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Are you football? Prove it

by Michael Huguenin on May 03, 2012

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Tuesday’s truce between Football Federation of Australia chairman Frank Lowy and Newcastle Jets owner Nathan Tinkler has, for the time being, put football in Australia back on the right track.

Now, the theory goes, the FFA, led by Lowy and Ben Buckley, can work together with the owners of the A-League clubs to improve Australia’s national football competition.

No more sniping. No more threats. Just elbow grease and a determination to get things right.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who reckons that it’s about time.

In March I asked the question of why the A-League is stuttering and claimed Lowy ‘needs a plan and he needs to stick with it’ in regards to supporting the A-League.

Tuesday’s news regarding Newcastle and the early positive signs with the new club that will be set up in western Sydney show, at least on some level, that Lowy has stopped blaming everyone else and is starting to be proactive.

Now it’s time for the Australian football community to abandon their excuses for not supporting the A-League and get on board.

A-League crowds have been up on average in 2011/12 compared to the past two seasons but there have still been issues.

While the Brisbane Roar’s crowd average of 13,157 was the second best in the competition (and an improvement on the previous three seasons) it was hardly a fair reflection for a team playing such eye-catching football.

Neither did Central Coast Mariners’ success drag people through the turnstiles as the premiers failed to average over 10,000 and ended up under that number for both their finals as well. The A-League finals series hit an all-time low of 119,147 spectators over seven games and Australian fans have continued to shun the AFC Champions League.

Empty seats allow critics of the A-League to question whether Australians really care about football. While the FFA and club owners have done a far from stellar job in running our national competition, staying at home and feigning disinterest does not benefit the future of professional football in this country.

After this season there are plenty of football supporters calling for ‘no more excuses’ from Lowy, Tinkler et al. That statement cuts both ways. Football supporters need to support the game now.

One of the big positives I took out of the aftermath of Tinkler’s back flip and re-commitment to the Jets was a line from Michael Cockerill’s piece in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday.

Cockerill wrote that Tinkler had been stunned by the reaction of the Newcastle public to his decision to abandon the Jets.

“Sources have told us that the flaying he's copped in recent weeks has not only stunned Tinkler, but, more importantly, proved to him that the Jets really do matter,” Cockerill wrote.

“And that includes the fans of the Knights, many of whom demonstrated an esprit de corps with their stablemates at the Jets.

“In the hour of need, the sporting public of Newcastle stuck tight.”

While it is fantastic that rugby league supporters backed their football-loving neighbours, for me it is more important to see that fan power actually succeeded in the A-League. It feels like it’s been a while since that happened.

Newcastle reportedly had over 10,000 members this season and averaged over 12,000 spectators per game, making the Jets the third-best supported club in the A-League in the 2011/12 season behind Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar.

Time and again football supporters around the world claim that the sport isn’t about the administrators or the club owners or even the players. Supporters like to argue it’s about the public, the plebeians who turn up to support their team.

As such, football fans often claim that the best way to make themselves heard is to boycott their club. I’m sure you’ve heard the arguments about tearing up memberships or not going to games to try and force change.

The problem is, as the past few months in the A-League has made very clear, that not engaging, at least in an Australian context, is more likely to lead to a dead club than change.

Throughout Gold Coast United’s painful existence in the A-League many Gold Coast locals argued that there was a football community on the Gold Coast desperate to be involved but that Clive Palmer’s actions were forcing them away. Crowds remained abysmally low and the argument was made that if Palmer would change (or leave) the Gold Coast public would flock to support their team.

But this lack of engagement from the Gold Coast football community killed their club. The lack of supporters was never going to make Palmer abandon his plan to keep most of Skilled Park closed. And then, when the FFA removed Palmer, crowd numbers did not change.

All of this made it pretty easy for the FFA to dump GCU from the A-League. In contrast, Newcastle’s healthy crowds meant Lowy and Buckley knew they had to save the club no matter what. The A-League could not afford to lose that kind of support.

Football supporters around the country need to decide whether they want a professional competition in Australia or not. When the National American Soccer League collapsed in 1984 the American public had to wait until 1995 for a new professional league. If the A-League falls over a similar period without a national competition would be likely in Australia.

The start of the 2011/12 A-League season involved the ‘We Are Football’ advertising campaign. It was a slogan supported by many within Australia’s football community as a step forward in the FFA’s respect of the public but this season has shown that while many may believe they ‘are football’ they have a funny way of showing it.

What are you waiting for? A gold-inlaid invitation?

The A-League is struggling. Club owners are losing money and expansion has been a joke. Palmer and Tinkler’s media war with the FFA has been a PR disaster. But this is not the time for the public to abandon the game.

If you want the A-League to be successful it’s time to support it. Buckley hopes to renegotiate a TV-broadcast deal before next season but whether or not he can; the 2012/13 season will be a big one in terms of proving whether or not Australians actually want the A-League. After the collapse of North Queensland Fury and GCU over the past two seasons, the A-League needs a scandal-free season. Full stadiums around the country will show club owners and the FFA that the public genuinely cares.

Big crowds will prove to Fox Sports that they are buying a popular product. Big crowds will make it easier for clubs to convince sponsors to sign on. Big crowds get media attention. Big crowds entice players. Finally, big crowds inevitably create bigger crowds as the atmosphere attracts the general public.

Football fans in Australia have an unbelievable ability to come up with excuses why they should not go to games. The FFA does not understand them, the history of the game has been ignored, it clashes with their social life or the type of beer at the stadium is not up to scratch - all these excuses do not help the game.

If we as football people can take anything out of the contrasting examples of GCU and Newcastle Jets it’s that a well-supported club will always stand a better chance of surviving than a club that seemingly too few people care about. That point can be extended to the A-League in general.

Are you football? Then stand up and be counted because if you don’t no one will listen.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelHuguenin