Hobart Olympia 0 - South Melbourne 9
Our first match was against Hobart Olympia, at the Federation's home of KGV Park. It's an adequate set up - a small stand, beautiful surface, and pretty poor lighting that wasn't really needed for an evening game in the height of summer. After decades of wandering aimlessly from ground to ground, Olympia are busy building a new facility, in an attempt to stamp themselves on a locality and find a means to attract and keep the junior talent that exists in the Hobart area.
It fits into their plan to develop their own young players - an overall plan 20 years too late perhaps, but when you're left with no option after years of neglect, you might as well start from a position of humility and work your way up. It's apparently not necessarily a popular or unanimous decision amongst the Olympia faithful to go back to the drawing board and rely on youth, but the top brass there seem prepared at this early stage to stick out and see if it works.
To that end, in only their second match of their pre-season one could forgive a bit of rustiness from the hosts. Both sides fielded young sides - only two or three first choice players took the field in the first half for Hellas - the rest of the team being youngsters from the under 21s and below. Likewise for Olympia, a lot of young and inexperienced players. It''s worth remembering also that our under 21s won the VPL title last season, finishing streets ahead of the field.
With all that in mind, they made perhaps the unusual and gutsy decision to try and stand toe to toe against their more fancied opponents. They were competitive enough in the first half, winning a few corners and sending in a few crosses, and they also managed to put in a few good tackles, but the gulf in class was obvious for all to see. The South boys played the ball from the back, with quick short passes and tended to hold the ball until the right moment presented itself.
We were up 2-0 at halftime, courtesy of a double to the hitherto unknown - even to his teammates - Nicky Jacobs. His first goal was delightful, a delicate chip over the top of the keeper that floated into goal. The football department think he's a work in progress, and it's hard to gauge how good he really is against such poor opposition. James Riccobene also impressed - his decision making seems good, and he can put in a half decent corner as well.
The second half started off well for South, as Nicky Jacobs got his hattrick early on in the piece. From there on, the home side more or less disintegrates. While admittedly more senior players were brought over the course of the second half, and the home side tried various formations and players, there was an ineptitude that was troubling. Both of Olympia's goalkeepers could not accurately kick the ball, nor gain much distance. Rather kicking the ball long from defence from goalkicks, they attempted to play the ball out from the back with disastrous results.
Football is a possession game, but it's also a territorial game, and where the ball is located at any given moment is just as important. For a team seemingly destined to struggle at least in the short term, would it have been worthwhile to attempt to play conservatively? Would the players have learned anything from such an approach? I'm not sure. As it is, the Olympia coach suggested that at least one cause of the heavy defeat - it finished 9-0, with Jesse Krncevic bagging five goals in his 28 minutes on the ground - was due to a lack of ticker.
Now actually giving a stuff about the game you're playing is important, but singling that out - regardless of the fact that as far as I could tell, the Olympia boys did have a red hot go for the majority of the game - seems so anachronistic that one wonders what kind of hope there is for the players. To use a famous example from another sport:
While commentating during a match in which Pakistan was faring badly in all departments of the game, Bill Lawry, offering a solution said "I think Pakistan's problem is they've got to relax", to which Benaud replies nonchalantly, "I don't agree. I think Pakistan have got to learn how to bat, bowl and field. It's a simple game."
Meanwhile, South's assistant coach Joe Montemurro spent a great deal of time talking to his substitutes, giving them what appeared to be quite detailed instructions. Now this may just be me taking something of out of context and blowing it completely out of proportion, but it was a comment that stood out above all the others. For their part, the people watching the game appeared to be realistic about where the two sides and indeed the overall depth and quality of football between the two states, were at in relation to each other.
At the end of the game, Leo Athanasakis jumped the gun and said we'd be back next year to play them again, in all likelihood without consulting anyone else. If that is to be the case, it'll be interesting to see what difference a year would make. Having seen Olympia struggle in our Hellenic Cup a few years ago, I'm wary of how much improvement there might be - here's hoping though that they follow through on their plan to blood the young players and not flinch at the first sign of danger or failure.
