Grand Final a triumph for comeback coaches
This weekend's A-League Grand Final between Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners sees two of Australia's much-maligned coaches go head-to-head. Roar's Ange Postecoglou and Mariners' Graham Arnold have been the whipping boys of the Australian press in the (not-so distant) past. That their teams meet in the championship decider is a testament not only to their coaching abilities but to a self-belief that they still had what it takes to make a mark on the Aussie game.
It's hard to decide which man has had the roughest ride. Postecoglou has won domestic titles in his time as a player and a coach, but it's as coach of the Young Socceroos he really made his name. After a strong showing in the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup Ã¢ÂÂ where his Joeys beat eventual winners Brazil in the group stages Ã¢ÂÂ Postecoglou's sides floundered and despite helping develop a generation of players who laid the foundation for the first A-League season in 2005, doubts remained about his ability to get results. Not long after the infamous 'tear him a new one' interview by SBS analyst Craig Foster, Postecoglou was out of a job.
Keen to re-build his reputation, Ange worked for Football Federation Victoria and spent a year in Greece with Panachaiki before Frank Farina's drink-driving scandal saw an opportunity open up at Brisbane Roar in late 2009. His reign began controversially with several established players shown the exit, and although the release of old stalwarts Craig Moore and Charlie Miller was understandable, five wins in the season's remaining 17 games and the sale of Tommy 'the new Harry Kewell' Oar left many worried how Brisbane would fare this season.
For Graham Arnold, the criticism from fans and the media has been even harsher. A tough, uncompromising player in his day, Arnold took this same attitude with him as a coach and his gruff, tell-it-like-it-is demeanour rubbed many up the wrong way. While he enjoyed success as Guus Hiddink's No.2 in the Socceroos' historic 2006 World Cup campaign, he was clearly out of his depth when asked to take over the reigns of the national team after the Dutchman's departure.
Not all of this was Arnold's fault, as he never received the full backing of the FFA, who made him coach with an 'interim' tag around his neck, while batting their eyelids at any coach who came on the market.
In the end it was his inability to mould successful teams Ã¢ÂÂ an embarrassing exit in the 2007 Asian Cup and a 2008 Olympics without a group win were notable lowlights Ã¢ÂÂ which led to his demise and there were more than a few raised eyebrows when he took over from the successful Lawrie McKinna at Central Coast at the end of last season.
So to say that both Postecoglou and Arnold have been revelations in their first full seasons in the A-League would be an understatement.
Brisbane have lost only one game all season and their 4-0 demolition of second place Adelaide in November (above) led to posts and tweets calling Roar one of the best domestic sides in the country's history. Led by Socceroo Matt McKay, German import Thomas Broich and bright young things Mitch Nichols and Kosta Barbarouses, the pass-and-move/pressing game of the Roar has been unlike any football seen on these shores. With hindsight, Postecoglou's January 2010 statement to "judge me in 12 months" looks like more like the words of a man with a masterplan than of a coach trying to cover his backside for finishing second from bottom in the league.
For Arnold's Mariners, the rise has been a little less spectacular; an ascent more in the image of the man himself than of any great coaching philosophy. With a solid base already created by former coach McKinna, Arnold has developed a well-drilled side that never backs down from a challenge. Skipper Alex Wilkinson and striker Matt Simon best exemplify the Mariners' muscular approach, and their fightback in the Major Semi-final against the Roar shows that Sunday's final should be one of the closest in the competition's short history.
While the phrase "I Told You So" was notably used by the late Johnny Warren to prove the doubters of Australian football wrong, I'm sure the Aussie legend wouldn't mind it being borrowed by the Grand Final-winning coach on Sunday as an appropriate way to lay some ghosts to rest.