News, views and abuse from Australia
There’s a popular seaside foreshore in Townsville known as The Strand.
With no word yet on any attempts from Robbie Fowler to add it to his vast property portfolio, it’s entirely plausible that the man nicknamed “God” has actually moved to Australia to play football.
It’s also possible that Fowler might melt in the tropical heat. Such is the risk of playing summer football – but then no one said that the A-League was conventional.
From bizarre club monikers to team kits that wouldn’t look out of place in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Australia’s five-year-old domestic league veers from the sublime to the downright ridiculous.
Who and where the 10 A-League teams are
And what better place to kick off an A-League blog than with Fowler’s new boys North Queensland Fury?
North Queensland are one of two expansion teams to have joined the league this season – the other being Gold Coast United – and the Townsville-based outfit have prompted widespread mirth thanks to their incredible choice of team name.
However, the bizarre handle might be a marketing masterstroke, with critics generally overlooking the most garish team kit since the Socceroos puke-inspired effort of the early '90s in favour of incessantly deriding North Queensland for their childish nickname.
On the pitch the Fury don’t look much chop, with former Rangers midfielder Ian Ferguson overseeing a bunch of cast-offs from rival A-League clubs.
But with Fowler leading the line and livewire loan striker Dave Williams looking to press claims for international selection, the Fury will be out to surprise a few teams – even if they’ve been written off by many before a ball has even been kicked.
The contrast with fellow newcomers Gold Coast United couldn’t be more stark.
Several media outlets have tipped United to reach the Grand Final – it wouldn’t be an Australian sport without a finals series – while rent-a-quote coach Miron Bleiberg boldly declared that his team would win the competition undefeated.
Lofty proclamations indeed, but one glance at the United squad underlines the hubris.
Bankrolled by billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, United went on a spending spree the likes of which have never been seen in the Australian game.
The highest profile arrival is undoubtedly Socceroos midfielder Jason Culina, whose decision to trade life at Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven for a stint in the A-League seemed to provoke heart palpitations in Australia coach Pim Verbeek.
Yet it also helped entice several other high-profile signings to the club, including prolific ex-Hartlepool striker Joel Porter. He will link up with Kiwi international Shane Smeltz in a strike force that has Gold Coast fans salivating.
Smeltz: "Oi! Big-ears!"
United’s arrival hasn’t been without controversy, with the club from the sunshine strip happy to present itself as the A-League's new pantomime villain.
From their helicopter-hopping chairman to a larger-than-life coach to attempts to poach rival fans and threats of media boycotts, it’s been a whirlwind arrival for Gold Coast United, and they haven’t even kicked off yet.
United’s emergence as a regional rival has the locals in Brisbane all hot and bothered, so much so that club officials felt a name change was in order.
Comically enough, they’re still known as the Roar, but these days it’s “Brisbane Roar” (as opposed to Queensland Roar).
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon a Rangers Old Boys convention watching a side captained by Craig Moore that also contains the rotund Charlie Miller and hard-man Bob Malcolm, while astute A-League watchers will also note that the Roar were recently thumped 3-0 by Celtic in a friendly.
However, Frank Farina’s side are renowned for their free-flowing and attractive football, although they’re just as well known for choking every time the finals series rolls around.
Heading south of the border is a bit like stepping onto the set of Home And Away, with one-time champions Newcastle Jets providing more drama than your average Australian soapie.
“Dysfunctional” is perhaps the best way to describe patriarch Con Constantine’s bunch of misfits, with the controversial chairman constantly in hot water.
From threatening to throw club supporters off a balcony to booking his team on economy-class long-haul flights to save cash, no argument is too petty for Constantine to wade into.
His latest stoush is with Football Federation Australia, whom Constantine threatened to sue after coach Gary van Egmond walked out on the Jets to take up employment within the FFA.
Van Egmond’s replacement is Branko Culina – yes, he’s Jason’s dad – while on the pitch most of Newcastle’s hopes are pinned on Australia’s most colourful footballer, Ljubo Milicevic, who memorably claimed that he’d "rather spend time in a gay disco in Paris” than waste it on another of Constantine’s interminable intercontinental flights.
Ljubo: "Coming out, Freddie?"
Heading down the Pacific Highway, the Central Coast Mariners are wedged in between twin rivals Newcastle and Sydney like an Australian version of Walsall.
Once lauded for their consistency and no-nonsense approach, the Mariners suffered a swift fall from grace when their maiden Asian Champions League campaign brutally exposed some of the technical flaws inherent in coach Lawrie McKinna’s squad.
