Sydney FC confirmed their status as the laughing stock of the A-League with an appalling performance at Allianz Stadium at home to Wellington Phoenix. Already a goal behind, the Sky Blues saw their opponents eventually reduced to nine men, and even a comical two-penalty sequence of events couldn’t put a goalscorer on the board for the hapless home team. This was Sydney’s nadir and if Steve Corica is still in charge by the time we take on Perth next Saturday night, this once-proud club is clearly rudderless and destined for the wooden spoon.
A sign of the times – of the ten members in our group in Cove Heights, only three of us were in for this one. The appetite for Sydney FC home games has gone, it simply gets in the way of better things, and the people have spoken with their feet. Granted, it is holiday season and people are away, but there’s just no one interested in taking the free tickets available from members who can’t or won’t go. That didn’t deter myself and Aurelia from setting off at 3.15pm for this one, timing it pretty well to catch a train to Central and then only a few minutes wait for a light rail to take us up to Moore Park.
The cricket was on at the SCG, but there was little action outside that grand old stadium; the fans must have been enthralled by the action on the pitch. You could tell who was a cricket fan and who was a football fan from their attire, and there didn’t seem any chance of overlap between the two. An unfortunate soul wandered down Driver Avenue in his Western Sydney Wanderers shirt, and we were hoping he didn’t have a seat anywhere near the Cove.
We were watching the women’s game in Newcastle en route, ridiculously timed so fans couldn’t get to both, our eyes transfixed on the small screen of the mobile phone to see if Sydney FC could hold off a fightback after a dream start and secure another win for the club’s best team. The hope was that the last throes of the game would be shown on the big screens at Allianz Stadium, and there was mention of it over the PA system of that when we walked in, but it turned out to be false. In the end Princess Ibini had settled the wobble with a penalty and it all turned out rosy, giving us confidence that today could be a six-point Saturday.
We were arriving at potentially the peak, but there weren’t too many people around. There were activations for the kids, face-painting and the like, and we wandered in and found our spot up in aisle 224 above the Cove. Our expectations were as low as they were travelling to Newcastle last weekend, but at least we’d be comfortable in our fancy new stadium. In fact, the jumpers came out soon after arriving, Sydney’s unpredicatable weather doing its thing, and the rain was to hold off, nothing worse than a light sprinkle.
The Cove were determined to make as much noise as possible, despite being low in numbers too. It was women’s Cove capo Michelle’s birthday yesterday, so the Cove all sang happy birthday and presented her with a cake; we were secretly hoping to see it later in the game as the “Lo Lo” chant started. Sydney fielded a similar team to last week at Newcastle, Patrick Yazbek in for Luke Brattan the only change, but that could be quite a loss given the latter’s influence in the win last week. The warm up done, the players out, “We Are Sydney…” started and continued for some time once the blaring music had been switched off on kick off. Sydney were shooting away from the Cove in the first half, and it appeared to be into a stiff breeze too.
It didn’t take long for Yazbek to be sidelined, Adrian Segecic waiting to come on and we had no idea why; as this was happening, a speculative ball over the top from Clayton Lewis saw Andrew Redmayne caught in no man’s land as Oskar Zawada nipped in to control the ball. With Redders out of the equation, the Polish striker had only the defenders on the line to beat from close range, and once he had taken James Donachie out of the game after a quick turn, he drilled the ball home from three yards to give Phoenix the lead, barely ten minutes on the clock. The appearance of Segecic on the scoreboard confused us all until the substitition was announced.
Soon after, some typically intricate play from Sydney saw a ball fed to Robert Mak. He took an age to shoot, but did so well, Oli Sail getting down to push the ball away, even preventing the corner. The first half was quite a low-quality affair, the home team not once finding a head from any of the crosses, while Wellington rarely threatened themselves. An example of this low quality saw two Sydney FC defenders head the ball off the top of their heads in quick succession, the ball going backwards each time, and it looked like neither team was going to produce anything of any note. Redders had to be quick to react to a firmly hit backpass, and made one good stop, pushing away a low shot and thankfully no one was there to follow up on the rebound.
The stash of balloons in my bag became the entertainment for the rest of the half, I’m ashamed to say, with the intention to release them when we scored a goal. The swirling wind would take care of most of them anyway. The evidence of the Steve Corica way of playing wasn’t too obvious in the first half, shooting away from our end, but there was definitely no fast-paced attacks, taking on players wasn’t the first thought, and going backwards was the norm after gaining so much ground up the field. One moment of absolute magic did rouse the crowd though, Anthony Caceres shimmying between two players with beautiful feet to set off upfield, but it ended as quickly as it started when his pass went astray and Phoenix were back on the attack.
