Running into a new era
Five rounds into the new Hyundai A-League season, one thing is clear: fitness levels are the best they've ever been.
Faster, stronger, longer. Five rounds into the new Hyundai A-League season, one thing is clear: fitness levels are the best they've ever been, perhaps the best we've ever seen in the domestic game. No one, at this stage, is running out of puff.
Australian players have always prided themselves on their natural levels of fitness. But now that fitness is effectively being manufactured on a league-wide scale by a strength and conditioning culture, which I believe will ultimately be recognised as world's best practice.
A fusion between traditional European methods, cross-training incorporating our other sports, sophisticated sports science, and a climate and facilities which encourage prolonged periods of activity. The evidence is clear to see.
It was there, in fact, from from the start, as the Melbourne derby ushered in the new season. Theoretically, no one should be able to press an Ange Postecoglou-team for the whole 90 minutes. The Heart did. It was a revelation.
During the previous two seasons, when Postecoglou guided Brisbane Roar to back-to-back championships, those teams that tried to maintain the press invariably paid the price.
Brisbane, ritually, ran over the top of the opposition in the last 30 minutes of a match. But not the Victory, and not this time. The pace of the derby never relented, and the Heart comfortably lasted the distance despite long periods without the ball. It was a sign of things to come.
Dissect the opening five rounds of the season, and the story has been repeated right across the nation - in different climates, and on different types of pitches.
If you've been wondering about all those turnovers, that's the explanation. Time, and space, has been at a premium because players are running faster, for longer.
Most players, especially midfielders, are still clocking 12-13km per game. But, increasingly, they're doing that at an average speed (19.8km/h) that crosses the threshold into what's regarded as high intensity.
This, of course, is only one way of measuring fitness levels. Strength and conditioning coaches around the Hyundai A-League all have their preferred methods of bench-marking their players. But they generally agree that the game is now quicker, and more intense, than it's ever been.
Truth is, you don't need to be an expert to see it. And as for the players - they can feel it. In particular, ask the imports. They arrive unsure about what to expect, and have been universally surprised by the levels of fitness expected of them. Emile Heskey said it the other day, and he's just come off the back of a season in the English Premier League.
If the gap between the clubs in terms of fitness has become almost invisible, the gap between the Hyundai A-League and the EPL is narrowing dramatically. And the EPL has always been held up as the most physically-demanding competition in the world. So we must be doing something right.
If you want to know how far we've come, ask a few of the old NSL players. Brad Maloney played in the final year of the old competition, which wasn't that long ago (2004).
"Bugsy", who captained Marconi Stallions that season, is an avid watcher of the Hyundai A-League. The world has changed a lot in just eight years.
"The main thing, for me, is that the mentality has changed," he says.
"In my day, only a few clubs were fully professional. At best, we'd train four nights a week. We put in as much as we could, but the environment around us wasn't there. The facilities, the, staff, the sports science, were nothing like they are these days.
"Players now look after themselves a lot better, because they have to. We'd play the game, and then go for a few beers. I look at how quick the games are now, and most of the teams I played with would run out of petrol. It's a different era."
Robbie Middleby, these days chief executive of Newcastle Jets, straddled the two eras as a player. "Chooky" agrees fitness levels have improved dramatically, but believes no one should be surprised.
"We had plenty of naturally-fit players in the old NSL, but we weren't working with the same conditions," he says.
"For instance, I remember my time at Wollongong Wolves, and we'd run teams off the park with blokes like Matty Horsley, Scott Chipperfield and a young Paul Reid.
"But we'd only train three nights a week, and blokes would be arriving exhausted after a full day on a building site. One of those nights would be just for fitness - we'd run for two hours, up stairs, up sandhills, doing shuttles. All without the ball. Can you imagine that these days?"
Fitness training with the ball, of course, is the cornerstone of the new strength and conditioning philisophy of the FFA. It's got merit. But so have some other exercises being developed outside this framework. It's not where the ideas come from which matters. It's whether they work.
Clearly, they are. It's been a breathtaking start to the new season, in more ways than one.