The A-League may be entering a period of hibernation just as the rest of the world's leagues prepare to begin anew, but that doesn't mean there isn't news to discuss, analyse and debate. It must be time for another Australian football wrap!
We Didn't Start the Fire
There are growing fears some A-League clubs could soon move to stand down their playing groups amidst bitter Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, sources have told ESPN.
With league and club revenues set to take a significant hit in the face of COVID-19 and a renegotiated broadcast deal with Fox Sports, SBS and the Sydney Morning Herald has previously reported that clubs are seeking wage cuts of up to 30% for select A-League players as part of discussions over next season's pact. Players that were approached to reduce their salary but were unwilling to do so would be free to terminate their contracts under the plan.
Clubs are also understood to be seeking a reduction in the salary cap from its current $3 million-plus total to a sum closer to $2m as part of the talks, with a corresponding lowering of the salary floor -- a step they believe will go some way to ensuring their stability in a turbulent post-COVID landscape. Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), conversely, believes that players have already made extraordinary sacrifices to ensure the completion of the 2019-20 campaign and that they shouldn't carry a significant burden and receive further punishment from further wage cuts.
Observing the daily negotiations remaining at an impasse -- both sides increasingly frustrated with a perceived obstinance of their opposite numbers -- multiple sources indicated to ESPN that there is a rising sense that some, though not all, clubs will move to stand down their playing groups before Sept. 15, which is when the next round of payments for players that remain under contract are due.
Should the stand-downs go ahead it would be the second time in less than six months such steps have been taken in the face of the economic fallout of COVID-19; Melbourne City, Wellington Phoenix, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory the only sides that continuously paid their playing groups during the league's virus-enforced suspension earlier in 2020.
"Negotiations with the clubs and FFA remain ongoing," a PFA spokesperson said when approached for comment by ESPN.
"Our objective is to work together in partnership with the clubs to rebuild and reboot the professional game."
The current CBA negotiations mark the first in which the FFA has ceded control of talks with the PFA to clubs as Australia's professional leagues move towards an independent model.
"FFA have initiated a change to FFA's role in the League CBA negotiations by pivoting [to] a more traditional 'regulator' role in the future so that the AFPCA can assume the role of 'employer representative' and key negotiator on behalf of clubs for the A-League and W-League with the PFA," an FFA spokesperson told ESPN.
"This is a step process towards unbundling.
"FFA assumes the role of CBA negotiations on behalf of the national teams and also remains ready to provide support to the clubs during the league negotiations during the current CBA negotiation when required."
Come Back to Me
Though keeping a lid on things -- not unfair given the state of abject misery that their fitba has found itself in during recent decades -- the Scottish press has been cautiously optimistic about the form of Gold Coast-born Lyndon Dykes following his first two appearances for his adopted nation, which were capped off by a breakthrough goal in Scotland's 2-1 Nations League win over the Czech Republic.
The Athletic's Jordan Campbell declared that "Lyndon Dykes looked accomplished" and Scotland boss Steve Clarke told Sky Sports that "he's shown that he can handle this level and shown he's going to be a good player for us in the future."
"His attitude, work-rate and desire -- proper centre-forward," former Scotland and Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher, also speaking on Sky Sports, said.
"He was a massive positive for Scotland. He's got the jersey now and Scotland needs that presence up front. If anything, he does too much work. He's always running back and helping in defence."
Gnawing and gnashing of teeth that Australia has lost the latest in the long line of "next Mark Viduka" prospects, however, should be tempered by the knowledge that the Czech side that Dykes secured his maiden goal against featured not just a completely different squad from the side that defeated Slovakia 3-1 days prior, but also a different coaching staff after a COVID-19 diagnosis of a backroom staff member forced a mass quarantining.
Thus, after previously attempting to postpone the game only to be denied by UEFA, the Czech side that took the field at the Andruv Stadion featured only two players previously capped at a senior international level.
Dykes' ability to contribute in the Scots' coming Euro playoff against Israel and, should they win that game, against Norway or Serbia, will go a lot further towards hinting at if the Socceroos have let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers, or if Scotland aren't anywhere near as good at pinching Australians as Australians are Scots.
