Melbourne's three A-League clubs have been forced to apply for travel exemptions from the NSW Government after a dramatic, late-night dash to cross the New South Wales border was foiled.
Players and select staff from Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City and Western United were roused from their homes at around 8.30 p.m. on Monday and told to head to AAMI Park, where they boarded buses to take them to Tullamarine Airport.
The plan had originally been for clubs to fly to Sydney on a charter flight on Tuesday, which then turned into a plan to use buses to attempt to cross the border. The plan was then superseded by the FFA arranging the eleventh-hour aerial option that would land in the ACT before midnight.
The process was a rapidly evolving one, with one player telling ESPN just hours before the word to get to AAMI came that "we literally still don't know anything. We've just packed our bags [players were told to pack for up to seven weeks on the road] but don't know any details."
Once at the airport, the three teams boarded a charter plane that was set to take them to Canberra, only for the pilot to then announce that adverse weather conditions in the Australian capital would prevent the flight and that all onboard needed to disembark.
"Unfortunately fog set in and Canberra closed the airport," one source told ESPN.
"So we'd boarded the plane, we had to jump back off and then the decision was made to go back to our houses.
"Let's take a deep breath, let's seek some exemptions and see if we can get ourselves out of here as quickly as possible."
With the clock ticking towards 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, an increasingly frustrated group of players were driven back to AAMI Park and sent home to attempt to salvage some sort of rest. Western United striker Besart Berisha, in a video uploaded to Instagram by teammate Alessandro Diamanti, saying that the situation was: "Unbelievable, unbelievable. Never in my life, in my career, have I seen this before."
Unbelievable. pic.twitter.com/i4hqMLw360— Joey Lynch (@joeylynchy) July 6, 2020
A number of players were not amused by the A-League's attempted late-night dash to the airport, with one describing the situation to ESPN as being "not normal" and "State League s---."
Continuing to document proceedings on his Instagram feed, Diamanti wrote in Italian: "If you want some different experiences you need to come to Australia to do these things.
"But I'm sure it's not going to finish here. We are now going to go home and in 15 minutes they will tell us how to get there. Maybe on a bicycle."
Responding to a resurgence in COVID-19 diagnosis in Victoria -- the state announcing 127 new cases, its highest daily increase, on Monday morning -- Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had agreed to close the border between Australia's two most populous states.
From 11:59 p.m. that evening, individuals travelling from Melbourne to Sydney without special exemptions were barred, with that ban extending to the rest of Victoria from 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday. The border is to be closed on the NSW side, with there being no restrictions placed on travel heading in the opposite direction.
Sources have told ESPN that one player, possessing a NSW driving licence and official residence, made the decision to make the drive north earlier in the day, while City is understood to now have a van load of staff and equipment camped out in NSW border town Albury awaiting further developments.
Conversely, a number of players and staff from the three clubs that normally reside in Melbourne areas already targeted for restrictions were not amongst the group that attempted to fly to Canberra on Monday evening, with the risk that they would be turned away deemed too high by organisers even though they have been moved to non-hotspot locations.
Melbourne's clubs had previously been briefed on the possibility of being forced to shift to a Sydney-based hub -- several of their fixtures on the recently released A-League fixture marked down simply as occurring at a venue TBC -- although players and coaches from all three clubs had spoken of their desire to avoid an extended stay in a hub.
At a minimum, the three had been hoping to stage two fixtures -- Western United vs. Melbourne Victory on July 16 and Western United vs. Melbourne City on July 20 -- at AAMI Park before any moves to NSW.
"The players continue to make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure the season can be completed and there is absolutely no doubting their commitment to the cause," a spokesperson for player's union the PFA told ESPN.
"The ongoing uncertainty is incredibly challenging for the players and their families and the FFA must secure a reasonable and feasible solution that allows the season to conclude."
Victorian-based V8 Supercars teams had already hit the road on Monday afternoon to avoid being hemmed into Victoria before the border closures came into effect, while the city's 10 AFL teams departed interstate on either Sunday or Monday evening.
In a short statement, the FFA confirmed on Tuesday morning that the players had been unsuccessful in their late-night evacuation attempt and that the federation would be seeking exemptions from the NSW State Government.
"We will now begin the process to seek exemptions from the NSW Government to allow the teams to enter NSW for them to continue their season," head of the A-League Greg O'Rourke said.
"If we find it necessary to revise the match schedule we will do so accordingly and will announce once confirmed, however at this time the schedule remains the same."
Luckily for the FFA, however, it appears as though the failure of the late-night mercy flight won't scupper the A-League season, with NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro saying on Tuesday that exemptions for the A-League to enter the state were likely to be granted by the NSW government.
"You've heard me on the NRL and the importance of sport and I think we've got to work with the FFA, so I'll be reaching out to the FFA today to see what support they need," Barilaro told SBS.
"Of course, if we've got an opportunity to do so, let's bring them across the border, let's park them in the regions or here in the city and make sure they're a part of the A-League that kicks off shortly."
BREAKING! Deputy NSW Premier @JohnBarilaroMP tells @SBSNews that the state government will work with the @FFA to grant @gomvfc, @wufcofficial & @MelbourneCity an exemption to travel to NSW to complete the @ALeague season. A huge relief for football fans, teams and stakeholders. pic.twitter.com/ToRLXY793M— Adrian Arciuli (@Adrian_Arciuli) July 7, 2020
There are 27 games remaining on the A-League fixture, which are expected to be rapidly completed in a 28-day stretch and be followed by a one-week finals campaign culminating with a Grand Final on August 23.
Jubilee Stadium, Bankwest Stadium, and Newcastle's McDonald Jones Stadium have been secured by the league for its NSW-based games, with Wollongong's WIN Stadium and Leichhardt Oval floated as potential overflow venues.
"We're training today," Western United CEO Chris Pehlivanis told ESPN on Tuesday. "We're all prepared to do whatever we need to to get this thing on the road. We want to play.
"Our players still want to go. If I told them to get on a plane today, they'll get on if it means we can go to Sydney and play.
"It's crazy but it's true.
"We're still moving hard to make sure we do whatever we can do to play."
A Melbourne City spokesperson told ESPN: "Our efforts last night to make it to New South Wales shows our commitment -- as a club and as Victorian teams -- to finish the season.
"We'll continue working with FFA and respective governments towards a resolution that will see us play the remaining games."