Backing or alienating fans: The A-League's balancing act

The Western Sydney Wanderers' season took another turn at Parramatta Stadium on Friday, shipping three second-half goals to fall 3-1 to last-placed Western United and leave themselves perilously close to dropping out of the A-League Men's top six.

It was not a good night on the field, but off it there were just 5,784 attendees in a 30,000-seat stadium to witness it. It's a sad reflection of a pall that has been cast across the competition as a whole.

Yes, it's a day of the week ending in Y, therefore the A-League must be experiencing yet another existential inflexion point. On this occasion, the threadbare relationship between the competition and its core constituency, its fans, threatens to unravel further as the fallout from last week's Sydney Derby, as well as incidents at Brisbane Roar and Macarthur FC, provide the catalyst for a newfound wave of discontent over policing at A-League Men games and the support administrators provide supporters.

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Notable in their absence from that 5,784 that made their way to Wanderland on Friday, continuing from their walkout midway through the Sydney Derby, were the Wanderers' active support group the Red and Black Bloc (RBB). The group announced last week that they would be boycotting future fixtures until the bans handed out during the Derby were overturned and a meeting was arranged between themselves and relevant stakeholders, "specifically NSW police, Venues NSW & security contractors."

Three of those bans were reversed following midweek meetings between the Wanderers and senior representatives from NSW Police and Venues NSW, with a statement from club CEO Scott Hudson stating the remaining two "will be subject to further review after written submissions are received," and that further conversations were taking place surrounding the future policing of Wanderers home games. A statement attributed to Roar CEO Kaz Patafta on Friday, meanwhile, announced the implementation of a Supporter Marshall Program at the club, similar to programs instilled at several other clubs around the league.

The efficacy of such programs was made apparent during Saturday's fixture between Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory at Hindmarsh Stadium. A fraught fixture bathed in bad blood and staged in sizzling conditions, it nonetheless passed by without notable incident just six months on from a swiftly reversed attempt to ban Victory on supporters from the venue due to a lone administrators perception of a history of "violent and riotous behaviour." One travelling supporter described the cooperation between marshals and a security and police presence operating in good faith as a "template."

"We've got a strong cadence with all of those stakeholders," Victory managing director Caroline Carnegie told ESPN. "Particularly now. I think we always did, but it's probably been amplified off the back of the [Christmas] Derby. We talk to them when things happen in other games in the league as well because we want to make sure that we're not impacted or that we can minimise the impact on us and our fans as well."

Contrast the Adelaide-Victory match, though, with fan sentiment arising out of the Newcastle Jets' trip to face Perth Glory on Saturday evening -- hardly a historically acrimonious fixture -- wherein Glory supporters in attendance bristled at what they perceived to be heavy handed security, and visiting Jets fans reported being told to stay seated when their side scored -- a bizarre order for any sporting fan, let alone a footballing one. On Monday, Glory CEO Anthony Radich released a statement expressing "deep concern" and declaring that "active support is at the very heart of football culture."

There's a broader context to all of this, particularly for understanding fan sentiment. This past fortnight hasn't occurred in a vacuum and, for this reason, it's why the challenge facing the A-League is so great.

Hudson, for instance, received widespread praise from supporters for his words partly because his quick and relatively strong backing contrasted to the tepid support they have traditionally received in the past. Even a decade on, the wounds and resulting exodus over perceptions that then A-League administrator Football Federation Australia was "more concerned with its reputation than with the wellbeing of its constituents," after the publication of a list of banned fans run deep and are still yet to be recovered from. Hudson's statement, meanwhile, ended with the declaration: "Rest assured, we will continue to stand in solidarity with our members and fans on this issue."

Historically, football in Australia has existed at the margins, cast as a foreign game dominated that lived outside the prevailing white, Anglo-Saxon mainstream throughout much of its post-WW2 growth. Not only did this isolation mean it frequently found itself ensconced in labyrinthian internal politics, but the culture that exists around it, particularly what is referred to as active support, developed in a manner that sits in contrast with their other major domestic codes. Whereas the AFL and NRL exist as dominant hegemonies that seek to export their ways, Australian football operates as just one small beastie in a much larger global jungle. Its rituals, therefore, are a mixture of the global and the local.

"I don't think there is an understanding [of football culture]. I think being a football fan is different to being a fan of any other sport or code," said Western United coach John Aloisi, who played in LaLiga, Serie A, and the Premier League. "You can't replicate it in any other sport.

"So we have to understand that sometimes -- I'm not saying there should be things at a game that make you feel unsafe -- that the fans chanting, singing and bringing an atmosphere to the game ... that's part of our game.

"We have to encourage that as much as possible. If they overstep the mark, of course, it happens all over the world that they would get brought back into line."

This, inevitably, affects how games are policed. When institutional perceptions of football and its fans being unruly and riotous combine with the unfamiliarity of the culture that surrounds a footballing terrace and there is a lack of open, good-faith communication between all stakeholders, things become fraught. In its role as regulator, Football Australia announced plans to introduce a task force on crowds and policing following the Christmas Derby but, 13 months on, this appears yet to be established by the federation. When pressed on Monday, a Football Australia spokesperson told ESPN that an update would be provided at "a later stage."

Of course, as Alosi touched on, it needs to be noted that there have been times wherein football fans haven't helped themselves in this regard, with the Christmas Derby the most recent notable moment of violence and antisocial behaviour that served to attract widespread coverage and inform policing at the domestic level. These incidents stretch back decades, to the time of the NSL and various state-based leagues and have played a role in helping to entrench the attitudes and perceptions of football fans amongst the broader public and institutions and venues in charge of policing the game -- attitudes that will take years of coordinated efforts to overcome.

And as much as these disclaimers and qualifiers may rankle the football fan who does nothing more than support their team, they remain necessary as long as a fringe few continue to use football as a vehicle for other ends, betraying, in a way, the former.

A-League administrators the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) found themselves in that bind when they released an open letter from commissioner Nick Garcia, one which was quickly rounded on by fans across social media for erring too closely to the disclaimer and not backing the fans to a sufficient degree. In some regards, the league was caught between a rock and a hard place. Don't come out hard enough and you risk alienating fans. Come out too hard and you risk giving authorities -- whose institutions have longstanding ideas about football -- a perception you're not cracking down on antisocial behaviour. Those same authorities are the ones who maintain the ultimate say on the levels of policing at games, which clubs then foot the bill for. In the end, knowing that clubs were talking to fans and releasing forthright statements, they were conservative. Jaded fans reacted accordingly.

But this speaks to the other enormous challenge that the A-League bosses face. For at its core, the model of the competition -- a private, for-profit league that sought to exclude and quarantine what had come before at its birth -- is irrevocably caught in a never-ending tug-of-war between attempting to appeal to a mainstream in which there are putative millions to be made, and its actual core product, football, which has existed at the margins of Australian society for generations and is one small part of a global culture.

The A-League model means it needs to work with and chase the Australian mainstream. Yet it cannot appeal to that audience without its core fanbase providing a point of difference football holds.

It's an almost impossible, perhaps actually impossible, balancing act. Too often, those at the game's highest levels have watched as it tipped towards the former. And right now, it's teetering again.