So, how good is the FFA Cup?
Admittedly when it comes to the Wanderers, there will always be that caveat added by all and sundry regarding our first venture in this most recent iteration of a national football knock out cup competition. That shock loss to Adelaide City back in 2014 was arguably a presage of what became our ‘tempus horribilis’, although barely two months later the Wanderers were ACL champions. Since that 1-0 loss away any coverage of the FFA Cup, most particularly when it comes to the context of any NPL level club upsetting a more fancied A-League opponent, will at some time or another include that result.
Our 2015 campaign was marginally better, thanks to a good win against Brisbane at Penrith, followed by a 0-2 away win over Mitch Nichols’ home club, the Palm Beach Sharks. The quarter final loss to Perth Glory was controversial, with one specific omen of the coming season, vis-a-vis the failure of then marquee Federico Piovaccari to slot home one of the required penalty shots. However to have progressed to the final eight was a marked improvement on our first foray into the FFA Cup, and one that has been matched in the 2016 edition.
Now before I get into the guts of this blog entry on the Round of 16 match between the Edgeworth Eagles and the Wanderers, let me take a diversion and make some personal observations on how I perceive the FFA Cup. In a nutshell, this is possibly the best addition to the domestic football environment since at least the entry of the Wanderers, with a strong argument for the FFA Cup being a partial redress of the errors and omissions made when the A-League was established. The fact that lower tier football clubs across Australia, many with a proud and long history (including perhaps NSL participation) can now play in a cup where they may beat the more fancied A-League clubs has re-engaged many fans of the code with its history and its community. It has also given the so-called ‘new dawners’ a chance to look at the clubs that were crucial to the history of the sport in this country pre-2004. Of course there are still fierce rivalries and some degree of suspicion or anger felt by some, left over from the split between ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’. Having said that there are many A-League fans who revel in the opportunity to watch NPL teams compete either against their latter day clubs, or against each other. I have seen in person how vibrant and enjoyable the NPL experience of the FFA Cup can be, such as when I watched Sydney United take on South Hobart FC last year. Played at Edensor Park, this match saw the 58 year old Croatian based club take on the 106 year old Tasmanian visitors, with the result only going to SU58FC after a 3-3 regular time scoreline and a 3-1 penalty shoot out.
This FFA Cup tournament we have already seen two A-League clubs dumped out of the tournament by NPL teams, with last season’s premiers and Grand Final winners Adelaide United stunned by Redlands United 2-1 at home in Brisbane, and the Central Coast Mariners losing with the exact same scoreline against the Victorian NPL club Green Gully. Here’s just a tiny sample of the reaction to the Redlands’ victory on Twitter:
This video shows how important such a result can be for the lower tier club, not just in terms of the on field reaction, but also for the community of fans and members who often put in the hard yards without anywhere near the support and glory that the A-League clubs can provide:
Watching the match from home I was unashamedly barracking for Redlands, though to be honest I have no knowledge of their club’s history, current playing roster or position in their local NPL competition. To cheer on an underdog in such a match, sensing how important football history and community is, recognising the value of the more recent football culture as vivified by the Lowy era FFA in engaging with soccer as it was and still is in Australia, well this is where I believe the FFA Cup delivers in spades.
Focusing again on the Wanderers, this current FFA Cup tournament has mirrored (so far) our last. Entering the mix in the Round of 32, the club took on our perennial bête noire, the Wellington Phoenix, at a cold, wet and miserable Campbelltown International Sports Ground. To be honest the initial performance of the team was underwhelming, and the 0-2 scoreline after 31 minutes seemed to indicate the Wanderers were going to lose again in a pre-season match against the Kiwis. Thankfully the balance was more than redressed by match’s end, thanks to two goals by exciting young striker Lachlan Scott, and a long range pearler from Mitch ‘Butters’ Nichols. Thankfully we had evaded an early exit from the FFA Cup, and possibly even more importantly, we had booked a rendezvous with Northern NSW Football’s Edgeworth Eagles.
Taking yet another diversion (I know, get to the point Manfred!) Wanderers fans generally love heading up the M1/F3 to Newy and watching our team play the locals. This has meant, until last Tuesday week’s match, a rendezvous with the Newcastle Jets. There are a host of good memories for a host of us, such as the final regular season round match in our debut season, with the 3-0 win over the Jets confirming our first piece of silverware. Then there is the Round Five game at Hunter Stadium last season, when Mitch Nichols won it for us near the death with a 86 minute goal. I would also argue that there is a healthy modicum of respect for the Jets and for the football culture in the Hunter given by many Wanderers’ fans, and vice versa from the Newcastle folk.
