It was supposed to be a peaceful walkout, the fourth of six protests across the weekend as A-League Men’s fans voted with their feet over the Australian Professional Leagues’ (APL) decision to sell the next three grand finals to New South Wales. Instead, a Melbourne Derby pitch invasion and player assault made headlines around the world.
The game between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory is one of the competition’s most attended and watched events between two sides used to competing at the top of the table. With City leading 1-0, tensions spilled over on 20 minutes as flares were thrown onto the pitch from both sets of supporters.
When City goalkeeper Tom Glover lobbed a couple of them back behind his goal, one dangerously close to some supporters, all hell broke loose, and a group stormed the field. Glover was struck with a bucket used for extinguishing flares, while referee Alex King acted quickly and called the contest to a halt. A television cameraman was also hit by a flare thrown from the crowd. After a long delay, the game was officially abandoned, and the post-mortem began.
Football at the highest level in Australia has always struggled for headlines in a competitive landscape where Australian Rules, cricket and two codes of rugby are among the most popular sports. However, the national team’s performances at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar saw a real feel-good factor emerge between both avid supporters and those who would ordinarily close the curtains if there was a game in their back garden.
Footage of the watch parties in Melbourne’s Federation Square went around the globe as the Socceroos reached the last 16 of the tournament before falling to Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Most of that squad either play or have played in the A-League, a marketing dream as the competition looks to bounce back from two very difficult seasons while navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, football fans in Australia can never have nice things for too long and early last week it emerged that the APL, who run the A-League, had decided to allow New South Wales to host the next three grand finals in exchange for a reported $12 million. The move went down like a lead balloon with supporters because traditionally, the team with the highest finishing spot in the regular season earns the right to host the showpiece event. This has seen the event shared around the country in recent years, with huge crowds turning out in Adelaide, Perth, and Brisbane while also bringing an important sugar hit for the sport in those areas.
The APL originally pitched the move as an attempt to create tradition with a single venue that could allow fans to plan a yearly pilgrimage, like Wembley in England. However, the argument fell very quickly when APL CEO Danny Townsend admitted that the decision would be reviewed in 2025 and the grand final could be sold elsewhere to the highest bidder.
Australia is also vastly different to England geographically, it isn’t a case of simply hopping on a train to Sydney if you live in the aforementioned Adelaide, Perth or Brisbane. The competition also includes a club from another country – New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix. Taking away the chance for those cities to host a grand final immediately leads to disconnect with supporters who simply can’t afford to travel to Sydney due to a rise in the cost of living, plus extortionate airfares.
At the time of writing, the APL is not backing down on its decision, despite opposition from some clubs and the resignation of a board member.
So how does that relate to the ugly scenes at AAMI Park on Saturday night? Well, across the week, supporters’ groups from each of the 12 clubs agreed to stage walkout protests in the 20th minute. A visual statement of their anger at the APL’s grand final decision that would be captured by cameras mid-game.
The first such move took place on Friday night as Newcastle Jets played host to Brisbane Roar, and there were similar scenes between Wellington Phoenix and Adelaide United, as well as Central Coast Mariners and Sydney FC. Fans unfurled banners before leaving the stadium when the time came.
The Melbourne Derby was the weekend’s biggest fixture with two passionate supporter groups and all eyes were on both ends as the 20th minute approached. Flares and fireworks could be seen and heard on the live broadcast, with referee King briefly calling a halt to proceedings to allow security to deal with a couple that had landed on the pitch.
Glover’s misguided decision to take matters into his own hands will no doubt come under scrutiny but his disgraceful assault that resulted in face lacerations is inexcusable. Football Australia, the sport’s governing body, has said that it will hand down strong sanctions. That could mean a points deduction and games played behind closed doors for Melbourne Victory, while Victoria Police has opened its own investigation and the perpetrators face criminal charges.
The ramifications for football’s reputation in Australia are bigger than all of that. The sport has long been underfunded, despite increasing participation rates, and the highest level of the game has been a very hard sell to the public. Off the back of the Socceroos’ recent efforts, and with the FIFA Women’s World Cup being hosted here next year, things were looking up. However, the actions of a few and subsequent negative news stories will take the code backwards.
There are fears that the competition, in its 18th year, may not even survive the fallout from the Melbourne Derby but that remains to be seen. Either way, those who have poured blood, sweat and tears into trying to make the league a success are at an all-time low. It is a long way back from here.