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As we begin a new season of the Australian A-League, there is little doubt that my good friend Alex Jones has attended more games than any other fan since the competition’s inception in 2005.

Recently, I enjoyed a leisurely lunch of traditional empanadas at a café near Rockdale with this well-travelled Aussie football supporter. Alex counts Sydney FC, Luton Town and the Socceroos as his favourite teams. Yet, as a fellow true believer in our game, his unconditional support and passion for football extends well beyond to include other teams and games in domestic competitions as well as independent travels to many other countries.

Our shared conversation was timed to coincide with an impending incredible milestone of Alex attending his 500th A-League game this weekend.

Pablo

What was your first game on this epic journey?

Alex

That was one of the most important in the history of Sydney FC, their first home game of season one against Melbourne Victory, a game where all concerned didn’t know what to expect, including how it would be embraced and who would come. Such a large crowd wasn’t expected, so in the end the Sydney Football Stadium was opened to anyone and everyone to cope with huge queues. Although the official crowd was 20,000, my estimate was much higher than that. The game finished 1-1 after an opening goal from a stooping header by marquee Dwight Yorke and then Archie Thompson equalising.

Pablo

Over more than a decade, what have been your three major highlights being a fan attending A-League games?

Alex

Firstly, the opening round Sydney Derby held at ANZ Stadium in October 2016 with an attendance record for a club football match in Australia of almost 62,000. This was the highest crowd in a regular domestic season for any of the three main ‘codes’ played, other than AFL. 

Pablo

That was rather a lucky 4-0 win to Sydney FC.

Alex

We were fortunate to put away all four goals in a romping victory over the Wanderers. I’ve attended every Sydney Derby, as well I should. In terms of a contrasting proper contest, a roller-coaster of emotions was the encounter in February 2015 at Parramatta. It was as if this see-sawing game which ended 3-4 was scripted to provide the most dramatic sporting spectacle possible for ‘neutrals’. This included a brace each for Kerem Bulut and Marc Janko, and a red card for a Sydney player.

The other two were Melbourne Victory’s first Grand Final title in 2006 with a 6-0 win over Adelaide United, in front of over 55,000 fans in Etihad Stadium, at that point a record crowd for the A-League. Archie had a hat-trick before half-time and went on to score five, but the best of the goals was the sixth which wasn’t his. He peaked too early!

And the third highlight was Alessandro Del Piero’s first appearance for Sydney FC in October 2012 at home against Newcastle; they won the game. People were wondering whether or not he was genuinely worth the hype and expense of bringing him to Australia. However, he scored from a brilliant direct free-kick, celebrating heartily in front an adoring home crowd - so quite an occasion.

Pablo

You have concurrently held club memberships with Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers, Newcastle Jets and the Central Coast Mariners.

Alex

I’ve been a Sydney season ticket holder since the day one beginning of our competition. In mid-2005 at a pre-season game versus Newcastle I picked up a discarded promo leaflet with membership options, read it and joined up. After just returning from living overseas for 15 years this was perfect timing for me having been born and raised in Sydney.

By season two, just supporting Sydney for only home and away games in NSW meant having lengthy stretches of time without watching football live. So, I decided to pick up a general admission membership for the Mariners who were practically just ‘up the road’, and relatively inexpensive even if not being able to attend some games.

Then I met some people on a freezing cold night in Maitland for a pre-season game between Newcastle and Adelaide. They subsequently became very good friends and I’ve developed a strong liking for the Jets, so much so that they became my ‘second team’ in the A-League.

Pablo

Fast forward to 2012, and you became a foundation member of the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Alex

I was at the Wanderer’s first ever game (a friendly) as a club at Cook Park, the home ground of Nepean FC. The best way to support a new Sydney team was financially as a member, yet not to the detriment of my primary allegiance for the Sky Blues. To have something as invaluable and priceless as a derby in my home city, I can’t stress enough how much I anticipated and wanting to support that.

Pablo

When we compare arguably the three greatest imported marquee players to have played in the A-League, in Dwight Yorke, Alessandro Del Piero and Shinji Ono, who had the greatest impact on the park?

Alex

Shinji was that man, because of the time he came to the Wanderers and what he contributed. All credit to ADP, what he brought to Sydney, the profile and level of skill and experience. I’m not about to devalue that, but his best years were behind him, undoubtedly.

Shinji, even for many of his memorable games was often relatively slow to start off, although true of many players. The goal he scored against the Brisbane Roar to get into the Grand Final, I was directly behind it in the Western Stand at Parramatta Stadium. You probably could not have had a better seat to appreciate the technique from his boot and the trajectory.

Pablo

That first leg of the Asian Champions League final in 2014, which after outplaying Al Hilal the Wanderers won 1-0 with a goal by Tomi Juric. Describe the atmosphere and what was the feeling on the terraces that night?

Alex

It was one of the most anticipated fixtures Australian football had ever seen and a ‘coming of age’ for this new team and club at its first time of asking. For our clubs to exist under a salary cap, it’s unthinkable in Middle-Eastern football. Al-Hilal, even within the context of Saudi football, is seen as being privileged, almost the ‘spoilt child’ of their football league with a sense of entitlement fully expecting to win trophies. This ‘upstart club’ from Australia not only outplayed them on the night and took a lead to Saudi, which was an affront to them I’m sure. 

The Wanderers fans knew full well that context, what it meant and how exclusive an evening it was due to crowd capacity limitations of Parramatta Stadium. You could have filled up a stadium four times that big, based on the number of fans who would have wanted to be there. Al-Hilal filled up fans all along their ‘away end’, mainly with those who had flown in from Saudi. This added to the atmosphere and immense noise created by the '12th man' of the Red and Black Block (RBB).

