The Sydney FC dynasty that has delivered six trophies in the past four seasons – and the possibility of a seventh in Sunday evening’s A-League grand final – faces its biggest challenge of the modern era ahead of a momentous off-season.
Sydney has become the undisputed competition juggernaut in recent years, claiming three Premiers’ Plates, two championships and an FFA Cup triumph since the start of the 2016-17 season – a tally to which they can add another grand final win against Melbourne City at Bankwest Stadium.
They’ve been the model for all clubs to follow, for their ability to regenerate successful squads despite the departures of key names each off-season. But that will be put to the test in an enormous way in the coming weeks as player unrest around the competition begins to rear its head.
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In contrast to the rest of the A-League, where upwards of 70 players come off contract on Tuesday morning, Sydney have their entire squad signed up on deals taking them through to at least the end of next season.
But with an anticipated slashing of the salary cap incoming, with players to again be asked to accepted reduced wages, there’s a fear that those contracts will effectively become null and void – with many of the league’s stars angling for overseas moves.
Sydney striker Adam le Fondre has been strongly linked to an overseas move – with reports he’s deep in negotiations with Indian Super League outfit Mumbai City FC – but says the speculation about his future hasn’t been a distraction.
“The uncertainty for the league is for everyone to see,” he told News Corp.
“What happens in the future happens, but for the time being I’m focused on football for Sydney and going back-to-back.
“I don’t think it’s been a distraction for me. I’d be doing a disservice to the boys if I think about other things when I’m obviously trying to win the GF with the boys.
“All the players, we’re not really too focused on what’s next – we’re thinking of the right now and the here and now, that’s the most important thing really.”
Le Fondre is a perfect example of Sydney’s regeneration success, having arrived to replace Bobo on the back of a season in which the Brazilian star scored 27 goals.
“The first thing I did when I came was say ‘I’m going to try and beat that’,” Le Fondre said.
“As a player I needed those sort of goals in front of me and those challenges to inspire me and get my enthusiasm back to the levels I needed to be.”
Sydney chairman Danny Townsend said the club was “as stable as we’ve ever been” in terms of roster management, but accepts overseas clubs knocking on the door in search of a star is an inevitability when you enjoy as much success as the Sky Blues have.
“We made a move around January, when we knew we had a special group, that they wanted to stay together and we wanted them to stay together – so anyone who was off-contract we quickly extended,” he told News Corp.
“It sends a message when a bunch of players want their teammates to sign and stick with the club – they almost encourage each other to stick together.
“When you’re winning, the first place people come to look for players abroad are winning teams.
“The players that are scoring goals and contributing assists are always at risk (of being poached) because they’ve been performing.
“But in the absence of that type of thing we’re probably as stable as we’ve ever been in terms of having the full squad signed.”
A-LEAGUE’S ULTIMATE WARRIOR WILL CONTINUE TO DEFY TIME
He’s Mr A-League, but as he prepares for a sixth grand final, Sydney skipper Alex Wilkinson says there’s no chance he’ll pull the pin – even if the Sky Blues can create history on Sunday.
The 36-year-old has been around as long as the competition itself, having played in the very first A-League fixture when his Central Coast Mariners toppled Perth Glory 1-0, but remains at the top of his game having been voted by his peers into the Team of the Year this season.
Sunday’s decider against Melbourne City will give Sydney a chance to move into rarefied air with a record fifth A-League title, and give Wilkinson a chance at a third title from six attempts.
There are few people who have lived and breathed the A-League quite like Sydney’s level-headed leader who, as a 21-year-old, produced a desperate lunging tackle to try and deny now-captain Steve Corica in the very first grand final.
As is often the case, Corica would not be denied – slotting home under Wilkinson’s legs to notch the winning goal and seal Sydney’s first piece of silverware.
“I was sliding in to try and stop him and he hit it under me, so we’ve joked about it a few times but it’s a long time ago now,” Wilkinson told News Corp Australia.
It would be the first of three grand final heartbreakers for the stoic central defender, who has twice since tasted success under Graham Arnold and Steve Corica at Sydney.
“15 years on, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Wilkinson said.
“Not many players get to be in the game, in the professional game for that long. I’ve been lucky with not too many injuries and whatnot, being able to stay pretty healthy and my body is still holding up really well and that’s helped me still be able to be playing now.
“If you’d ever asked me if I’d be lucky enough to play in six grand finals, I never would’ve thought that. It’s a huge honour and goes to show I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of great teams and great players.”
Wilkinson helped send one of Sydney’s greatest clubmen, Alex Brosque, out with the fairytale ending in last year’s grand final triumph over Perth – but says, having agreed to sign on for next season, not even victory on Sunday will tempt him to hang up the boots.
“I’m 100 per cent locked in regardless of what happens on Sunday,” he said.
“I’ve said before my body is still good and I’m really still enjoying playing. It’s a great group of guys we’ve got here.
“It’s a pleasure to come to work every day and I’m really still enjoying my football.
“Brosquey got the fairytale last year in his last game and that was fantastic for him – and it rarely happens that way. But I definitely want to play on and continue on, hopefully building more success with Sydney.”
Wilkinson was one of the calming voices in the Sydney changeroom as the losses began to mount late in the season, with the Premiers’ Plate safely secured.
While those outside the club talked of form slumps, Wilkinson – along with coach Corica and the team’s senior players – ensured the wheels didn’t fall off, leading to Wednesday’s emphatic 2-0 semi-final victory over Perth.
“He’s such a calm figure which is very good because you need that calm influence in these sort of situations,” says veteran striker Adam le Fondre.
“We’re quite an experienced group as it is, it’s not as if we’re a squad full of young pups, but we all still lean on his experience.”
Star midfielder Milos Ninkovic, who at 35 is another experienced cog in the Sydney machine, believes the transition from Brosque to Wilkinson was as seamless as it was essential to continue the Sky Blues’ ruthless winning mentality.
“I’ve said it before, Brosquey was an unbelievable captain and I think Wilks learned so many things from him,” Ninkovic said.
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“Wilksy’s an unbelievable captain. He brings that (positivity) in the team and he means a lot for not just as a player (but) as a person to be in the dressing room.
“He’s a very important player to us and I said many times, when Brosquey was still playing, I can’t imagine Sydney FC without Brosquey, Wilkinson or Rhyan Grant.”