All's fair in love and style wars

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“Worst title defence ever!”

It was a phrase popularised by Sydney FC supporter group The Cove during the 2007-08 A-League campaign, when Sydney fans gleefully unfurled a banner reminding Melbourne Victory supporters of their team’s hapless struggles to defend their crown.

Since then it’s become a popular part of the A-League lexicon, helped by an eye-watering fall from grace from the Newcastle Jets – who went on to lift the 2007/08 title and backed it up by finishing bottom the following season.

So it was no surprise to see defending champions Melbourne lose 2-0 at home to Central Coast Mariners in their Round 1 fixture at Etihad Stadium.

After all, no team since inaugural champions Sydney FC has won their opening round fixture the following season.

But the manner of Melbourne’s defeat has sparked the latest round of teeth-gnashing over the style of football played in Australia.

This season’s insipid opener set influential analyst Craig Foster into over-drive.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Foster blasted the quality of football on display in a piece entitled “The long-ball game lets everyone down.”

Ironically, Foster chose not to take issue with an innocuous comment from Perth Glory coach Dave Mitchell that was seized upon elsewhere as proof the A-League advocates a long-ball style.

“The great Liverpool side couldn’t play against Wimbledon and that’s what they are like,” Mitchell told reporters after his side had gone down 1-0 to a tough-as-teak Adelaide United in the opening round.

“They are very competitive, as I’ve said they put a lot of long balls in behind you and challenge you and it’s tough football.”

Mitchell’s claims invariably drew comparisons between Adelaide United and 'the Crazy Gang' – even if Foster himself waxed lyrical about what was a relatively entertaining contest.

Foster is a respected member of the football fraternity Down Under.

An ex-Socceroo, the articulate former midfielder has carved a niche for himself as one of Australia’s most outspoken analysts.

But the next day his former co-commentator and colleague Simon Hill couldn’t resist a dig in his online column for A-League broadcaster Fox Sports.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting rather weary of being told which type of football I should prefer,” Hill countered.

The line was a not-so-subtle swipe at Foster and his like-minded detractors, who for years have questioned the physical brand of football employed by many A-League teams.

Foster and Hill were once colleagues at the Special Broadcasting Service – the free-to-air network that formerly broadcast Socceroos fixtures.

The pair’s legendary commentary from the 2005 World Cup play-off against Uruguay is regarded as one of the greatest calls in Australian sporting history.

But when Hill jumped ship to rival pay-TV network Fox Sports, he left what many fans consider the traditional embodiment of “old soccer” to join the public face of “new football.”      

For the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that I pen a column for News Limited magazine Australian Football Weekly, whose News Corp. backers are also part-owners of Fox Sports.

But I have friends from both sides of the spectrum, including Australia’s best – and best known blogger – Jesse Fink.

For what it’s worth, some Australian fans have labelled SBS criticism of A-League standards as “sour grapes” at no longer holding exclusive broadcast rights.

Meanwhile, Fox Sports’ determination to defend a product it shells out substantial amounts to screen is understandable.

But many Australian fans would prefer to embrace their football analysis without the perceived bias that comes with it.

And why wouldn’t they? Round 1 of this year’s competition produced a healthy 17 goals from five games – up from just five goals in four games the previous season.

Star recruit Robbie Fowler was in fine form for North Queensland Fury, despite being on the losing end of a 3-2 scoreline against Sydney FC.

The former Liverpool legend not only converted a penalty on the hour mark, but looked lean and lively throughout.

His performance was only overshadowed by a star turn from John Aloisi, who scored a superb first for Sydney before converting a late penalty to seal a hard-fought victory in the tropical north.

The first ever South-East Queensland derby produced plenty of vim and vigour, and it was handbags at 10 paces when Brisbane Roar’s Bob Malcolm snared Kiwi striker Shane Smeltz in an impressive head-lock towards the end.

By then the Roar were in all sorts of trouble, and they ulimately went down 3-1 to newcomers Gold Coast United in a match that saw five yellow cards dished out to either side.

The final game of the round saw Newcastle Jets beat Wellington Phoenix 3-2 courtesy of some diabolical defending from both sides. Expect both to struggle this season.

Goals galore then, but whether it’s “hoof it long, son” or “keep it on the carpet,” it seems that all’s fair in the A-League’s never-ending style wars.

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