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Under new management: United begins to rebuild fans' trust

Manton St Tales

Even in the wake of Adelaide United’s greatest triumph, InDaily soccer columnist Paul Marcuccitti was wary about the Reds’ future. Two turbulent years later, he says the club’s new broom gives fans a genuine reason to be excited about the future.

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Perhaps no writer has described the experience of football fans – or sports fans for that matter – better than Nick Hornby.

His famous line – “The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score” – comes to mind when I think of this part of the year two years ago.

Adelaide United had finally reached the summit. It happened 13 years after the club was formed, after several near misses, and three seasons into the Catalan project which the tight-knit playing group had embraced.

Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely happy to see the Reds lift the old toilet seat. But I was relieved too – I had a pretty good idea that the triumph wasn’t about to be repeated.

Showing just how miserable a fan can be, even in the afterglow of glory, a not-so-rosy future was on my mind.

The seeds of demise had already been sowed. Four men that played a large role in building the Reds’ success were gone or on their way out: former football director and CEO Michael Petrillo, who brought in several players; former coach Josep Gombau who recruited the Spanish contingent; and Michael Valkanis and Angelo Costanzo who had guided several A-League players through United’s youth setup.

On top of that, Craig Goodwin and Bruce Kamau had already signed for new clubs; Pablo Sánchez would be released a few days after the grand final. Finding replacements of similar calibre wasn’t going to be easy.

There was even doubt about whether Guillermo Amor would hang around to coach the team for another season. The word on the street was that while the bonds between the coach and the players were strong, they could have been a lot happier with the club. In an interview with Soccer on 531 in November, former midfielder George Mells said “the players often get (i.e. got) isolated and sometimes … treated very unfairly… so we realised as a group that … we weren’t going to get help off the field … we decided we were going to stick together, grind out results and stay tight with the football staff”.

There have been lame attempts by acolytes of the previous regime to credit it for the triumph. I doubt that most of the club’s fans have fallen for them.

Despite the ultimate success, season 2015-16 also included public drama. In January, the club tried to sign David Williams from Melbourne City, offering Osama Malik in return. The news was extremely unpopular with Reds fans but was apparently final – The Advertiser described it as a “done deal”. I soon learned that a lot of people at Adelaide United weren’t happy either, which would explain why, a few days later, a club source who had never leaked to me before gleefully told me that Williams had rejected United’s terms.

Malik remained in limbo for another fortnight before a new swap deal came through: City would send Stefan Mauk instead.

Which proved successful. The Adelaide-born midfielder would be pivotal to the Reds’ surge to the title. But had David Williams agreed to join the club it’s unlikely Mauk would have been sent over as well.

And United’s luck continued a month later with a loss to Shandong Luneng in a playoff for Asian Champions League qualification.

It may seem odd to suggest there is some benefit in losing a game but United’s squad was thin. Had the Reds beaten the Chinese team to book themselves another six matches – three of them in Asia – the added burden on the playing group would probably have cost them the premiership (which was won by just one point).

Even without the Champions League games, injuries and suspensions meant that United went to Western Sydney in the fourth-last round of matches with just 12 senior squad members. Three of the four outfield players on the Reds’ bench were youngsters who hadn’t yet debuted in the A-League.

The club even jeopardised the team’s domestic success by fielding a weakened side in an A-League match a few days before the Shandong Luneng playoff. Again, there was internal discontent about that and I was told of the decision to rest players in a home match against Sydney FC the day before it was played.

That game would see United’s weakened team drop two points. The Sky Blues were going through an 11-match winless streak but a game that a full-strength Reds side might have won finished level.

Had Melbourne Victory – particularly its goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas – not denied Brisbane in the last round of matches, United wouldn’t have finished top and therefore wouldn’t have been in pole position to host the grand final. If Roar had won that game, there surely would have been a lot more post-season discussion about the wisdom of not choosing a full-strength team for the Sydney FC match.

