Penalties : some yes, some no

A day of pure drama at Allianz Stadium on Saturday as Sydney FC Women were denied a stonewall penalty in the opening moments as the last defender handled on the line to prevent a Madison Haley goal right in front of the Cove. Luckily, with no VAR to cause an unwanted pantomime, the footballing gods managed to even things out later in the game as Hannah Wilkinson was clearly felled in the box, again right in front of us, and the referee waved away Melbourne City’s claims for a spot kick. If that wasn’t enough melodrama for the day, the men’s game served up two sendings off within the opening 20 minutes and saw the game swing between despair and delight as Sydney FC completed a six-point Saturday at their new improved home stadium. We know we need to cherish these moments!

Another hot and sunny day in Sydney with clear blue skies, a completely inappropriate 2.20pm kick off for this time of year, but that wasn’t going to stop us from seeing our girls play at home for the first time in a month. We set off just before 1pm on the train from the Northern Suburbs, Michelle on a strict deadline to arrive by 2pm, as she had been invited to toss the coin at the start of the game. We actually arrived at the stadium from the light rail with the stadium gates still closed, a good number of people there in advance and hanging around waiting patiently. That was a good sign.

As soon as we arrived at our gate, the doors had opened and we headed pitchside behind the dugouts in the expensive seats, Michelle collared by Shane from the membership team and led down to the tunnel. Mackenzie Hawkesby’s biggest fan was in attendance already, dressed in an amazing full hawk costume, and there were a smattering of fans making their way to their seats. Coach Ante Juric was full of smiles and the subs seemed relaxed in the dugout, hiding from the baking sun. The players emerged to warm applause and lined up in the middle of the field, going through the handshake routine before breaking out to their expected starting ends.

Cue Michelle’s big moment, striding confidently out onto the field to meet the officials, Sydney captain Nat Tobin and Melbourne City’s Emma Checker, doing the toin coss and sharing a laugh with the players as she left the field. Top work from one of Sydney FC’s staunchest fans. We had missed the “We Are Sydney…” coming from the Cove, but after grabbing a drink at one of the quiet food and beverage outlets, we went around to join the fun behind the goal. The wild animal MMTV was in her pen, ready to be released on the women’s Cove, and the songs were belted out right from the start and all through the first half, with a familiar face on the drum to help make the atmosphere.

Melbourne City had turned the teams around and Sydney FC were shooting towards the Cove in the first half, how dare they? The first action though was up the far end, Wilkinson seemed to have ghosted past her player and had time to shoot near post but instead tried to pull the ball back and new Sydney goalkeeper Tahlia Franco was in the right position to block the pass. The Sky Blues didn’t seem rattled, and on ten minutes they broke through, Hawkesby racing to the byline and cutting back for Haley to fire on goal. The ball struck the defender square on the arm, stopping a certain goal, but play continued and there were only muted appeals for a penalty. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen, a blatant handball stopping a goalbound effort, all day a penalty in this day and age, and a red card to boot. We were right behind the shot and it was going straight in.

Undeterred, Sydney continued to dominate, and when Princess Ibini and Haley combined, the Sydney striker managed to poke the ball out to Sarah Hunter, the Sky Blue wonder, on the edge of the box. She sized up the shot, almost passing the ball, looping it towards goal and amazingly it found the top corner of the net. It was such a surprise and a world-class finish. The Cove was bouncing! There was plenty of possession for Sydney FC as the half continued, but City had a half-chance as we moved in to added time, Rhianna Pollicina smashing in a shot from distance that beat Franco and bounced off the bar. A few inches lower and that was a goal to rival Hunter’s earlier in the half.

Half time was here and most people disappeared from the hot sun into the depths of the stadium. A lot of them were still there when the game kicked off again and would have only just been getting back in their seats when Sydney FC conjured up something quite magical.

Hawkesby controlled a bouncing ball in midfield and fed Haley, playing the target woman. She laid the ball off perfectly for a marvellous one-two for Hawkesby, who strode into space as the midfield opened up in front of her and played a first time ball through for Cortnee Vine on the charge. The goalkeeper seemed to be off-centre and Vine simply passed the ball into the net for a simple second goal – the Cove was caught out too, fans still deep in half-time conversations, but the celebrations were as big as always.

