The A-League has a shiny new Socceroos-tied star but faces a threat from within as the ‘rival’ league emerges

It’s tempting to imagine a feel-good scenario of the Socceroos phasing out to a full house in Parramatta in a couple of weeks and Nestory Irankunda making his debut off the bench.

Irankunda is the talk of the A-League after coming on as a substitute and scoring his second goal in two weeks – and third in five games – in Adelaide United’s thrilling 4-2 win over leaders Melbourne City on Friday night.

More than 10,000 fans descended on Coopers Stadium to watch an exciting affair as the Reds came from behind to a victory that was sealed by Irankunda’s thrilling goal at half-time.

“You could call it a tap-in,” said the likeable 17-year-old, who has developed a habit of scoring spectacular goals off the bench.

The question is not if, but when Irankunda will be called up by the Socceroos – not least because he is still technically eligible to represent African nations Tanzania and Burundi at international level.

But if the A-League has taught us anything in recent seasons, it’s that as fans we have a habit of unduly getting excited about young talent before they’ve even had time to get their boots dirty.

Irankunda will get his chance in a green and gold jersey but it would be nice to see the teenager really step up and make his mark on Carl Veart’s battle-hardened Reds squad.

Nestory Irankunda of Adelaide United and Scott Robert Galloway of Melbourne City during the A-League Men's 19th round match between Adelaide United and Melbourne City at Coopers Stadium on March 03, 2023 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

Adelaide United’s Nestory Irankunda. (Photo by Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

And in the meantime, Adelaide United are aiming for a top two finish when it comes to winning Marko Rudan’s similarly somber Western Sydney Wanderers.

If you’ve only watched certain games in the A-League – and Wanderers overcame Marcelo’s surprise second-half dismissal on Saturday to beat Central Coast Mariners 2-0 – you get the impression that the league is booming.

Adelaide continues to draw decent crowds at home, Western Sydney’s form under Rudan is a welcome revival, while Wellington Phoenix continues to fly under the radar, although Ufuk Talay is clearly one of the best coaches in the competition.

But looking at half the games per round only tells half the story, and as is often the case in the A-League, every step forward is regularly met with countless regressions.

The image the Australian professional leagues gave to television audiences on Sunday afternoon – a day when the NRL’s newest club, the Dolphins, made their triumphant debut while the Sydney Kings struck back to level the NBL’s championship streak in Auckland – was one of empty seats.

When Macarthur beat Brisbane Roar 3-2 in a thriller in Campbelltown, they did so against a backdrop of thousands upon thousands of unfilled spots.

Is there anyone who thinks starting an A-League game at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer in Sydney is a sensible idea?

Are there really so many viewers tuning in to this time slot on Network 10 and Paramount+ that it can’t be pushed back to 5pm?

All of this contributes to the feeling that the APL is only responsible in name, as it appears unable to make changes that actually benefit the competition.

That’s an interesting dilemma as between 23 and 30 clubs are said to have submitted expressions of interest to join Football Australia’s National Second Division.

The NSD has understandably attracted a lot of interest, but what hasn’t been discussed much is the fact that without immediate promotion and relegation to the top division, it looks very much like a rival contender to the A-League – run by a rival faction.

There’s no guarantee a second tier won’t be more popular than the A-League it’s designed to complement.

Meanwhile, the APL could better hope for more spectacular goals from the likes of Irankunda.

Because there’s no point Macarthur and Brisbane Roar playing a five-goal thriller on Sunday afternoon when nobody’s looking.

The APL may think it’s okay to just let this season slip by, but they could soon have competition on their heels. The A-League has a shiny new Socceroos-tied star but faces a threat from within as the 'rival' league emerges

Russell Falcon

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