The guy who sat next me was a recent Ghanaian immigrant to Australia who had thought he wouldn’t get the chance to get in, but I had a spare ticket. He was so excited to be there, and it was a brilliant night to share with someone so passionate about football. 

Pablo

That’s a good segue into the cross-cultural connections that football brings through our multicultural nation’s involvement and engagement in Asia including competitions and our World Cup qualification pathways. You have been to so many away games of our Socceroos, what is the most memorable experience of these for you?

Alex

For the distance involved, difficulties involved getting to this place, its exoticism and the specialness of the group of people who went along many of whom I already knew very well, it was to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. 

What a remarkable and enjoyable trip it was, a lovely introduction to the people and culture, and fantastic away win for three points. This was despite the fact that many of us in the stands had suffered some travel illness, like some in the Socceroos squad. This meant replacements started including player Chris Coyne, for whom the hosts tried to get of his entire name right on the electronic scoreboard yet only got as far as Christopher John! 

Pablo

What about the camaraderie amongst the fans at that game and other away matches?

Alex

Truly special. After 2006, we were enjoying the first full World Cup qualification campaign travelling right across the AFC, including games in Central Asia, China, Japan and the Middle-East to eventually reach the finals in South Africa. The game at Kunming in March 2008 was a 0-0 result, and when Mark Schwarzer saved a penalty near the death our supporters all erupted and celebrated like it was a win.

Pablo

How many World Cup finals tournaments have you been to?

Alex

I've been to three: 1998, 2010 and 2014.

I went to France 98 when living in the UK at the time, and saw 20 games in total including the opening game and the final, including arguably Zidane’s best ever personal performance in a match.

Pablo

Who is the greatest Socceroos player you have seen first-hand?

Alex

When Harry Kewell came on in the 2005 play-off versus Uruguay his individual performance was game changing. He suddenly made 'La Celeste' afraid of us. They were running scared after he came on as a substitute and so that Australia was in the ascendency completely. 

Pablo

And overall, in terms of career?

Alex

Mark Schwarzer. His consistency, the way he pulled our ‘fat out of the fire’ so often, and saved or kept us in the game like in our undeserved 1-0 away win against Bahrain in 2008.

Pablo

You have spent a lot time living in England (1990-2005) and through that really embedded you as a fan at all levels including great affection for Luton Town FC.

Alex

Yes, 'The Hatters' are the town where my father was born, and a club that I’ve seen over 30 times at home and many more away games. 

Pablo

Luton recently got back into League Two and were promoted to League One. When are they going to win the EPL title? 

Alex

I’d love to think they can simply march on to greater and greater things as each season goes by. Promotion, the Championship, into the top flight, win an FA Cup final and qualify for the Europa League, then win that and qualify for the Champions League, win that!

Pablo

About the A-League future and the process that is needed, what are your views?

Alex

Expansion should be a very high priority. The fact that we are only admitting two new teams I’m a bit puzzled with despite experiences of the two abortive Queensland teams of years gone by. First and foremost, we need a pathway for younger Australian players to have top flight football available to them, and to facilitate that we need more clubs for them to be part of squads.

Why don’t we have a team in our national capital playing in the A-League? It is a higher priority than giving a helping hand to New Zealand football through a team in their capital city.

Pablo

Out of the current short list for expansion, which are the more deserving?

Alex

What is best for representing parts of Australia so far unrepresented, I’m very much in favour of Canberra with a club to support. The Wollongong Wolves deserve to be rejuvenated as a top-flight club.*

Pablo

So that is building upon an existing grassroots club, and that is one of the arguments that you don’t just manufacture another franchise new club.

Alex

The club that was NSL champions and the club that now competes in the NSW NPL, I don’t know if we can really compare them as the same entity in that way. If they eventually got into the A-League I wouldn’t view them as 'Old Soccer'. They are a football club with a long and illustrious history, including existing administrators and people who are passionate supporters that should be embraced.

Pablo

Do we build upon an existing culture and long history in football, is that part of the key?

Alex

We should, it’s been neglected so far. That wasn’t the model of the A-League, they wanted to have something of a clean break, and new broom. The new national administration (from 2004) thought it was not simply inept administration holding us back, but perception of ‘ethnic tensions’. I can sympathise with that to some extent. However, you eliminate so much existing support, passion and enthusiasm for the beautiful game and there is so much resentment about that amongst supporters of clubs in the NPL which I completely understand.

Pablo

Do you agree with establishment of a second tier with promotion and relegation and by when?

Alex

Completely, it’s the only way forward, and by about 2025.

Pablo

What are your future ambitions for football overseas?

Alex

I’m one of relatively few Australians who have travelled to watch the Socceroos in World Cup qualifiers in Doha including when we qualified for the 2010 finals. I will not go back to Qatar considering the method by which the country achieved the hosting rights and their labour employment practices to build stadia. I will follow and support our national team elsewhere in games of qualifying for 2022.

I am very happy about the 2026 World Cup hosted in North America especially the opportunities for attending games in Canada and being at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

Pablo

Is there a ‘sleeper’ of AFC football that is going to emerge as a real powerhouse?

Alex

In the ASEAN region, in particular from population rich countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia that are closing the gap.


Editor's Note: Since the interview, FFA has announced that Wollongong Wolves did not make the shortlist for A-League expansion. 


Categories: People | Football Life

a-league, socceroos, football culture

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