That season’s success meant that for a few days (exactly two years ago) we could all smile and keep our differences beneath the surface. Since then there have been lame attempts by acolytes of the previous regime to credit it for the triumph. I doubt that most of the club’s fans have fallen for them; the narrative that the team won in spite of it, not because of it, seems to be far more widely accepted.

That’s all a long-winded way of explaining why I sensed a crash was coming but even at my pessimistic best (or should that be worst?) I couldn’t have foreseen that only three months after being crowned champions, a disastrous season for the Reds would be heralded by an FFA Cup loss to a team of part-timers.

Last week I saw association football ownership future and its name is Piet van der Pol.

A year ago, as Reds fans were digesting that their team had gone from finishing top by one point to avoiding the wooden spoon by the same margin, they were also reading that: the chairman and another owner were in dispute; the players were owed superannuation; the club was slamming one of their favourites simply because he felt there hadn’t been enough new signings at the time; home matches might be played at Norwood Oval; and Reds players might be withdrawn from Australia’s national under-23 team.

Red Army capo Glenn Clissold announced that he wouldn’t renew his membership. That, frankly, was a big deal. He might be just one fan but no one is more responsible for creating atmosphere at the stadium.

And he wasn’t alone. Thousands of memberships lapsed.

Including mine. I’ve had a media pass for a few seasons but I maintained my membership to support the club. A year ago I decided that until there was change at the top, United wouldn’t get another dollar out of me.

But, if I can borrow a famous quote from another industry, last week I saw association football ownership future and its name is Piet van der Pol.

Even before his speech at Adelaide United’s awards night last week, there were signs of a fresh approach. The Reds’ last home match against Wellington was well advertised. Ticket prices were reduced and fans were told they could have a kick on the pitch after the game.

The result? The season’s biggest attendance for a match at Hindmarsh. And an increase of 4500 from the previous week’s.

In a corporate box, guests of the Dutchman who leads United’s new ownership group included Red Army president Jason Cavey and Anthony Kirchner, chief executive of Adelaide Venue Management which, as the custodian of Hindmarsh Stadium, had an awkward relationship with the club’s previous leadership.

Last week, van der Pol hit all the right notes in his address at the club’s end-of-season gathering.

“Coopers Stadium is … for me, the best football stadium in the country, where every seat gives an excellent view, where the atmosphere is always great.”

It was a signal that he doesn’t intend to continue hostilities with Adelaide Venue Management and that he understands that Hindmarsh is popular with fans. The future will be about improving that stadium, not running to the media with back-of-envelope plans about what the government should build for the club.

“We want to develop the grassroots even more. Reconnect with the community, with our former players, with the government, with the governing bodies. We hope to make South Australia proud of our club again.”

This shows a clear grasp of the distance – and, in some cases, angst – that existed between the club and all of the above. And even before van der Pol uttered those words, work was already underway to build the necessary bridges.

“If we can improve the grassroots level, all the clubs and all the stakeholders will benefit. For the long term, we have to create the next generation of heroes and heroines in the A-League and in the W-League from our South Australian community. We are going to develop our academy, from juniors to seniors, from boys and girls to men and women, to foster and to nurture talent, by cooperating with the local clubs and with Football Federation South Australia.”

Recognition that a strong partnership with local clubs is valuable – and that both United and those clubs can benefit. An appreciation that United has a role from the beginning of local kids’ journeys through the sport. And (finally!) an understanding of the importance of women’s and girls’ teams.

Oh, sure, it’s easy to say all these things and successfully turning those plans into action is much harder (and the game’s complicated politics can hamper the best of intentions).

But this is the sort of vision that United’s supporters – and the rest of South Australia’s football community – have wanted for some time. And given that some of the necessary work has started, we can take the club’s new leadership on trust.

Around the room at the awards night, you sensed the positivity. Several people remarked that van der Pol’s address couldn’t have been more different from previous years’; later, a long-time member of United’s staff sent me a message saying: “I hope you are as excited for the future as we are.”

And, despite my normal pessimism, I am.

When they’re available, I’ll definitely buy a membership for the 2018/19 season. You should too.

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.

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