announced a relocation of its operations to Melbourne's South East] you'd want to hope that Victory is looking over their shoulder, [because] those people in the west who are members of Victory, we want them.
"We'll do everything in our power to make sure they come over to us. We'll work tooth and nail to make sure that you're joining us and it's our job to let them know.
"Players have to buy into it as well. You're working and that comes down to culture and what we're trying to create with our values. We need to fight for them.
"The West are a fighting mob, they're proud of what they've done and been successful and we need to show that on the park. Their actions will determine who we are and what we stand for."
After an impressive showing during the final stages of the 2019-20 season, Newcastle Jets' midfield of Steven Ugarkovic and Angus Thurgate was already shaping as one of the pairings to watch heading into 2020-21, and the addition of the on-loan Ramy Najjarine from City appears to have added yet another dimension, one that has slotted in with aplomb, to what can be an effective unit going forward.
This was exemplified in an early moment of their eventual 2-1 loss to the Wanderers, when the trio was involved to create a chance for Roy O'Donovan that, on another day, the big man surely fires home.
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Ugarkovic has already scanned upfield and seen Najjarine instinctively dropping into a pocket of space left open by an advancing Keanu Baccus at this point, and is now moving to receive his midfield partner's slightly wayward pass -- which ends up inadvertently aiding the Jets as Wanderers right-back Tate Russell moves to press Connor O'Toole as a result and opens up more space in response.
He then deliberately turns towards goal and drives a pass forward to Najjarine who, working with the time he had purchased himself, kills the ball with one touch and swivels upfield to lay an inch-perfect pass into the path of O'Donovan -- only for the big Irishman's touch to let him down at the last moment.
Najjarine had a frustrating time of things at City, frequently played in a wide role rather than the more central position he seems to be operating with at the Jets. Personality-wise, he certainly didn't seem like a good fit under Warren Joyce and was clearly becoming frustrated with his frequent appearances at NPL level in 2019. Sporadically used again last season, it appeared he needed a change of scenery to get things back on track with a clearer path to regular football.
It's still very early in the campaign, but it seems like the move to the Hunter was just what the doctor ordered (playing with Ugarkovic helps, too) and again shows that simply because a player doesn't fit a certain archetype within a team doesn't mean they're not an asset.
The Ugly Section
Of course, despite these moments of individual skill, the Jets still lost to the Wanderers; Russell delivered a piledriver in a moment of transition in the 57th minute to put any hope of a comeback to bed. There are green shoots, but the roster's collective depth and quality is still lacking compared to the A-League average.
It's unfortunate that ownership chaos, a lack of a permanent coach, an inability to properly build a roster and continued hardship on the part of their fans is seemingly shaping to deny the Hunter-based club a chance to build on the promising signs that exist. Ugarkovic, for instance, will be a Wanderer next season, robbing the club of one of the A-League's premier midfielders and a potential transfer fee.
Reports have linked Gary van Egmond with a third stint in the Hunter when the time finally comes to name a new full-time boss. As the current Young Socceroos boss, the 55-year-old would ostensibly arrive well aware of the young talent that had been assembled at the Jets and foster their development ahead of the eventual introduction of a domestic transfer system.
But with expectations already so low, there's also genuine scope for Lawrie McKinna and the Jets' brass to go out and, once they're in a position to do so, take a risk: find and back an "unproven" coach with new ideas and a desire to go against the A-League's ingrained thinking.
In a league with no relegation and already in a position where they've been placed under stewardship by other A-League clubs, what exactly do they have to lose?
Running with the Bulls
Possession in the A-League can sometimes feel like it's being orchestrated simply for its own sake, a procession of endless back and forth passing that invariably leads to a ball down the flanks and a speculative cross. Thus, moments of active penetration between defensive lines to create, as Najjarine and Ugarkovic did, are worthy of praise.
With five minutes to go in the first half, the Nix reset their shape in the midfield, with the terrier-like Cameron Devlin knocking a ball from the left flank centrally for midfielder partner Alex Rufer. Watching his thought process, it's clear that Rufer's first instinct is to play the way he is facing and knock a ball to defender Luke DeVere but, instead, he turns away from attacker Matt Derbyshire -- which also forces an adjustment from Benat Etxebarria, who was advancing to press Nix defensive line -- and laces a ball behind the Bulls' midfield to Ulises Davila.
With that one decision to turn and show initiative, Rufer takes half of his opponents out of the game and places the rest of them on their heels in a manner that allows Davila to find James McGarry steaming down the left flank for a subsequent cutback that David Ball sent home.
The return of Ufuk Talay for 2019-20 means that, for the first time since 2016-17, the Nix aren't being forced to implement a new system this season and moves of purpose, clarity and initiative like that will hopefully become a lot more common as the club grows and evolves under their boss.
The Accidental Text on Purpose
Ball's goal, though, would soon be overshadowed by yet another controversy surrounding the employment of the VAR following a clash between Rufer and Denis Genreau and the former's subsequent dismissal and suspension. Technicalities may have conspired to ensure Rufer still received a one-match ban -- but going by The Castle vibe rules, it was the wrong decision.
The whole thing is enough to make one tired.
Mirroring playing trends around the world, a pursuit of perfection in refereeing has led to an inevitable point where individuals on the field simply aren't trusted to execute the best-laid plans of those in the stands.
No matter how much anger is expressed and calls for change made, it feels like those with the actual ability to investigate proper reform -- the games corporate masters that increasingly see every action through a profit and loss sheet, or worse -- will never do so. Why allow a single referee to make a mistake and risk an investment when technology can be brought in as a layer of protection?
Now, the furious anger that inevitably results from these moments feels like it's also being rapidly commodified: cultivated to deliver comments, angry reactions, stories and quote tweets that boost social metrics and feed the endorphins rush of commentators expressing their righteous disdain, again, but accomplish little else.
It's also tiring because inevitably even if the VAR, by some miracle, was disposed of by global footballing authorities, the campaign for its return would begin with a vengeance following the very first error that occurred.
Thank You for Your Service
Numerous tributes have been written in the wake of the announcement of his passing, and they're worth reading -- an opportunity to learn about and appreciate one of the giants of the Australian game from those that were fortunate enough to sit at his learning tree.
The 27-year-old's announcement, though, was slightly overshadowed by some new ink he was sporting on his leg -- and the reaction to it from The Simpsons writer Tim Long.
I don't know who this guy is or even what sport he plays but he's now my favorite player https://t.co/KMj8vV3KkC— Tim Long (@mrtimlong) January 12, 2021
Hopefully, Irvine's performances in Scotland are better than dirt. Well, most kinds of dirt.