“Football without fans is nothing” – the words of the late, great Scottish manager Jock Stein.
Little did Stein – nor any of us – know, that in 2020, a global pandemic would rob our sport of its greatest asset… the supporters.
Although fans were allowed back in limited numbers for the resumption of the A-League season, the unique atmosphere only football can provide has been largely missing. As fans, we miss going to games, and players feel our absence acutely.
It’s perhaps no accident that the English Premier League has seen some very topsy-turvy results, and many have attributed the lack of “home” advantage (as provided by fans) as being one of the main reasons.
In Australia, we’ve been very fortunate that the CoVid-19 virus has been largely kept at bay, and by the time the new A-League & W-League seasons kick off on December 27th, crowds will be back in the stands in sizeable numbers.
In places like Queensland, where the recent State of Origin clash had a capacity crowd – believed to be the first in world sport since the pandemic restrictions were imposed – that could mean a roaring atmosphere (pardon the pun) at Dolphin Stadium for Brisbane home games.
Roar have opted to switch to the boutique venue in Redcliffe for their home matches this season, and this intimate venue is the sort of stadium A-League fans enjoy, with the stands much closer to the action. The Den will no doubt look to make this stadium the clubs fortress. I look forward to the resumption of the “Who-are-we”? catchcry returning with a vengeance.
Western Sydney Wanderers fans set the benchmark in their early years for noise & colour. Remember the derby days against Sydney FC when Pirtek would literally be shaking? It’s also just four years since 61,880 filled the cavernous ANZ Stadium to welcome in the new campaign for the Wanderers/Sydney derby. As the A-League reboots, who’s to say those days cannot return? Who do you sing for?
Similarly, the Melbourne derby has seen some raucous nights.
Crowds of over 40,000 were the norm for the Victory & Heart/City clashes – and the players responded. Tim Cahill’s worldy in 2016 was watched by 43,188 at Etihad Stadium, and the goal viewed thousands of times the world-over, as Australia’s most prolific goal scorer added another highlight to his already bulging showreel. Victory’s spine-tingling “Stand By Me” anthem has become one of the real cultural touchpoints of the competition, from the league’s largest fanbase.
Derbies will be plentiful in the two most populous states this season with five clubs in New South Wales and three in Melbourne. So, expect as much competition in the stands as on
the pitch, as the supporters take advantage of the short travel distances, and the easing of restrictions, to cheer on their teams.
Talking of rivalries, Victory fans love their trips to Hindmarsh, and while we are in that part of the world, who can forget the red-hot noise of a sold-out Adelaide Oval in 2016, as 50,119 passionate South Australians gave the famous old cricket venue a taste of world game passion? The stands a sea of blood red set against the brilliant sunshine, as Gui Amor led Adelaide United to their first A-League championship.
But Coopers Stadium can be even more intimidating. FFA Cup Finals have become almost the exclusive preserve of the crow-eaters, and the Reds win over Sydney in 2018, when two Craig Goodwin sizzlers ensured the Cup stayed in Adelaide, proved that midweek football is no barrier to fans turning up to cheer on their team.
The early days of the F3 derby were the high watermark of a rivalry that culminated in the 2008 Grand Final, when over 36,000 trekked down the freeway to watch Newcastle Jets defeat the Central Coast Mariners. The two get it on again in Round One in Gosford, and with the reciprocal fan deal in place, expect a few thousand noisy Jets supporters to provide their own New Years Eve fireworks.
We can’t forget the geographical extremities of the competition either.
Anyone who was there to witness Perth Glory’s first home Grand Final in 2019 will have loved the festive atmosphere 56,371 provided at Optus Stadium, even if Sydney FC did poop the party somewhat by lifting the crown on penalties. That crowd figure remains the highest-ever for a Grand Final.
Wellington Phoenix are yet to reach the big dance – alongside the two newcomers, Western United and Macarthur FC, still the only ones still to savour the joy of a Grand Final.
But the Phoenix drew nearly 33,000 to the Cake Tin back in 2010 for a finals game against the Jets, proving New Zealand has an appetite for success, and a firm affinity with their only professional club. The Phoenix’s home games have been back-ended towards the latter part of the season, when it’s hoped travel restrictions to and from New Zealand will have eased. The Yellow Army will be positively starving for football by then.
The two new clubs are building their fan bases of course – but Western United have an exciting future in prospect, with their new stadium set to deliver a purpose-built rectangular ground that will be first in Australian terms. Imagine a derby to open the new ground in Tarneit in a couple of years time?
Macarthur are situated in one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia, and their Campbelltown home will clang to the sound of cowbells over the coming months, adding a new and welcome flavour to the A-League. Their opening night derby with the Wanderers should kindle parochial passions in the south & west of Sydney, and set the tone for the season to come.
In these straitened times, it’s easy to forget that the A-League for much of its life has delivered on what it set out to do. The top twenty A-League crowds are all north of 40,000.
The fans are out there, and the clubs are determined to reconnect with their most important customers. Most clubs have competitive ticket prices to suit a range of pockets, and all want the sort of atmosphere we saw in the not-too-distant past to return to the stadiums.
Wear your scarf, your shirt, your cap, but also bring your passion, your tribalism, and most importantly, bring your voice. Football fandom is not a spectator sport – it’s a participation sport. There’s nothing like being there, for fans and players alike – the two are inextricably linked.
As Jock Stein – if he were still alive – would tell you.
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