There was an adventurous mood in the air as dozens of Melbourne Victory fans assembled at Southern Cross Station on the Friday night. The arduous 40-hour transit that lay ahead unable to dampen the mood as the fans prepared to watch their team’s date with destiny against Newcastle in the A-League decider.
The Victory’s upset win over the all-conquering Sydney FC sent their large supporter base on a frantic mission to identify the best way to get to McDonald Jones Stadium. It saw flights to Newcastle sold at record rates and fans nervously checking rail timetables as airline options disappeared.
The Club itself provided a solution for this particular group with three coaches to ferry those lucky enough to get their hands on a Grand Final ticket. Which is why at close to midnight they were all assembled here, clutching travel pillows and Victory scarves in readiness for what lay ahead.
As the convoy departed on its 2060km trek, the quiet hum onboard increased along with the excitement levels. Strangers eagerly exchanged predictions with each other as they all contemplated what lay ahead. A cheeky mood illustrated when a voice from the back of the bus piped up when roadworks diverted the bus from the Tullamarine Fwy. “This better not make us late,” the voice expressed to the mirth of the other passengers.
At the relief stops along the way, the groups’ slavery to smartphones was on full show with the crush for powerpoints, also on display was almost every different Victory jersey ever worn. Surprisingly, given its suitability for the truck stop roadhouses, there was not a single ‘fluoro’ jersey to be found. The same couldn’t be said for the number eight and the name Berisha, which seemed to be present on the overwhelming majority of the jerseys on show.
The number of jerseys bearing his name an indicator to the speed at which the Kosovar international had become a fan favourite in Melbourne. The heaviest scorer in the history of the A-League, Berisha has built a reputation of being one of the competitions best big game players. A reputation that he reinforced with his winning goal in the Elimination Final against Adelaide United to further his claims to being the best overseas signing brought to the A-League.
Despite Berisha’s undoubted impact since signing for the Victory, the most important signature the club ever obtained remains that of current manager Kevin Muscat. The significance of his signing was perhaps lost on many when he left Millwall for the Victorian capital after leading them of their run to the FA Cup Final in 2004. It would prove a happy ignorance with the former Rangers Treble Winner, destined to lead Victory to Championships as both Captain and Manager.
Decked out in red & blue streamers and balloons in support of the hometown Jets, the Sunnyside Tavern appeared an odd choice of disembarkment point for three busloads of Victory fans at the end of their journey from Melbourne. Appearances can be deceiving though, not only a short walk from McDonald Jones Stadium, the back half and beer garden of the venue was packed to the brim with blue and white and chanting Victory supporters.
From amongst queues for the bar that seemed to stretch on forever, was an excited chanting and singing that couldn’t be dampened. From ‘Melbourne Boys are Still Number One’, through a little ditty about Sebastian Ryall that can’t be repeated here, the Sunnybank Tavern was given the full Melbourne Victory auditory experience. With the bar suitably brought to a fever pitch, it was time to set off to McDonald Jones Stadium and a date with destiny.
During the week the A-League predicted that about 4000 fans would make the journey to Newcastle from south of the border. Amidst flares and heartily sung war-cries and ditties, the group made their way to the ground along closed off streets, with police escort in tow. In the middle of this heaving mass of excited Victorians, it seemed much larger than even the A-League’s wildest early estimates.
With traffic stopped for the procession to make its way to the ground, there were plenty of friendly interactions with Newcastle fans waiting for the blue and white army to pass. The funniest perhaps when a bus, proudly flashing ‘Go Jets’, prompted a ‘Who are ya’ chant from the heaving masses to the obvious amusement of the bus driver.
Entering the ground and making their way to their seats, it was impossible not to notice the family-friendly hill. Nestled at one end among the impressive stands that border the eastern and western sidelines. The sight of people sitting on deck chairs they brought to the ground a novel experience for spectators more accustomed to fully seated arenas.
For those with hunger pains, there was an impressive array of food truck options behind the deck chaired families. The Volks-Wurst van a particular favourite while anybody with a bent for East-Coast 90’s rappers the Piggy-Smalls from another truck may well have grabbed their attention.
