Fans of Australian football could not have predicted the tumultuous ride that the sport has taken over the past few years.
The recent acquisition of all domestic football products (including all A-Leagues, internationals, Asian Cup and FFA Cup matches) by 10 ViacomCBS has delivered an overdue confidence boost for even the most perpetually cynical of Australia’s football fandom. And rather than placate fans with gimmicks, 10 ViacomCBS have opted to embrace football for its greatest attributes – the stories and the fans, qualities that the FFA Cup possesses in abundance.
The FFA Cup is not just the often singularly represented storyline of the under-resourced semi-professional minnows taking it to the well-backed sides of the A-League. It’s the deeper footballing stories of club CEO John Boulous encouraging a festival of football atmosphere for Sydney Olympic’s resolute fanbase to enjoy in the upcoming clash against A-League giants Sydney FC; of Head Coach Stewart Montgomery taking an unfancied Mount Druitt Town Rangers to potential lofty heights; and of NBL Hall of Famer and now Blacktown City Executive Chairman Bob Turner working to establish the side as the pride of Blacktown.
Each of these fragments in time correspond as mere moments in a competition wholeheartedly intended to enliven the Australian footballing public to latch on to these stories and to the players who shine in these fiercely competitive knockout tournaments.
“We are a big club, with a strong following and tradition in Australian football, and are still recognised nationally. In matches like this, Australians like to see underdogs; they like to see both the experienced and younger kids in our squad get that opportunity,” Boulous said.
“I think what’s important as a club is we need to give them that opportunity. You need to be given that opportunity to play against the best players in Australia. If you play against the best players in Australia, and you do well, you’re all of a sudden on the radar.”
Traditionally, the FFA Cup is a curtain raiser to the A-League Men’s competition – but due to COVID-enforced extended lockdowns across Australia, the competition has experienced significant delays.
However, by remaining steadfast in ensuring that the competition is completed, Football Australia have stayed true to the timeline they committed to in the release of their Domestic Match Calendar that was outlined earlier this year.
Even if that means National Premier Leagues (NPL) clubs are handed less time to prepare, their excitement is still palpable.
The capacity for NPL clubs to be able to effectively match A-League sides well into their own pre-season is an obvious challenge befitting any gargantuan David versus Goliath monolith of an analogy that has been overcome by these same clubs for years. And it is certainly one the clubs are well aware of and eager to overcome.
“It just highlights that with extensive training, focus, application and resources being thrown at the NPL level in the lead-up to these games, the difference between a standard A-League player and your good NPL player is not that big. The difference is training and that continued exposure to professional full-time training,” Montgomery said.
“I’ve got no doubt that if we gave two thirds of the players in the NPL exactly that you’d see games being even closer.
“I think historically the A-League teams are coming into their pre-season when we are finishing our season but this will be interesting, because the A-League teams have been well and truly in their preparation for pre-season and are super fit.
“They’ve had the ability to train because of their professional status through the government giving them access to training, whereas the NPL clubs haven’t been able to do anything. It’ll be an interesting to see the outcome of these next three games.”
This year’s iteration of the FFA Cup will offer NPL clubs a greater impetus to pursue a spot in the FFA Cup Final – due to the added incentive of a spot in the Asian Champions League’s preliminary round.
Whilst cup competitions are traditionally notable for facilitating matches typified by a dearth of free-flowing end-to-end football due to the added weight of expectations and the intuition for coaches to (understandably) invoke their innermost pragmatic instincts, they exist as a platform for unpredictable instances of magic and breath-taking nights of football. Blacktown City are no strangers to such occasions, having notched a remarkable 3-2 win over their upcoming Round of 32 opposition – Central Coast Mariners – in the 2017 edition of the tournament at the very same stage.
With the tie set to take place at Mudgee’s Glen Willow Regional Sports Stadium, there will be an undoubted added intensity to the game.
“The reason we took it to a regional area in Mudgee is that Central Coast and ourselves both thought that this would be a very positive move for football. For Mudgee it’s a great opportunity to see top-notch football and from what I understand, their ground is top-notch,” Turner said.
“We know that they’ll welcome us and we’re expecting a big crowd.
“Four years ago, we played the Mariners in the FFA Cup and we knocked them off. And then we played the Wanderers and had 5,000 people at the ground. It’s a great stimulus for us to be able to show our credibility as a team and bring some extra pride as a team.”
The strength of the FFA Cup lies in not just how effectively it encapsulates Australian football as a microcosm, or in the way it emphatically engages the hardcore Australian football fandom, but in the way it unites and invigorates local communities. A notion all three club devotees are impressively aware of.
“We hope to be able to get a strong crowd here at Belmore. And it will be Olympic supporters and Sydney FC supporters, but we hope that it will be football supporters. Because people have been starved of opportunities to go and watch football matches, and now, they have the opportunity,” Boulous conveyed.
“We’ve got a ground that can hold, in today’s climate, a really strong and big crowd. And I think that that’s important to get people here and back into football. People here want to see it.”
For Sydney Kings legend Bob Turner, both the legacy of his time at Blacktown City and the impact of a potentially successful cup run is uncemented as of yet.
“Our goal is to become what the Panthers are for Penrith, we’re Blacktown City. There’s plenty of sport being played, but there’s nobody like us in town. For me that’s a huge plus. We have all of the ingredients, including one of the nicest stadiums in all of Sydney which we now control and we have history,” he said.
“The one thing I can say we’ve been a letdown in, from a marketing point of view, is how to tell Blacktown who we are. Within two years I think that we’ll be the toast of Blacktown. Blacktown has 188 different nationalities and arguably 80% of them grew up in a country where football is number one.”
For Montgomery, the occasion will be one to savour for a Rangers side representing a community with plenty to prove. Particularly in a winnable match against a Wollongong Wolves side they had beaten 3-0 prior to the NPL NSW season being interrupted.
“It can put an exclamation mark on a season that had unfulfilled expectations, so, it allows us to continue playing, stay together as a group and build the club’s profile which is really important for us,” he said.
“A lot of people are waiting for us to fall over and they’re expecting us to drop back down. So, every day we approach it in the same way where people expect us to not perform, and every time we do the opposite of that we send a message.
“We represent an area that doesn’t get the respect that it deserves and we take the park to represent the whole of the City of Blacktown area and the Western suburbs. We take a lot of pride in that and we’ve got a great, passionate vocal support that gets behind us. And Saturday night’s going to be a great night.”
Leading into the season there will be six FFA Cup Round of 32 games available to attend or to watch via Paramount+, with more to follow-up the beginning of the A-League Men’s season on Friday, November 19. All tickets to games can be accessed via the FFA Cup website here.