A non-performance of alarming ineptitude from Sydney FC at their new Allianz Stadium home told us everything we need to know about the disintegration of Steve Corica’s tenure. Vast open gaps in midfield, defenders outpaced and an attack that never looked like scoring despite numerous clear chances, underlined the state of our once-proud club. The day was such a good one until the football started, perhaps we should skip it altogether next time.
A stinking hot day in Sydney had it’s usual game day transport issues just like last week’s train and bus woe for the women’s game; we caught the train replacement bus from the northern suburbs to Strathfield and then endured the slowest ever train ride to Central, despite there being only one stop. The police cameras outside Central Station gave an indication that this was a high-profile game, and the short light rail ride to meet Siobhan saw a lot more sky blue shirts than usual. We walked into the Crown Hotel ready to be fed and watered, deciding against the roaring and boiling upstairs bar in favour of a seat downstairs in the relative cool.
An unfortunate issue with the fire alarms saw the fire engines onsite, but no one flinched inside and the party was starting to get going just as we had to leave to join the march at the footbridge over to the stadium. The police stopped the traffic to let the crowd down to Moore Park, the lovely breeze hitting us as we crossed the main road, then it was like a scene from Braveheart as the hordes of Sydney FC fans descended across the grass to the meeting point.
Flares, chants, singing, jumping, this was the real deal. Bystanders watched on perplexed as the bridge was filled with blue, the red smoke in the blazing sun giving this a festival feel. The stadium came into sight as the bridge shuddered under the bouncing fans. There were Ninkovic shirts with his name covered over, the bathers in the swimming pool all stopped to pop their heads over the wall to see what the noise was, the police were keen to make sure the crowd made it to the gate without spilling into the away fans. This was proper derby conditions on a fiercely hot day. The stadium would surely be a cauldron.
Due to the early arrival of the march, we were ahead of time, maybe 45 minutes to kick off, so I wandered around to see the sights. The away end hadn’t started to fill up yet, kids were getting faces painted, almost every food and drink outlet was open with bored-looking attendants not realising just how busy they were soon to get. They even had the kiosks open to buy your 3.5% Hahns and the express queue was open for Furphys. I was on kid pick-up duty later in the night so I wasn’t having any more, but there were plenty of people who were going for it on this balmy night in East Sydney.
The stadium filled up, although the bare areas in the upper tier in each corner were still bare as the players filed out for the line-ups. This would be under the 30,000 hoped for, but the atmosphere was starting to build as we approached the kick off. The Wanderers fans congregated together behind the goal at the far end, and the end mirrored the Cove as the chants and vitriol began to ring around the stadium. We had flags to wave under our seats, and these were the home-made variety – a bit of blue cloth, a sawn-off length of conduit for a handle and a bit of strong gaffer tape. There were loads of them, and someone had obviously gone to a lot of effort and expense to put these together. We waved them furiously as the players cane out, as the players shook hands and as “We Are Sydney…” was belted out. A prophetic quip from Dale asked the question of how many of these stumpy flagpoles would end up on the field.
Our confidence going into this one was close to zero. Wanderers were having a fine season, Sydney were ekeing out the odd win to stay in contention for the finals, despite playing badly for the most part. Still, on their day, we were sure that a performance tonight was possible, given the occasion and given the high stakes.
The game kicked off before we’d really had time to digest formations and starting line-ups, but from having seen the Wanderers play a number of times this season, their midfield was mouth-watering, with our former hero Milos Ninkovic ready to cause mayhem. Luke Brattan was hauled down resulting in a booking from World Cup referee Alireza Faghani, but Paulo Retre must have said something pretty tangy to the official and received the first yellow card before the Wanderers play had received his.
There was a shout for a penalty as Kusini Yengi seemed to be bundled over as he went to round Andrew Redmayne right in front of us, the result somehow being a goal kick despite James Donachie getting the last touch. It wasn’t long before the opening goal came, and it was new Socceroo Brandon Borrello who split the square defence with an inch-perfect ball, Tunisian star and Harry Styles lookalike Amor Layouni controlled and laid the ball on for Yengi to stroke the ball home. We were sure it would be pulled back for offside, whether the first ball from Borrello or the final pass, but the alarming thing was just how absent our defence was. After a lengthy VAR, Sydney kicked off to groans from the Cove and Wanderers were looking good, their fans bouncing at the far end of the stadium.
It got worse soon after. Rhyan Grant took a dive when he knew his one-two with Brattan had failed, and there was no hint of a foul or any hint of defensive midfielders playing for Sydney FC as Yengi fed Ninkovic in the centre of the park. He had acres of space, and we all know the quality that was unappreciated in his last two years at Sydney FC, as he slipped a delicious ball through for Layouni. He was in the clear but off balance, and it didn’t look as though he’d get a shot away. He did, and it crept inside the post, trundling across the line with the Sky Blue defence already giving up the chase.
