Cove cavalry inspire Sky Blues to win

According to Scottish folklore, the first person to enter your house on New Year’s Day is the bringer of good fortune for the coming year and also brings gifts for the household. Sydney FC were meant to carry out that first-footing tradition at McDonald Jones Stadium, but the script was torn up as the Sky Blues stunned Newcastle Jets with a two-goal first half that could well have been more. Despite heavy bombardment in the second half, the visitors could have extended their lead and came away with a fantastic victory to start the year off in the right fashion.

So, a 3pm kick off in Newcastle on New Year’s Day; what time should we set off from Sydney in time to have a good feed at the traditional Sunnyside Tavern and march down to the stadium in good time to partake in the pre-match atmosphere? Yes, we were running late after getting to bed in the early hours, and left around 11.30am and unfortunately hit some serious traffic following an accident at the Hawkesbury bridge. Any possibility of heading to the pub was dashed, so we parked up in the stadium car park and headed to the stadium forecourt to see what was happening.

I was happy to see Archie Goodwin, Jets’ superstar in the making, manning a marquee, giving autographs and selfies to Jets fans; this meant he wouldn’t be making an appearance today. The Red Frogs organisation were giving away ice blocks and had sunscreen for all – it had been thrashing with rain when we left Sydney and we were caught out by the summer conditions, with the temps around 30 degrees approaching kick off and bright sunshine in a cloudless sky.

Oddly enough our normal gate, the gate mentioned on all of our tickets, was cordoned off, so visiting fans were wandering back unsure where to go. We simply went through in to the main stand and decided to fuel up before heading round to the away bay, prior experience of games around Christmas suggesting that food and drink might not be readily available in all parts of the stadium. Unfortunately as we went to cross over the Northern Hill to the East Stand, we were stopped by security telling us that we were not allowed alcohol on the Northern Hill.

But we weren’t going to the Northern Hill, we were just passing through.

The stadium security were very apologetic, knowing fine well that this rule was absurd, and we saw the funny side as we walked all the way back down the West stand, across the South Hill and back up the East Stand, past loads of food and beverage outlets that were all fully manned and deserted, to our away bay. We had plenty of time anyway, and it allowed us to see the rest of the stadium.

Killing time in the Newcastle home hill as lepers carrying our alcohol

Luckily Michelle had the foresight to book tickets at the back of the block in the shade; the sun was fierce; we had experienced full sun for the last women’s game at Allianz, which was uncomfortable to say the least. There we could take in the warm-ups and consume our stadium delicacies – I opted for cauliflower bites (I think I have a cauliflower addiction) as my first stadium food experience of the year, and it was a good, light option.

All gone, but I liked the idea of the cardboard tray – made it so much easier to carry.

The crowd was quite low as the players disappeared down the tunnel, and we were scratching our heads as the players emerged back out for a minute’s applause for our dearly departed Pele – where was the Cove?

The smattering of active fans in attendance at the start of the game started the “We Are Sydney” chant which was belted out by everyone in the bay and the game kicked off. Just as the chant was subsiding, it started up again, the Cove members all dressed in black coming across the Northern Hill, and with drum and capo in position with two minutes on the clock, normal service was resumed.

Our expectations for this game were low. After Christmas Eve had knocked any hope out of the fans, it was simply blind devotion that drove most of us to be here today. Joe Lolley was out, but Jack Rodwell was in, and there was a start for crowd favourite Max Burgess. The opening exchanges suggested that Sydney FC were up for this, shooting to the end where the visiting fans were housed, and they created a number of good positions to go forward without really threatening. Burgess drilled in one low shot that Jack Duncan saved, and there was some good play up both flanks, with some good skills being shown by the wide men to get away from their markers. As always, Luke Brattan was the pivot, the Jan Molby of the team, but his teammates were sometimes on a different wavelength as long balls caught them on the back foot, or a sweeping ball was not read and left to go into touch.

Robert Mak tried to bend one in from the edge of the area but failed to get any bend on the shot, and Jets themselves had some good positions, Andrew Redmayne pushing one over at the far end of the stadium, a shot from distance by the livewire Reno Piscopo. We were over half an hour into the game when Sydney quickly went on the counter attack; Diego Caballo found himself in a surprisingly advanced position and was fed by Anthony Caceres. He took his time to size up a cross, and that was curled in beautifully to Adam Le Fondre, peeling off at the far post, who still had a lot to do, but did it calmly, firing past Duncan on the volley and wheeling away towards the away bay to celebrate a glorious opening goal.

