New season, new era for A-League Men

A new dawn begins for domestic football in Australia when reigning champions Melbourne City take on the Brisbane Roar at AAMI Park on Friday night.

Rebranded as the A-League Men’s competition and under the control of the Australian Professional Leagues, rather than Football Australia, there is hope the changes will lead to a renaissance of the league.

As APL managing director Danny Townsend told AAP in September: “You only get one chance to relaunch your code.”

After a drop in TV ratings, attendances and star names over recent years, this feels like football’s opportunity.

Former Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Bosnich described the competition’s second coming as Australia’s “Premier League moment”.

The reboot is in part due to a change of broadcaster, which has provided the competition with a guaranteed income for the next five seasons.

After two years of uncertainty surrounding the competition’s long-term future that were compounded by COVID-19, Network Ten and streaming platform Paramount’s acquisition of the league’s rights brought new cause for optimism.

“There was a lot of uncertainty throughout the whole playing group,” Sydney FC captain Alex Wilkinson said.

“What lay ahead was really uncertain for the landscape of the sport in this country.

“Now we’ve got a new broadcaster and the game has been taken over by the APL and there’s a lot of positives and a freshness about the league.”

After the 15-year relationship with Fox Sports came to an end, the league was forced to find a new home.

Network Ten will broadcast one game per week of the regular season on free-to-air television with the remaining five games of the round available on Paramount.

Streaming is clearly the future of sports consumption but Paramount’s foray into a rights market, which is already hotly-contested, for eyeballs and disposable income comes with questions, namely whether they are able to deliver a cut-through that the sport craves.

“It’s been a big change within the whole league,” Melbourne Victory captain Josh Brillante, who returns to the competition after a spell in Greece, said.

“It’s an exciting (time) and a turning point for the league to try and get to that next level and bring more people into watching the game.

“Hopefully all the teams this year can turn out and put in a good season so that people really enjoy it.”

Victory’s shot at redemption, after collecting last year’s wooden spoon, with Tony Popovic in charge and embarking on a heavy recruiting drive, will be one of the storylines of the season.

So will the fortunes of cross-town rivals Melbourne City, who snared their first title and added Socceroos attacker Mathew Leckie to their forward line.

Sydney will be desperate to halt City’s rise, with the strike force Adam Le Fondre and Bobo on deck having enjoyed a full pre-season together.

The Sky Blues kick off their campaign with Saturday’s free-to-air game at Western Sydney Wanderers, whose fortunes have plateaued in recent seasons, in a derby that should be one of the season’s showpieces.

Newcastle, Central Coast and Brisbane have undergone big overhauls in their squads while Macarthur, who picked up Ulises Davila from the temporarily Wollongong-based Wellington Phoenix, have lost Mark Milligan, Adam Federici, Matt Derbyshire and Denis Genreau.

The most eye-catching signing, however, is former Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge by Perth.

Glory owner Tony Sage described the acquisition of the ex-England international as one of the biggest in A-League history, but the career of Sturridge, 32, has been hampered by injury.

Glory begin their season with a home game against a youthful Adelaide United on Saturday before a lengthy run of fixtures on the road, which will put Sturridge’s body to the test.

Now it’s over to the action on the field to determine whether this new dawn or the league will prove to be a false one, or one of genuine progress.