Celtic’s Ange Postecoglou era begins, A-League and W-League reach true independence

Out of quarantine and diving into preseason training, it’s all beginning to get very real for Ange Postecoglou at Celtic.

The former Australian national team boss is set to lead Celtic into Europe for the first time when his side meets Danish outfit FC Midtjylland — Socceroo Awer Mabil‘s club — at Celtic Park on July 21, with the return leg set for the MCH Arena on July 29.

Of course, for a man that has coached against Chile, the Netherlands and Spain at a World Cup, the prospect of doing battle with some of Europe’s biggest clubs already likely didn’t carry with it quite the same intimidation factor that it would for others.

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But as Postecoglou revealed in a video conference with a group of Australian journalists, it was a defining experience when at the helm of South Melbourne over two decades ago that provided him with a rare perspective on the pursuit of the biggest stages.

“For me, [playing in certain competitions is] not something that has driven me,” he said. “Those kinds of things have happened because I’ve done what I can to the best of my ability.

“The specialness is me managing this football club. That’s it. The fact that I am now manager of one of the world’s most famous football clubs, that’s where the draw is and where the excitement is. Where that takes us as a football club and the games we play and special nights we have are a circumstance of me having the opportunity and responsibility to manage this football club.

“I’m sure I’m in for some unbelievably special nights in Europe or in the league here and I’ll take it in as I always have, with everything I’ve done in the past.

“Whether that was at South Melbourne playing against Manchester United [at the Club World Cup] in Brazil — it was 21 years ago, which is surreal. When you’re standing in the Maracana as a 34-year-old with Sir Alex Ferguson in the opposite dugout you kind of realise then the magic of football.

“I’ve never really then had targets after that; of saying I want to coach at that tournament or at that level. I’ve just said that if I keep doing what I’ve done, with a bit of luck, I’ll be able to experience some special things.

“I’ve got no doubt being Celtic’s football manager is going to create some more of those special moments.”

The footballing food chain

If Melbourne City’s Grand Final victory provided a symbolically fitting “end of the beginning” for the competition, it logically follows that the next question for the A-League is: What’s next?

Well, for one, true independence.

With the long-awaited unbundling of the A-League, W-League and Y-League from Football Australia occurring just days into the 2020-21 campaign, the coming offseason marks the first in which the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) hold full control over the competitions’ operational, commercial, and marketing levers.

After claiming for so long that it was they that possessed the requisite capabilities, knowledge and capacity to properly unlock the leagues’ potentials, owners finally have a chance to prove those vows — which they have already begun to hint at with the influx of multi-year signings and re-signings in a league traditionally dominated by one-year pacts.

With Football Australia now relegated to the role of regulator, CEO James Johnson has compared the demarcation of league from federation to a child maturing and leaving the family home — ready to strike out anew and forge its own path.

However, to stretch Johnson’s metaphor, departing the nest also carries with it implications of introspection for both the A-League and the W-League; newfound self-determination accompanied by ruminations on identity, purpose and one’s place in the world.

“There are mixed messages coming out on where [the W-League] wants to be and what it wants to do,” former Melbourne City and now Juventus women’s coach Joe Montemurro recently told ESPN’s Stephanie Brantz.

“I think it needs to decide whether it wants to be a development structure or if it wants to be a high-performance level of football.”

Complicating matters is that, somewhat uniquely in the Australian sporting landscape, football’s truly global ecosystem has to be respected when determining just what can be accomplished by football on a domestic level.

But while this milieu does carry challenges, Sydney FC CEO and managing director of the APL Danny Townsend told ESPN that this ecosystem presents a unique opportunity for the league’s new masters.

“If I put my Sydney FC hat on for a minute; if I have a player arrive and they go ‘you beauty, I’ve made it, I’m done’, then they’re not the right player for Sydney FC,” the executive explained.

“The reality is and one of our greatest strengths as a code is that we sit in a global sporting economy.

“A young aspiring footballer, be they male or female, can aspire to play for Sydney FC, play for Australia, go to an Olympics or a World Cup and go on to play for an Arsenal, Barcelona, or Manchester United.

