By LAURENCE ROSEN
This was a final 12 years in the making for thousands of Melbourne Victory fans.
Travelling for sport is commonplace in Australia but there’s something about away travel that is special for soccer fans.
The sense of camaraderie at an away venue is unique to the world game. It occurs on a smaller scale in Australia because of the big distances involved, but events such as an A-League grand final highlight its beauty.
Watching two supporter groups try to out-do each other for 90 minutes off the pitch while the action happens on it is a hallmark of major soccer events such as the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League finals.
You can also see elements of “active” support at all of Australia’s major sports, but it isn’t as prevalent as for soccer.
What made this occasion more noteworthy for the estimated 5000 Victorians who travelled to Sydney on Sunday was that it was the first time in A-League history that Melbourne Victory were playing an away decider.
Their four previous grand finals were played in Melbourne, with their only loss coming against Sydney on penalties in 2010.
A chance to avenge that painful defeat seven years ago was in the offing.
Sydney has broken many records this season on their way to a league-record points tally of 66 after the 27 weeks. For Victory fans, the hope of spoiling that near-perfect season made the occasion even more special.
The scene was set. As the sun began to fade, both Melbourne and Sydney fans continued to trade verbal barbs before kick-off. Allianz Stadium was full and everything was in place for the A-League showpiece event.
The game could not have started better. Both sides had come to play but it was the away side that started better.
In the 20th minute, Victory striker Besart Berisha opened the scoring through a world-class finish into the bottom corner. Cue delirium in the away end. That’s exactly what the throng of Melbourne fans had come to see.
The Cove (Sydney FC’s active supporter group), who occupy the city side of the goal, were left silent. This wasn’t in the script after a season of dominance.
It was fast turning into an A-League classic. Five players were given yellow cards before half time – highlighting just how fierce this decider was being fought.
After half-time things began to turn and, as has been the case many times this year, Sydney began to assert dominance, suffocating Victory’s midfield.
The goal eventually came through a deflection off the post from a David Carney shot. It was game on.
What followed was a tight and tense crawl to the end. For the remaining 20 minutes of regular time, both sets of fans were singing, but there was more than a hint of nervousness that prevented the atmosphere reaching the heights of the first half. Not because of disinterest, but rather a sense of what was at stake.
Much like regular time, Victory were left to rue a golden chance as James Troisi hit the post behind the away fans’ goal as the game lurched into the second half of extra time.
The whistle blew. Both fans held their breath as sport’s cruellest game decider – a penalty shootout – was to decide this year’s A-League winner.
The shootout mirrored the game both on the pitch and off it. Sydney missed their second penalty through Alex Wilkinson, which set the away end in raptures, but it began to quickly unravel for Victory from there.
Both captain Carl Valeri and Marco Rojas missed their respective spot kicks and it was left to A-League player of the year Milos Ninkovic to win the game. As he has done all year, he stepped up to the plate and the game was won.
In truth, this was Sydney’s season and, as it turned out, Sydney’s match. Melbourne were rank outsiders coming into this final but threw everything they had at the eventual champions.
Victory had led Sydney for two of their three regular-season meetings this year and once again saw themselves ahead before going down fighting. It was a game that reflected the season and the away fans knew it.
Melbourne fans were quietly confident ahead of the match but knew Sydney had been by far the best team this year. They turned up in their thousands off the pitch but on it they came up that little bit short.
As the adage goes, there’s always next year.