Sun shines on A-League

When things are going your way you have to take advantage of the situation. Saturday was one of the biggest days on Sydney's sporting and social calendar - Doncaster day at the newly renovated Royal Randwick with the queen of the Sydney turf, Gai Waterhouse, and her super colt Pierro set to take centre stage. The rain bucketed down - there were even fears the meeting might have to be abandoned - and Pierro was beaten, albeit gallantly.

Twenty-four hours later, the situation was the opposite on soccer's grand final afternoon. The sun shone and the two top teams turned out in perfect conditions in front of a bumper crowd that packed the Allianz Stadium.

Crowds and interest are up, the game's digital footprint is rising rapidly and a new TV deal worth some $40 million a year was inked just a few months ago.

And, of course, it's impossible to ignore the extraordinary achievement of the Western Sydney Wanderers. This time last year the club was a back-of-the-envelope proposition. Tony Popovic was recruited as head coach, and he persuaded his brother-in-law and another former Socceroo, Ante Milicic, to leave Melbourne Heart and move back to the western Sydney roots they share.

Their recruitment of a band of low-profile players, many of whom had been dumped by their former clubs, a handful of little-known foreigners and the one star on their list, Japanese international Shinji Ono, paid amazing dividends. The unit coalesced wonderfully and proved a much greater whole than the sum of its parts with a season that ended only on the very last day.

The standard of play, by common consensus, continues to rise - aided by the contribution of some big-name signings who have really delivered this season.

Too often, marquee players in the A-League have flattered to deceive and left fans wondering what the fuss was about. That can't be said this season.

Ono was inspirational in red and black.

Alessandro Del Piero was a one-man marketing machine for the game off the pitch where the glossy magazines and social set loved him as much as the fans on the terraces. On field, he so often inspired a poor Sydney team to the point where it remained a finals contender until the final day of the home-and-away campaign.

Even the oft-maligned Emile Heskey, the former England centre forward, delivered up in the Hunter Valley, scoring goals and attracting interest home and away as the Jets shook off the turmoil surrounding the business fortunes of owner Nathan Tinkler.

Exceptional as the Wanderers have been, and as good as the transformation wrought by Ange Postecoglou in what was a fractured club in Melbourne Victory, who finished third, the story of the season has, rightfully, been that of the champions, Central Coast, and coach Graham Arnold.

The former Socceroo striker has served a long coaching apprenticeship in the game, as an assistant national team coach for the best part of a decade under first his friend Frank Farina, then Dutchmen Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek.

He has learnt plenty along the way and it all came together on Sunday when he and his side finally shook the monkey off their back and took the championship in emphatic style, giving the Mariners their first title at their fourth attempt.

It was a richly deserved victory by the side that has been the most consistent club for years, a team that had already lost its star player - Tom Rogic - mid-season and will now have to rebuild for a championship defence without some of its most promising youngsters who are expected to move to Europe.

The story Sun shines on A-League first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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