Finals Insult

As published by Inside Sport, October 2010

For pigskin devotees, a warmer sun and tang of pollen in the air signifies the end of football’s formalities.  Now’s the time for perennial moaning about flawed playoff formats.  It’s time for a finals solution.

September jolts the senses like a Barry Hall love tap.  Hope springs eternal and a more intense drama unfolds.  As the rollercoaster ride negotiates the final twist, the planets align for one lucky tribe and players’ reputations are made and shattered.

Sharing our sense of theatre, US sports commonly up the ante with conference pennants and best of seven showdowns.   A cynic might point to monetary motivations, but at least the outcome is decisive and offers a chance at redemption for a bad day at the office.

Oddly, the world game generally eschews the rigorous, unrelenting pressure of finals, despite the celebrated FA and World Cups.  A heftier weight carried by regular season matches struggles to overcome the lack of a nation stopping decider.   Even though the EPL, for example, has enjoyed some tight finishes in recent years, the word anti climax is hard to avoid.   This year was a prime example, the title up for grabs on the last day.  Alas, for the crunch games Chelsea and Manchester United were pitted against lightweights Wigan and Stoke.  Predictably, respective 8-0 and 4-0 hidings enabled the Blues to preserve their one point lead.

Yep, can you possibly imagine our footy without finals?  But whilst it’s easy to point the finger and guffaw at soccer’s lack of suspense, the current finals systems employed by our pre-eminent football codes must equally perplex round ball fanatics.

Aussie Rules discovered long ago the value of a final act, although the impetus was actually a freak occurrence where Collingwood and South Melbourne finished the 1896 Victorian Football Association season tied in every measurable respect.  So exciting was the subsequent ‘grand final’, the new breakaway Victorian Football League adopted weird and wonderful finals systems over the next 30 years.

Although his primary passion and notoriety was derived from Portuguese history, lawyer and mathematician Ken McIntyre is a common thread by which premierships have since been determined.   Born in 1910, McIntyre devised a final 4 series utilised by the Victorian Football League from 1931-1971, when he tweaked it to include a fifth team.  McIntyre’s final 5 system arguably provided the best balance of reward, justice and opportunity.  Incredibly, by the 1990’s when an expanded national competition prompted a final 6, the League still had McIntyre’s phone number.  The Six was hardly a resounding success, though for obvious reasons a final 8 resonated more with administrators and broadcasters anyway.  Still going strong, McIntyre conjured a final 8 for the 1994 AFL season.

Several unsatisfactory permutations instigated a change by the AFL for the 2000 season, using a system that Kim Crawford, a Tasmanian PE teacher, claimed to have sent them back in 1994 (with a list of flaws pertaining to McIntyre’s baby).  The AFL’s unwillingness to grant the footy buff his slice of history nearly saw the issue of naming rights wind up in court.  McIntyre also had his two bobs; that Crawford’s plan was one of many he’d developed over the years anyway.  Ironically, the Super League war scuppered the NRL’s use of a Crawford model, only to take up the AFL’s McIntyre cast-off in 1999!

To the chagrin of many, the NRL has stuck with the McIntyre Eight.  Like the McIntyre Six, a foundation of discourse is that teams’ destinies are reliant on other matches, with 3rd to 6th initially playing for an ill-defined objective i.e. a Preliminary Final birth or mere survival.  Nor does a first week where 1st plays 8th and 2nd plays 7th overly excite.  If seventh or eighth do cause a boilover (as per half a dozen instances so far), then a range of anomalies present; 3rd or 4th might be eliminated, just as 5th or 6th is handed an ill-deserved double chance.  And with the home ground advantage policy, as occurred last year the minor premier (St George) pays a heavy price for choking in week one.

Nevermind their own failings, the Dragons’ experience sparked fresh debate.  Luminaries of the Wayne Bennett and Darren Lockyer calibre voiced preference for the AFL’s system, just as NRL Chief Tim Gallop adamantly railed against it (based on State of Origin considerations, of all things).  An alternate model devised by Warren Ryan was put to clubs, along with the AFL’s format.  Whilst the clubs and the NRL were keen to find a better way, not surprisingly a consensus remained elusive and the status quo prevailed.

Cronulla’s CEO Richard Fisk believes perception merely changes every year subject to the make-up of the eight.  He noted that when team three gets knocked out the system is condemned, but every other year they win through and all’s well.

“It amazes me how stubborn these sports administrators are for not using the best system available straight away” blogged Crawford, frustrated at typically conservative, if not stagnant thinking.

Not that his own AFL model is without perceived deficiencies.  History shows that mediocrity’s reward is predictable and ultimately futile finals campaigns.   Despite a heavily compromised, inequitable draw to begin with, in a full decade of activation no team placed 5-8 has won through to the big dance, and almost without fail, every top four team has survived until the Preliminary Finals.

As McIntyre pointed out a decade ago, there is no incentive, other than home ground advantage (often a non-issue anyway), to finish top as opposed to fourth.  Or fifth opposed to Eighth.  Where a team is several games clear of 5th spot, why bust a gut in the latter rounds when their first-up opponent shares the same ramifications for a win or loss?

Professionally run, big business sporting competitions must surely do better than defective finals series ostensibly designed to maximise revenue, and necessarily crammed into a restricted time period.  Philosophically the dilemma is the best teams are rightly given every chance to play off for the flag.  In which case, how do you make a final 8 interesting?  Then a Parramatta comes along and as many gravitate to the prospect of a Cinderella story as decry a system that’s allowed it to happen.

Long-time AFL expert Robert Walls believes the product is diluted, with too many ordinary teams already playing finals, and that the AFL has conned fans into believing their team is successful because they finished in the top eight.  Worryingly, rumours persist the AFL’s impending 18 club competition may entail a final 9 or 10, typical of the modern day penchant for providing a crash mat for failure.  As Walls commented recently;

“Hopefully when the league becomes an 18-team competition in 2012 we won’t have a final-10 system imposed on us.  Rewarding more than 50 per cent of the teams with finals action would be wrong.  This mindset to finish top eight puts pressure on coaches to get their teams into finals, when the priority should be to get their team into a position where they can win a flag.”

The A-League currently uses the standard McIntyre top 4 harking back to the old days of the VFL and NSWRL, the only embellishment being a home and away semi final aspect.  One hopes an expanded A-League learns from the NRL and AFL experience, and resists going down a similar confused path, guided by dollars rather than sense.

Soccer does without finals yet the AFL and NRL is at the other end of a convoluted extreme.  Should the AFL or NRL be looking to modify their current systems, Ken McIntyre won’t be available, having expired in 2004.  If only old Ken knew what trouble he’s causing!   Because really, his finest work occurred decades ago.  Unlikely as it is, reverting back to the best finals system, a final 4 or 5, would be the logical, satisfactory way to please most of the people, most of the time.

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