Seats located and hunger sated, anticipation grew for the 90-minutes ahead to decide the A-League Championship. All that was left to endure was the pre-game entertainment. The AFL has spent a lot of time in recent years suggesting a twilight Grand Final would be a boon for their half-time show. If they had watched what happened before the game in Newcastle, they would know that even darkness can’t on its own make a spectacle out of a half-arsed display. With due respect to the dancers who did their best to create a wonderful show, the biggest mistakes were committed by the faceless DJ’s. No wonder they hid their identities, their butchering of ‘Highway to Hell’ was downright criminal. That said given the monotonous replaying of Kevin Muscat’s miss in the 2010 Penalty Shootout at Allianz Stadium 12 months earlier, it could be argued that Newcastle’s Grand Final pregame was much more enjoyable for a Melbourne Victory fan.
With confusion still in the air over the pre-game, kick-off finally occurred with Newcastle and Melbourne locking horns to decide A-League supremacy for 2018. The opening exchanges couldn’t have gone any better for the visitors, or their fans. They were sent into raptures after a ninth-minute Kosta Barbarouses opener silenced the majority of the 29,410 who had come to support the home team.
While those at home knew that the goal should have been disallowed, those in attendance were blissfully ignorent. Just like those in charge of the VAR, the McDonald Jones Stadium Crowd were also unaware of the existence of a replay that should have seen the goal disallowed. So while debates had already begun to rage at homes around the country, no such discourse was taking place at the venue.
When play restarted, after the earliest goal in A-League Grand Final history, Ronald Vargas returned to causing the Victory’s defence all manner of headaches. Thankfully for Kevin Muscat’s men, Lawrence Thomas was able to thwart everything the Jets threw at him.
The highlight of a magical night between the posts for the 26-year-old, an unbelievable double stop in the 31st minute to prevent Newcastle from restoring parity. He would ultimately end the match with the Joe Marsden Medal for his efforts along with enough tape around his head to wrap around the circumference of the globe once removed.
Despite Thomas’ heroics, at the half-time break, with Newcastle pressing hard for an equaliser, it would have taken a brave person to suggest Barbourouses’ opener would be enough for Victory to claim the Championship ‘Toilet Seat’. Yet, on the back of a disciplined second stanza from Muscat’s men, that is exactly what transpired. The longer the game played on, the more the Jets became frustrated with Melbourne’s strategy to deny them the counter-attacking opportunities they had feasted on all season. This exasperation at their season slipping away was perfectly summed up in the sickening 92nd-minute challenge by Roy O’Donovan on Lawrence Thomas.
The 32-year-old Irishman had been one of the driving forces behind the Jets rise from Wooden-Spooners to Grand Finalists. A noted goal scorer he beat A-League Keepers nine times in 16 matches in 2017/18. Despite all his heroics, his season will be remembered more for a moment of madness in the Grand Final. With Dimitri Petratos’ hopeful long ball hanging in the air, O’Donovan lunged kung-fu style towards it despite it being all but diffused by Thomas. Unaware of the danger coming his way, the Victory gloveman strongly claimed the ball out of the air. The goal scoring opportunity might have been diffused but danger was still on the horizon. Having missed its intended target, the desperate Irishman’s boot made sickening contact with Thomas’ face. While it was a sad end to O’Donovan’s season, thankfully Thomas was not seriously injured and was able to complete the tricky five minutes of injury time that followed.
When Jared Gillett blew time on the encounter, pandemonium erupted amongst the away fans section. The elation of the moment made all the sweeter by the growing realisation of the magnitude of their team’s achievement. With the shrill of Gillett’s whistle, A-League history was made with Melbourne becoming the first team to claim the silverware from fourth place and the only team to be crowned Champions on a fourth occasion. Despite season-long speculation about their managers future, and a narrative suggesting Sydney FC had surpassed Brisbane Roar as the greatest A-League team, at this moment the competition’s biggest team once again claimed the mantle of its most successful.
As soon as the formalities of the presentation ceremony were over, the newly crowned Champions made a beeline for their fans who had followed them to Newcastle to cheer them on. It was an incredible celebration in which both fan and player alike celebrated together as one. Unbridled ecstatic energy and excitement shared to create moments that all involved wished would never end and will long remember.
As the players made their way to their private celebrations, it was time for the travelling Victory army to head out into the night. For those who were among the number to have booked out all Newcastle’s hotel beds available, it was time to either reacquaint themselves with the Sunnybank Tavern or to discover other venues to taste celebratory ales. For the hardy souls who came travelled up on the club arranged buses it was time to reboard the coaches and begin the long journey home. While each would celebrate in different ways, they were all in agreeance on one thing.
Melbourne boys are still number one!