Things then got even better, as Caceres jinked past his man to meet a throw-in near the byline from Caballo and fed Mak. The Slovak winger tucked the ball inside his man and then clipped an unorthodox right-foot shot, perhaps even a toe-poke, past the outstretched hand of Duncan into the net. Two goals in quick succession, the Cove was bouncing, and Sydney FC were in a strong position to go on and put this game to bed. It remained 2-0 at the break, and the fans in full sun ducked for cover from the unrelenting heat.

Half-time saw the crossbar challenge taken and successfully negotiated, a shot that pinged off the woodwork earning the smiling participant a cool $500 for his troubles. The second half started with Sydney on the attack, Burgess was through but couldn’t find the angle for the shot and it was blocked for a corner. Jets had a lot of the play, and former Sky Blue striker Trent Buhagiar tested Redders on a couple of occasions, firing one into the side-netting and then forcing a tidy save from the talented Sydney goalkeeper.

Sub Adrian Segecic then fired over when well placed at the far post, and Caballo found himself free with Duncan way out his goal, and tried the spectacular, which was on target but it didn’t carry enough weight to get over the back-pedalling keeper. Brandon O’Neill then lifted a rather softly awarded free-kick over the bar, and that was where Redders’ game management antics started. An unnecessary forward roll after a shot, throwing grass into the air to see which way the wind was blowing, all stuff that a winning team’s fans love to see but which is so infuriating when chasing the game. The Jets had a great chance late in the game, in added time, when typical forward’s defending, one Sydney player lashing the ball into the other when trying to clear, presented a clear chance to the Jets in the box, but the low shot was saved and smothered by Redders, we’re calling it a save by the nuts. The home team did have a number of chances, including one cross that was deflected away from the boot of the striker to deny a big finish to the game.

The game was won. We emerged from our shady position to bolster the numbers at the front of the bay to celebrate with the players. This had been a marvellous win, totally unexpected, and reward for making the trip today at such an awkward time after New Years Eve. The players were brilliant, joining hands to salute the fans in the traditional show of unity, and then a number of the players made themselves available to the fans for selfies and signatures. It was how an away day was meant to happen – the players put in maximum effort on the field, get a result, and share the joy with their loyal supporters. Redders wasn’t giving up his gloves today, and there were no shirts being handed out, despite many a young fan trying their luck, but this was glorious PR.

There was even time for this eager fan to shake hands with a few players and get some photos with his favourite player. No guessing who that is, let’s say his name might not be Patrick.

We were almost the last to leave the stadium, the marshals being very understanding seeing fans and players mingling, and they were very polite in coralling the final stragglers out of the gate into the car park after stocking up on water from the fountain for the journey home. A couple of things that did make us laugh was the size of the weeds growing in the away bay – quite impressive foliage growing through the seats – and also the sign on the way out of the car park. I don’t think I’ve seen the word ‘egress’ used ever on a sign. They obviously use very proper English in these parts.

The journey home was much quicker than the delay-riddled trip up, and thanks to the Triple J hottest 100 voting platform, it went even quicker as we worked out what would be on our respective top tens for the year, and we were back at 7.30pm to an equally sunny Sydney. This was a perfect start to 2023. Any questions as to why we follow Sydney FC were immediately answered, and we can now look forward to next weekend with confidence and hope.

Happy New Year to anyone who has got this far. Why do these match write-ups exist? Well, firstly, it’s to keep my writing fresh, to see what works and what doesn’t – a sixth Unashamed Football Novel is underway – but secondly, it’s to keep an account of games I’ve been to. You’ll find hundreds of reports on this website of Socceroos, Matildas, Sydney FC men’s and women’s games, all from the point of view of the fan. There’s also plenty of local NPL games covered too, which allow me to practice the full experience of taking professional photographs and writing up games, something that I love to do – old school journalism. Take a browse around, and if you’ve got anything to say about any of these pieces, leave a comment or get in touch via Twitter here.

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