Box-office Jets and the best sides to miss the finals in A-League history
The finals series is a staple of Australian sport. It offers fans the chance to see the best sides throughout the competition in do-or-die matches as they look to be a part of their league’s showpiece event.
And despite it not being commonplace in world football, the A-League Men's finals series is still an essential part of the football calendar in Australia. The boost in attention, whether in the stands or on TV, is evident as fans clamour to see the best football teams from the regular season battle it out to be crowned champions on Grand Final day.
But what happens when the best teams from a season miss out on the finals series? Of course, a table never lies, and any team that makes the top six, or top four as it was in the league's early years, is deserving of their place.
But the A-League Men has undoubtedly seen a fair share of quality sides miss out on the finals series in its short history. Many suggest that this season's Newcastle Jets side is amongst the best in this group. FPF takes a trip down memory lane to look back at the sides who were most deserving of a finals spot but, for whatever reason, ultimately missed out.
Some fans have suggested that the 2021/22 Newcastle Jets side is amongst the best teams to miss the finals series. (Getty Images)
Western Sydney Wanderers 2017/18
It has undoubtedly been a bleak period for the Wanderers, having not made the finals series since the 2016/17 season. However, the team from this season was still exciting to watch, and their fans can make a case that they deserved more than what they achieved in 2017/18.
The club’s preparations were thrown into disarray when legendary coach Tony Popovic left for an opportunity in Turkey. What followed was the slow five-year demise of an Australian sporting success story. But in this season alone, there were signs that it could’ve only been a temporary dip for the once Asian champions.
Hayden Foxe had the side unbeaten in his four games in charge, albeit being held to three draws. When Josep Gombau put pen to paper, it filled fans with excitement. They expected the same quality and charisma that was on display during the Spaniard's time at Adelaide United.
Josep Gombau was brought in to replace Tony Popovic at the Wanderers following the latter's move to Turkey. (ABC)
The Charisma came, but the quality of football was a slower road.
It took until Gombau's sixth game in charge before he registered his first win, and the club struggled to gain any momentum after that. Glimpses of their potential were on display, though. Notable results included a comeback win over Melbourne City, a 4-0 thumping of the Wellington Phoenix, and their 3-0 victory over Brisbane Roar, the side that ultimately pipped them to the sixth spot.
Goals were easy to come by for this Wanderers side. They scored 39 in the league and 47 in all competitions, with top goal scorer Oriol Riera netting 15 in the A-League and 19 in all competitions. Attack-minded players such as Alvaro Cejudo, Mark Bridge, Brendan Santalab, and Roly Bonevacia also added to the excitement of the side.
But ultimately, a leaky backline held them back from reaching their potential, with the side struggling to find the same defensive solidity they had under Popovic. Gombau left at the end of the season following player in-fighting and an inability to adapt to his style. The Wanderers have since failed to reach even seventh place.
Newcastle Jets 2021/22
Arthur Papas was brought in to turn a club in disarray around, and his first pre-season saw the squad altogether rejuvenated.
And it wasn’t long before “Papas-Ball” was the talk of the league. They only picked up five points in their first five games. But the football on display had fans and rivals alike taking note, particularly after their 4-0 dismantling of the Wellington Phoenix in December.
A COVID enforced break meant that momentum had to be rebuilt, but wins slowly came more regularly when they did return. Their win over Melbourne Victory in February was a reminder of what they were capable of on their day. Their 6-1 thumping of cellar-dwellers Perth Glory was this Jets side at their clinical best.
However, the most astounding fact from this side was that they only failed to score on four occasions. They finished the season with 45 goals, the third-best of the campaign. Georgian striker Beka Mikeltadze finished as runner up for the Golden Boot with 13 goals, whilst star midfielder Daniel Penha registered 11 assists. These are two outstanding achievements in a side that ultimately finished 9th.
Beka Mikeltadze (left) and Daniel Penha (right) were revelations at Newcastle this season. (Newcastle Weekly)
Unfortunately, inconsistency was the downfall of this Jets team. “Box-Office” was what they were often described as, but some poor defensive displays were ultimately this side's Achilles heel.
Nonetheless, in a rebuilding season for the club, it has set an exciting platform for the future. Many fans will be curious to see how Newcastle builds on the positives they brought about this season.
Sydney FC 2012/13
Sydney FC was the talk of the league in the leadup to this season, with their transfer activity gaining the attention of football fans and sports fans in Australia as a whole. Why might that have been? Well, the signing of Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero had sporting fans across Australia excited.
The former Juventus star inked a two-year deal in September 2012, and his impact was certainly felt. The club saw a 7000 person increase in average attendance, going from 11,967 people in 2011/12 to 18,630 in this 2012/13 season, as fans clamoured to watch the 2006 World Cup winner live.
The signing of Del Piero was arguably the biggest in A-League history. (Sydney FC)
On the field, however, success wasn’t so prevalent. Del Piero himself lit up the league, scoring 14 goals and winning the Alex Tobin Award.
And this Sydney side did do their bumped-up crowd justice, with 23 of their 32 league points at home.