How Am I Supposed to Live Without You
In the past, one of the A-League's greatest avenues of promotion has been through the signing of big-name foreign imports; clubs seeking to co-opt the notoriety and fame of footballing legends such as Dwight Yorke, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Ono, Emile Heskey, David Villa and Alessandro Del Piero to break through the noise of the crowded Australian sporting landscape.
Whereas it's important to note that not all major marquees have been successful, correlation does not always reflect causation and that times can change, it's nonetheless a widely-held belief in A-League circles, not without good reason, that the league's peak coincided with the arrival of Del Piero, Ono and Heskey to Australian shores. Former Socceroo and Fox Sports commentator Robbie Slater is a believer, writing in the Daily Telegraph that "the league needs star power" in the form of big-name marquees.
Yet footballing agent and promoter Lou Sticca, one of the key figures in bringing megastars Yorke and Del Piero to Australia, has told ESPN that he doesn't feel like the marquee landscape will prove a fertile one in the coming years.
"From what I hear and from speaking with clubs at the moment, I think most of the recruiting that will happen, be it foreign, marquee or Australian players, will happen within the pool that's already in Australia," Sticca told ESPN. "I don't think anyone's going to use their full allocation of foreign spots in these times.
"Having said that, that's not to say that there wouldn't be some good bargains available -- I think it depends on how far clubs are willing to cast the net.
"But before I was thinking about visa players, the first thing I'd want to know is when are we starting? Who's running the league? Is it independent or under FFA control? What commercial things are being put in place to drive league sponsorships, television and the rest of it? And then, once I know the money that's coming in, I can make decisions around football. So, it's a really tough position.
"I think the key is that there's always opportunities and smart clubs and smart coaches will not close the door on opportunities, but, in general, I believe that there will be a lot of recruiting from what is already within the A-League now, and the lower levels in the NPL.
"In terms of marquees and visa players that are at clubs at the moment who may be coming out of contract, they may be the easy recruits for other clubs to look at because they're already in the country."
Something Happened on the Way to Heaven
Beyond his work in marquee hunting, Sticca has also been involved in bringing several European powers to Australia, promoting Down Under tours by Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham and organising the COVID-19-scuppered Football For Fires charity match. Alas, the impact of COVID-19 seems set to scupper any chance of these occurring in the future as well.
"I'd say there are no tours on the horizon until 2022 at the earliest," Sticca said. "Every country has its own issues regarding travel and isolation and what have you. The problem with coming into Australia is that there are not many options with airlines flying the routes, so there's the cost. On a state-by-state basis, there's varying rules and protocols.
"So until there's some certainty and uniformity it's very difficult."
King of Wishful Thinking
The signing of Olyroo Aiden O'Neill on a three-year deal from Burnley and the soon-to-be-announced capture of Marco Tilio from Sydney FC represent a good bit of business from Melbourne City. Both O'Neill and Tilio are young, capable of contributing at an A-League level right now and, should they sufficiently impress, can be flipped to an overseas club for a profit at a later date.
For a young player whose interest is particularly piqued by the last point, signing with City carries with it clear benefits. Part of the worldwide City Football Group (CFG), which also carries with it some level of financial security in uncertain times, the club presents the second clearest pathway to Europe available in the A-League (the first simply being really good).
"We have been following Aiden's career path closely and believe he is one of Australia's best young midfield prospects and we're very happy he has chosen to sign for our club on a three-year deal," City director of football Michael Petrillo said.
"Aiden's quality in the midfield as a player who is able to play as a defensive midfielder or in a more attacking role makes him an ideal, versatile player who will be able to fit straight into our City style of attacking football."
Nonetheless, any path that begins from Bundoora and ends in Europe inevitably has the possibility of a Manchester detour on it -- something that does little to help the club shake off the shackles of the CFG when it comes to its identity. And there's no guarantee that O'Neill and Tilio will necessarily develop in such a manner to bring these hypotheticals to life, as the recently released Lachlan Wales, who is believed to be on his way to Western United, held the same promise they do when he first arrived at City from Central Coast Mariners in 2018.
