Sydney FC Women 4 Newcastle Jets Women 0
Sydney FC Men 3 Western United Men 3
Boom! After Western United won earlier on Saturday, there was only one plausible outcome from the first and most important game of the double-header at Allianz Stadium, and that was a Sydney FC victory. Two goals a-piece from Mackenzie Hawkesby and Cortnee Vine sealed the Premiership, and satisfied the crowd ahead of the A-League men’s clash with Western United. What looked like being a now standard home defeat for this beleaguered side ended up becoming a spirited draw, and the number of chances missed echoed the women’s team, albeit in vastly different circumstances. A feast of entertainment at Allianz Stadium on April Fools Day.
When I looked up the train times at 3.30pm, the bus replacement between Strathfield and Central made this an easy call to drive, and we set off from the northern suburbs bound for our traditional parking spot in deepest Paddington, a decent walk from Moore Park, but an easy exit from the city and free too. We were parked up barely 30 minutes later and hiked up past Paddo RSL, the town hall, and down to Allianz Stadium. This was like a trip down memory lane. We’d not done this for many years, as public transport is so much easier, but with young kids I used to do this all the time. Very little had changed.
There were good crowds outside the gate, and it opened as we crossed Moore Park Road, a much bigger crowd than we were used to at this point before the first leg of a double-header. Conditions were ideal. Fresh, no glaring sun, and the Cove was already amassing behind the goal. We went on the search for food, hoping for sushi. Alas, the signs were up that there was limited food until 6.45pm, so once again we opted for the standard stadium fare of chicken burger and chips, washed down with some exceedingly expensive alcoholic canned drinks.
The urge was there to join the Cove, but the need was there to eat our stadium food (to be fair it was pretty good), so we took a spot in the seats at the back of the Cove to start with before moving down. The over-eager can police interrupted our picnic to pour our drinks into glasses – honestly, for the women’s game, that silly rule can go and nick off. I could drink my cans all night at Kogarah, but in the home end at Allianz I needed a plastic glass. First world problem I know, but I’m conscious of how clumsy I can be with full glasses of beer – at least knocking over a can you might only lose a mouthful. And no one seemed too fussed about the flagpoles being readily available for the derby two weeks ago.
The Cove was already buzzing. Sydney FC looked up for it right from the start, and with Sarah Hunter alongside Indiana Dos Santos, Ante Juric had kept faith in a firing midfield, Hawkesby the set-piece specialist alongside them. Someone had clearly forgotten to turn off the sprinklers pre-game – it was noticeable that the water pressure in the bathrooms beforehand was low, and there was now an ocean of water on the playing surface. As soon as the players ran into the Newcastle half anywhere near the technical areas, water would splash up. Simple balls would hold up and players would skate around instead of making dynamic turns. Would be interesting to know what the problem was, but it definitely affected the players.
Princess Ibini fired in a shot in trademark fashion (think Wanderers at Commbank) which whistled over the bar, and she was then instrumental in the opener, ghosting past her defender and pulling the ball back for the incoming Hawkesby. The connection wasn’t clean and the ball looped into the air. Jets’ goalkeeper Georgina Worth reached the ball, but couldn’t stop it from bouncing into the net for the opening goal. Was it a fluke? Only the Hawk will be able to tell us that. The mood was now one of celebration – the score was going our way, we were dominating and surely that would result in more goals.
The chanting was growing as the crowd continued to swell; capo MMTV was urging the crowd to get into that trance-like state that had enveloped Kogarah on Wednesday evening, but in these more cavernous surrounds, it was difficult to get the desired echo. The remainder of the first half saw Sydney continue to knock on the door, but there were some odd moments. Dos Santos flopped to the floor to win a free kick. Vine was booked for having her arm out when a Newcastle player knocked into it, the referee seemed to be quite picky, and it was getting the Sydney players fired up. So, a goal up at the break, the equation was simple – keep it like this and the Premiership is ours.
A Newcastle Jets fan found herself in the wrong end at half time, one of the Matildas’ staunchest supporters, and she told of a decent number of Newcastle fans in the crowd today at the far end of the main western stand. They would be revelling in the occasion and the chance to spoil the party, but mainly it was all about the farewells to certain long-serving players playing their final games.
