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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

The APL should prioritise active support, not families

This December just gone witnessed one of the finest Melbourne derbies to date, with a rare scene in the Australian game that harkens back about half a decade now.

It wasn't a class marquee weaving through a pack of tired legs to make front-page news; it wasn't even an AFL type trying to put the round ball game in its place after a successful derby.

No, it was the rise and revival of a rejuvenated Melbourne Victory active support, who had just about filled the allocated away section at AAMI Park.

Victory fans in full force for the away derby recently. (Melbourne Victory)

It was something marvelling appreciation and praise across the fandom and relevant circles.

But it also highlighted something of a deeply rooted issue in the game.

The sad decline in the Australian game, for the most part, has been down to an array of issues causing mass debates from all areas of the game.

But the one thing we all know is struggling right now is crowd numbers, particularly from the once-thriving active supporter groups.

The modern-day league and fan scene have numbers, but how long can they be maintained before the APL takes action?

Around six and bit years ago, midway through the 2015-16 A-League Men season, active supporter groups staged a mass boycott as a broader response to the foolish, borderline criminal exposé from News Corp's sports reporter Rebecca Wilson.

Wilson had publicly named football fans (including some minors) who faced charges following misconduct at games.

I won't summarise much more than that, but it sparked a belief within the game that was something to be proud of for its fans.

Many in the Australian media establishment continue to criticize active support and its culture, and fans have fought back in almost every case.

But the modern-day fight back shouldn't be led by the game's fans but by those in charge of its governance.

As with the Christmas and New Year period of years gone by, the marketing of the A-League, FFA, and now APL has targeted the family market and younger sports-mad children to attend matches over their school holidays.

While practical and adequate in certain areas, such a move does not touch on helping those with years of blood, sweat, and tears in the game.

It does not entice those that help the game as a movement and not a sport.

APL chief Danny Townsend, now full-time, has promised to work more for the fans. (Getty Images)

So from this point forward, and at any point in the future, should the game possess the power to campaign, with funding and all, the solution should not solely lie on young kids to grow the game.

It's quite the opposite actually; it should lie with those who take to the frontlines and lie with their passionate and jovial active support.

Back in 2016, in the aftermath of Wilson's story and the boycotts, Copa90 and presenter Eli Mengem posted a video entitled "Football Fans Fight Back in Australia".

Most of the video has aged rather intriguingly.

But the thing that sticks out is how many Western Sydney Wanderers fans are with Mengem and his crew upon arrival in Parramatta.

This period of the game down under saw its stagnant popularity birthed, yet what remained was an incredible support and an extremely active base.

On-field performances may have sparked these issues for clubs like Victory and the Wanderers.

However, we know we've just come off a decline in the game, and the issue, as previously stated, is deeply rooted.

Fans were named and shamed by Wilson.

They have received bans from watching their club for trivial reasons such as setting off flares or jumping over a fence to take in the atmosphere or celebrate a goal.

You see, they were breaking the rules, as they may even say so themselves, but the contextual reasoning for such behaviour is essential.

When someone jumped the fence, they jumped back.

When someone lights a flare, they've been part of an atmosphere where it's is socially accepted.

The people around them are safely going about their business and are entirely aware one could be lit off.

Suppose someone is in an active area.

You already have an area that is guaranteed to be a home for trouble and wild behaviour by its label.

By no means are you entirely out of danger, but it's set up that way in the first place.

The mitigation of any issues occurring and the idea of occupying an active base at a stadium in the safest way possible should abolish the exact problem. Regulate but do it right.

If the APL is this rebirthing of life and passion in the game, as they claim to be, they will stand by the game and its active support at any cost.

They will help introduce safe smoke, assist with walk-ins by directing fans through to the proper support, and cooperate with local councils to minimize police presence.

I could hone in on this idea more.

But ultimately, they need a strategy, and they need it as swiftly as possible to help carry the game and its active support back to a time when it truly flourished.

Wanderers fans have struggled to settle into CommBank Stadium due to poor on-field performances. (AAP)

This rejuvenation is achievable by reaching out to the fans themselves first and foremost.

As we have seen previously with the boycotts, those in charge or heavily associated with active groups have had lengthy talks with figures considered to be a part of the establishment of the game.

Pundit Mark Bosnich was heavily involved in supporting active fans during the boycott.

But as a now independent A-League, that seat previously occupied by the media may now lie with the APL.

There isn't a shred of doubt in my mind it'll be a logistical challenge.

For all they have done, the APL still has to earn the respect of hardened active fans to be a trustworthy source.

This issue makes the overall structure and strategy a complex process.

However, it is undoubtedly a process they must endure for the game's sake.

Active support is the very lifeblood of why so many within football communities have come to love the game.

For some fans, it's the only reason to attend the games.

For a certain few, it is the equivalent of the love and passion we also pour into our families and friends, or for social causes, and political parties and groups.

It's all the more disappointing, then, that active support has wavered, and the game has lost its way.

If the APL have the funding, they must provide the tool to entice that brand of people back to where they belong.

It doesn't matter how they do it or what it takes; the Australian football fandom is hurting.

The APL is here to oversee growth and investment, and it's time for them to work on mending the relationship with active supporter groups to better the game.


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