The Cove were doing their best to make it entertaining for everyone. The call and response was fun, as was the parting of the Cove to form an aisle down the middle for each side to rush in 1970s punk-style, and we got our “Lo lo” chant.
The action on the field had not been entertaining, and the half-time whistle was almost ignored, with a chant in full swing and neither boos nor cheers saw the players down the tunnel. The half-time entertainment was wholesome; as the Miniroos played their games, the annual toddler race took place, always something that gets the crowd laughing as the tiny kids dribble in the wrong direction, get distracted by the crowd, and display the sort of skills we’d been seeing too often in the first half from both teams today. As usual the sprinklers caught out the subs warming up on the field. The teams entered the field barely noticed for the second half, but we were ready to see a reaction from the Sky Blues.
We didn’t get one. There was a lot of play in the Wellington half, but it was inconsequential. Diego Caballo was frustrating, playing a couple of passes straight to the opposition as if he was short-sighted, and our defence had to be switched on to keep the Phoenix at bay down the left. With an hour played, a ball into the box by Caballo was headed on by Adam Le Fondre. Rhyan Grant had stolen a yard at the far post and smashed the ball home brilliantly, but the flag was up. Our balloons went everywhere, but VAR would be called in to adjudicate this one. From the angle of the replay we had, he was obviously onside, and everyone in the stadium could see. Unfortunately this wasn’t the angle we needed, as Grant was marginally offside, the arm raised calling for the ball perhaps the reason he had strayed into an offside position. The Sydney fans were incensed. It looked like the wrong call.
Ten minutes later a challenge from behind saw the talented Bozhidar Kraev catch Segecic on the back of the calf. There didn’t seem to be much in it except a free-kick. In rushed referee Shaun Evans and he brandished a yellow card, the second one for Kraev and he was off. It was totally out of the blue, there had been no uproar from the players or the fans on the touchline where it happened. Kraev wasn’t having it, and had to be told numerous times to go off on the side of the field where the incident took place. What a shame he chose to walk the other way instead of in front of the Cove – now that would have been pantomime at its best. A missed opportunity there, for sure.
Corica’s reaction was to substitute his first substitute, Segecic making way for the direct running and shooting power of Paddy Wood, but his second substitution defied any logic, Caballo off and replaced by fellow left back Connor O’Toole, a reliable defender, but a player whose tame crossing has never led to a goal anywhere from my knowledge. Perhaps another striker might have at least signalled intent and given the team a gee up. After all, with a man down, Phoenix wouldn’t be attacking as much.
The game had woken up a little, but the visitors were still in control and even mounting attacks. The peak of the drama was yet to come though. Substitute Nicholas Pennington was hassling Max Burgess who took offence. The two came together head to head in a clash, Pennington grabbing Burgess around the throat before they were prised away from each other. It was good to finally see a bit of fight from a Sydney FC player. The ref was on the spot but took his time to make any moves until the fracas had subsided. Burgess was shown the yellow card for his part, but unbelievably Pennington, who had only been on the field for 20 minutes, was shown a straight red card. Wellington were down to nine players. This was surely Sydney’s chance to put them to the sword.
The gamesmanship was understandably at full throttle from the visitors, and Sail was booked for timewasting. Two Phoenix players were on the floor at the same time requiring treatment and Burgess was ushered away when he started administering physio. On came Jaiden Kucharski for Paulo Retre, who had not looked comfortable today, and Sydney were obviously going for broke. Kucharski picked up a ball in midfield and advanced, ballooning his shot way over from miles out, what a pathetic introduction to the game when a cool calm head was required. It was a training ground exercise now, defence against attack, and it was up to Sydney to find a way through. Burgess looked to get through, but stumbled, Robert Mak let the ball run under his foot when he received a ball on the edge of the area and the groan from the crowd was audible. When the assistant referee called a throw-in to Wellington after the defender had kicked the ball into his own leg, there was a huge roar of disapproval.
Everyone was on the edge of their seats now, it surely had to come. Sure enough, a ball into the area saw Le Fondre leap and his header appeared to hit the arm of Scott Wootton, who was dicing with danger by having it up in the air. Referee Evans thought about it until the screams from the Sydney players and fans became too much and he pointed to the spot. Penalty. The protestations were lengthy. But we had the opportunity to draw level with maybe five of the eight minutes of added time still to play. Up stepped Le Fondre, king of the smash-it-down-the-middle, and his powerful shot was too close to Sail, who batted the ball away. Connor O’Toole could have rifled the ball into the empty net, albeit from an acute angle, instead he tried to lift the ball back in for a sea of Sky Blue teammates, but it hit a defender and went out for a corner. There were a few questions of a handball there too.