It could have been more, Retre was caught trying to dribble past four players on the edge of his own penalty area – to be fair there was no option whatsoever – and Borrello’s shot was saved by Redders.
Half time couldn’t come quick enough. Sydney had been second best. Their approach play as always had been pretty, but the balls into the box were to no one in particular, and the Wanderers defence gobbled up any high balls. We were two goals down, but with hope of singing “two nil up and you fucked it up” still there, we weren’t throwing in the towel just yet.
The second half started in spectacular fashion. Sydney looked like a team transformed. Clearly someone had said something motivational at the break, and it was unlikely to have been any of the coaching staff. Jaiden Kucharski was on for the ineffectual Joel King at the break, joining Jack Rodwell on the field who had come on for James Donachie early in the game. Sydney had ten minutes of complete and utter dominance, until Layouni raced down the right, cut in and blazed wildly wide to put a stop to the one-way traffic.
The flag poles rained down on the field as Lawrence Thomas started to get a little time-wastey, and the Cove capo was straight onto it, telling off his fellow Sydney fans who were putting their fellow supporters at risk.
Western Sydney’s possession was simply much better. Some of the touches from Ninkovic were sublime, opening up the game with quick passes in and out of the box. From one such move, the ball was fed to Nieuwenhof, who advanced slowly, a statuesque Retre, looking like he’d just finished mowing the lawn and was ready to knock the top off a cold one on a hot day, making a half-arsed attempt to close him down. We knew all about Nieuwenhof after his amazing goal at Wellingong a few years back, so it was no surprise to see him take up the opportunity and smash the shot from distance like a missile past Redders for 3-0. He didn’t know whether to celebrate or not, but looked pleased with himself. Take a bow, son, cracking goal and a total ‘fuck you’ to the club that let him go for no reason.
Western Sydney had yet another goal as Sydney failed to clear in midfield, Borrello playing the ball through for Layouni, who was kept on by the static Grant, and advanced to tuck home an easy finish for four. Still fifteen minutes to play too. This could get ugly. Ninkovic made way, and touched the sideline as he did, making it look like a bow – what a way to show Corica and his blundering coaches exactly why he should still have been in the prime of his career at Sydney FC.
Sydney now had Jake Girdwood-Reich, Paddy Wood and Adrian Segecic on the field, and seemed to give it a go at least with the clock running down. Segecic in particular looked full of running, but when Kucharski and Wood combined to set up Rodwell for a shot, the ball fell perfectly for Segecic to finish off and he hit it straight at Thomas instead of into the unguarded net. Sydney were never going to score tonight, even if they played another three hours – we’d already seen Grant spurn a golden opportunity from right in front, and any confidence in front of goal, or anywhere near the goal for that matter, was non-existent.
Four minutes of stoppage time followed. Four long minutes of watching the Wanderers fans lapping it up, quite rightly. An away derby win is something to savour, and they’d had two of them this season. The flags and banners from the Cove were simply dumped in a pile in front, the Sydney capo was clearly disgusted as the final whistle sounded. The usual love shown between the players and the active fans was obvious in its absence, the few players that chose to engage the fans given a flailing arm of disgust in return and plenty of one finger salutes and there was plenty of booing. Paddy Wood made it to the fans on the far side, Retre still went along the front of the Cove but there was hardly anyone left. The photographers took photos of the mangled tifo all crumpled on the ground. This was like a post-battle war-ending defeat, all the flags, folded paper clackers and one-page programmes strewn around, no one caring to have any reminders at home of such a dismal evening.
The rest of my group were heading out for more; I was heading back to the northern suburbs, conscious that I would be on the light rail, the train out west and the train replacement buses with plenty of happy Wanderers fans. In the end, it took ages to get home, but I bumped into my old teammate and Wanderers fan Sjonni, who had endured that 5-0 win with me at ANZ Stadium all those years ago, so tonight had a happy note to finish on. I was just in time to fetch my daughter from work at midnight. She couldn’t believe the scoreline.
So, let’s try and sum this one up. A team devoid of confidence and attacking ideas, a coach who had clearly not done his homework on the opposition, and a fanatical supporter base fast losing patience with the club that they support. Remember those dark days at Kogarah, when some shit team would come and win, it would be raining and miserable and we’d all be pining for our new stadium. Feels like we haven’t moved one bit since then. This is not progress. This is treading water. We do not deserve a top-six finish and the horrible fare that has been served up for the last two seasons is nowhere near the aspirations of this club. Must do better.