There were some standout moments for the side. They defeated eventual champions the Central Coast Mariners twice at home. Del Piero won the first-ever Sydney Derby away from home, and they dismantled the Wellington Phoenix 7-1. This match was arguably the Italian maestro's crowning performance, as he scored four goals.
But ultimately, a leaky defence and a poor away record saw the side struggle. Despite an increased goal tally from the previous season, Sydney finished three points and two spots lower in seventh. Brisbane confirmed their fate on the final day in a 3-1 away loss (where Del Piero scored the side's only goal from the penalty spot).
It wasn't to be their year, but there were still many moments Sydney fans can be proud of when looking back on that season.
The 2012/13 season ultimately ended in disappointment for Sydney FC. (SFCU)
Adelaide United 2007/08
After finishing first and second respectively in the previous two seasons, a strong offseason for United had their fans' hopes high.
But injuries took their toll on the club. A lack of consistency in personnel contributed to them missing the A-League finals for the first time.
It was no minor injury crisis either. First team players such as Bruce Djite, Nathan Burns, Angelo Costanzo, Paul Agostino, Diego Walsh, and Kristian Sarkies couldn’t manage more than 15 games throughout the season. Meanwhile, Dutch midfielder Bobby Petta only mustered up five appearances.
Paul Agostino was one of many Adelaide United players who battled injury during the 2007/08 season. (Adelaide United)
Moreover, Cassio and Jonas Salley also had small stints on the sidelines, making manager Aurelio Vidmar’s job all the more difficult.
However, the biggest hit to the side was when club captain Michael Valkanis' season finished after just three rounds due to a severe knee injury.
It was undoubtedly a challenging season for Adelaide, but the side still proved to be amongst the league's most entertaining.
They picked up 15 points at home, with four of their six league wins coming at Hindmarsh Stadium. And despite finishing sixth, this Adelaide side was the top goal scorers of the regular season, with 31 in 21 games. It was a massive achievement considering key striker Bruce Djite could only reach five goals in his 11 appearances.
Adelaide’s A-League campaign was ultimately a big ‘what if’. But fans eventually saw them at their best in the group stages of the Asian Champions League, which began just under two months after the end of their season.
And it proved to be a historic campaign for the Reds, who topped their group with four wins and two draws before going on a run to the Grand Final as the 2008/09 A-League season began.
Not bad for a side that finished sixth in an eight-team competition.
Wellington Phoenix 2020/21
It’s no secret clubs right across the A-Leagues have felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But not many clubs worldwide could even compare to the situation Wellington has faced. It's no easy task to base yourselves away from home, to another country, to be able to compete.
What made it more difficult was the number of departures they saw in the off-season. There wasn’t much expectation on this Wellington side to make an impact during the season.
But this didn't seem to bother the Phoenix, as they went on to make a serious push for finals football.
Their season started slowly, with only four wins in the first half of the campaign, and the team spent much of this time in the bottom four.
But they never looked out of place in any match, never losing by more than two. A core group of Cameron Devlin, David Ball, Ulises Davila, Reno Piscopo, and new star signing Tomer Hemed ensured they kept pace with the top six.
Tomer Hemed was Wellington Phoenix's top goalscorer in the 2020/21 A-League season with 11 goals. (FTBL)
And rewards for their persistence followed as the back half of the campaign started to see the results their performances justified.
Boosted by the return of Steven Taylor, the club only lost two games in the second half of the season and went on a run of 11 matches undefeated to end 2020/21.
They may have just missed out on the finals, but there was little to be disappointed about for Nix fans. The side scored 44 goals during this campaign, only bettered by the Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City. They finished with more goals scored and less conceded than those in fifth and sixth and also managed a better goal difference than third and fourth.
While playing most of their season away from home, all of this makes it extra special. The fans made sure to show their appreciation when they returned. Their two games in New Zealand attracted 24,000 and 22,000 people in Wellington and Auckland, respectively.
Wellington Phoenix fans showed their appreciation to the team when they returned home in May 2021. (Stuff NZ)
Of course, many more sides throughout the A-League’s history could have reached the finals in their respective seasons.
The Central Coast Mariners of 09/10, Sydney FC’s 15/16 side, and Newcastle’s 13/14 side, featuring a certain Emile Heskey, all had good defensive records in their respective seasons. But they lacked an attacking threat to become a force in the competition. On the flip side, Perth Glory of 05/06, Wellington Phoenix of 16/17, and the Newcastle Jets of 11/12 were all good attacking sides, with poor defensive efforts bringing them down.
Wellington scored 41 goals in the 2016/17 A-League season, with Roy Krishna scoring 12 of those. (Fox Sports)
It may be hard to argue a team should be in the finals over sides that earned more points across the season. But looking at the quality of some of the sides in this list, one can’t help but wonder how far they could’ve gone should they have made it.
In particular, those that finished the regular season in good stead. The sides that were in the finals in those campaigns may count their lucky stars that these sides missed out. But it will always be a case of what might have been for the fans.
Want to read more of our A-League Men finals coverage? Click here for our full guide!