Sydney were now shooting towards the Cove. Our slightly more elevated position than normal meant that we could see the whole field without the crossbar obscuring the view, and the game was open and entertaining. The referee harshly booked a Jets player, and Sydney started to turn the screw. There were chances, and when Madison Haley came on for Rachel Lowe, we sensed that Sydney were going in for the kill. Ibini headed onto the crossbar from close-range and a goal looked inevitable. Dos Santos wriggled around the edge of the area to fire in a shot that was parried by Worth right on to the boot of Haley who didn’t have time to sort out her feet and the effort went just past the post from close-range, the empty goal gaping. There was an emotional moment as Claire Coelho made her final appearance for the Jets, replacing the busy and very capable Worth in goal, but it backfired spectacularly as Haley turned sweetly to feed Hawkesby, who fired in a tame shot from distance. Somehow the ball squirmed out of Coelho’s grasp and dropped into the net for a calamitous second goal, the unfortunate Jets sub bowing her head in disgust. Hawkesby took the acclaim and the players swamped her. It didn’t matter how the goals went in today, they just had to go in.
A period of sustained possession for the Jets was then ended when Vine raced clear but hit the ball straight at Coelho. Ibini somehow missed from in front, and the third goal just wouldn’t go in, despite enterprising wing play from Vine and good running down the by-line by Ibini – it was maybe the final ball that was lacking, a familiar trait of Sydney FC, but usually in the men’s game. What we were missing was a goal from our Cortnee, to give the Cove another excuse to sing her tune. It took until stoppage time for that to happen, and it was Haley over the top and Vine onto the through ball. She looked anything but confident and could not possibly have meant to nutmeg the unfortunate Coelho, but it looked like a lethal striker’s finish, so we’ll go with that. That was cue for some big celebrations. Everyone up on the railings in the safe-standing area, cheering and singing. It was a glorious sight.
Unbelievably the scoring wasn’t yet done. The impressive Sarah Hunter dinked a ball over for Vine to sprint away, almost the same position as before, and this time she looked supremely confident as she bent a fabulous finish around Coelho for four, wheeling away in delight to be congratulated by her joyful teammates. The Cove was going off by now. This was an affirmation of the support that we have given across the season, and the final whistle saw the players race to congratulate one another at the far end of the stadium.
As usual the men were out to claim the field the moment the final whistle went, the goalkeepers straight to the Cove end to begin their warm-ups. To be honest, it does look disrespectful, and the women should be afforded some time to soak in the atmosphere and celebrate with their fans before the men take over the playing field. At least we didn’t have to wait half an hour for the trophy presentation, and the set-up was done in minutes to allow the team to lift the Premier’s plate in front of their adoring sponsors and corporate members, with blue flames shooting in the background.
The real fans would need to wait a little longer, the players sensing that time was tight, and they raced across to the Cove to join in the fun. As is tradition at a Sydney FC celebration, an over-zealous security guard ushered capo MMTV from the field as she was about to celebrate with Sarah Hunter on the megaphone. No problem with the men’s capo being on the field, oh no, and I’m sure our fearless female leader will have some words to say about that scenario. It didn’t stop our sky blue wonder from pumping out the call and response before the crowd broke into “We are Sydney…” which was roared at full volume by crowd and team alike.
The players and coaches took their turns to lift the plate and celebrate with the Cove. This was a fantastic moment, and it is rare for Ante to be so animated in his celebration. Even CEO Adam Santo got in on the act, raising the plate proudly above his head.
The players headed back to the tranquility of the friends and family section, so we made our way around and took in the lovely scenes, as players posed with the silverware, shirts were signed and babies were kissed. A team photo was hastily organised and the last three players sprinted from the far side of the field when they realised they were missing out.
What a terrific end to the 2022/23 season, one which looked to have slipped away once we had lost to Wellington Phoenix, but a combination of Western United losing form and our girls hitting their own sparkling form at the right time made sure that the Sky Blues would win the league for the third straight season, quite an incredible feat.
With the finals series now looming, the A-League women’s season has brought a lot of joy and satisfaction already to the Sydney FC fans. Today’s game showed just that. Unfortunately we now had the prospect of sitting through the men’s game, our boys somehow still clinging on to sixth spot in the ladder. If there was an antithesis to the women’s season, it was this stumbling train-wreck of a season that just doesn’t seem to live or die. The level of enthusiasm and expectation was quite possibly at an all-time low.
The game kicked off in eerie silence. There was no “We Are Sydney…”, there was no singing or chanting whatsoever and you could hear the players talking on the field. It was surreal, and most unwelcome. Turns out that this was four minutes of silence to commemorate the conceding of four goals last time out here against the Westie scum. As the clock ticked over to four minutes, we were back to normal, but it wasn’t long before a quite blunt chant of “we’re fucking shit” rang around the ground as Sydney FC conceded a horrific first goal. Western United carved open the defence after some tidy touches in midfield, Connor Pain sliding a ball through that Alex Wilkinson got all wrong, and Lachie Wales was left free to somehow loop a shot around Andrew Redmayne, seemingly doing an Aleksandar Mitrovic and hitting his standing foot with the shot that saw the ball arc into the goal with Redders wrong-footed. It certainly looked like a terrible finish from where I was sitting, but somehow the net bulged and were already one down.
