As Western United kicked off the second half at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday night, setting up for the now-traditional long diagonal, referee Lachlan Keevers – officiating his sophomore A-League Men’s match – called the ball back for a second attempt, the players having pre-empted his whistle. A false start.
“False start” could easily have described the occasion itself. With the longest offseason in world football has come radical turnover of players, coaches, and even broadcasters. And with that churn: teething problems.
The post-match narrative will doubtless revolve around the “extreme unforeseen technical difficulties” encountered by Paramount+, and rightly so. Social media was ablaze with reports of everything from out-of-sync commentary and absent camera angles to streams so blurry it was impossible to identify the players.
To the frustrated fans at home, be reassured: you did not miss much. It is worth questioning the wisdom of scheduling no less than three derbies in Round 1, when newly-assembled teams are still shaking off the rust. Despite the hype for a new era of the A-Leagues, the first 45 minutes consisted largely of poor decision-making, botched first touches, and hopeful long balls. The only fireworks on the Kardinia Park pitch were the pregame pyrotechnics.
That was until Roderick Miranda – wearing the captain’s armband on his Melbourne Victory debut, in the absence of the injured Josh Brillante – shook free of his marker in the 75th minute, and powered home a near post header from an in-swinging Jake Brimmer corner. In classic A-League fashion, the Portuguese centre back celebrated down the barrel of a camera that wasn’t connected to the broadcast.
The remit facing both coaches is a daunting one. For John Aloisi, Western United represents perhaps the last chance saloon for his professional coaching career, having waited patiently for an opportunity since his departure from Brisbane Roar. For Tony Popovic, it is to rebuild the biggest club in the land from wooden spooners to former glories.
In that context, a risk-averse, disjointed affair was unsurprising. And for Victory, who slumped last season to both their first and second worst defeats of their 16-year existence, simple defensive competence – and staying in games long enough to nick a winning goal – is a welcome change of pace.
Aloisi, meanwhile, admitted he was “putting on a brave face” in the post-match press conference: “I hate losing”. The Western head coach put a positive spin on his side’s performance, having edged the possession, shots, and xG from open play. An over-reliance on Alessandro Diamanti’s sometimes indulgent cross-field passes and poor delivery from Lachie Wales and Connor Pain in wide areas restricted the Green & Black to a small handful of snapshots and penalty appeals.
But the scrappy nature of the win hardly mattered to the travelling Victory supporters who made the hour-long trek down the Princes Freeway. Two full, heaving bays of active supporters went wild on the final whistle, with goalkeeper Ivan Kelava enthusiastically vaulting the advertising hoardings and throwing his jersey into the crowd. For Popovic & Co, the mission is simple: win, by any means, and the magic will return.
For Aloisi, and a club attempting to court a new legion of supporters, a more fluid and attractive brand of football may be required.