Steve’s Sydney sparkle to reach semis

Sydney FC 3 Western United 0

There was an omen for the A-League season ahead in clear sight at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday as Steve Corica made himself available to sign autographs with the crowd after his dominant team had dispatched a tentative Western United in the quarter finals of the Australia Cup. Such is the belief in this squad that the once-revered player and once-maligned manager is now able to connect again with the Sky Blue fans, the disdain and ire that had come his way in recent years now replaced with nods of appreciation and potentially blind optimism for the new season. This was the picture perfect afternoon that just got better as Sydney FC rose to the occasion to reach the last four of the country’s national cup competition with quite a lot to spare.

Today was a little different. Plenty of things on meant that Michelle was rushing from committee duties at the West Ryde Rovers junior presentation to be there for kick off, and I was stood at Capitol Square light rail stop at 2.30pm, coming straight from the Sydney marathon, wondering if I’d make it for the opening whistle. Happy to report that I walked in right as the first ball was kicked after hearing “We are Sydney” being belted out up Mary Street on the final stretch.

Conditions were baking. Word was already out that drinks breaks would be enforced, and the hill on the eastern side of this antiquated stadium was empty, the sun scorching on an incredibly warm early spring afternoon. Hard to believe that this was the same stadium where we beat APIA Leichhardt only a week or two earlier in driving rain. The Cove had returned to its usual spot at the far end in the corner in the shade of the enormous trees, and were in full voice. The bar next to the Cove was shut, but Michelle appeared a few moments later with some much needed electrolytes.

Luke Brattan had already thumped a shot off the post as Sydney started the stronger of the two teams, when Joe Lolley put on the after-burners up the right and threaded a lovely ball through for the hard-running Anthony Caceres. There didn’t really seem to be a shooting chance, but he turned quickly and fired in a shot that nestled inside former Sydney FC keeper Tom Heward-Belle’s far post for a well-worked opening goal. Caceres wasn’t interested in running any more for his celebration, and stood almost Cantona-like to milk the applause.

Western United toyed with Sydney a little at the far end, Andrew Redmayne making a smart save at his near post, but more good fortune was to fall Sydney’s way when Heward-Belle meekly punched away Joel King’s cross on the run. In the ensuing melee, the impressive Kealey Adamson hassled his player into coughing the ball up to Lolley, who fired in a shot without hesitation. The somewhat wayward strike fell right at the feet of Paddy Wood, and he was quick to set himself to finish low for 2-0. The more switched-on in the crowd looked to the assistant referee on the far side expecting a flag to be raised, but with none forthcoming and no VAR to spoil the party, the celebrations could continue in earnest. “Paddy gave us Wood” rang around the north end of Leichhardt Oval.

Sydney had looked so good. Caceres was outstanding, Robert Mak was making a nuisance of himself and at the back, Jake Girdwood-Reich’s more conservative hairstyle saw him give a very professional and mature performance alongside Jack Rodwell. Half-time came and the trek around to the Wayne Pearce Hill to the nearest refreshment stand underlined just how hot it was out in the open. Summer had hit Sydney all of a sudden.

Always a little harder to follow the action as it unfolds at the far end, a deep corner from Joe Lolley from the right was met perfectly by the corn-rowed head of Rodwell, and the ball appeared to hit the frame of the goal. When the ball was recycled and eventually found Lolley again, his low cross was swept home by Rodwell and the crowd erupted once again. The main grandstand was pretty full and there was good noise – the call and response was even in full swing earlier in the game and it felt like a proper home game.

Standing in the Cove was wonderful. Singing for your team, beer in hand on a hot day, what more could you ask for?

Sydney strolled to victory in the end. It was good to see some more depth in the squad, Rhyan Grant having to bide his time to eventually replace Adamson, and when Max Burgess came on, we got our first chance to see him in action since that ill-fated game in Melbourne in May. Caceres wowed us with his close control and flicks – he is surely destined to be the stand-out player of the upcoming season and he has been getting better year on year. Aaron Gurd replaced Rodwell and we had a youthful centre-back pairing, but they didn’t seem troubled, even when Western United finished the game with a little more possession. The visitors had been strangely subdued; with not a single Victorian fan in the stadium, at least from our angle, there was no support to get them pumped up for the occasion.

The players took their time to come over to celebrate, the customary photograph with the “Australia Cup qualifiers” banner being orchestrated to have the crowd in the background, and when the raising of the linked arms eventually came it was a rather rushed affair and the players wandered off, some of them towards the crowd to shake hands and pose for selfies. Grant was called away from his usual all-encompassing meet-the-people tour of the stadium to join the substitutes’ warm down. To be honest I’ve never really looked into this warm-down business in any detail – it is noticeable as a post-match ritual for a lot of teams, but the number of minutes played doesn’t seem to affect the severity of the warm-down, which is often a series of lung-busting sprints up and down the field. Perhaps the players are being forced to run the equivalent of their teammates who started the game so that everyone is at the same level of fatigue after the game. Someone fill me in!

The draw for th semi-finals was done on the field after the game, unbeknownst to us, and news came through of an away trip for the next game against Melbourne City. Easy! We stayed until we were ushered out, the players having gone down the tunnel. I was lucky enough to grab a photo with coach Steve which was a nice touch. We walked past the Western United team bus, the luggage doors open and unattended as they waited to fill it up; the opportunity for mischief was there, but resisted.

The short walk to the Orange Grove Hotel and to Michelle’s car took a long time due to my heavy legs and we were off back home soon after, landing around 6pm back in Ryde. That was a marvellous afternoon to cap off a wonderful day. Travel to the game had proven effortless, the football was impressive and it felt like summer had arrived and we were at the dawn of the new season. Bring it on!

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