Sydney FC showed exactly what’s been missing this season in one exhilirating 90 minutes in the final Sydney derby at Kogarah Oval. Fight, persistence and finishing were in abundance as the Sky Blues weathered a storm at the end, Rhyan Grant dismissed on his record-breaking appearance, and they rode their luck to give their fans a boost. The top-six trapdoor is still well and truly open, but if this kickstarts a run of wins, we might somehow still be in contention for the big dance at the end of the season.
A busy day was wrapped up at 4.45pm when we hopped in the car in Ryde to get to Kogarah. The thick Saturday afternoon traffic finally thinned out after the airport turn off and we had a clear run in to the back streets to find a park, and walked into a busy Kogarah Clubhouse. There was a draw to win a Sydney FC shirt signed by all the players, open to all members, and after the Ode of Remembrance, the place started to get rowdy. The march started inside the club and there was singing outside; the loud hailer got us pumped up, a film crew in attendance to capture the moment as they would do for the rest of the evening.
As night began to fall, the march exited into the street and the police on foot and on horseback waited to escort the Cove along English Street to Jubilee Oval. Bemused locals were on their balconies wondering why “F*ck you Western Sydney scum” was interrupting their dinner. If you told me half a lifetime ago that, approaching a significant birthday, I would be standing in the middle of a suburban Sydney street, dodging piles of horse-shit, shouting ‘f*ck’ at the top of my voice, surrounded by police and it was okay, I would have thought you were crazy. The police presence was high, the turnstiles at Gate C were a pain in the arse for anyone not a member, paper and mobile tickets simply not working, but it appeared that they were getting through the backlog quickly.
Security was checking tickets again to get into the Cove, perhaps a hangover from our Macarthur friends on Wednesday night, and it was a bit of a calamity as a crowd formed and eager Sydney FC fans tried to get through to where they’ve sat all season. The gate separating the main stand and the home end was again being policed meticulously to keep the riff-raff out and away from the prawn sandwiches and Pimms that the main stand must enjoy with their memberships. There was a good chunk of Western Sydney fans behind the goal at the far end and this would create an atmosphere and at least make this a proper derby feel.
The Cove was in great voice. The stadium was nowhere near full but the ends were both where most people had congregated and healthy singing was coming from both sets of fans. Sydney had what can only be described as a lightweight starting line-up; aside from the back two I wouldn’t be relying on anyone else to win a scrap or a header. With Milos Ninkovic in the side though, anything can happen. Stevie Corica had again given the nod to his youth, and with Tom Heward-Belle out injured and Andrew Redmayne not ready after national team duty, there was a debut for young Adam Pavlesic in goal. Imagine the scenes of shock and joy when Sydney FC took the lead with their first attack. Trent Buhagiar scurried down the left up the far end and fed a low ball to Adam Le Fondre. Without hesitation and to the surprise of everyone, the ball was in the back of the net before we could work out what just happened. A shot across the keeper had nestled in at the far post for the most unexpected opener. Cue crazy scenes in the Cove.
The happiness didn’t last long though, although we hadn’t drawn breath since then. Pavlesic had made it clear that he was in no mood to catch any balls tonight, and the safety first of the big punch was deployed for every cross. A corner at the Cove end was headed up in the air by Calum Talbot and looked no problem until Ninkovic got a slight nudge as he jumped, his header going completely the wrong way and the bustling Tomer Hemed was right onto it and lashed the ball home right in front of the Sydney fans. Ninkovic with the assist for the Wanderers, I never want to hear or see that again. A flare was ripped in the away fans which took longer than it should to dispose of. The first half was surprisingly open, and it was so much fun in the Active bays, the songs, the shouts, the laughs. This was a taste of the future of Active support.
Half time was a chance for more content for the video crew, the mini footballers came on to the field to entertain the crowd, and all the while there was a huge police presence. The junior capo from Sydney Olympic away was back in his Cove gear waving his flag furiously and revving up his bay, great to see.
The second 45 was manic. There wasn’t a great deal of goal mouth action, but when it came, it was tremendous. Kosta Barbarouses crossed low into the box, the ball popped out of a challenge to Buhagiar and he lashed the ball home for 2-1. That’s two in two games for the young forward, who has cast off his Ivanovic tag to finally get amongst the goals. Soon after, Paulo Retre strode out of defence and played a fabulous through ball for Buhagiar. He looked offside, but there was no flag and he raced through, shaping to shoot with his right. Instead, he cut back on to his left, leaving his defender sitting on the floor as he watched the young striker coolly smash the shot into the top corner of the net. What a goal! The Cove was on fire!
The strength off the bench was impressive, Caceres, Amini, Burgess and Narsingh all making an appearance, but there would be plenty of twists in the final twenty minutes. A sweeping ball from midfield caught Sydney napping and the Wanderers’ midfielder ghosted in to head the ball over and around Pavlesic. There was no way the ball should have gone in, and the rookie keeper was outfoxed by the bounce as it crept just inside the post. Fifteen minutes of chaos then ensued. James Donachie stooped to close down his attacker and the ball hit his arm in the box. It looked like a stonewall penalty from where we were, but when the play was held up for an injury and subs were made, it was clear that VAR had seen nothing to overrule the referee. There was a big barney when the players all came together as they awaited a free kick to be delivered up at the far end, a bit of aggro to warm up the crowd. Rhyan Grant was then dismissed for an inoccuous offence and six minutes on the board meant a nervy ending to the game, Pavlesic beating away a shot brilliantly to keep the Sky Blues ahead.
The final whistle was greeted with a massive roar from the home fans. We’d been singing constantly for the duration, and the Ajax Lo-lo chant was an absolutely mad scene. A couple of the long-standing Cove members were outside the ground in no time, revving up the home crowd still inside who were giving the Wanderers a taste of the Poznan. The players came across to celebrate – it feels like a long time since we’ve done it and it felt good.
Pavlesic was brought to the front of the Cove after his match winning debut performance, and was given the loud-hailer for a rendition of Come on you Boys in Blue. The Queen song in the background was drowned out as the Cove celebrated wth their new cult hero. The Wanderers players warming down were given plenty of barracking, the Sydney players joined in the warm down and were running across the field and they ran into the Wanderers group at one point, perhaps not entirely unintentional. The remaining fans were eventually ushered out after some more video was taken, and the police were waiting to escort the Cove fans back up English Street to a place far away from the visiting Wanderers fans.
We slipped back into the car and made it back through some persistent traffic by 10:45pm, ripe for an evening of more football on TV.
What an occasion. Yes, Sydney showed the same failings that we know they have on the park, but the fight was there and the finishing was top class. If we can bottle this up for a big week at Melbourne City and then up the Coast on Saturday, who knows where we’ll land in the league. Top six aspirations? Let’s reassess next week. For now, we’re in there, but it still looks very precarious. Forza Sydney FC! Central Coast away! Central Coast away!