You might have read that this game finished 2-0 to Sydney, but that would be forgetting the third half when Wollongong Wolves brought out a whole new team to give some of the visitors’ youngsters a run in a competitive forty-five minutes. The stadium announcer read out the score as 4-1 and I’m going with that. Remember you can scroll on the photos, there are a few to flick through!
This was a first away trip of the season, and one that was possible due to the Shellharbour area being considered as Greater Sydney for the purposes of lockdown. Leaving Meadowbank around 12.20pm, we were expecting a good run south, but joining the Ryde bridge, there was definitely a return of the Saturday midday rush hour that all Sydneysiders know only too well. Travelling down with Michelle and Aurelia, we were in no particular rush, the only stipulation was to be on time for kick off. By the time we had arrived and parked up in the paddock behind the main stand, we were looking at half and hour to kick off. The queue was already forming for the Covid-safe formalities and the Cove had just arrived, a black-clad group of bodies marching up the hill singing “My garden shed… is bigger than this…”
This was going to be an intriguing clash – the 2021 NPL season dead and buried, but moves already afoot to set off the new 2022 season with a bang. Surely Sydney FC would be in much better shape.
Unsurprisingly, given the proximity to the ocean, a windy day had just got windier and the warm sunshine had an edge to it that had many spectators rugging up before the opening whistle. Kick off was held up to allow everyone into the single gate. The Wolves goalkeeper must have been caught short, arriving a few minutes later than the rest of the players to take up his spot in front of the banter-ready Cove. There were songs from the Sydney FC faithful, and the saxophone started up from the Wolf Den – a set up similar to that of Macarthur Bulls.
This was a first chance to see Elvis Kamsoba in action – he was up front in what seemed to be a strong Sydney FC starting eleven that included Milos Ninkovic, Adam Le Fondre and Kosta Barbarouses. The game was a minute old when Connor O’Toole latched onto a through-ball and smashed a low shot against the post. That signalled the intent, and Sydney FC went on the attack. Harry Van Der Saag was lively down the right, the diminutive Elvis was putting himself about, while Ninko and Le Fondre were showing plenty of class. Ninko fired over from distance after doing all the work, Le Fondre almost danced his way through the whole defence only to be thwarted by the keeper, and to be fair the home keeper did well to keep the Sky Blue tide at bay, pushing one low shot away smartly for a corner.
A punch on Caceres on the Sydney left then went unnoticed, the two players having words as play continued, then a heavy tackle in the midfield saw a number of players dive in to a fracas, the Wolves midfielder fortunate to escape with a yellow after continuing the fight right in front of the referee. The ref was willing to let a lot go, the usual play-acting met with a stony face, and the game was developing into an exciting encounter. The home side carved out a simple chance with some crisp passing for visiting keeper Tom Heward-Belle to rush out and block, the rebound lashed over the bar with the goal gaping. That was a let-off. It was approaching half-time when Sydney finally struck, Elvis moving beautifully onto a through ball from Calum Nieuwenhoff. This time he had time to pick his spot and finished well in front of the Cove for 1-0. He had a similar chance soon after that was charged down at the last second. Half-time came following a meek shout for a penalty after Van Der Saag had drilled a cross into the defender’s arm, but it was Sydney who led, although not by the amount their play merited.
A quick shift around to the other end of the field to enjoy more Sydney attacking, and a chance to refuel. A fiver for a beer most welcome compared to the comedy Sydney prices. The monumental queue for the sausage sizzle meant it was beer for dinner.
The decision to change ends was almost thrown back in our faces as the home team started with their tails up, Heward-Belle pushing away a glorious chance for a corner on the left. Up our end and Adrian Caceres looped in a swirling cross to the far post where Le Fondre leapt incredibly high and somehow managed to guide it on target, the ball looping onto the bar and the rebound cleared. We had a game on our hands here. Joel King and Luke Brattan joined the fray on the hour, spelling the end of Ninkovic and Nieuwenhoff, and from then on there were a raft of changes for both sides. To be fair, the game wasn’t disjointed and the entertainment continued. Elvis kept fizzing around in his busy manner and looked dangerous. The game was wrapped up with ten minutes to go, O’Toole galloping away down the left to cross low for Kosta to lash home from close range. Perhaps that was more like what Sydney should have been doing all along.
The last throes of the 90 minutes saw some youngsters blooded and there was certainly a zip about them as they saw out the last few minutes. A team in white was warming up as the game ended, and that confirmed what we thought we had heard on a muffled announcement at the start of the game – there was going to be a third half! A whole new team of Wollongong Wolves in a change kit appeared, and the game got underway again. By now the wind was starting to bite, and with a good percentage of the crowd having left at the end of the 90 minutes, there was plenty of space to watch this bonus half of football.
What followed was an absorbing 45 minutes. Sydney played some lovely stuff down the left, Oscar Priestman and Joel King linking up well. Priestman should have scored, the keeper pushing away his close range effort. The tall figure of Luka Smith was giving a good account of himself, although his choice to turn into three players instead of laying it off would have brought some stinging words from his teammates. With the new Rhyan Grant, the marvellously-mulletted Jake Girdwood-Reich, having a steady game on the right, this was looking good. That was until the dangerous Nicholas Duarte started to boss the midfield for the white Wolves. His enterprise saw the ball launched to the right, a clever turn brought a cross that was only half cleared and a thundering shot from midfield (Alex Casella maybe?) saw Redders beaten and the whole team race to the corner of the field to celebrate. It was a fizzing shot.
That made a game of it, but it wasn’t long before Sydney took command, and some lovely movement saw Priestman finish off at the far post for three. The impressive Smyth notched the fourth goal as Sydney threatened to run riot, but 4-1 it remained. Lots of calm play from the Sydney defence saw difficult situations dealt with well, Luke Brattan a steady influence and King a constant source of attack on the left. This bonus half of football ended to great applause. The players in their cage area were very welcoming to autograph hunters and were happy to pose for selfies with the young’uns. Just as we had decided it was time to leave, we spotted Alex Brosque in the car park. Michelle cast off her cool demeanour to rush up for a photo with her hero and the Sydney FC legend obliged. You beauty. Adam Le Fondre joined the party too!
That led to another few photos with the lads as they waited for the team bus to pull up at the gate. Captain Alex Wilkinson was the friendly guy we know him to be, Paulo Retre was happy to pose for a photo, while the man of silk, Milos Ninkovic was delighted to see his name on the back of my shirt.
The bus had arrived and the players had got on by the time we could get any more snaps. By now the car park was nice and empty and the exit was nothing like it would have been fifteen minutes before. Straight out onto the main road and on the freeway in a few minutes, landing back home at a thoroughly respectable 7.30pm.
This was a top afternoon. An away day out of Sydney with little hassle getting there or back, a lovely welcome from Wollongong Wolves in a tidy stadium, and some sumptuous football from the Sky Blues that showed much promise for the season ahead. No more pre-season games before the derby kicks off the 2021/22 season, we’re told, we’ll just have to keep our eye out for any pre-season behind-closed-doors games at Macquarie. Forza Sydney FC!