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Forget the fact that Melbourne Victory are the first side through to the Grand Final – much of the talk around the A-League surrounds the future of North Queensland Fury.
The first bombshell was dropped when chairman and sole investor Don Matheson revealed that he could no longer provide financial backing to the beleaguered Townsville side.
But it was an exclusive report on The World Game website late last week that really set the cat amongst the pigeons, with veteran columnist Les Murray claiming that Fury coach Ian Ferguson’s contract had been declared “null and void” with immediate effect.
Fairfax scribe Mike Cockerill chimed in the next day, suggesting that Robbie Fowler had almost certainly played his last game for a club that lost a reputed £30,000 per week throughout its inaugural A-League season.
Ferguson was widely expected to be shown the door at the end of a fractious season anyway, but Fowler’s exit rams home just how much trouble the Fury are in – with the Liverpudlian by far the most recognisable player in the A-League.
His A-League career might not be over – predictably a host of rival Australian sides have expressed an interest in signing the prolific marksman – but the second year of his contract in Townsville now appears worthless at a club teetering on the brink of extinction.
Despite reports that the entire Fury squad had been released from their contracts, the players themselves appear confused by the situation, with several telling local newspaper the Townsville Bulletin that they are yet to hear anything from the club itself.
Robbie Fowler: soon to appear in less garish colours?
Even so, Fowler will almost certainly leave the Townsville side following a testing first season in Australia, with the former Liverpool star frustrated by a seemingly endless procession of off-field problems.
The news overshadowed another dramatic weekend of finals football, with Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix winning their respective semi-finals.
Victory will host the Grand Final after a 2-2 draw at the Sydney Football Stadium saw them defeat bitter rivals Sydney FC 4-3 on aggregate in a pulsating two-legged semi-final.
With the scores locked at 3-3 on aggregate following 90 minutes of absorbing second-leg action in Sydney, it was the visitors who sealed a controversial win as Kevin Muscat’s quickly taken free-kick caught the entire Sydney defence off-guard.
Archie Thompson swept home the intelligent through ball with just six minutes of extra-time remaining, however the goal left Sydney fans fuming, with the original free-kick awarded despite Tom Pondeljak’s cross appearing to hit Sydney midfielder Terry McFlynn square in the face.
Across the Tasman a crowd of 32,792 fans broke New Zealand’s domestic attendance record, with tickets selling out days in advance of Wellington Phoenix’s sudden-death semi-final with the Newcastle Jets.
The casual fans amongst them could hardly have enjoyed a more entertaining spectacle, as Newcastle captain Matt Thompson silenced the capacity crowd with an early opener, before Phoenix skipper Tim Brown equalised midway through the first half.
Paul Ifill should have won it at the death when he managed to round Newcastle goalkeeper Ben Kennedy in stoppage time, but a heavy touch took the ball from Ifill’s reach and the chance was lost.
The exhausted ex-Barbados international then asked to be substituted, but having been swiftly rebuffed by coach Ricki Herbert, the veteran striker scored deep into extra-time to send a packed Westpac Stadium into delirium.
Substitute Eugene Dadi added a third to seal a 3-1 win for the Phoenix, who now cross the Tasman to take on Sydney FC in a sudden-death showdown at the Sydney Football Stadium next weekend.
The winner will then play Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final on March 20, and Victory will be relieved to have negotiated arguably the most dramatic A-League finals series to date.
It’s just a shame that off-field news has overshadowed the action on the pitch, with the conjecture surrounding North Queensland’s future casting a pall over a pulsating finals campaign.
Bluffer's Guide to the A-League
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Any news on what's next for Fowler? Will he stay over there and join another team?
Good question, Rob.
The silence from both the club and Football Federation Australia as to the future of North Queensland has been deafening.
My guess is that even if the Fury manage to cobble together a community-backed squad for next season, they'll be unable to afford Fowler's wages.
There have been persistant rumours that his wife is unhappy in Townsville, so at a guess I would say that he'll either end up at Sydney FC or at either of the two clubs in Melbourne, or he'll head back to a lower-league team in England.
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