In my opinion, and within that context, there were plenty of WSW fans who schlepped up to Magic Park last Tuesday week who were both looking forward to bringing back some red and black love to the Hunter, and engaging with the smaller, yet vigorous, passionate supporters of the Eagles. Perhaps I’m drawing a far too long bow, but even the complimentary nature of the two clubs’ colours validates this willingness for the A-League club to engage with their NPL competitor. Throw in the (arguably unconscious) hope that the local club would benefit financially from a solid turn out of the Wanderers fans, and the attention given to them and NPL football in Newcastle, then the rendezvous at Broadmeadow for away fans such as I was most attractive.
I made my journey up to Newcastle with these thoughts in mind, accompanied by two boon companions from my Wanderers’ fraternity. One was my mate Mick, who was the poor bastard lumbered with driving duties. Mick has been a great mate of recent years, and provided one the guts of one of the best episodes of my ‘One on Wanderers’ podcast. The second member of our trio was renowned Socceroo supporter Pablo Bateson, who has seen more air miles following the green and gold than possibly anyone else in this country. We three set off early on the day, endeavouring to make it a real long term sojourn up north. As done by thousands of traveling fans over decades and decades, we were looking to enjoy some of the local delights pre-match (i.e. have a drink and feed in Hamilton), meet some of the locals (in this case catch up with the legendary ‘Nobody From Newcastle‘ Todd Blackwell, and then make our way to the game. It was a most convivial afternoon, fueled by plenty of football talk, some beverages at the Kent Hotel, and even a catch up with those friends of the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Public Order and Riot Squad from the NSW Police:
From there it was a reasonable easy and short drive to Magic Park, the home ground for the Broadmeadow Magic. Competitors to the Edgeworth Eagles in the local Northern NSW NPL, this very attractive if small venue was allocated the FFA Cup match for the night.
The atmosphere on arriving at the venue was wonderful, thanks in no small part to the number of local fans who were there for a night to barrack for the ‘minnows’ versus the Wanderers. Whilst the Eagles faithful were out in force, including plenty of kids, there were other Hunter football devotees in evidence, some sporting Jets colours, others partisans for Magic, Adamstown, Hamilton Olympic etc. The volunteers were selling raffle tickets and Eagles merchandise, the stand on the eastern side of the ground chockers, the beers and barbecued meats flying out of the tents dotted around the perimeter of the ground.
Mick, Pablo and myself made sure to touch base with several fellow Wanderers fans who had made the trip up, chatting about the day, the match, our lads, the oppo…basically engaging in the usual chit-chat and socialisiation one does before a game. However the immediacy of the community environment for this FFA match was dare I say more fun, more carnival like. Yes, it was a serious game with a definitive expectation that the Wanderers should win. However standing around on the western hill, taking in the sights and sounds of perhaps an intimation of what football has been like for decades in this country, where the dogged band of committed soccer lovers get behind their local club and bugger the bigger, more fashionable rivals; it was pure FFA Cup goodness.
The match itself was a fairly hard fought one, with the Eagles being unwilling to concede early goals. They were unable to break the shackles of their own deep defending except for a brief foray here and there when the Wanderers lost their (dominant) possession due to an errant pass. Some of the Eagles tackles were exactly what one would expect; hard with little respect for the far more well paid professional Wanderers player they flew at. There was a particularly brutal challenge put in on Dimas which the Spaniard was not happy with. This however gave cause for much chiacking and derision from the Eagles faithful. I’ll happily admit it was both infuriating to see such practices from the ‘home’ team, but great to see their supporters giving our ‘stars’ a real old rev up.
As the game progressed the goals began to flow, with ex-Jet Scott Neville snaring the first and the third, with the latter coming after the half time break. Brendan Hamill grabbed a goal between those two, giving the plentiful of Wanderers fans something to cheer for. An old acquaintance of the Wanderers, ex-Mariner Daniel McBreen was the go to man for the Eagles when it came to responding, and he had already provided some entertaining resistance earlier in the match when he gave one of the Wanderers fans a bit of handbags after a contretemp near the RBB. However his more important contribution was scoring a well taken goal after Wanderers’ new Uruguayan import Bruno Pinatares, giving Edgeworth a small sniff of a comeback. Their supporters were keen to vocally do what they could, fueled by pride, piss and cevaps, however two late goals from Brendan Santalab killed off the match. The 1-5 win for the Wanderers was certainly a fair result.
However what was a far more significant result was it was yet another instalment of what makes the FFA Cup such a worthy and enjoyable addition to the football environment in Australia. Two clubs with many disparate attributes were brought together, and alongside that meeting came the chance for people like myself to engage with a community and a history of the sport that sometimes we forget. In the A-League era it is all to easy to be hyped about big derbies between say the Wanderers and the Smurfs, or the two Melbourne clubs. A lot of attention this impending season is already being given to the advent of Tim Cahill as the league’s biggest name since del Piero. Many people in the huge amorphous pool of football fans in Australia see problems, division, challenges that no one can easily solve.
Yet on a chilly night in Broadmeadow, all of that was put aside by those who came to watch this FFA Cup match, and we all came away better for the experience.
P.S. The cevap rolls were good, but where was the avjar?