“That’s a really unique proposition that our code enjoys in Australia. I always struggle to understand why the best athletes in this country chose other sports because we really represent the most exciting professional sporting experience of any code in this country if they get it right.”

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The near term

As part of its more near-term planning to promote their new properties, the APL is set, after a reported $30 million investment, to launch in October a new digital platform designed to serve as a one-stop home for football — following in the footsteps of leagues such as MLB and the NFL.

Football, according to Townsend, possessing a digitally native audience that represents “the biggest fan base of sports fans under 35 in Australia,” the new platforms will be banked upon to foster greater connections with consumers as well as, by virtue of hosting global and local content, increase the size of the tent.

Elsewhere, negotiations for a new CBA remain ongoing with player’s union Professional Footballers Australia, while talks with Football Australia surrounding the timing of the seasons and their relation with the rest of the domestic match calendar are said to be in their final stages. Parties involved with the former — talks proceeding with significantly less tension than those that accompanied the players stand-downs and wage cuts of last year — hope for a deal to be sealed this week.

Marquee life

Reports have hinted that the new CBA will feature an increase in the number of designated players — also known as marquees — that will sit outside the league’s salary cap. And at a Victory in Business function earlier this year, Townsend spoke of the APL looking specifically to target players that would appeal to specific demographics and audiences.

But coming off a season in which the significant increase in young players playing both meaningful roles and minutes gave rise to declarations that it was amongst the league’s most entertaining ever, a push for an increase in highly paid “marquees” and more internationals would seemingly present an inherent contradictory stance.

“It’s an important balance; they both bring very different things and they both compliment each other very well,” Townsend said.

“If you think about the amazing young talent that’s coming through, our clubs have been investing in our academy systems now for the best part of five or six years and we’re starting to see the fruits of that investment.

“We’re getting players debuting in the A-League that have been with our clubs since they were 12 years old. That’s not by coincidence, that’s by design.

“When you think about young players at Sydney FC, having them train with the likes of Milos Ninkovic, or Bobo, or Adam Le Fondre and learning from those professionals is a critical part of the developmental pathway for those young Australian players.”

On the A-League marquee debate

Of course, beyond an impact on the field, marquee players have often also been used by clubs as a promotional tool throughout A-League history: name recognition used as a means of attracting greater media interest and fan attendance.

Citing the Mexican interest in Johnny Warren Medal winner Ulises Davila, A-League fans have been quick to call for the league to explore bringing soon-to-be free agent Carlos Vela to the league as a marquee for next season.

But, in 2021, does a marquee that can lure fans into the stands while also remaining within the budget of clubs actually exist? Vela, for example, received US$6.3m (approx. AU$8.47m) in compensation from Major League Soccer side LAFC — roughly half the price of the licence to operate an entire A-League team.

“It’s all about mathematics,” said Townsend, channelling his inner Mos Def. “When Del Piero came to Sydney FC, it wasn’t an off the cuff decision. There was a lot of effort put into what commercial impact Alessandro would make to offset that investment.

“We looked at [Fernando] Torres a few years ago and we were very close to landing him and the economics really hung together because we could see the benefit he would bring to a lot of our revenue streams.

“I think those same analyses need to be done in the offseason to ensure that we’re all looking for that talent that’s going to bring something special to the competition.

“We know it’s a sugar hit, we’ve said it before, but the game needs sugar hits.

“You just want to make sure you get the right players that are going to contribute to the game.

“You don’t want players that are in the retirement frame of mind or coming down here for a holiday; you want players that are going to genuinely want to perform at the highest level.

“I think if you get the right player, you’re sensible about the way you approach it then there’s definitely room for that type of player in our league moving forward.”

He loves goals

Having re-signed with Melbourne City until at least the end of the 2023-24 season, Socceroos striker Jamie Maclaren would ostensibly be setting his eyes on the all-time A-League scoring record.

But current record-holder Besart Berisha isn’t going to make it easy for him.

Currently a free agent after his contract with Western United expired, the Kosovo international remains intent on returning for another go around in 2021-22 and is training on the Gold Coast with former Johnny Warren Medalist Shane Smeltz as he targets a 10th A-League season.