Football Australia CEO James Johnson says the APL has a lot to learn following a week of turmoil that came to an ugly climax during yesterday’s A-League Men action.
Saturday night’s derby between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory was abandoned following an invasion of the pitch.
Active support members from both clubs had been due to exit en masse in the 20th minute of the match, in protest of the APL’s decision to relocate the A-Leagues Grand Finals to Sydney for the next three years, after the rights were bought by the NSW government for $12 million.
However, Victory fans stormed the pitch, leaving at least three individuals injured, including City goalkeeper Thomas Glover.
After releasing a statement condemning the actions of individuals involved, Johnson spoke in a press conference and conceded that more consultation with the fans was crucial, although fans’ anguish at the decision.
“Firstly, there is no justification for the behaviour we saw last night,” said Johnson. “I don’t care whether people think the decision to move the Grand Final was good or bad, that is not a reason for what happened last night. Anyone who says that that is justified in my view is completely out of touch.
“What I will say about the decision is the league needs to be a provider and developer of playing talent for our national teams.
“The league is the biggest provider of talent for our national teams, and as a consequence we do need to grow the economy of the league. At the same time they need to communicate with the fans and make sure the fans are always part of the thinking when taking decisions, so there clearly is an issue as we have seen over the past week. We’re supportive of a resolution, very very quickly, and we’re happy to play our part to support the APL on communicating with the fans and bringing the fans back together, because ultimately fans are the core of the league.”
Johnson did however back the APL to continue leading the A-Leagues and to learn from their mistakes.
“This is a new structure; it’s been set up only two years ago. The league is young, they’re in the second year of running the league and there’s a lot of learnings that need to be taken from what has happened over the past week.
“I don’t think we can go as far as saying they’re far from capable of running the league. There are some things that haven’t gone well this week and my role is to support the solution, because we can’t have that going forward.”
“Does there need to be repairs to the sport as a whole? Absolutely, but the starting point needs to be the APL talking to the fans and explaining the reasons and rationale behind their decision.”
Victoria police estimates 150-200 of the Victory fans stormed the AAMI Park pitch, throwing flares and metal buckets as they did so. One such bucket left City goalkeeper Glover with a severe gash to his face.
Consequentially, Victory will be issued with an order to show cause by Football Australia. It’s not the first time they’ve received one in recent memory, after homophobic abused was reported by Adelaide United’s Josh Cavallo in a match between the two sides last year. Johnson says that although there are no standing disciplinary actions on Victory, their repeated offences will be taken into consideration when sanctions are applied.
“We call this aggravation when these things happen on more than one occasion. We know there’s been more than one occasion, they’re the facts and they will be an aggravating factor throughout this process.
“There’s no other suspended disciplinary action that I am aware of, but we will be working through that process today. We already started the show cause process last night and we will be moving forward as quickly as possible to finalize this because its important that we get ahead of this issue as a sport.”
Johnson refused to speculate on the findings of the investigation, and when asked whether Glover, who appeared to throw a flare back into the terrace behind his goal, may receive sanctions, he made clear that his immediate priority and concern was for the 24-year-old’s welfare.
“My focus right now is on his health. The kid has a gash down the side of his face with many stitches. I’m not thinking about action against him right now. As we go through the process, we will look into every individual who was involved and we objectively and fairly apply the rules, but right now we’re focused on his health and that’s it.”
Two more A-League Men’s matches will be played this afternoon, as well as two A-League women’s matches. Two of those matches will take place at the scene of last night’s incident at AAMI Park but are set to go ahead as planned. Johnson moved to reassure attending fans that there would be no repeat of the scenes from yesterday during today’s play.
“Football is very safe. 2 million people play it week-in, week-out. We saw in all the other A-League games played over the weekend peaceful protests and that’s okay, fans are okay to express views in a peaceful. The way that some individuals conducted themselves at the Melbourne Victory game is not acceptable and that is specific to that match, not a reflection of the broader game. This does not happen in local football, this does not happen at national team level, it does not happen at the NPL level, or at any other A-Leagues games.”
“I do not think there will be any security risks at these games. I think the round will see itself out and, and we’ll look back say, ‘Okay there were peaceful protests across the league in this round, but what happened in the game last night was unacceptable,’ and that’s what we’ll be looking back upon and discussing in the early days of next week.”
However, Johnson did raise concerns about the presence of flares during A-Leagues matches. Despite being banned, a number of flares were brought into the ground by spectators, leading to injuries sustained by referee Alex King and a broadcast camera operator.
“The event security is a matter for the competition administrator – the APL. That’s a question that would need to be directed to them, but there is an issue with flares entering the stadium that I do think that we need to look at.”
Finally, Johnson addressed apprehension that the A-League Women is being dragged down with the men’s game, particularly regarding the way the grand-final was bundled into the proposed ‘Festival of Football’ package agreed by the APL.
“I’m not sure of the specifics of the A-League Women amongst this ‘Festival of Football’, that’s something I need to sit down and speak to the APL about. I will say though that the women’s game is thriving in Australia. I can talk on behalf of the Matildas where we’ve seen broadcast numbers, attendance, social media engagement, commercial deals at levels that we’ve never seen before historically on both the men’s and women’s sides.
“We’re punching well above our weight globally, so we also know the participation of women across the country at grassroots levels is the fastest growing part of our demographic. I think the women’s game in general is absolutely thriving and of course we’re going to need the A-League Women to help facilitate that growth.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is they are expanding, there are more games and that’s something we’ve asked the APL to rectify, so there are things coming out of the APL and I don’t think they’ve disregarded women’s football whatsoever. Any time we’ve asked them to get involved and help us with pushing the Matildas brand around linkages with the Women’s World Cup we’ve received their support.”