Sydney FC need to be more than just ADP
What ADP now expects from the Hyundai A-League, the competition also expects from him.
A year later, a year wiser. What Alessandro del Piero now expects from the Hyundai A-League, the competition also expects from him. Of all the sub-plots heading into the new season, this is the one which fascinates me the most. 'Ale' may be used to pressure, as he often reminds us, but that doesn't mean he's immune to it. How Sydney FC handle the dynamic swirling around their superstar will, unquestionably, define their season.
This time last year, it was all new, exciting, and scarcely believable. Del Piero's decision to cross the world and join the Sky Blues generated unprecedented exposure, both at home and abroad. And despite the occasional hiccup, 'ADP' delivered handsomely, both on and off the field.
The stars aligned for both the player (who scored 14 goals) and the competition, although not - of course - for the club. Nonetheless, Sydney FC's failure to make the finals was almost viewed as a secondary concern to the grand mission of building crowds, building sponsorships, and - not least - building bridges to the rest of the world. On all three counts del Piero lived up to his billing. Hailed as a Messiah, and justly so.
But that was then. This is now. On the eve of the new campaign, Sydney FC seem to have mortgaged their fortunes to the vagaries of del Piero's ageing hamstrings more than ever. Making him captain (replacing club stalwart Terry McFlynn) tells only part of the story.
Sydney FC's entire pre-season was effectively built around the requirements of 'ADP', whose only warm-up on Australian soil came in the final trial against Perth Glory. True enough, he signed autographs in places like Wollongong and Cairns, but he didn't take the field. Instead he preferred to build his fitness base in Italy, where the Sky Blues spent almost three weeks on a promotional tour organised by del Piero's company. At times some of his teammates felt like extras in an 'ADP' biopic, although you won't get them saying it publicly.
None of this means there are rifts, or cliques, or problems. But it does suggest Sydney FC have to be careful they don't become a one-man band.
Heading into the opening game against Newcastle Jets, it's clear the Sky Blues have plenty of room for improvement if they hope to figure among the title contenders. Plans to defend higher up the park, quicken the transition, and get more penetration from new fullbacks Marc Warren and Pedj Bojic are - in part at least - designed to create enough energy and movement to compensate for del Piero's lack of workrate. He's almost 39, after all.
There is nothing new, of course, in allowing an exceptional player the luxury of playing the game at his own pace. The hard part is making it work, and based on the run-in to the new campaign (five straight losses) it's fair to say a Sydney FC supporting cast which bares little resemblance to last season's is not yet in tune with the star act. Whichever way you cut it, 'ADP' absence from so many trial matches can't have helped.
And so we come to the precipice of a new season full of hope and anticipation for the Sky Blues fans, who desperately want to believe the del Piero experiment is about to reap its reward. In the hyper-competitive Sydney sporting market, that means winning, and entertaining, football. In a city which now tries to accommodate 21 professional sporting franchises, things have become even tougher thanks to the stunning success of Western Sydney Wanderers. Throw in sporting royalty like Sonny Bill Williams and Lance Franklin, and the truth is Sydney FC have even less margin for error in the never-ending quest for hearts and minds.
The good news is that the Hyundai A-League itself is now robust enough to deal with whichever way this turns out. History has also shown us that the Sky Blues will ultimately survive, no matter what. Which leaves 'ADP'.
In what is probably the final season of a decorated professional career, the great man needs to prove that he's still got what it takes to influence a football match. How we measure that may be subjective, but eventually it will become self-evident. 'Ale' reckons he thrives under pressure. Whether it's by circumstance, or design, that's where he's left himself. With nowhere to hide.