Any anxiety among Adelaide United fans before yesterday’s match against Central Coast would have been perfectly understandable.
Losing a game five days after a cup final win would hardly have been a disaster but failure on this occasion would have felt like a letdown given the opposition was last season’s cellar dweller. And because it would have left the Reds with a not-too-clever two points from three A-League games.
We have been reminded often enough that United coach Marco Kurz has a pretty good record against the Mariners: two wins and a draw last season, and a win in this year’s FFA Cup.
But, while it requires delving into history, no team – apart from Melbourne Victory – has won more A-League matches against the Reds. That shouldn’t matter, however, it’s harder to shake the memory of some of those defeats than it would be to shake the giant sauce bottles at the southern end of Central Coast Stadium.
Perhaps yesterday was a sign that times are changing. The Reds should never have been in the shadow of a club like the Mariners but, a few years ago, they undoubtedly were.
Now, United is fourth on the list of honours won during the A-League era. Only Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar have more.
Four trophies have landed at Hindmarsh in the last four years. Certainly there have been embarrassments in that period – the 2016 FFA Cup loss to part-timers Redlands United and finishing ninth in the 2016/17 A-League – but the recovery was swift.
Adelaide United has the aura of a top club again. Not an A-League giant perhaps but one of the competition’s leaders. It’s not dissimilar to those early years which saw the Reds battling with Sydney FC and Victory for supremacy – even if those battles ultimately yielded more near misses than trophies.
Back then, South Australian fans, who were relishing seeing the Reds as frontrunners, responded by packing Hindmarsh stadium with fervent support.
The changing landscape over the last decade has seen United’s disadvantages grow. With clubs allowed two designated players of any nationality, those that have deeper pockets can sign more genuine stars.
But one of those clubs – Sydney FC – has failed to beat the Reds in two attempts in the last three weeks (admittedly, both were at Hindmarsh). Like the Sky Blues, while the other teams from Melbourne and Sydney look strong, they don’t appear to be head and shoulders above United.
Despite criticism during the off-season, evidence so far suggests that the Reds’ recruiting hit the mark. Even if we leave Craig Goodwin’s exceptional form aside, could supporters seriously suggest that any of Mirko Boland, Scott Galloway, Ben Halloran or Michael Jakobsen haven’t been at least as valuable as what would reasonably have been expected of them?
Even Ken Ilsø, who thus far hasn’t had as big an impact, has started showing his worth since coming off the bench in the FFA Cup final.
Combined with the work United has put into its younger players, the result is a squad with real depth. A couple of other clubs may have better starting teams but it’s worth noting that, yesterday, the Reds rolled past the Mariners despite the absence of Boland, Vince Lia, George Blackwood and Baba Diawara.
And starting on the bench in Gosford were four players who have seen plenty of first-team action in the last season or two: Ryan Kitto, Nikola Mileusnic, Taylor Regan and Ryan Strain.
As concerns about off-season signings are now subsiding, fans have switched their focus to the centre-forward position. But while Baba Diawara may be out of action for some time, Adelaide United intends to replace him if his injury is long-term. And the Reds’ impressive beginning to the season has been largely without him. Halloran is far better on the wing but has shown an ability to fill in at number nine; George Blackwood is Australia’s first choice striker at under-23 level; Apostolos Stamatelopoulos (who scored yesterday) is at under-19 level.
Regular readers will know that, when looking for optimism, this is generally the last page United fans should visit. But there really is little reason not to be confident about a finish in the top three or four this season.
Moreover, we might look back at the past week and see it as one of transformation – one that confirmed that the club was on the front foot again and reaffirmed that, when full, Hindmarsh Stadium is a cauldron of passion.
So the next fixture there will be a test. Not just for the players, who will face the much-improved Perth Glory, but for fans who have felt disconnected in recent times. Last week’s epic cup triumph, and the atmosphere that went with it, should have energised many. The squad, the club and its active supporters are playing their parts for us – a return to middling attendance figures would not be reciprocating.
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