On Sunday, 301 days will have passed since City and Sydney met in last season’s decider.

In any regular season, A-League fans would be made to wait at least a year between Grand Finals and endured a typically prolonged pre-season. But the past two seasons have been anything but regular.

Whatever the result this weekend, and whichever team lifts the A-League Championship, there have already been over 300 players who will go down in the competition’s history as champions for the sport. 

For the second season running, the players have made remarkable sacrifices to help lift the sport back off its knees at its greatest time of need. 

For the past 15 months, since COVID-19 impacted Australian domestic football, the A-League has had to navigate routine uncertainty, fluctuating schedules, reduced crowds and revenues, government restrictions, COVID-19 protocols, travel bubbles, a condensed schedule, relocated teams and displaced families.

Despite the myriad challenges, the response from the players has been one of extraordinary resilience. Their determination, application and professionalism resulted in one of the most entertaining campaigns to date – with an exciting conclusion still to be written.

This season will likely be remembered as one of the most significant in the history of the competition. The courage of the players who took to the field in the most trying of circumstances, will long be remembered. 

The stories of sacrifice are varied, and many, but were all endured by the players with the knowledge and intention of preserving the very future of the A-League.

Wellington Phoenix’s relocation and the club’s collective sacrifice ensured the competition could be salvaged without Trans-Tasman disruption. Players and staff were separated from family for months. They had to find new housing, enrol their children in new schools and navigate complexities around the NZ and Australian tax system. In May, the team’s return to New Zealand to play out two fixtures in front of record crowds provided a worthy celebration of the club’s displacement.

Phoenix’s Luke DeVere, who embarked on a mad dash from NSW to cross the border into Queensland to reach his wife in time for the birth of his daughter last season, shared with the PFA that the challenges this season were just as great as when COVID first struck a during the 2019/20 campaign.

Similarly to DeVere, Sydney FC’s Ryan McGowan had to grapple with the prospect of leaving his family at their most vulnerable of moments. Desperate to help Sydney win a Grand Final last season, McGowan left his three-week-old daughter Milly and wife Stephanie in Scotland to return to play in the 2020 contest, missing the first three months of his daughter’s life. 

This weekend, he’ll again be sitting in quarantine after playing for the Socceroos, separated from teammates and family and this time unable to help Sydney’s attempt at a record third-straight Premiers Plate. 

One of the stars of the season will be in the same predicament; the A-League’s golden boot winner Jamie Maclaren will be nervously hoping his teammates can deliver a Grand Final win in his absence. Before he left to feature for the Socceroos in FIFA World Cup Qualifiers in Kuwait alongside McGowan, he and fiancé Iva had to cancel their wedding – for the third time – due to COVID restrictions in Melbourne. 

Three more players who featured for the Socceroos recently, Rhyan Grant, Andrew Redmayne and Connor Metcalfe, will also miss the crucial decider for their clubs this weekend.

Redmayne sacrificed competing in last year’s Asian Champions League to support his partner for the birth of his daughter. Now he’ll miss Sydney’s most vital match of the year.

Perth Glory’s season was delayed due to their ACL commitments last year, and while COVID played havoc with the east coast of Australia, Glory’s schedule became severely disrupted, complex, and overall, taxing on the club and players. 

In the ambiguity of pre-season, players were stood down once again without pay and waited nervously not only to find out about their own futures but that of the entire competition.

There are countless more examples. Even this week, as the Grand Final looms, uncertainty surrounded the match’s location and whether the players would be placed in ‘COVID-safe bubbles’.  

In the global context of a pandemic, where lives have been lost and livelihoods destroyed, this may seem trivial.

However, never in the competition’s history have the players been asked to do so much to ensure the A-League not only survived but will prosper in the future.

As the curtain comes down on this remarkable season, the stories of sacrifice have been immense and varied. Yet, while the circumstances have been different, they speak to a singular motivation – the wellbeing of the game. Our game now has the possibility of a better future, one built on a foundation of courage. 

For that, we owe those who took the field throughout 2019/20 and 2020/21 an enormous debt.  

Finally, we wish our Sydney FC and Melbourne City members all the very best for Sunday’s decider.

Beau Busch and Kathryn Gill

PFA Co-Chief Executives