The A-League Finals Series is over in a snappy five games and three exciting weekends.
But what if it kicked off in March, ended in June and had 11 games!
Unthinkable. But this actually happened.
There was a time not that long ago when the old FFA (Soccer Australia) felt the Finals needed something quite radical.
It turned out to be a marketing disaster.
In the 2002/3 NSL season - the penultimate of the old national league before the new A-League kicked off in 2005 - the NSL was struggling big time.
After the NSL became an innovator in Australian sport with its national league concept in the 1970s - way before other codes cottoned on to the marketing potential - by 2002, the league was badly in need of a reboot.
Crowds were down, clubs were struggling financially, interest was flagging and the end was nigh as the Crawford Report into the running of the game was looming.
So, with the Finals Series the only real crowd puller, the governing body at the time went all out with a Finals Series extravaganza in 2003, rebranded as the “Championship”.
The six-team Finals Championship was essentially a mini-league; it went for 11 games, including the Grand Final.
The regular NSL season ran for 24 games. So, the Finals 'Championship' that year ran for almost half a league season.
The top two sides on the ladder were Sydney Olympic Sharks and Perth Glory. They were hot favorites.
Even more so after each club was given ‘bonus points’ to start.
Olympic as Premiers were given six bonus points; Glory as runners up three points.
All other teams started from zero.
The public and the media looked at the Championship as little more than a confusing attempt at a cash grab ahead of the inevitable finale between the two best teams in the land.
And sure enough, Glory and Olympic met on Grand Final day.
But before that, the Championship kicked on March 21.
Glory put the Championship on notice smashing a 10-man Spirit 5-0.
Adelaide Force edged Olympic 1-0 and Newcastle United lost at home to Parra Power 2-1.
But disappointingly for Soccer Australia, the public didn’t embrace the new concept. In fact, the public was generally confused by it.
Even with Perth playing at home, a modest average of 4239 for Round 1’s three games underlined the public’s doubt over the concept.
And it didn't improve, with crowds of between 2214 and 3515 in Round 2.
One game between Spirit and Newcastle was postponed due to monster rainstorms. With both sides no hope of winning the Championship, they didn’t even bother to reschedule the match.
Interestingly, two current A-League players played in this experimental Finals format: Andrew Durante (Olympic Sharks) and Northern Spirit’s Alex Wilkinson. Current Matildas coach Ante Milicic also played for Olympic.
The Championship dragged on as the two best sides in the league - Olympic and Glory - confirmed their inexorable path to the Grand Final.
The public soon got confused - and bored - with one game pulling just 1287 fans.
The media lost interest pretty quickly, too, as the top two sides eased through the Finals with one eye on the big dance.
Glory ‘won’ the Finals Series with 27 points from 10 games. Olympic saw off Adelaide Force to finish second with 19 points.
Olympic and Glory met in the Grand Final.
And for Glory fans, who’d waited long enough for silverware, the Championship couldn't finish quick enough.
But it was worth it, Mitch D'Avray's men finally winning a home grand final defeating Lee Sterrey's Olympic 2-0 on June 1, to end the longest finals series in history.
Jamie Harnwell after 29 minutes and Damian Mori’s late goal confirming the title in front of almost 40,000.
The season was finally over.
As former Parramatta Power midfielder Brad Maloney told FTBL today when asked about the finals that year.
“It was a long series!”
The 'Championship' concept was ditched after one season.
*Stats courtesy of our friends at www.ozfootball.net