A month into the 2020-21 Australian football calendar and up is down, left is right, and last, somehow, is first. Struggling to keep up? Don't worry, the ESPN Australia and New Zealand Football Wrap is here to keep you in the loop.
The Millions (AND MILLIONS)
Four games into the A-League's 2020-21 campaign and perennial wooden-spooners the Central Coast Mariners are top of the league. Wait, what?
Claiming their third win of the season already, just two off their total for 2019-20, the Mariners upset defending champions Sydney FC last Friday night, running out 2-0 winners thanks to some great goalkeeping, a Ben Warland own-goal in the 53rd minute and Alou Kuol's second golazo of the season in the 74th to go two points clear atop the league.
Luck may have been ridden, but coach Alen Stajcic deserves significant praise for what he's been able to do with his group in the opening month of the season, especially considering all the external noise that has haunted the club. Players such as Ruon Tongyik (one of the best defenders in the league so far), keeper Mark Birighitti, and midfielders Gianni Stensness, Josh Nisbet, Daniel De Silva have all impressed for the Mariners so far.
Of course, a significant part of the charm that has made Stajcic's side the toast of the A-League isn't just derived from on-field pluck, but also the half-a-decade in the wilderness that preceded their strong start to this season.
Call it human nature or years of Hollywood conditioning, but rare is the individual that goes out and roots for Goliath to beat David, the Killer Whale to get the seal or for the Hawks to beat the Ducks in the Division II Minnesota State Pee-Wee Hockey Championship.
The Mariners are not a shiny, bells and whistles, glamour club. Instead, it cultivates a community and family focused image instilled with a "Coastie" vibe. With a picturesque stadium serving as their backdrop, family photos between players and fans are staged after wins, sauce bottles stalk the touchline, and nobody blinks in the face of the club icon being "The Wizard of Woy Woy" Matt Simon.
This air gives them a certain amount of leeway when it comes to how they present themselves; leading to acerbic, creative, social media friendly and endearing online campaigns involving sauce bottle sponsors and cult-hero mascot Marvin. They're also one of the most forthcoming when it comes to sourcing players and coaches for media opportunities -- vitally important when you're trying to share stories that drive emotional engagement in a club against the backdrop of sustained failure.
Inevitably, no amount of viral videos are going to make up for loss after loss after loss after loss, but the work those behind the scenes have done to build the Mariners own, unique appeal during the years of futility is now, deservedly, seeing fruit as hope emerges on the pitch.
Why Don't You Fix Yourself a Nice Tall Glass of Shut Up Juice
A sense of club over simply a team is vital as football, ultimately, is a form of entertainment; designed to elicit an emotional reaction from its audience by providing not just displays of skill but as a conduit for emotions (good and bad), community, introspection, stories and family. While a certain level of polish is required for the product to function as an aesthetic choice -- and this level of competency can vary depending on the viewer -- once that point has been met the other, more metaphysical factors can keep observers engaged and invested.
In 2020-21, the A-League and W-League's quality on a technical level is not its greatest ever but, for the first time in a long-time, there is seemingly sufficient narrative and emotion to be conjured to give the zeitgeist hope anyway.
Perhaps thanks to the chaos that has uprooted the competition, games are more prone to dramatic finishes, swings in momentum and unpredictable results. Young players that are increasingly being given a shot by clubs provide new storylines and the magic of unknown potential to invest in. Local coaches are being given opportunities to forge their own path and there are promises of potential reforms under an independent league on the horizon. Even the fragile nature of the A- and W-Leagues -- battered pillar to post by COVID, border restrictions, its own broadcaster, a seemingly disdainful media and more -- has given it an underdog quality in the minds of many.
With no broadcast deal beyond this season and still without a naming rights sponsor, the pair's situation is still precarious in 2020-21, but there's potential.
As low as history guides us to set expectations (sorry, getting cynical again) it's incumbent on the league's newly independent controllers to take advantage of this and seek to both maintain and grow their tent: excite those here already, bring back those lost in the journey, welcome others in and, hardest of all, don't mess it up.
The Most Electrifying Man In Sports-Entertainment
One of the reasons for this sense of optimism is the aforementioned Kuol. The youngster's personality and performances, as part of the A-League's broader youth movement, has attracted significant attention in recent weeks and his journey from state leagues to the Mariners is worthy of exploration.
Despite not being old enough to get a driver's licence, the teenager netted 28 goals across 41 appearances for Goulburn Valley Suns in senior NPL2 Victoria football in 2018 and 2019, winning a Golden Boot in the latter. A-League opportunities, however, weren't forthcoming and despite earning a call-up to a Young Socceroos camp, he was seemingly set to sign for Melbourne Knights before the Mariners came knocking ahead of 2019-20.
Arriving in Gosford with an impressive pedigree but still raw, he was moved carefully through the Mariners academy under Nick Montgomery as he adjusted to life in professional football. But with youth staff encouraging his strengths as he worked on his weaknesses, he duly demonstrated his worth with six goals in the Y-League and earned his senior debut against Western United in January.
