Simon Hill has arguably been the most recognisable voice in Australian football for the past 16 years and throughout that time, his passion for the game has seemingly never wavered.
An outspoken member of the Fox Sports football team for over a decade, Hill is still quizzed every day about the state of Australian football and our national competition, despite no longer being technically employed in the broadcasting industry.
“Every day I get messages about the A-League,” Hill said in an exclusive interview with The Inner Sanctum.
“I’m no longer involved with it officially and yet it’s very difficult for me to be apart from it.”
I happened to pose to Hill one of the questions he is asked most when I had the pleasure of speaking with him over the phone in what turned out to be a fascinating interview.
“What have you made of the quality of the A-League this season?”
It was a question that Hill noted is asked far too often and one that plays a significant part in holding back the game in this country.
“I’m not having a pop at you because everybody asks it, but it’s a question that needs to be consigned to history.”
“This is a conversation we have far too much of in Australia. I don’t see other leagues in the world obsessing over quality in the same way that we do and I think there’s a reason for that,” Hill said.
“We look at the quality of games because we don’t have emotional commitment to the clubs and that remains the biggest problem we have as a league.
“I obviously come from England and I watched my team in the third division 21 years ago now and the quality was awful, but it didn’t matter, I still went every week because that was my club. In fact, if anything, the worse it got, the more I insisted on being there because my club needed me.
“I think that’s the sort of connection we need to foster between supporters and clubs and when we do that, then we’ll stop obsessing over the quality of games.”
The A-League returned this season for it’s sixteenth instalment after finishing the 2020 campaign with extremely limited capacity and a number of games being played without fans.
Larger crowds are now permitted in 2021, although many stadiums are operating under a restricted capacity.
Despite having less tickets to be sold, the vast majority of games are still not selling out, nor are they achieving the ratings desired by the game’s broadcasters.
The reason, Hill believes, is nothing to do with the quality of the league, but the connection supporters have to their club of chosen fandom.
“It’s been one of the best starts on the field for many a long season,” Hill said.
“I’ve enjoyed it, it’s nice to see some different clubs up the top of the ladder, particularly the Mariners. I’ve been excited by them and in particular Alou Kuol, who I think is terrific, but there are others as well so I think in general it’s been pretty positive on the pitch.
“Is it the Premier League? No, of course it’s not, but neither is the Croatian league or the Chinese league, neither is the outer Mongolian league but people still go and support those competitions because it’s theirs.
“There’s good games and bad games, there always has been but by and large, the A-League has this microscope applied to it every single week and the moment it drops below a certain quality, whoever deems that level to be, we start hating on the league.
“It’s ludicrous. The A-League is fine, it always has been fine, given its financial limitations.”
Hill believes that, particularly now with the A-League achieving independence from the FFA, the responsibility for establishing this passionate club-supporter relationship falls with the clubs themselves.
“The onus is on the clubs, really, specifically now that they own the league. They’re setting their strategic direction of where it’s headed, it’s up to them to connect to their communities,” Hill proclaimed.
“Some have done it pretty well. I know the Victory are struggling on the pitch at the moment but their connection to their fanbase historically has been pretty good. Sydney FC is pretty good as well.”
One club, though, started with a bang and revolutionised how we look at active support in this country, that is until the FFA stepped in, resulting in what Hill describes as a shameful episode.
“The Wanderers for a while were absolutely terrific but that’s dropped away, there are a couple of reasons for that,” Hill began.
“One was the stadium rebuild which disconnected the fans from the club for a while which was unfortunate, there’s nothing the club could have done about that, but the killing off of the active support which was largely done by the previous regime at the FFA should go down in history as one of the most shameful episodes of the sport in this country.
“That was our point of difference. They were our most rabid customers if you’d like and we killed it.
“A little bit of help from the mainstream media which we were unable or unwilling to resist at the time and actually say ‘well we might have one or two troublemakers, but you know what? our fans are the best in the country in any code’ which they were and are.
“We didn’t stick up for them and the result is they’ve walked away and I don’t blame a lot of them.”
Threats of point deduction saw the Wanderers forced to relocate active support seats and effectively disband the RBB in a matchday capacity in 2018 after a number of warnings from the FFA regarding anti-social activity.
Pressure makes diamonds, though, and clubs will certainly need to come up with a few gems to trigger resurgent interest in Australia’s national league and regain the atmosphere of the mid-2010’s.
“We’re now at the point where we need to try and coax them back and I keep hearing about ‘what can we do, can we negotiate with these fans?’” Hill said
“No, you don’t negotiate with supporters, you set in place conditions where they want to return and that’s up to the clubs. They’ve got to make that connection again with supporters and say not only do we want you, we need you, you’re the most important people in our club.
“The clubs have to become not only sustainable but thriving entities that have big supporter bases that in turn through their money, drive the development of those clubs and the league.
“I think we have all our arguments at the moment completely the wrong way around.
“We obsess over quality, coaches, player development and I’m not saying those things aren’t important, they are, but the fundamental basis of professional football is you’ve got to have fans to support it because if you don’t, it’s not going to work.
“The question should be ‘how’s my team doing?’
“That’s the question we don’t ask enough of.”