Football, you cruel bastard

Sydney derby day. With grassroots football still called off due to the recent heavy rain, a free afternoon presented itself to take in the full Sydney FC away derby matchday experience. In the end, a day full of fun, laughter, excitement and anticipation ended up being spoiled by the football and Sydney was painted in those irksome red and black colours of our cross-town rivals.

The marvellous Keg and Brew in Surry Hills was pumping in the rooftop bar, four floors up as Sydney welcomed sunshine for the first time in two weeks. The Mardi Gras theme was great, everyone was in a good mood and the fantastical cocktail menu was being well and truly tested. Margaritas for Michelle to go with our Margherita, this was what a Saturday afternoon was all about. The thinning out of the rooftop and the banging of the drums from outside spelled the end and it was time to join the march to Parramatta.

The scene was set in the laneway opposite the pub, before the police appeared and guided the throng across Elizabeth Street and past the Central tram stop where the early Mardi Gras revellers danced to the chants of the sky blue fans. We passed the newly remodelled statues of the heroes of Latin America as we descended into the station, through the maze of tunnels with bemused partygoers heading in the opposite direction. For once, Sydney trains were running on time and the whole group piled onto the modified service to the heart of Western Sydney. The single guard on duty outside the gates as we descended on Parra Station was having a jobsworth moment trying to keep the mass of fans moving, eventually letting the police do the job and we spilled out into the streets of Sydney’s second city.

This was a great time to meet up with familiar faces and proudly walk down the middle of normally busy streets with the riot squad on our tail. Passing the gurning faces of the Wanderers fans in Club Parramatta was priceless, the bouncers trying to prevent their clientele from goading the Sydney FC fans in fear of an escalation in tensions. The Neds reporter asking us if we had anything good to say about Western Sydney Wanderers invited a stream of abuse that would never make it to air, as we were funnelled into the away gate and up the stairs to this impressive multi-sport venue. Kick off was fifteen minutes away and the bar area was eerily quiet; there was no queue and we stocked up on all the drinks we might need to get through the evening.

The stadium was, in truth, very empty. That fella who tweets the manual headcount at A-League games would have had a field day. Luckily the pattern of the seats gives the impression of a full stadium when it was anything but. It was full in the Sydney FC active bay, but we had seats in the more relaxed bay next door, so we could sit and enjoy the atmosphere without losing our beers, and we could still join in the chants. The scene was set for a big game, and the pre-match moment of respect for the Ukranian war effort was welcomed by everyone.

The game started with Sydney putting the ball straight into touch, and little did we know that it would typify the first half. Wanderers kept Andrew Redmayne busy with raids down the left, while Sydney reverted to their usual pattern of over-complicating attacks and failing to deliver anything telling in the box. The mis-firing Adam Le Fondre could have connected better with a Kosta Barbarouses cross as Sydney finally threatened. James Donachie flattened his man on the 23rd minute to earn a yellow, which was perfectly orchestrated to show a picture of the departed Shane Warne on screen, prompting a chorus of ‘Warnie’ from the stands. Elvis Kamsoba then had to go off, surprisingly it was Bobo who came on, with new star signing Luciano Narsingh the obvious replacement left waiting for his moment. A freekick from Dimi Petratos was smashed straight into the wall. Le Fondre writhed on the floor after a challenge and then jumped to his feet when the ball came his way, neither set of fans impressed at the play-acting. Neither team looked like scoring, despite getting closer and closer to the goal. It was a surprise when the home team won a penalty. Donachie stook out his leg at the wrong time and the tip-toeing Wanderers man flung himself to the floor. It looked soft, but knowing referee Alex King, it would not be overruled. Up stepped Tomer Hemed to easily beat Redders. At least it wasn’t through his legs.

So a goal behind at the break, no big deal, but we were looking like the Sydney FC that we have grown accustomed to this season, Boxing Day aside. The stadium went dark for half-time, the half-time miniroos had to be content with a walk-past with the wet pitch deemed off-limits, and the hot fire machine in front of us failed to ignite a few times, sending lighter fluid billowing into the air.

Sydney seemed to fire up at the start of the second half, but it wasn’t long before the second goal arrived. A corner was whipped in and Donachie lost his man who headed home, despite a good effort from Redders. A couple of Wanderers who had walked in to our section just before half time were celebrating, which attracted the vocal disgust of the Cove. Despite a friendly suggestion to go and sit in one of the other 20,000 empty seats, one of the home fans decided he wanted to mess with the Sydney supporter marshals, and was then grabbed and ejected by the more forthright stadium security. Eventually he was handed to the police who were quite adamant he would be missing the rest of the game.

Narsingh came on soon after to make it a three pronged attack and it felt as if Sydney FC would turn this around. Le Fondre hit the bar with a side-foot shot from inside the area, and an inswinging cross from Callum Talbot evaded two players before bouncing wide. A penalty was awarded as Rhyan Grant was sent sprawling, and referee King decided to heed VAR’s input and changed it to a freekick outside the box. Wanderers had chances to wrap the game up as Sydney mounted their powder-puff attacks, and the difference in styles was evident. Quick running, direct play, swift decision-making, none of which Sydney FC had. Instead, a raft of corners were swung in way too deep by Mustafa Amini, and there was a distinct lack of awareness or desire in the box as Steve Corica leaned against the wall having seemingly given up. The game ended with Wanderers almost snatching a third, Bernie Ibini’s long legs not long enough, and a couple of easy chances were spurned, Redders doing well to save from point-blank range.

The Cove fans were at least enjoying their Sydney Football Club chant, litter raining down on themselves, but some of the fans saw fit to launch plastic bottles onto the field, which simply held up play and allowed the home team to waste more minutes as the clock ticked down. The final whistle was understandably greeted with boos. The players didn’t know what to do. There were a lot of disgruntled fans, and they were quick to voice their opinion at the players, especially for not coming over straight away to thank the fans. Eventually the team did come across and clapped apologetically, but by now a lot of the active fans had gone.

All credit to Max Burgess and Rhyan Grant for coming to make amends by signing shirts and taking selfies with eager youngsters at the front, but in reality the players must have been as frustrated as the fans were angry. This was simply below par. We’ve been saying it all season, this is not good enough. Sydney FC, once a feared machine that would rip teams apart with their intricate passing and devastating finishing, are now a shell of their former selves.

As fans, of course we’ll stick with our team through thick and thin, but we are also knowledgeable about the game we love; we see and experience the whole game, not just what you see on TV. We’ve seen ‘tactical’ subs that you can set your stopwatch to, we’ve seen the wrong players used at the wrong time, and we consistently see promising attacks break down with a wasted final ball, an aimless floated cross to the far post or hesitancy that sees the momentum lost. Steve Corica has continued in the Arnie way, he’s kept the ethos going, but unfortunately every other team knows it and can counteract the fancy play with some staunch defending and a sudden attack. I’m not yet on the ‘Corica out’ bandwagon, I just want him to try something different. I keep harping on about it, but where is that team from Boxing Day?

Football, you cruel bastard.

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