Who will be in the top job at Sydney FC when the 2014-15 A-League campaign kicks off? The hot seat is currently vacant after Frank Farina was dismissed on Wednesday.
The former Socceroos boss took the Sky Blues to fifth place in his first full season in charge, having replaced Ian Crook early in the 2012-13 campaign. Farina came in for some serious flak from the Sydney supporters at times last term, the heat ramping up following a three-game losing streak between Round 2 and Round 4, and then increasing when the team failed to win for five matches during late December and much of January.
A top-four finish would reportedly have triggered a contract extension for Farina. Despite failing to achieve that goal, the 49-year-old, speaking after Sydney's elimination final loss to Melbourne Victory last Friday, suggested he still had a deal beyond the end of the 2013-14 campaign. And the wording of the club statement advising us of the coach's departure appeared to confirm that.
While questions will be asked about Farina's exact contractual situation prior to his departure, the biggest issue now for the club is getting the right person to take the team forward, and giving them the tools to do so.
Uncertainty also surrounds skipper and international marquee player Alessandro Del Piero, who seemed to suggest he wanted to stay with the club next season when interviewed on the pitch immediately after the 2-1 playoff defeat at Etihad Stadium. He will turn 40 just two months into the new campaign, and despite his commercial appeal and ability to change a game, it remains to be seen if the Sky Blues hierarchy is willing to make another significant financial outlay on the aging star.
Sydney don't have a domestic marquee player. Of their Australian contingent, Sasa Ognenovski impressed at the back since arriving in February, while forward Richard Garcia was an effective performer after joining from Melbourne Heart last year, without being spectacular. With Farina gone, Nick Carle and Matt Thompson, who fell out with the coach last season, could be granted a reprieve. Goalkeeper Vedran Janjetovic acquitted himself well, and a full pre-season for fit-again Terry Antonis could make a big difference going into the new season.
It's a tough one between the 5-0 Australia Day thrashing of arch-rivals Melbourne Victory or the 3-1 derby triumph at the expense of cross-city foes Western Sydney in Round 22. The heavy win at Etihad Stadium was a major surprise, while some uncharacteristically bad defending from Tony Popovic's men allowed fans in The Cove to celebrate a rare emphatic triumph over their new noisy neighbours.
An insipid 3-0 loss at home to Adelaide in Round 18 was Sydney's sixth defeat in eight games and saw one supporter throw a beer over Farina, as others unveiled banners calling for the coach to be dismissed, together with chants criticising the club's board and owner. The injury-time loss to Victory was also a bitter pill to swallow after giving at least as good as they got in that final.
Cove in revolt | Sydney's active supporters made their feelings clear mid-seasonOff the field
The Sky Blues embarked on a groundbreaking pre-season tour of Italy with star attraction Del Piero in tow last year, proving A-League clubs - if they have the right asset - are capable of generating interest outside these shores. However, with crowd numbers inconsistent throughout the season itself and members less than convinced by the board's blueprint for long-term success, there are still lots of boxes for Sydney to tick before they can hope to compete with the likes of the Roar and the Wanderers on the field and commercial powerhouse Melbourne Victory off it.
Where to next?
Tough decisions need to be made on whether or not it's worth re-signing Del Piero, and building a team around him, for another season. Should that call be postponed until a new coach is appointed? Probably. Lumbering Farina's successor with a player, no matter how feted, they may not want is hardly the sort of progressive, holistic approach the club's supporters are crying out for. But then again, a delay could see them lose their prized asset elsewhere. Rock, hard place.
Another up-and-down campaign which has done little to win back lapsed supporters, attract new fans or appease the diehards. Del Piero continues to paper over the cracks, but is perhaps also holding back the club from making genuine progress. This is a significant crossroads for Sydney FC. Will they choose the right path?