Sydney FC 1 Melbourne City 1
The first leg of the A-League semi-finals gave Sydney FC a chance to farewell Allianz Stadium for the 2022/23 season in style and tee up a second leg with an honest chance of causing the upset against premiers Melbourne City. The visitors took the lead with a searing free kick, touched home by the head of Mathew Leckie, but the lead was wiped out in the second half by a twice-taken penalty after Anthony Caceres was upended in the box. Adam Le Fondre showed his teammate how to finish a penalty and if not for two offside decisions that would not have been picked up pre-VAR, Sydney would have snatched a slender lead to take to Melbourne for the second leg. As it is though, one goal each and at least 90 more minutes to come of Sydney FC’s unexpected extended season.
I have to admit, the Friday night kick off threw me a little. Wrapped up in work all afternoon and then having to do a drop to football training, I was not ready to go until well after 5pm. Michelle joined me and we caught the train from Meadowbank Station, changing at Central and marvelling at the fancy new surrounds of the sparkling new underground section. We headed out to join the throng at the light rail stop, said a quick hello to Vince from the SMH, and met Carla on the platform. This was a peculiar time to be heading to the Crown, with the march set to leave at 6.45pm from the Albert Cotter bridge. We arrived at the pub with 30 minutes to go and the upstairs area was virtually deserted. A quick pit stop, a light bite and a pint, and we were off to join the Cove at the bridge.
Walking over the grass towards the foot of the bridge, there was a red glow. It was impressive. Hurrying to the start of the curly bridge walk, we were a little late, but caught up to the main march and were singing away just ahead of the police escort, stepping over the remnants of the flares that had lit up the area. The view from the road below must have been something else, and a rogue cyclist took time for a rest and take a few photos instead of battling through the pack. The mood was upbeat. This was a bonus game that no one in their right minds would have expected even just a week ago, and it was one of those games where the result didn’t really matter. There was always next week to put things right in the second leg if we messed up royally tonight. Such is the unpredictability of the A-League at the best of times, but this was finals football.
The early start for the march meant that we were in the stadium quite early too. There’s a lot to be said about that – plenty of time to get drinks, get settled and say hello to fellow fans. The toilets were closed out the back of the Cove for some reason, so I headed around to the bathrooms in the main stand and walking out the exit took me past the bar, so I grabbed some extra drinks, able to take the cans up to Cove Heights instead of having the contents poured into glasses at the bar behind the Cove. We had our usual seats, the faces around us all a bit different suggesting that not every fan had taken the option of securing their seats in the same section, or was indeed attending the game at all. We were lucky to have the Cove here. The atmosphere had been a little eerie at the start at Commbank Stadium last week, and remembering the game from a few weeks back where the Cove refused to sing for 4 minutes after losing 4-0 to the Wanderers the week before, it was a blessed relief to have the noise and the passion from the home end as the players walked out onto the field.
City had no fans. Of course there would have been a few, but there was no noticeable pocket of fans, and even if there were, the colours are exactly the same so they blend in anyway. The visitors must have won the toss, as the teams were turned around, Sydney shooting towards us in the first half. Makes little difference; it has not exactly been a lucky end for us this season.
I don’t know if it was the beer – I’d only had a couple – or just my general Friday night demeanour, but I found it hard to concentrate fully on the game. It was exciting, but I wasn’t really invested like I usually am in the game. I’d normally be picking out each of the star names from the opponents team and watching them closely, watching the duels forming on the field and working out what the coach had instructed the players. Tonight I was simply watching for pure entertainment, and it felt like being at the theatre. You can watch the quick highlights to get a feel for the game, but the first half saw some quality action on a very patchy looking playing surface. First up, a good move on the right saw Adam Le Fondre poke the ball home, almost unexpectedly, right down in front of us, but the flag was up to curtail the celebrations. Then Alfie again romped forward onto a Maxi Burgess pass to fire in a shot that went just wide. He was screaming for a corner, but we hadn’t seen the touch, and it took the replay on the big screen to confirm his annoyance. The stadium was rocking.
