A-League. Saturday 2nd January 2021. Sydney FC away to Wellington Phoenix in Wollongong. 5pm kick off. As someone who travelled regularly to away games in my youth, following Newcastle United around the delights of the old Division 2 in the early 90s, the wish to recreate that buzz is always there. I’m happy to report that it still exists, and any opportunity to head off on an achievable road trip to follow my team is taken with open arms. I see it through different eyes these days, but as reported earlier in 2020 in the first edition of Play On, the away day is alive and well.
For those of you not familiar with Wollongong, it’s a 90km drive from Sydney, so maybe just a little further than Newcastle to Middlesbrough or maybe London to Southend or even Melbourne to Geelong. An absolute must for the away fan then. This one though was a very unusual event. Wellington Phoenix, a team from across the Tasman Sea, have set up home in Wollongong in order to take part in the A-League this season with all the restrictions in place. So, despite being a three hour flight from home, they call WIN Stadium home for the 20/21 season.
This particular day was the antithesis of the typical Australian January day, a relatively chilly 19 degree day with a thick fog and drizzle. Having just watched Season 1 Episode 4 of the Crown the night before, the ‘Gong was eerily similar to a fog-bound London in the early 1950s, with the scene of the industrial end of town at Port Kembla seemingly spewing all the cloud into the sky. Having taken the scenic route along the Grand Pacific Drive and the Sea Cliff Bridge, featured on a large portion of car adverts in Australia, we had time first to have a look around the lighthouse and be tourists. The surf was up, but there were only a handful of people in and the ocean waves were frothing.
The venue for a pre-match beer was the Steelers club, directly opposite the main entrance. We met up with some of the hard-core Sydney FC followers who were down for the weekend, just in case this might be the last away game for a while. The beer was good, the banter was flowing, the questions started about when to head into the stadium and which gate we were. That brought back good memories of way too many pints in pubs before games. Not to be caught out this time, we ducked out with 20 minutes to kick off and got in the stadium after a bit of a wait, way before the players came out onto the field.
WIN Stadium is quite tidy. Three stands and one grassy knoll, but the weather and the increased Covid restrictions meant that the grass area was closed off. Fans were well spaced out, but the lack of numbers meant that navigating the toilets and the bars was very efficient. The stadium announcer made the Wellington fans feel at home, announcing the Sydney FC team quickly and then making a fuss over the Phoenix squad. A lone Wellington fan cheered every name at the top of his lungs. Fair play to him. There were, to be fair, quite a number of yellow and black shirts. It was great to see.
The action on the field was free-flowing. Sydney got the fans going with an early chance, and Phoenix had plenty of play down their left. Just as the game looked to be drifting, Calum Nieuwenhof nonchalantly lashed in a shot from thirty yards out, we were right behind it, and it flew into the top left-hand corner for an amazing goal up the other end of the park. The first half was coming to a close when an unexpected equaliser came, Wellington breaking down their right into the corner. The cross wasn’t that good to be honest, but the striker got enough on the header [Edit : turns out it was a volley – it was difficult to see from our angle] and it had a long way to travel, bobbling against the post and in. We didn’t know until much later that the TV coverage had missed it.
The second half was superb entertainment, Sydney FC playing some lovely football, Wellington going close at the other end and Redders was tested on more than one occasion. The second goal for the visitors was a moment of magic from Luke Brattan. I made the call that ‘nah, that’s way too far out’, and from a relatively ambling run up, the Sky Blue midfielder rifled a shot straight into the top right hand corner, again from 30 yards out. Bloody amazing. This season we’ve already seen three worldies from Sydney FC (Princess Ibini on Wednesday was a good ‘un) and we’re only a week into it. A late rally from the home team saw a breakaway well defended, but with moments remaining, a shot just inside the box took a wicked deflection off a Phoenix player and the ball rolled in for an equaliser. VAR to the rescue for Sydney though, the assistant referee had his flag up and it was confirmed that the scorer was offside. Phew. Three points for Sydney FC then to start the season, get in!
Today was a good day for Railsy too. She got to meet her idol Rhyan Grant, our table number was 23 and a big socially distanced thumbs up from the man himself. If Aurelia enjoyed the day even half as much as I did, I reckon it’s been a massive success.
Leaving the stadium, plenty of opportunity for some more away match tourist photos and a bit of Australiana on the walls of the Entertainment Centre on the way back to the car. Car parking today was a piece of piss too, no limits, no fees, only a short walk to the ground. We were out of Wollongong and into the fog and drizzle within minutes and home by 8.30pm. Another cracking away day. Can’t wait for the next one.