Moments later, the unease in the crowd was exacerbated when Diego Caballo somehow got to a wayward cross-field pass and tucked the ball across goal for Robert Mak. The Slovakian had the simple task of prodding the ball home, but somehow couldn’t manage that and Jamie Young grabbed the ball gleefully on the line. We didn’t have to wait that long though for an equaliser, and when crowd favourite Max Burgess played in Mak, his earlier touch towards goal caught out Young and the ball nestled into the net at the far post for 1-1.
Alas, Sydney were level for a matter of moments, and it was more slapstick Keystone Cops defending as this time Caballo messed up his feet to allow the incredibly under-rated Dylan Pierias to break through. His shot was well saved by Redders, but there was Connor Pain, unmarked and given the freedom of the Sydney FC penalty area to slot the ball home for 2-1. Pierias then repeated his run, this time taunting Wilko with his silky running before blasting the ball off the underside of the bar, the ball hacked clear to disbelieving sighs from the home fans.
We were undeniably poor, and we were fortunate to be at only 2-1 at the break as Western United looked dangerous every time they came forward. There’s just an element of chalk and cheese in the way visiting teams attack and Sydney FC attack at Allianz. We are way too complicated, and put too much effort into unhealthy possession that ultimately results in the ball being recycled backwards and around to the other side of the field. In fact a few of us were commentating it as the second half started and the ball would go down the left, then back and around the defence to the right without ever looking dangerous or threatening.
Western United wasted no time in extending their lead. A free kick from the left up the far end was headed towards goal by ex-Sydney man Nikolai Topor-Stanley, completely unmarked, and two Sydney defenders bumbled around the bouncing ball, and the ball bounced into the goal off Luke Brattan for 3-1. Slapstick.
It was now obvious that there was some sort of internal goings on in the Cove. Our capo was overruled with some rival chants, and we could hear them clearly. One gentleman appeared to giving him a lecture, and there was an air of exasperation as the chants from the Cove were being interrupted. This was not a good sign. The football being played by the home team didn’t help lighten the mood. We had definitely plunged even further into this dark and murky era of the Corica reign. The sight of ticket inspectors checking tickets in Cove Heights in a sea of empty seats had us shaking our heads too. What was that all about?
However, just as doom and gloom was hovering above the Sydney fans, a sweeping cross from Luke Brattan was met by the incoming Caballo and his header across Young was perfectly placed into the net. Simple. What entertainment! A positive sub by Steve Corica then saw the super-mullet Jake Girdwood-Reich make way for the returning Adam Le Fondre, and with almost his first touch he contrived to miss the easiest of chances as the ball was flashed into him, his touch deserting him as the ball skiped past his foot with the goal open in front of him.
When Joe Lolley ballooned his shot wide of the post following a melee in the area, Burgess having struck the post and Anthony Caceres having shot weakly when well-placed, we were almost resigned to our fate. The ball simply would not go in. Sydney were attacking with intent, but fine margins stood between them getting an equaliser. Jack Rodwell even ended up in attack and pushed his player in the back right in front of the referee to prevent a promising moment.
Leo Lacroix sliced his man down to earn a yellow card; he was fortunate not to receive a red for such a pre-meditated assault, but we weren’t baying for blood, simply resigned to another home defeat in this second stinker of a season in a row.
Happily, and somewhat unexpectedly, Burgess launched a late attack, spraying the ball out to Mak on the left. He jinked through a challenge, cut inside and delivered a wonderful shot that curled around Young and into the net right down below us. Everyone was on their feet and cheering, tears being shed by youngsters, and this was a moment of class that simply didn’t belong in this game after ninety minutes of chaos and mayhem.
Sydney FC had pulled this one out of the fire. What was destined to be a chorus of boos at the end was replaced by tentative applause. There was no sticking around to celebrate with the players, no Bohemian Rhapsody, and definitely no desire to lap up a an underwhelming atmosephere at the final whistle. This had been a tough watch, despite being a thoroughly entertaining game, and had almost erased all the feel-good vibes of the previous game of this double-header of contrasting emotions.
What an evening at Allianz Stadium. The good, the bad and the ugly alright, and we hot-footed it out of Moore Park, back up through Paddo to the car and were back home midway through the first half of the first EPL game, the change of clocks in the UK having helped make overseas football a little more accessible. Bring on the A-League women’s final series. The men travel to Adelaide on Good Friday, and Adelaide are absolutely on fire. This should be the confirmation of our exit from the top six, unless there is a minor miracle coming up that we don’t know about. Forza Sydney FC!