A team of grafters if ever there was one, the Mariners have been strengthened by the arrival of British trio Nicky Travis, Chris Doig and Michael McGlinchey, while most of their goalscoring hopes rest on the fragile shoulders of injury-plagued striker Nik Mrdja.
Once home to party-boy (and occasional footballer) Dwight Yorke, inaugural A-League champions Sydney FC have traded the “bling” tag for a more low-key approach under new Czech coach Vitezslav Lavicka.
The former Sparta Prague tactician was drafted in by Sydney’s new Russian benefactor David Traktovenko, who has been variously described as “mysterious,” “enigmatic” and “intriguing” – mostly by your humble FourFourTwo correspondent.
Sydney FC’s three major off-season captures are former Swiss international Stephan Keller, South Korean defender Byun Sung-Hwan and ex-Slovak international Karol Kisel.
But it’s former Australian international John Aloisi who sparks most of the headlines in the harbour city, with the player who converted that penalty (to send Australia to the 2006 World Cup finals) desperate to reclaim his place in the national side.
Sydney’s main rivals – and Australia’s best-supported club – are Melbourne Victory.
Twice A-League winners and the current reigning champions, Victory have built a squad around club mainstays Kevin Muscat, one-time Manchester City striker Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson, with the trio once again putting their hands up for another season of A-League action.
The fulcrum in midfield is Costa Rican international Carlos Hernandez, while in Kiwi keeper Glen Moss and Thai international Surat Sukha, Victory look to have made some astute signings for the new campaign.
Still coached by inaugural gaffer Ernie Merrick, the Victorian outfit are used to being hunted down by the chasing pack, and they will be forced to work harder than ever to defend their title in what looks set to be the tightest A-League campaign to date.
Victory again for Melbourne?
Across the border in South Australia, Adelaide United are looking to shake off the bridesmaid’s tag collected via two A-League Grand Final appearances and a spectacularly unsuccessful trip to the 2008 Asian Champions League final.
Coach Aurelio Vidmar has lost plenty of experience this time around, but in English lower league journeyman Lloyd Owusu, Vidmar will hope to have something of an X-Factor up front – although Owusu’s A-League career got off to an inauspicious start when he contracted swine flu barely a day after setting foot Down Under.
United can call upon the best goalkeeper in the land in the form of Eugene Galekovic, but whether that’s enough to propel the often goal-shy Reds over the line in tight fixtures remains to be seen.
Way over on the west coast, in the world's most isolated city, Perth Glory should have no problems scoring goals - they’ve just signed former Derby County man Mile Sterjovski and Serbian striker Branko Jelic.
What’s more, they’ve also signed ex-Colchester United skipper Chris Coyne, fellow Australian international Jacob Burns and everyone’s favourite old-school centre-half Andy Todd.
But wait, there’s more! Also on the books at the Western Australian side is the wonderfully-named and much-travelled Eugene Dadi, whose passport must now resemble that of a United Nations diplomat.
Eugene Dadi: Have boots, will travel
The tough task of moulding this cosmopolitan outfit into a well-oiled unit falls upon former Swindon and Millwall star Dave Mitchell.
And he’ll need to do it in some style, with Glory desperate to attract some of their dwindling support base back through the gates of Members Equity Stadium.
Last but not least is Australia’s answer to Cardiff City (or Swansea City, if you prefer). New Zealand's Wellington Phoenix will hope to prove that they’re not just making up the numbers by qualifying for a first ever finals series.
Lead by popular coach Ricki Herbert – who represented New Zealand at the 1982 World Cup finals – the Kiwi side have enough problems off the pitch before they worry about beating teams on it, with the Asian Football Confederation unhappy with the existence of an Oceania representative in Australia’s domestic league.
Confused? It gets worse. The Phoenix are only in the competition because the hapless Auckland-based New Zealand Knights were booted from the competition after just two seasons.
The problem with the Knights was that their exclusive policy of signing washed-up hacks from League Two largely resulted in them playing like a team full of washed-up hacks from League Two.
These days the Phoenix play a more attractive brand under the likeable Herbert, although the links to English football remain in the form of recent arrivals Chris Greenacre and Paul Ifill.
So there you have it! All 10 teams covered in time for the big kick-off, with more coverage to come throughout the campaign.
It’s the most eagerly anticipated A-League season to date, and after 27 rounds of action gives way to the finals series in late February, plenty of questions will have been answered.
Do Melbourne Victory have what it takes to defend their crown?
Will Miron Bleiberg spontaneously combust on the sidelines at Skilled Park?
Is Robbie Fowler the most overweight player in the A-League, or will Charlie Miller have his cake again and eat it too?
Stick around to find out, as Season Five of the A-League gets set to grind into gear.
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