City then got the opener and it was from a free kick down the left. Mathew Leckie rose highest to glance home a vicious cross from Valon Berisha, a fantastic set-piece that was almost undefendable. The crowd refused to be silenced, but it was City on the break where the goals seemed most likely. Curtis Good smacked a header off the bar, and Jack Rodwell stumbled on the ball to present what looked like a simple chance but Andrew Redmayne stood tall and blocked the shot. The half whipped by really quickly, and Sydney had a great chance when Anthony Caceres tricked his way through on the right to fire a shot at Tom Glover. The rebound fell to Robert Mak, sporting a Paddy Wood disguise with his newly bleached hair, and Glover somehow got a hand to the firm shot and the ball was hacked off the line with Alfie jumping in with his studs to try and force it home. It was superb drama.
Half time was a chance for the bulk of our cohort to head out for a smoke, while I stayed to take in the half-time heroes, and the half-time break seemed to be extended a bit longer than usual, Sydney FC back on the field first and waiting for their opponents to appear. In fact the game kicked off and there was barely anyone back in their seats in our section, and I was joined by the Professor, who had come to spend the second half amongst the more active fans. Joe Lolley had been warming up even before the second half kicked off, and his arrival was imminent.
Sydney got their reward for a bright start to the half when Caceres nipped in first to poke the ball away from a lunging tackle in the box. The referee had no hesitation and Caceres got himself up to take the spot kick after a moment of uncertainty and a thorough VAR check. We were all surprised by the choice of taker, and sure enough Glover guessed right and saved the low shot with ease. Hands were on heads, but the spectre of VAR got involved again and found something wrong with the penalty. It didn’t seem like Glover had strayed off his line, so the consensus was that a player had encroached, and like all rules around goalscoring opportunities, it was scrutinised upstairs and a retake ordered. What a let-off. Alfie picked up the ball for this one, and made no mistake firing in beautifully to equalise for Sydney FC.
“Jump Up In The Cove” went the fans at the home end, and it was brilliant to see. Sydney then got lucky as Melbourne City coughed up possession. Burgess played in Mak, who crossed for Alfie to poke home from three yards. I was watching on the TV monitor as I queued for a beer, getting the taste for Friday night froth, and heard the groans of the crowd before the TV confirmed that the goal had been disallowed. It’s not something I like to do, miss any play, but the earlier drinks had forced me to the bathroom and I couldn’t resist one last beer as I made my way back.
Redders then made a great stop after a ghosting run from former Sydney man Marco Tilio set up Jamie Maclaren, but VAR would have ruled it out anyway, Alfie scuffed a shot really badly when well placed, and Rodwell was teed up for a shot but the ball was cleared. A fair chunk of added time didn’t produce any more goals, and we were pretty happy to have shared the spoils, although we shaded the game on shots taken. After the first fifteen minutes of the game had seen City mesmerise the Sydney defence with a move of incredible speed and agility, we were relieved not to have seen that much more of the outstanding attacking football that City can produce.
We headed down to say goodbye to the players. It was a shame not to give them a send-off with linked arms and cheers, but a few players stuck around to work the crowd as we made our way behind the cameras to see the post-match wrap with the Paramount Plus team.
The voices from the back of the remaining crowd sang “We love Brosquey more than Archie, yes we do” which brought a smile to the faces of the panel, Brosquey searched for a spare microphone when Rado Vidosic appeared for his moment on TV, Diego Caballo played football with his young fella as if this could be his last game at Allianz – we hope it’s not – and Rhyno was the last of the players to make his way around, making sure that everyone had a selfie or a signature. Club legend that man.
Our night was done. With club football and refereeing on the agenda the following day, I was keen to head home, but it just felt right to head out for a drink or two to continue the buoyant mood. We popped in to the Cricketers Arms for a quick one, joined by Chris and Waheed at this point, and then grabbed a bite to eat at El Loco. We managed to get the last train home, eventually landing in the early hours back in the northern suburbs after the perfect Friday football fix. We live in hope for this Friday night. It will be tough, but we have faith, and from what we saw tonight, form is out of the window as we arrive at a rematch of the grand final of 2021 with redemption on our minds. Forza Sydney FC!