South Hobart 0 - South Melbourne 5
The ground at Darcy Street is gorgeous - two stands side by side, spanning the length of the field, a perfect pitch, and on the other side, the mountains in full view. A good crowd of 700 turned up for the match, which was both tighter and of a higher quality than the Friday game - Hellas fielded many more of its senior players right from the start, and South Hobart have been the dominant team in Hobart for the past few seasons - last season they did not lose a single game, and won the senior, reserve and under 19 competitions.
South Hobart's success (which has bucked the trend of their rather mediocre post-war history) has not been without its share of cynicism and controversy. Their coach is Ken Morton, the former NSL coach, who also sponsors the club via his private soccer academy, and whose partner happens to be the president of the club. While some locals have lauded the increased professionalism and style of play brought about by South Hobart in recent years, equally there are detractors who are waiting for the day when Morton leaves (for whatever reason) and the whole system falls apart.
While South Hobart put in a performance at several levels above that of Olympia, and should have scored at least a couple of goals, it's fair to say that once again the gulf in class was significant, especially considering that Hellas was far from its best. While missing three of our more skillful players in Joe Keenan, usual frontman Gianni De Nittis, captain and defender Ramazan Tavsancioglou and new recruit Yianni Galanos, we were still able to create several good chances at goal.
The home side's pressure did lead to several mistakes being made in defense however, and that will be of some concern - and playing the ball out of the back will not be so easy against better opposition and on fields of far inferior quality. It was good to see Kyle Joryeff play up front in both matches. His reputation as a 'downhill skier' won't have been helped by the opposition he faced, but he showed that he is a classy finisher, and that his close control is amongst the best in the side. I've been of the opinion for a while that the only position he could play is upfront - his lack of defensive mettle rules him out from playing on the wings.
Both Stefaan Sardelic and Zain Zenali had stints in the keeper's position. Sardelic was forced to scurry across goal to deal with several loose back passes, and his dealing with them wasn't always convincing. Neither was his field kicking, but his distribution by hand and most of his aerial work were very good. Zenali had less to do in the second half, and was penalised somewhat harshly for picking up a backpass that appeared to clearly to be the result of the South Hobart player being dispossessed.
Seb Petrovich, after being overlooked so much last season after having won our best and fairest in 2009, did reasonably well on a wing. He has grit and skill, but he lacks that bit of pace that would make him a threat in that position - he is far better suited to his usual central midfield role. Steven Topalovic at right back did some excellent and awful things. He gave away the ball in several dangerous situations, particularly in the first half, and looked a little lost with players running at him. On the other hand, he easily won several tests of strength when fighting for the ball, and could be a useful and intimidating physical force if played more centrally.
In the VPL, Hellas is not considered one of the more physical sides, and yet we were able to win most of the 50/50 balls and moments when physical strength were needed most, which only served to further emphasise the gulf in skill. For their part, South Hobart tried to keep the ball on the ground, and their effectiveness was hampered by several injuries during the course of the match, but there would still be little doubt that there is a long way to go for both South Hobart and Tasmanian football to catch up to even the lesser mainland states.
Some naive observations
Their isolation from the rest of Australian soccer, coupled with the internal divisions - despite several attempts at a unified state league, the north and south of the state still seem to conduct separate competitions - and the lack of funds from councils from improved facilities, the general apathy of the local public towards senior soccer, means that the game there will always have several obstacles to overcome. And while lopsided results against touring sides may reinforce their inferiority, we can't let Tasmanian soccer remain in isolation.
The more open-minded supporters certainly see it as an opportunity to showcase both the game's qualities as a spectacle, as well as a chance to show where improvement can be made and how much of it is needed to start bridging the gap. Whether the game there can find the unity of cause to stem the decline of standards both on field and off, is something that remains to be seen. Otherwise, Tasmanian soccer may very well end up like football in Mildura - effectively a place for a social kickabout, unable to retain juniors into their adult squads or even within the greater sphere of the game as a volunteer or spectator. The Melbourne Knights are heading down there this week to play the Glenorchy Knights. Short tours like this, especially by Victorian teams, are the bare minimum required to keep Tasmania connected to the rest of Australian soccer family.