The retention of Johnny Warren medallist Milos Ninkovic is a huge statement of intent from A-League champions Sydney FC but is just the start of a crucial recruitment period for the club.
Sydney announced on Tuesday that Ninkovic has signed a contract extension that will keep him with the Sky Blues for another year, with a significant pay increase meaning the 32-year-old will be a marquee player in 2017-18.
Coach Graham Arnold has already set a target of defending Sydney’s A-League premiership-championship double next term and Ninkovic’s decision to stay will be vital if the Sky Blues are to do so.
The attacking midfielder struck the winning penalty in Sunday’s shootout triumph over Melbourne Victory, while he finished the season leading the club for chances created (47), assists (11), successful dribbles (43), fouls won (69) and – somewhat surprisingly – ball recoveries (208).
Ninkovic also chipped in with nine goals – behind only Bobo (15) and Alex Brosque (11) at Sydney.
With AFC Champions League (ACL) commitments next season, history suggests Sydney will find it hard to challenge for domestic silverware again, although Arnold reminded reporters after Sunday’s success that his team effectively have a 17-point head start on the rest of the A-League.
Brisbane Roar are the only club to have won back-to-back championships in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and they failed to win a game in their inaugural ACL campaign when juggling continental and domestic commitments on their way to a second ‘Toilet Seat’.
By securing their best player for another campaign, Sydney not only send a message to the rest of the competition that they will still be dangerous but also give the rest of Arnold’s squad something to think about.
Both of this season’s marquee players – Bobo and Filip Holosko – may be tempted to forgo bigger salaries elsewhere in order to keep the core of a successful team together and push for more silverware.
Holosko is understood to be the player most likely to take a pay cut to get his salary underneath the A-League cap, while Arnold will also be keen to keep as many of his off-contract players as possible.
Centre-back Jordy Buijs, captain Brosque and regular substitutes David Carney, Milos Dimitrijevic and Matt Simon all need new contracts to stay next season, while Bernie Ibini’s loan deal from Club Brugge has come to an end.
Arnold claimed after the grand final that Sydney’s off-field set-up is so good it can convince players to “take unders” in terms of salary.
“In a salary cap system, why would you take $20,000 extra to go over the other side of Australia or to another club when you’re not going to get that type of stuff from the club?” he asked.
But Arnold, football manager Terry McFlynn and Sydney CEO Tony Pignata will have to be at their most persuasive to ensure every one of their championship-winners remains content with their lot heading into 2017-18.
With every A-League coach set to spend a significant part of their off-season trying to identify weaknesses in Sydney’s tactics and personnel, Arnold and Co. can’t expect that simply replicating this season’s tactics and personnel will be enough though.
Sydney’s squad – especially if Ibini and Holosko leave and Buijs stays – looks well-suited to playing with a back three, as Michael Zullo and Rhyan Grant would be ideal wing-backs, while the threat of Bobo, Ninkovic and Brosque as a front three is obvious.
In terms of Sydney’s overall squad, Arnold could attempt to upgrade on imports Dimitrijevic and Holosko, especially if the club provides funds for a ‘guest marquee’ signing.
The guest marquee rule, which effectively enabled Melbourne City to recruit Tim Cahill this season, allows clubs to recruit a third player outside the salary cap as long as Football Federation Australia (FFA) believes they add marketing and promotional value to the whole competition.
While the off-field elements of the rule can make it difficult for clubs to find the right player – Victory, Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers all reportedly had guest marquee options rejected by FFA this season – Sydney have shown a previous willingness to splash the cash.
Two of the A-League’s best marquees – Dwight Yorke and Alessandro Del Piero – both played for Sydney.
While Pignata has previously claimed that the global football market makes luring top quality marquees to Australia very difficult, such a move could put Sydney in a strong position to compete on two fronts next season.