The FFA Cup has only been going for three years but already it has captured the imagination of the soccer public – nowhere more so than in Victoria.
Two of the three FFA Cup winners – Melbourne Victory in 2015 and Melbourne City in 2016 – come from the state capital, while two National Premier League Victoria clubs, Hume City and Bentleigh Greens, have made the semi final.
The first winner, Adelaide, came from South . Beaten finalists Perth Glory (2014 and 2015) and Sydney (2016) came from WA and NSW respectively.
Queensland teams have fared poorly, with not even one side from the Sunshine State making it to the last four, something the ACT achieved last year when Canberra Olympic lost to Sydney.
Unlike the other footballing codes in which matches invariably are won by the highest quality team or the one that dominates possession, soccer lends itself to more regular upsets.
It is impossible to imagine a genuine knockout Cup competition in n Rules football or the rugby codes where power, strength and possession invariably determine results. State and second tier teams would have little chance even against the struggling top level teams due to the quality differential in players and the disparity in resources.
But the nature of soccer makes it much more possible for “mismatches” to provide compelling contests.
In soccer tactics can play a much greater role, with teams who can organise themselves defensively able to frustrate better credentialed opponents and sometimes score a goal on the break with what might be their only real attack of the match.
In footy or rugby, if a team has three times the number of inside 50s, entries near the try line or set shots for goal as its opponent, it’s not going to lose.
After three FFA Cup competitions it is possible to mine the data to find evidence of why and how the tournament – outside the obvious romance of a lower team knocking over a so-called superior – is popular, and what trends are emerging in the early years.
The Cup offers teams from all over the country from every tier of football the chance to progress and meet an A-League side in a knockout game.
As such it draws a huge entry. Data from a detailed survey of the FFA Cup collated by the players union, the PFA, shows that in year one of the competition 589 clubs entered, with over half coming from Victoria and NSW.
By the third year (2016) the number had grown by almost 20 per cent, with 700 teams entering from the earliest stages with, once again, the two most populous states providing the greatest number.
As there are only 10 A-League clubs, the vast majority of entrants come from the FFA’s “Member Federations”.
Of those the most successful – if success is measured by performance of second tier sides from the round of 32 onwards, which is when A-League teams come into the draw – is Victoria.
Teams from the NPL Victoria and lower Victorian leagues have played 30 matches at this stage of the competition and won 14, drawing five and losing only 11 for a win percentage of 47 per cent. Not all those games have been against A-League opposition, of course, but Victorian NPL teams Bentleigh Greens (2014) and Hume City (2015) have both progressed to the semi final, while Green Gully and Bentleigh both made the quarter finals in 2016.
Perhaps surprisingly the next best percentage performers have been clubs from the ACT and South , both from a much lower sample of seven matches. Teams from Adelaide and Canberra have won three of those encounters, giving them a 43 per cent success rate.
Teams from NSW have a relatively poor rate in comparison. Clubs affiliated to the Football NSW region won seven out of 26 games from the round of 32 onwards, drawing two and losing 17 for a 27 per cent record. Teams from the Northern NSW area have a much lower success rate than those from Canberra or Adelaide even though they played the same number of matches – seven. Northern NSW teams won only once at this stage of the competition, losing five and drawing once for a 14 per cent strike rate.
Queensland clubs fared reasonably well in broad terms, winning seven out of 20 for a 35 per cent hit rate, but rarely at the latter stages of the tournament, with none having ever made a semi final.
Given the nature of the fixtures – where there are teams of various mixed abilities – the scores in games tend to be bigger than on average.
The PFA data shows that the average FFA Cup goals per game ratio has been around 4.5 per match for the three seasons of the competition, some 50 per cent more than the just under three goals a game averaged in A-League contests in the same period.
The story is much closer, it should be pointed out, from the round of 32 onwards when the A-League sides enter. Games become tighter and more evenly matched, and although the FFA Cup average is above three, the goals per game ratio is much more in line with the A-League.
It would seem counter-intuitive to think that the part timers of the Member Federation clubs would have a better away record than the professionals of the A-League, but that’s how things have emerged from the statistics of the first three years of the competition.
Non A-League teams have, on average, won 48 per cent of their away games compared to the 39.2 score for A-League sides on the road. Competition rules state that when an A-League side is drawn against a Member Federation team it has to play its fixtures at the lower ranked club’s ground.
“Despite lacking the fully professional logistical support of A-League teams, Member Federation clubs travelling interstate in the FFA Cup actually outperform A-League away teams. Perhaps the novelty and camaraderie of travelling away together has elevated the performance of these teams for one-off matches,” the report suggests.
Perhaps not surprisingly the average age of Member Federation club players is much lower – at 24.9 years – than that of A-League teams in Cup matches, where the average is 27.1. NPL teams tend to have younger players hoping to make a breakthrough and find a route into the professional game.
Member Federation clubs are also much likelier to play teenagers in Cup games according to the PFA data: some 13.5 per cent of appearances by players in Member Federation teams were made by teenagers compared to less than 7 per cent by A-League teams in Cup games.