A-League loses pitch battle in Australia’s sporting pecking order

On a day mid-last week, the Central Coast Mariners almost trained in preparation for the weekend’s match against Melbourne Victory. The A-League leaders only got through the warm-up on the fields they had booked before coach Alen Stajcic deemed it unsafe – they were effectively “underwater” due to the New South Wales storms.

That part is simple misfortune. The next, not so much. The field next to it was, according to Stajcic, “bone dry”. “Regardless of the rain, it was in immaculate condition,” he said. ‘“But we were told there was a touch tournament on there next week and we weren’t allowed on there.

“As a head coach of the Mariners and a team that represents our community and been doing it so well this year I just thought it was hard to take. For the players to see a pitch next door and know they’re not allowed on it, it’s just upsetting to be honest.”

This is old news, right? It happened last week. Except that this sort of thing happens to football nigh on every week, it just doesn’t make the news.

Neither did this incident, really. But if the Mariners were top of the NRL table, prevented from completing a training session when an option appeared available, and then went on to record an uncharacteristic draw with a last-placed team on a red-hot losing streak, one could wager we would be hearing about it.

Saturday’s 1-1 result keeps the Mariners at the top of the table, but Adelaide United sit second one point adrift and with a game in hand, while third-placed Melbourne City are only two points shy of top spot with two games in hand and the kind of form that could shake up the top three pretty quickly.

In short, the Mariners could have done with the extra two points. They may have ceded them anyway, but the point is they should not be left wondering.

That is not a slight on rugby league, union, Australian rules or any other code in Australia’s diverse sporting landscape. All would have a right to feel aggrieved at such a situation. It is just that, for one reason or another – some externally inflicted and others courtesy of domestic football’s perpetual inferiority complex – the round ball has a place in the pecking order.

Not in a conspiracy theory sort of way, of some abstract other attempting to bury the local game. But in the sense that it simply does not appear to form a part of the mass conscious awareness.

Former Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou, has spoken about this ad nauseam over the years, about the poor pitches served up to his national side and the lack of legacy generated from their 2015 Asian Cup win. He did so again on the latest episode of Optus Sport’s Football Belongs podcast, voicing frustration at tournament’s lack of political carriage in relation to the achievement.

“There was no dinner at Kirribilli House,” Postecoglou said. “No honours bestowed on anybody in the group, no understanding of the magnitude of the achievement … I definitely think it was a missed opportunity on many fronts.

“It was indicative of where the game’s been for a long time in that we just haven’t understood the football significance of things, the soul of football and what it can do and what it can mean.

“It’s almost like, within our own game, we kind of keep our heads down and don’t stick them up too high in case we get them knocked off. For me, it was a bit of a bittersweet experience, that whole thing.”

It could be argued that this is the case at the national level, where only on Monday Football Australia chief executive James Johnson revealed the government will only partially fund his pitch for $275m to underwrite the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

It is occurring at the A-League level, where no club owns its own stadium (Western United are on the way) and many still rent training facilities. Where cross-code traffic at venues is heavy and discordant with the standard of surface required for football, and where the NRL is pushing hard for suburban stadiums the A-League should have lobbied for long ago.

And it is happening at a grassroots level unmatched in size by any other sport, where a chronic funding gap means there are simply not enough fields to play on. The pitches that do exist are grossly overused, and too often undrained and unlit.

Sometimes they are also uneven. Local amateur players in the Sutherland Shire catchment still joke about not wanting to play on the field where the goalkeeper’s feet at one end are higher than his or her counterpart’s head at the other.

The A-League is not the English Premier League, but it is this country’s only men’s fully professional competition, and it should be treated as such when it comes to facilities.

“I love all the other codes that we have in this country and the diversity of sport that we have,” Stajcic said. “I love all the other sports, particularly the NRL, but football really does have to put a stake in the ground in terms of our connections to local governments, state government, federal government, if we’re to get the full experience and full range of access that we should have.

“We’re the biggest sport in the country in terms of participation but, at the professional and semi-professional level, we’re held back by the lack of access to a lot of facilities.”