On the marquee, Saturday evening was heralded as an evening of momentous A-League Men firsts: its new era celebrating opening night before a broader Australian audience it has craved for so long, with two derbies and three of the most well-supported clubs in the land on the bill. Alas, when the dust settled, both the on- and off-field performances across the dual stages in Sydney and Geelong -- with the Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC playing out a 0-0 draw in Parramatta, and Western United going down 1-0 to Melbourne Victory at Kardinia Park -- bore all the hallmarks of projects that are very much works in progress.
Despite the ALM season kicking off the night prior with Melbourne City's 2-1 win over Brisbane Roar -- a dress rehearsal, perhaps -- the Sydney Derby represented its first real tentpole: the first ALM game broadcast on free-to-air network Channel 10, with Victoria's Battle of the Bridge available at the same time on Paramount+. This arrangement represented the first occasion the leagues had embraced the scheduling of multiple games at the same time; an innovation the network had declared that was part of a "fans first approach to broadcasting football in Australia," even if supporters themselves had been slightly more lukewarm in their response.
New eras were well also represented on the park; eight players in Carl Robinson's starting XI were making a first league appearance for the Wanderers, seven Victory players lodging their competitive debuts in navy blue, and five for Western United. Given that continuity has been one of the pillars of their success, just one player -- the unfairly maligned Elvis Kamsoba -- was making his ALM debut in Sky Blue but, somewhat more unhappily for Sydney, their contest marked the commencement of a campaign in which the Harboursiders entered not as its defending champions or premiers for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
Yet despite taking on both an unfamiliar role of hunters and being forced into the lair of a Wanderer outfit that has spent big, recruited widely and placed significant cache in making a return to finals, coach Steve Corica's side largely bossed proceedings at Parramatta Stadium -- even if they weren't able to figure out a way to put the ball in the back of the net (something that haunted them prior to the midseason arrivals of Adam Le Fondre and Bobo in 2020-21).
Missing regular starters Luke Brattan, Kosta Barbarouses and Bobo, it was a performance that showed that the Harboursiders won't go quietly into the night in 2021-22. Nor, for that matter, will Milos Ninkovic who, despite being set to turn 37 next month, remains an effervescent figure. Indeed, in a league still waiting to make its next great tactical leap, there is nothing to suggest that Sydney's consistency in approach will serve as anything less than a positive until their rivals demonstrate a reimagining is required.
"I think we played really well," Corica said postmatch. "Maybe in the final third, we can improve a little bit, creating more chances, but overall we dominated -- I thought -- most of the game. I'm OK with it, we were good, we're going to improve."
Conversely, the Wanderers and their almost entirely new XI were denied a chance to commence their make-or-break campaign with a win. Big-name addition Jack Rodwell, eager to shed his diva reputation in the off-Broadway ALM, may have flashed some late signs by testing Andrew Redmayne in his 12-minute cameo off the bench, but Robinson is a coach that doesn't have the luxury of a slow burn build: he has to start winning, and winning regularly, lest the Wanderers brass looks to re-cast.
"It's not easy to have so many new players," he said. "But I'm not using that as an excuse. It might take a little bit of time. We literally have got a new team, and I said to them before the game, 'It's a new season, a new team and it's a new beginning.'
"What you've got to do is put fundamentals in place of what you want to be about as a football club and a team moving forward, and I think we did that.
"If we're playing at 70, 75 percent [of our capacity] against a team of the quality of Sydney, we're not going to win. But when you can't win, it's important you don't lose."
Down south, Tony Popovic and John Aloisi took up position in their respective Victory and United dugouts; and if anyone watching on at Kardinia Park wasn't aware that the combatants were breaking in a new system under new coaches before kickoff, the subsequent tussle that developed provided plenty of allusions to the nascent nature of the coach's tenures.
Across the length of the 90, both sides showed some momentary moments of promise in transition -- Victory especially when working the ball to Chris Ikonomidis on the right -- but these fleeting exchanges all too frequently gave way to uninspiring and unconvincing maneuverings when it came to actually moving the ball into their foe's penalty area and creating a high-quality effort in their foes goal. The first 45, in particular, bore all the cagey hallmarks of two sides thrust into competitive play after logging less than a handful of preseason rehearsals between them.
In the end, it took Jake Brimmer driving a corner onto the head of towering defender Roderick Miranda to break the deadlock between the two sides -- the newly signed Portugal under-20 international dipping into that old, faithful well of the set-piece to make it 1-0 with 15 minutes to go. United would have a late shout for a penalty after Jason Davidson brought down Alessandro Diamanti contentiously waved away but, in the battle of two entities still under construction, Victory's three points were reflective of the slight edge they held in play across the length of the 90 minutes.
"We're pleased to win the game," said Popovic. "That's the most important thing.
"We know we didn't play so well in the first half, I felt we were poor, but we stayed in the game. It was a tough first half of football for both teams. We haven't played in so long -- it's our first competitive game.
"So, [it was] scrappy at times but [I'm] happy that we were solid as a unit. Second half I thought we improved and combined a lot better, moved the ball better and looked more of a threat. So, overall a 1-0 win and delighted away from home."
Yet on a night of new beginnings, it was the stage itself, and not the mere players on it, that earned the most ire from the audience.
In what industry publication TV Blackbox would headline as a "streaming disaster," viewers attempting to watch either the Sydney Derby or the Battle of the Bridge on Paramount+ complained of long glitches when refreshing, a lack of camera angles, the return of the ever-present buffering ring on the stream from Friday night's game, a lack of quality of life features such as rewinding, audio syncing delays, camera focus issues and, overall, a poor overall quality. Unable to ignore the growing malcontent, the outlet would be forced to post a public mea culpa on its social media.
We are experiencing extreme unforeseen technical difficulties during the Western United vs. Melbourne Victory game tonight. We sincerely apologise and are working hard to get this fixed ASAP.— Paramount+ Australia (@ParamountPlusAU) November 20, 2021
Beneficiaries of so much goodwill and appreciation from the zeitgeist since commencing their tenure as the game's primary broadcaster thanks to their promotional efforts and a general sense of enthusiasm, it was a reminder for the broader public that the outlet, with apologies to Monty Python, is not Australian football's messiah.
Of course, that it was quite literally Paramount+'s second night on the job means the affair isn't quite on the same level as the Tuba Guy-style incident that marred Fox Sports last year behind the camera; symbolic of the indifference, if not outright disdain, that the outlet had come to treat the leagues by the end of their relationship. Instead, it harkens back to the gremlins that struck Optus Sports' debut during the 2018 World Cup, errors that have since been rectified. Nonetheless, Optus' offering coming on a platform solely devoted to sport and piggybacking off a world feed produced by cashed-up FIFA for its footage means the comparison isn't an apples to apples one. Scrutiny in the future to ensure that football fans paying for the privilege of watching their team get good service in return is merited.
Ultimately, Saturday's night of historic debuts, though far from a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-level disaster, was a potent reminder that not every premiere is a pretty one. Whereas the 2021-22 campaign has been touted as the dawn of a new age, the evening provided a reminder that, in both a footballing and logistical sense, the A-Leagues reboot is one not without its question marks.