That tempered but still progressive approach -- emphasising what the now-19-year-old could do rather than what he couldn't -- has continued into 2020-21, with the youngster averaging less than 45 minutes across his four starts but still, per FbRef, having more shots on target per 90 than any other player in the league.
The Mariners have a good thing going in Kuol and, thankfully, appear to know how to shepherd him onward.
It Doesn't Matter What You Think
On Saturday afternoon, Western's Dylan Pierias and Adelaide United's Mohamed Toure proved matchwinners in their side's wins over Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory and duly found themselves under the limelight.
"I think he'll go as far as he wants to go, Mohamed," Adelaide boss Carl Veart said. "I think he can go all the way to the top. I haven't seen a 16, 17-year-old in Australia like him, ever."
Western boss Mark Rudan, however, was much more tempered in his willingness to lavish praise: "The most important thing though, is that sometimes we tend to jump off a little bit too early and we go and praise these young players [Pierias] and pump them up and talk them up."
Though sharply contrasting in tone, neither Rudan or Vaert's approach is necessarily the wrong one, for while they were said in open media conferences, one has to bear in mind that they were likely uttered for an audience of one.
Differing environments, playing responsibilities, training methods, mentoring, or philosophical approaches will all have a massive effect on young player development and, while it is first and foremost on the youngster to put in the work, it is also incumbent on clubs to show adaptability in approach if they are to maximise their asset. Rudan's message of caution for Pierias and Veart's optimism for Toure, while also likely reflective of their own internal demeanors, are seemingly tailored for their players.
For Pierias, who was much hyped as a teen before struggling for senior football, grounding may serve as his greatest ally as he seeks to consolidate his place and not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Toure's meteoric rise, conversely, hardly needs a stop sign right now.
The Jabroni-beatin', pie-eatin', Hell-raisin', trailblazin', People's Champ!
Making his first A-League start in 367 days in Victory's 2-1 win over Perth Glory, injuries to Rudy Gestede and Ben Folami pressed Kruse into a central striking role for that contest and although he clearly tired as the game went on, his impact on Victory's moves forward were palpable.
The 32-year-old's ability to read the ebbs and flows of the game and understand the ramifications of his position, the ball's, his teammate's and his foes are a cut above the A-League's norm, which allows him to create chances that appear simple, but can be anything but even from a more advanced position.
In the 22nd minute of Victory's triumph, for example, he perfectly times a run between the line of Glory central defenders Riley Warland and Darryl Lachman. Recovering after just being unable to connect with Adama Traore's ball over the top in a manner that will allow him to shoot, he attacks retreating left-back Dane Ingham before laying off a backheel for an on-rushing Brandon Lauton that the youngster subsequently sends wide of the far-post.
How the Socceroo created the chance deserves closer scrutiny. Aware of the trajectory of the ball, himself and that of his teammates within moments of Traore's pass, Kruse, it appears, has already made the decision to lay off the back heel to Lauton before he takes a touch. This then guides his subsequent move to drive Ingham back and open up space and an angle to allow the 20-year-old to get a shot off -- all without looking back at him. Superbly done.
Gestede is unlikely to prove as creative a force as Toivonen did when he returns from injury in coming weeks, however he too should enjoy the freedom that comes with playing with Kruse allows. While dropping his Socceroo deeper is an option, Grant Brebner shouldn't discount opportunities to experiment with deploying the two as a pair atop the Victory attack.
There are two things you can do about it, and that's nothing and like it!
Last year, ESPN charted the history of Ferenc Puskas' arrival to Australia in the late 1980s and subsequent journey as coach of NSL powers South Melbourne.
Part of a long-line of underappreciated legends that fell out of focus in the wake of the 2005 rebooting of the sport, one of the disappointingly few tangible reminders of the Galloping Major's time in Australia stands in the shadow of Melbourne's AAMI Park -- a statue unveiled in 2017.
A gift from the Hungarian Government, it is just one of four statues of the legendary attacker in the world but, as shared on social media in recent days, it has fallen into a state of deep disrepair as a result of what appears to be vandalism.
Know it's been well covered on twitter but I went to have a look for myself— mikey (@mikeymifsud) January 28, 2021
February 2017 and January 2021 pic.twitter.com/mPiEueydfM
For a city that calls itself the sporting capital of the world, and in which statues of figures from athletics, cricket, and AFL sit immaculately maintained just hundreds of meters away, it is an embarrassment.
Calls from South fans for the statue to be moved to the club's home of Lakeside Stadium have been frequent in recent years, and ESPN understands that there have been discussions at the club and with council around getting the statue formally moved even before the latest state of disrepair was revealed.
In response to the social media backlash, Victorian state minister Martin Pakula has said that he is working with the Melbourne Olympic Parks Trust to immediately restore the statue. A step worthy of praise, but also the minimum that must be maintained.
"There is no secret that we would like to bring the Puskas statue home, where he will be respected and adored for the true legend he was," South Melbourne FC president Nicholas Maikousis told ESPN. "We have been working behind the scenes for some time now to make this happen and we hope that it can happen sooner rather than later."
It's a matter of respect. Respect for a man that did so much, touched so many and for the game he held so dear.