It was almost a carbon copy of that move as we reached the last 20 minutes, Shay Hollman battling well to get the ball to Haley, and the lay off again set Hawkesby away. She played in Vine down the right, who this time had to power past her player and roll in the perfect ball for Haley to race in and score from close range. When you consider that Haley played the ball to Hawkesby in her own half, facing the wrong way, that was some sprint to get into the box to apply the finishing touch. What a fabulous goal!

There were ten minutes remaining when Hannah Wilkinson showed why she one of the top-rated strikers in the A-League, outpacing Charlotte Mclean and turning her defender again in the box only to be brought down by the Sydney FC defender. Again, it was right in front of the Cove, albeit a little slow-motion, but it was as clear a penalty as we had ever seen, but once more the referee was unmoved and play went on. Sydney controlled the last few minutes of the game, albeit defending a long-range free kick as the whistle sounded, and the Sydney girls had earned a very good three points, a clean sheet and had dominated one of their closest rivals.

The emergence of the men to the field almost instantly as the game ended was a little confusing. We were clapping the women’s team, but it turned into applause for the goalkeepers as they raced to the claim the goal as if in the school playground. The girls as usual had to do their TV duties, but came around to the Cove and joined in the celebrations. It was great to see, and it remains an important moment each time Sydney FC win. The interaction with the active fans works so well, before the players head off around the perimeter back to the tunnel to say hello to friends and family.

Sydney FC women were now within striking distance of City at the top of the table and with two games in hand on the two teams above them. Great result, professional performance, and a great start to the double-header.

And that double-header continued with the men’s team up against the darlings of the A-League, the Central Coast Mariners. The corner at the far end of the stadium was already filling up with Mariners fans and the yellow shirts spread either side of the away bay. We’d have some atmosphere here! We quickly dashed off to refuel – beers and ciders and a big serving of sushi from the very popular outlet in the main stand. I have to say that, as stadium meals go, it was one of the best and good value for money too! We arrived back at the home end and took the stairs up to Cove Heights. The view from the next level up is so good after you’ve been down at the front for the women’s game – like an emperor watching the gladiators in the colosseum – and not having the crossbar, the netting and the advertising hoardings in the way is a massive improvement to the viewing experience.

Expectations were low for this one, but as today’s capo reminded everyone, we had just beaten Victory away, so it was our duty to fire up and give it everything we had to support the boys in blue. And so the songs began, “We are Sydney…” was belted out and the Cove was in full voice.

As with the women’s game, Sydney FC were shooting towards their home end in the first half, and it wasn’t long before the Sky Blues took the lead. Robert Mak looked to tease in a cross, but instead pulled the ball out to the edge of the area for fan favourite Max Burgess. It was a similar position from where the silky midfielder scored against Victory last time out, but this time his shot ricocheted off Adam Le Fondre, maybe off his backside, and fell beautifully back into his path, unmarked and in right in front of goal. The finish was lethal, and Sydney FC had a deserved lead for their lively start.

Five minutes later, Socceroos hero Jason Cummings played a delightful pass through for Marco Tulio who was barged off the ball by Rhyan Grant as he shaped to shoot. The referee was quick to signal a penalty and a yellow card, but this one would need to go to VAR, and we were convinced that it was to chalk off the penalty as it could have been shoulder to shoulder, at least from our angle at the other end of the field. The referee had a look on his monitor and the deliberations went on. Finally he emerged and the yellow card was taken away to the cheers of the crowd, instead replaced with a red card and Grant was off. It was harsh, but on seeing the replays, there was no attempt to play the ball. Up stepped Cummings to leather the ball home for 1-1, and he raced off to celebrate with the noisy Mariners fans.

