Oakleigh suffer shock 1-0 loss to youthful Knights side, concede title race.
Rocking up to Knights Stadium last night, my expectation were low. After the horror of Bentleigh's defensive effort against Oakleigh just a week and a half ago, I did not expect a Knights side both tired after a grueling extra time Dockerty Cup win on Sunday, and with just half a dozen or so senior players on the park, to be able to get a draw let alone all three points.
Along with a handful of South fans in the crowd - though not nearly the numbers that went to the Bentleigh-Oakleigh game - I wondered if we were here only to waste our time, our attendance an insurance policy of sorts to make sure we didn't miss the title being secured on location in North Sunshine should the unlikely correct result fall our way.
The situation for Oakleigh was fairly straightforward. Keep winning, and hope South drop enough points in the final round to allow Oakleigh to overtake us. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, the Cannons could not get over even the first hurdle of their final three games.
It was not for lack of opportunities or effort though. Playing measured football, the Cannons passed and probed their way into dangerous areas, only for the repeated heroics of the Knights goalkeeper Michael O'Farrell and the occasional desperate bit of defending preventing them from opening the scoring. One particular bit of farcical play, a goalmouth scramble which seemed to last for a good 30 seconds, including what seemed like several goal line clearances. Strangely, rather than alleviate the sense of doom for me, it only seemed to heighten the feeling that Oakleigh would surely break the deadlock soon.
For their part the Knights defended deep and in numbers, and relied heavily upon the counter. While they managed quite a few promising forays forward in the opening half, their final ball or touch let them down so often that it seemed unlikely they would get close enough to score.
The second half started with Oakleigh taking control of the game, with the Knights being unable to get much meaningful possession over the halfway line. There was no obvious sign of urgency from Oakleigh, and they had several more close calls. Eventually though they were forced to push numbers forward, knowing that a draw would put them an in even worse position which would see South needing only a point from its remaining two games rather than a win to secure the title.
This increased offensive effort almost backfired, when a pinpoint cross found the 2014 Dockerty Cup winning goal scorer Tomi Uskok (who I think I sat next to and chatted with along with Mark Boric during the Knights' heavy loss at Oakleigh earlier in the season) unmarked in the six yard box, with an empty net to aim at, but managing only to hit the bar. At that point I didn't think Knights would get a better chance to win the game, so it was only going to be a case of seeing if Oakleigh would break the deadlock.
Still, the numbers pushed forward by Oakleigh left gaping holes at the back, and when Stipo Andrijasevic found himself with just a defender to beat, he neatly cut inside his opponent and slotted the ball past Oakleigh keeper John Honos, to the rapturous of the home crowd, but more importantly the barely unrestrained delight of the South fans in the crowd. For their part the Oakleigh hierarchy just one bay across could only look om forlornly, and with the odd death stare towards the South fans, as the title slipped further out of reach with ten minutes to play in the game.
What looked like a second goal for Knights soon after was ruled for alleged contact on the goalkeeper from the corner, so Oakleigh were still in with a chance of getting at least a point out of this game, but despite their best efforts they could not get on the scoreboard.
The game ended with jubilant scenes for the South fans in attendance at Somers Street, as well as for those who were otherwise occupied whether at home, out on Chapel Street, or even overseas - as in a sign of the times - Facebook, Twitter and the forums went into a mini meltdown (did we manage to get South Melbourne/@smfc trending at one point?), while others rushed off to book their flights to Hobart.
It's a ninth state championship for us, putting us equal with Green Gully. It's the first time we've finished on top of the table since 2001, and the first time we've won a league title in a first past the post season since 1976, albeit there were only a handful of seasons - 1977-1983, and 1987 - where we could have achieved that in the intervening period. By securing the title, we avoided going beyond our longest title drought of eight years, the only other time we've done that being 1976-1984.
More importantly, aside from the loss to the Dockerty Cup quarter final/FFA Cup qualifier loss to the Knights in mid-season, it caps off what has been a wonderful season for South on and off the park. The securing of the Lakeside lease, accompanied by the championship win, is a welcome respite from the negativity that can easily subsume those who follow the club - though of course the championship win is worth it for its own sake - after all, it's what we're here for, right? Isn't it what makes all the trying worthwhile, and the down times more bearable?
Congratulations therefore to the players, no matter how small or large their role this season, and to the coaching staff, especially Chris Taylor, whose ability to get the team to grind out results (although it was not as ugly as some have made out) secured the title ahead of an arguably better team both attacking wise and style wise in Oakleigh; huge thanks to the staff and volunteers, whether they're the suits or the blokes doing marshalling duties on match days; and thank you to the loyal supporters who I watch the games with every week, and even those in far flung places like Mildura Vasili.
So, what's next?
Two games of the regular season to go, with the pressure of needing results now released. First up Oakleigh on Sunday, and then the week after a trip to Shepparton to play Goulburn Valley. What plans the club has both for celebrations on Sunday and for a possible supporters bus to Shepparton I don't know - however I'm pretty certain that the trophy will be presented on Sunday, so of course I would recommend that all South supporters come to witness that event if nothing else, and to also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 championship team, and the 30th anniversary of the 1984 NSL championship team (why the 1974 side has been left out of that I don't know, but I'm sure Jimmy Armstrong's presence will more than make up for it).
After all of that we'll be off to Tasmania, to take part in the first stage of the NPL national championships, in a playoff against Tasmanian champions South Hobart. They have confirmed that that fixture will be on Saturday September 20th at their home ground at Darcy Street, though the kickoff time has not yet been confirmed - one should expect something around 1:30 to 2:00, in other words and afternoon kickoff. More information will be provided once it's confirmed by the relevant parties.
In the meantime though, let's all bask in the afterglow of a championship win, and I'll see all of you on Sunday so we can celebrate this title together.