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Clubs straddle high-wire as A-League nears chaotic climax

·4-min read

The last words any contestant at Wimbledon reads before stepping out on centre court are from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. The lines “If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two imposters just the same” are etched on the wall at the foot of the staircase players descend before making the short journey to the arena. It’s a noble sentiment to be reminded of when the life-changing fame and glory of a grand slam title is on offer.

Which is all well and good for the ladies and gentleman of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, but football: forget about it.

Do we keep our heads when all about are losing theirs? Can we lose and never breathe a word about our loss? No, sorry, you must have dialled the wrong number. Triumph and disaster in football are not treated equally, however fine the margins.

Related: Busy doing nothing: mastering the art of masterly inactivity | Jonathan Howcroft

In the A-League, with just four rounds remaining in the regular season, the campaigns of nine of the 12 clubs are teetering on the high-wire straddling delight and despair.

Melbourne City’s campaign is already a runaway success. Melbourne Victory’s the very opposite. Newcastle Jets are fortunate even to be name checked. The fate of everyone else, from second to 10th, is in the lap of the gods.

With the finish line in sight, just eight points separates second place – and AFC Champions League qualification – from 10th, aka third-last. Since round nine, seven different teams have occupied second place on the ladder. Since the end of March, Western Sydney Wanderers have ricocheted between second and ninth. Brisbane Roar were second at the end of February and ninth by April.

Though unpredictable, this is not necessarily unexpected. Results in this Covid-influenced campaign were always likely to be more capricious as a series of young coaches blooded young players in squads less reliant than usual on bankable overseas talent. Inconsistency was always a likely byproduct. This is on top of the default equalising measures applied by the competition to foster this exact scenario, one where the majority of A-League fans can believe they are in with a chance of winning something deep into the season.

The razor’s edge is sharpest in Western Sydney. The Wanderers gambled boldly on Carl Robinson to rejuvenate the club back in October, and he has overseen a massive turnover of players. For all that investment, the club are currently seventh, and licking their wounds following a 5-1 thrashing away to Perth Glory. “I am joining a club which doesn’t want to just make the top six, we want top four and top two. We want to win championships,” Robinson stated at his unveiling.

Failure does not go down well at the Wanderers and fans have grown restless with the men responsible for hiring the Welshman. A first finals berth since 2017 would be the barest of pass marks, but that would not relieve the pressure on a club with lofty expectations. “Pressure is football,” Robinson said on day one in the job. “There’s so much pressure in life in general, this is a pressure which you love having because I’m doing something that I love and I’ll be accountable for it, no problem,” added Robinson.

Accountability may not be far away. But such is the finals system, three wins after stumbling into the postseason Robinson could be handed the keys to the City of Blacktown.

At the other end of the scale, if fate conspired against either Central Coast or Macarthur, neither could be considered disastrous campaigns. The Mariners have led the league for the majority of the year, making a mockery of their previous six seasons of disappointment. In their debut outing the Bulls have never ended a matchweek outside the top six, confirming Ante Milicic as a coach with a bright future.

The variables at play make the run home devilish to predict, especially the dash for the sixth and last spot in the finals.

Wellington, unbeaten in seven, host two of their remaining four matches in New Zealand, their first fixtures on home soil all season. While Perth, enjoying a three-match winning streak at home, benefit from another two contests at HBF Park in the coming six days.

The situation is set up perfectly for a chaotic final round of action. One where six games kick off simultaneously, with permutations changing by the goal, supporters vacillating between triumph and disaster, glued to social media, flicking between coverage, and clearing their throats ready to hail their conquering heroes, or boo the pretenders into midwinter. One glorious manic day to anticipate all season long.

But this is the A-League, and we can’t be trusted with nice things. “It’s the shop window for Australian football,” wrote Damien de Bohun in 2017, at the time responsible for A-League operations. “If you like, we want to maximise the ‘trading hours’ and get as many people ‘window shopping’ as possible so we can build our audiences. You defeat the purpose if five matches are played simultaneously in one afternoon.” Anyone for tennis?

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