Tilio and former Melbourne Victory custodian Matthew Sutton are likely to be unveiled by City later on Thursday, while the Age is reporting that the re-signing of off-contract Florin Berenguer and Harrison Delbridge are also priorities for the club. The American-raised defender, though, is understood to have attracted some level of interest from the Bangladesh Premier League.
Another Day in Paradise
One A-League youngster that has already made the leap from the A-League to Europe is now former Central Coast Mariners winger Samuel Silvera, who moved to Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira for an undisclosed fee last week before being subsequently sent out on loan to second-tier side Casa Pia A.C.
Though his exploits were somewhat obscured by the woes that his Mariners went through during the 2019-20 season, Silvera nonetheless emerged as one of Australia's brightest young prospects during that period making 21 appearances (11 of them starts) and earning a call up to Australia's under-23 side despite still being in his teens.
"I had interest from England and Spain, but I think Portugal was the right option for me," the 19-year-old told ESPN. "There's great coaches and players that have come from Portugal. It's a top league and players like Nani and [Cristiano] Ronaldo -- great wingers -- have come from there.
"I thought it would provide the best development and be the best stepping-stone for me. There are players that have gone through [Paços] like Awer Mabil [Mabil spent the 2017-18 season on loan at Pacos from FC Midtjylland] that are great players.
"I didn't think [a European move] was going to happen this quickly. I've got to thank [CCM coaches Alen Stajcic] and [Nahuel Arrarte] for having trust in me from day, that first FFA Cup game. I took that opportunity with both hands. Did as best as I could and, as a I said, [Stajcic] and [Arrarte] showed that support throughout the whole season for me."
Though the dearth of Socceroos plying their trade in the top European leagues is now a well known, and bemoaned facet of Australian football, Silvera is part of a new breed of high-potential young Australians that also includes the likes of Borussia Monchengladbach's Jacob Italiano, Famalicao's Ryan Teague, and Fulham's Tyrese Francois looking to break into the big leagues.
If Wishes Came True
Despite much of the oxygen surrounding the domestic game being sucked up by negotiations around the CBA and plans for the next A-League season, the push for a proposed National Second Division, according to Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) Chairman Nick Galatas, continues to build steam.
FFA CEO James Johnson told ESPN in August that he believed the newly introduced XI Principles and formal uncoupling of the FFA and A-League could finally open the door for a second-tier, although he also said he was yet to see any concrete modelling surrounding the associated costs of such an endeavour.
Seeking to fill this void, the AAFC in late August formed a Partner Group of NPL clubs that would pool their resources in order to finalise the development of league design, modelling and criteria that could be then be used as a reference point in negotiations with other stakeholders.
Speaking to ESPN, Galatas said that the AAFC was set to formally announce the makeup of its partner group next Monday and that though he had initially feared a target of 25 participant clubs had been overly optimistic, the organisation was set to easily surpass that target.
"The response has been overwhelming," he said. "It's been from every state, big clubs, little clubs, they're all participating in a massive way.
"The ambition is there. We've got all these clubs that are putting their resources into the game, that are still there, still strong, ambitious, aspirational and hopeful.
"We've got interest from Tasmania, Queensland --- lots of clubs from Queensland -- South Australia. Of course, New South Wales and Victoria, so yeah, nationwide. It's not Victorians and New South Wales alone, this is national.
"There's national interest, it's clubs of various descriptions. Obviously, some of the old stalwarts and there's also many of the new up and coming strong clubs. It's a fantastic story of the state of our game at the state level and the aspiration to step up.
"They're desperate to show what they can do, it's really good."
The AAFC has earmarked presenting their modelling to stakeholders before November, a date Galatas said they were still on track to meet.
With the professional game in Australia in a state of flux, the presentation of a strong, detailed and sustainable second-most model by the organisation could serve to generate even greater sentiment in favour of the league's rapid introduction.