South Melbourne's ambition hits a wall

South Melbourne's bid for an A-League licence might have failed, but is the club equipped for the next level? And is there any room for them at the top?

It-s a cry from the old neighbourhood, a sign that things are still happening there, even if not everyone-s paying attention. Well, they are now.

South Melbourne-s bid to takeover Melbourne Heart, and reported interest in the Central Coast Mariners, was bold, to say the least. Ill-fated? Probably. Ambitious. Definitely.

The historical divisions between “old” and “new” soccer still exist but South Melbourne-s sheer desire to get into the A-League shows that those distances are growing thinner. The now established A-League is the goal for so many of those clubs that once dominated the old national league.

But as well as concerns over a return to the bad old days, questions remain how old soccer can find a space within new football.

If these clubs have the means - which many A-League clubs still struggle to match - should they be allowed their chance? Can the A-League make room for these traditional clubs? And Would South Melbourne, for all their ambitious, be ready for the next level?

Former South striker Francis Awaritefe says the club have certainly laid the groundwork but has doubts as to how they could fit into the current competition.

“I know they-ve done a lot of work in terms of talent development, putting together a pathway into their first team,” the SBS commentator says.

“They-ve made a lot of progress with new facilities and a new stadium, they-ve got Mehmet Durakovic working as a technical director, he-s a former South great, and Peter Tsolakis (former player, now head coach) - the football side looks really good as does the facilities side.

“But Melbourne has two established clubs and geographically I don-t know how it would work. South Melbourne are just down the road from Victory and Heart.”

This cramped market explains the club-s strategy of buying an existing licence, rather than waiting for the long-mooted notion of promotion and relegation. With many A-League clubs still struggling for consistent crowds and members, dividing the market just isn-t viable.

“We-ve seen that expansion isn-t just about having the money to buy a licence,” Awaritefe says, “you-ve got to be able to engage with the market -but if it-s not big enough how you going to attract the fans?

“Western Sydney has been crying out for a club and the Wanderers have got that all to themselves. But I don-t think you can say the same with Melbourne.

“With the original APL model, Melbourne was going to split into three distinct geographic areas with teams occupying those different regions but it wasn-t done that way in the A-League.”

Meaning those clubs on the outside will always be left looking in, until Australian football is strong enough to sustain promotion or relegation. And who knows when that will be?

As such, it easy to understand South Melbourne-s hunger to take over one of the A-League-s existing licences; it is the only realistic option.

For Awaritefe, only long-term planning and growth for the game as a whole will eventually see those doors open for clubs in the state and National Premier Leagues.

“Long-term, Australian football can-t have a closed shop, there has to be some pathway towards promotion and relegation but at the moment that-s not viable because we don-t have enough strong clubs.

“We have to follow the strategic pathway of Japan where they developed their 100-year plan, part of which was to develop 100 strong clubs, and now, 20-25 years later, the J.League has promotion and relegation.

“You need to strengthen the bottom - the NPL is part of doing that - and develop stronger clubs, which will allow that mobility in creating a second tier. But I don-t see that happening for a while yet.”

image: Cindy Nitsos