Midway through the half there was more to talk about, as Le Fondre played in Burgess in a foot race with big Brian Kaltack. The pace of Burgess was impressive and he outpaced the man from Vanuata, who lunged into a tackle on the edge of the box. That send Burgess sprawling, and the referee and assistant had a quick word before the red card was shown. My low-level refereeing exploits in over 30s women’s in the winter competition at least saw me versed in the relatively new rules, and while everyone else was hollering for a penalty, I was shouting for the sending off. It’s an interesting rule, a red for denying a goalscoring opportunity when tackling outside the area, but only a yellow and a penalty if inside the area. Sod the penalty, let’s get back to even numbers! Alfie would miss it anyway…

The action kept coming, and this time a run down the left saw Cummings free in the box to control, take a touch and ponder life before lifting a slow-motion shot into the corner of the net with an exquisite finish. Away he went again to the bank of Central Coast fans as they celebrated the lead. The half-time whistle was close to sounding when Anthony Caceres lifted in a ball to Le Fondre on the burst in the box. He acrobatically swiveled to meet the through ball with a totally unexpected yet spectacular scissor kick on the volley, but Danny Vukovic was right behind it. Had that gone in, it would have gone viral the world over, it was an incredible piece of improvisation and so close to being the goal of the century.

Half-time then and time for some respite from the unrelenting action. The half-time heroes were doused in water from the sprinklers, but to be honest, it was a hot day so it almost looked intentional.

The second half will be remembered for two absolutely stinking misses from the Mariners, first Beni Nkololo’s shot was palmed into the path of Tulio by Andrew Redmayne and the Mariners man had the simple task of rolling the ball home. Alas, his touch deserted him and the ball rolled agonisingly wide. 3-1 would have been rough on Sydney, and Thomas Aquilina would repeat the feat later in the half as if to spare Tulio’s blushes. The Mariners could have been out of sight. Instead, Joe Lolley found the same space in the box that Cummings had enjoyed in the first half, racing on to Diego Caballo’s tempting cross from the left and sweeping the ball home, a goal from absolutely nothing that seemed to catch out a lot of fans too.

Sydney FC were going for it. And they got their reward when Paulo Retre took a moment to measure a glorious cross for Le Fondre at the far post, who had peeled away from the defender; he still had a lot to do, but his striker’s instinct saw him find the corner of the net with a clever finish. Sydney FC in the lead. Amazing!

Central Coast Mariners looked more than capable of getting back into the game in the last ten minutes and it was a tough watch, the home team trying to find that balance between attacking and conserving their lead. Added time brought plenty of drama, and James Donachie raced out of the box with the ball for a rare moment of respite. He continued his run and eventually ended up getting ready to fire a shot on goal, but he was finally tackled, the length-of-the-field run not getting the reward it merited. The final whistle was met with relief and surprise – Sydney FC had beaten one of the fancied teams and they had done so in a backs-to-the-wall performance against a very good Central Coast team.

Time to go down the stairs and into the Cove for the post-match celebrations and a bit of Bohemian Rhapsody, and we had to wait until Le Fondre had completed his media duties, racing to join the group for the linked-arms salute. Attention turned to the Sydney derby next week and the Cove gave us a reminder of what the “Western Sydney scum” should do. Spotting a Wanderers fan in the concourse we couldn’t help taking an inflammatory photo ahead of what will be a spicy occasion in Parramatta next Saturday night. A number of the players stuck around to sign autographs and to revel in the post-match glow of a win; we were tempted to see what was happening in the main stand where the players were congregating, but my arm was twisted (not hard I might add) to go and grab a beer in the closest pub to Allianz Stadium, the Olympic. It was great to be able to take a beer outside into the street and have a chat without a security guard making it tough.

Sure enough, a single solitary beer later and a cheers to a six-point Saturday, we were on the way home via the stadium forecourt, back to the light rail and on to Central Station to find the next train back home.

This had been a truly marvellous day-nighter at Allianz Stadium, a professional and functional display by Sydney FC women in a comprehensive 3-0 win, and a game filled with action, thrills and spills in the A-League men’s, Sydney coming out on top in a see-sawing encounter.

We were back in Ryde by 9pm and ready for more football from the A-League with a late night fixture in Perth, running into the opening games of the latest EPL round. Brilliant day out, and a feast of fantastic action and drama from the best football league in the world. Forza Sydney FC!

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