Sunday 21 January 2018 / 10:02 AM

Success lost in a salary-capped land

Reigning champions beaten 3-0 by the previous season’s second-worst side. Their Grand Final opponents unable to buy a win from 12 attempts. Never mind that ‘Big Four’ Premier League nonsense, this is the most engaging football league in the world.

Granted, first is 89 places higher than the A-League was last rated by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics, but our domestic game does have plenty going for it. It’s regularly entertaining in its own unorthodox manner, provides opportunities for Australian footballers, feeds the national team, and offers a supporter culture distinctly different from other sports in our land.

First and foremost, though, it’s incredibly even. One match you’re lifting a trophy, five later you’re amidst a crisis. Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers have both suffered such turnarounds this summer.

Champions have been humbled before. Melbourne Victory missed the top four in 2007/08, Newcastle Jets finished bottom a year later and Sydney FC tumbled to ninth in 2011. The curse has returned. Just in time, some will say.

There’s no set of necessary feats which define a dynasty; if there were, Brisbane must have been ticking boxes. Western Sydney too, with a 100 per cent record of reaching Grand Finals, were laying the groundwork. Together they hinted at dominance.

But that’s not what happens in a salary-capped league.

The competition is designed to ensure competitiveness. A chasm might have opened up between Roar, Wanderers and the top four this term, but that temporary breach only serves to illustrate the unlikelihood of staying clear for a sustained period. Is it all for the best?

Certainly we’re missing out on some storylines. Manchester United’s dominance of the English Premier League is a truly amazing feat irrespective of financial clout. Top coaches will always eye opportunities where growth is more sustainable, as Ange Postecoglou did away from Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory.

Players, too, are tough to attract and tougher to retain. Besart Berisha’s treading of the Postecoglou path has left the three-time Grand Final winners limp in attack, with his less expensive replacement living up to the outlay. A-League pundit Mark Bosnich bemoaned Roar’s helplessness in keeping hold of their star striker when news of his departure broke back in May.

“I don’t think that’s right,” Bosnich told News Limited.

“You need a system where if a team does well you can say it is going to cost you more next year so we will give you a special dispensation. They deserve more space. The easier way to go for me would be no salary cap and just have a transfer system.”

The former Socceroos ’keeper dismissed concerns of a sudden Melbourne City monopoly in the event of a free market. Football Federation Australia, quite rightly, will not. It’s too soon to repeal all restrictions, not least because the tragic cases of Northern Fury and Gold Coast United remain fresh in the memory.

Scratch that thought, then. For now. Perhaps Graham Arnold’s suggestion of an easier route home for stranded Socceroos is a better starting point?

“FFA need to look at something to help Australian players who overseas aren’t getting games if they want to come home in a loan deal situation,” the Sydney FC coach offered in July.

“With the salary cap system they don’t have the option to come home and get frozen out of football.”

It’s not without merit. At the time of writing, Asian Cup squad member Ivan Franjic is eyeing a temporary return. His worth rose alongside Brisbane Roar’s success – could the club be repaid for their efforts in development?

The undisputable fact of it all is football in Australia continually needs new converts to its domestic game. Accessibility is a key theme of the A-League era. Potential newcomers will be discouraged if their local side are at long odds for success.

Keen competition remains vital to the greatness of our local league but, as the latter stages of the 10th season approach, being open to all opportunities for growth is just as important.

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Matt Dorman

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