The players all lined up for the corner until Evans was called across to the screen at the side of the field for a VAR check. Another handball perhaps? Yes it was, this was amazing drama, and a second penalty was awarded much to the disgust of the Phoenix players. I was under the impression that handball in the box was a yellow card these days, but there was nothing given for either, adding to the bizarre nature of the action that was unfolding. Mak had the ball at the corner flag and appeared to be walking across to take the penalty until Le Fondre took the ball off him. The Wellington Phoenix players were doing all they could to delay the penalty, standing in the box or having a foot over the line so the referee would have to delay things further. Up stepped Le Fondre and he thrashed it again, Sail didn’t move, but the ball sailed past the post and into the Cove for an absolute howler of a miss.
That was the cue for most people to leave. Fans were streaming out. This was as low as Sydney FC could get. Even if we had drawn level at this late stage it would have been embarrassing to be celebrating a last-gasp 1-1 draw at home to nine-man Wellington. There was very little time left and the referee blew for full time. There was confusion as to what to do, the players and fans unsure how to react. Boos justifiably rang out. The subs raced over to do their warm-downs to heckling, but today was kids on the field day after the game, so there would need to be at least some rapport between the players and fans ahead of that. There was no acknowledgement of fans or players, although three or four players did come to the edge to give signatures and do the PR work for the rest of the squad who had disappeared without a trace.
James Donachie and Rhyan Grant were mobbed as everyone raced onto the field, Paddy Wood struggled to get off the field and had to take cover behind a roped off section to get away. The players were very fortunate that there was no anger directed at them; to be honest the anger would have been mainly towards Steve Corica, and there was no way he would be anywhere near the field.
We left via the main entrance to the concourse and down the stairs – Rossco was there waiting for the ballkids’ parents to come and pick up their sons and daughters – a few would still be on the field so they would be waiting a while. The light rail had light traffic, and the train was only a few minutes later after arriving at Central. We were back home at 8.30pm with Thai takeaway in hand ready to catch the rest of the Melbourne City game against Western United, another batch of ex-Sydney players doing well in that one.
So, can we think of any positives from today? James Donachie played okay today I thought, maybe relative to his performances to date, and Sydney FC women’s team continued to fly the flag for the club, only let down in the club championship by this sorry men’s team. That’s the positives.
Where do we start with the negatives? Every coach in the A-League is wise to the way Sydney FC play. It looks good going forward, the tiki-taka is pretty to watch, but it always comes to a halt when it gets to the final ball. There’s never anyone in the middle to play the ball to. Players are scared to run at their defenders, and other than the suspended Joe Lolley, don’t appear to have the skill. The corners and free-kicks are ineffectual. The insistence on keeping proven youngsters on the bench is criminal and the substititions are baffling at times. Diego Caballo had a shocker today, Robert Mak didn’t do enough and gave up easily, despite his obvious skill. Paulo Retre makes some wrong choices and puts the defence in danger when he loses the ball so far back, and Adam Le Fondre, you might need to see a shrink after that. Back of the queue of penalty takers, we need someone to step up. And do we have a leader amongst us?
I have been positive throughout these testing times, and only recently that positivity started to wane. The old ‘definition of insanity’ applies here. We cannot continue with this coaching set up any longer and we need a fresh approach. It’s never too late to change, and if we do change, it can’t really get much worse. I’m a Newcastle United fan for heaven’s sake – just look what Eddie Howe did to the club when he came in for Steve Bruce. There are parallels here. There were shouts of the ‘Butcher years’ and the ‘Farina years’ at the end of the game today, and fans who would not normally boo their team felt compelled to do so. The Cove all left quickly. It was only the fact that fans were allowed on the field that there was anyone at all staying back after the game. Fair play to Wellington Phoenix who battled bravely and seemed to be up against twelve men; they executed a fine game plan and had good changes to make when they needed to hang on to their lead.
I read somewhere that the official crowd figure was above 13,000 – that is completely false. It was nowhere near that number, and if I had to stab at it, it would be 6,000 maximum.
We don’t see our men’s team again until February, and that will be allow time to heal. Luckily we can support our women’s team at Leichhardt Oval soon and that will bring back some of the feel-good factor that is sadly missing after today’s horror show. Forza Sydney FC!