Sydney stumble into finals

In what was anything but a routine home win, Sydney FC secured fifth spot in the A-League ladder with goals from Adam Le Fondre and Patrick Wood. Confirming their elimination final spot against crosstown rivals Western Sydney Wanderers, they will be without young gun Jaiden Kucharski after he picked up two quickfire yellow cards, and there is work to be done on penalty taking ahead of this surprise appearance in the finals. There was a strange atmosphere at the final whistle too as the heavens opened, and the Cove wondered if this was the last time they would see their heroes in action this season.

With the A-League seasons crashing into the club football season, a 1pm kick off allowed just enough time to turn around and head to Allianz Stadium for this 5pm game, the final day of the regular A-League season. Heading into Central Station on the slowest train journey of all time though allowed only 20 minutes to get to the gate, and with the Sydney Swans game just about to finish, there could be an almighty squeeze of people at the light rail stop. Thankfully the AFL game ended just as I walked past the exit of the SCG and it was plain sailing to Allianz, heading through the entry gate just as the Cove were getting into “We Are Sydney…” There seemed to be a decent turnout, albeit with massive areas of empty seats as we have been used to all season. No time for drinks, no pregame to get pumped up, straight up to our marvellous seats in Cove Heights to meet Michelle, who had come in earlier with MMTV and the game kicked off.

After some positive moments from the Sky Blues, the game settled into the usual pattern of intricate passes to get to the penalty area and then retreating to try again. There was no doubt that Sydney FC were up for this, but Newcastle Jets were always a threat. A free kick was deflected over the bar from the Jets with Andrew Redmayne committed to the dive, and Archie Goodwin was looking every bit the million-dollar player that he will surely become. Referee Alex King must have had a new directive, as he didn’t give a free kick every time there was a coming together or a player hitting the deck, and it was from one of those moments, a Jets player crumpling under a non-challenge, that Sydney took advantage and broke up the left. Welcome starter Adrian Segecic raced up the wing and, contrary to the general Corica tactic of heading backwards, whipped in an early cross. Le Fondre was racing into position and got a faint flick to send the ball goalwards, and Jets keeper Jack Duncan somehow let the ball squirm through his legs, turning a routine catch into his worst nightmare. It wasn’t obvious from our position at the far end, but the ball had gone in and Sydney FC had the lead.

Livewire Jaushua Sotirio thundered a shot just past the post with Redders beaten and Sydney FC looked a little shaky. Up the other end, Joe Lolley set up Maxi Burgess who thrashed the ball against the bar – the offside flag went up mysteriously as Sydney tried to make something of the rebound, but it must have been one of those stupid offsides when the assistant referee plays on until the phase of play is complete, and we can only assume Lolley was offside in the build-up. A goal to the good at the break then, Sydney had enjoyed the bulk of the possession, but as we have grown accustomed, very little of that posession bore any fruit.

Half time was quite entertaining. There was a members’ half-time heroes game, with a couple of Cove members being schooled by their female opponents; at least they were demonstrating direct football. The toddlers race was a thriller, the young girl who raced clear of the pack somehow hit the ball past the post and ended up buried into her dad’s arms in dismay, allowing the second fastest toddler to calmly poke the ball into the net. The pitch was awash with people. This was mmembers appreciation round and the members were loving it.

Half-time also allowed time to read the flyer that Michelle had been handed pre-game. The finals series is being boycotted by the Cove, as was the Central Coast Mariners away game earlier in the season, and that means a Sydney derby next week with no active support. Whilst that is a tough ask for the fans, it is surely going to demonstrate to those in charge of our beautiful game that the supporters will not put up with being a largely ignored stakeholder in the A-League. This is set to be a watershed week for the A-Leagues and will also see many fans grappling with their conscience as to whether or not they should attend the semi-final at Commbank Stadium next Saturday.

Half time seemed to go on forever. Once the half-time entertainment had cleared, the Jets were first out onto the field and had to wait a couple of minutes for the Sky Blues.

The second half was a thrill a minute. A fabulous move saw Segecic race through and connect to score a fabulous goal, but another late offside flag ruled it out, the scoreboard already showing us GOAL and the goal scorer. Burgess stole a ball to set up Le Fondre who struck against the inside of the post and the ball somehow stayed out, and it looked like being another one of those games.

That was when Sydney conjured up something special. Hemmed into their own corner, they got out of trouble and broke up field, Rhyan Grant keeping the ball in to feed Wood. He got there ahead of his marker to release Lolley, the Jets player going to ground as if he’d been shot. We were all expecting the referee to blow for that, but play went on, Lolley was weighing up his options, and Segecic looked to be steaming through to join the attack. Lolley instead slotted the ball to the onrushing Wood who struck a low grass-cutter towards goal, as nonchalent a finish as you could get, Duncan unable to get down to it and Sydney had their second. The restart was slow in coming, a VAR check clearly taking place and the Jets players were giving the referee a difficult time for having let play go on after Wood’s challenge but the goal stood.

Ball crew master Rossco almost got in the action, trying to control a ball to keep the Sydney momentum going, which gave the fans a chuckle on the far side. The game was well and truly open by now and Redders had to be switched on to make a couple of routine saves straight at him, and watched another shot go just past the post.

More drama was to come, as Wood went to ground in the penalty area despite having kicked the ball too far anyway. Referee King thought about it for a second and gave the spot kick with a theatrical point of the arm, a very soft award from where we were looking, and Burgess grabbed the ball, taking a few goes at placing the ball on the spot. He seemed to be showing Duncan where he was going to put it, in a double or triple bluff, and decided to go that way, Duncan easily reading it and saving, Burgess looking to unleash the spectacular as the ball fell from a height, but ultimately Sydney wasting the opportunity to seal the game.

Kucharski was on now, and he will be cursing Wood for selling him short with a terrible pass that led to a yellow card for pulling back his opponent. That was going to come back and haunt him, but not until Wood had missed a sitter when clean through, and substitute Diego Caballo had gone for the long range lob instead of running on goal in a bizarre moment. Kucharski then leapt into a headed challenge from a long clearance and was adjudged to have fouled his opponent. The referee was half way over to the prone Lolley before realising that there was perhaps more in the challenge behind him, and he returned to the scene where the Jets player was oozing blood from a split, and King belatedly gave the yellow card as if the sight of claret had changed his mind. Kucharski couldn’t believe it. The fans were up in arms.

Sydney played out the final moments after the Jets player had been taped up and despite having some clear sight on goal, the visitors failed to capitalise from the man advantage. The final whistle was greeted with a cheer. The players came to the Cove to celebrate, having to wait until Redders had raced over to join them before linking arms and enjoying the moment with the fans. A handful of players then split up and raced to different parts of the stadium for the fan PR session, Alex Wilkinson and Wood staying out in the now monsoonal conditions to make sure everyone got what they wanted.

There was no way we were going anywhere yet. The heavens had truly opened and the field was becoming waterlogged, and we waited to see our names on the Members wall to fill in time until the rain started to ease. The rain had stopped by the time we left the stadium, quite a low-key ending to the final game of the season, and we were back on the light rail with a quick change at Central and back in the burbs well before 9pm.

So that’s it for the season, or is it? We now begin a week of procrastination, doubt and soul-searching as we work out what we’re doing next Saturday night. The Cove says no. The heart says yes. Of course we will respect the call to stay out of the active area at Commbank, but will we go at all? Surely the APL understand now that the decision to move the grand finals to Sydney was completely wrong, and that the actions to repair that damage have been totally underwhelming. Stand by for a week like no other!

See you all at the women’s grand final! Forza Sydney FC!

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