Earlier in the season after we had somehow beaten Bentleigh 2-1, and Johnny A had said post-match that his team was 'so far ahead of South Melbourne as a football team, it's not funny', we were able to laugh mostly because we had won that day. Certainly, we were not laughing because we thought the statement was not true - we had been outplayed for much of that game, even when Bentleigh went down to ten men.
And it wasn't even like we were outplayed that day by a team motivated solely by the adrenaline of being down to ten men; we were outplayed by a team that felt that it was better than us as a matter of principle. So even as on that day we enjoyed the win, as you would especially given Nikola Roganovic's double penalty saving heroics, one knew in the back of our minds that when we were to meet again during the season, that things could and probably would turn out very differently.
And so it has come to pass, as we were denied the chance to once again reach the national stage. Some of you will feel that as well as the devastating manner of the loss on the park, that the failure to grasp the opportunity to be on the national stage adds to that humiliation. Speaking for myself, as someone who has never warmed to the FFA Cup gimmick and its alleged benefits to South and Australian soccer more broadly, that's not what bothers me about last night - but that's not what a lot of South people, both pleb and patrician, feel about the situation and I understand that. That the loss happened to be in a winner takes all game in the human-powered roulette wheel of the FFA Cup only compounds the sense of loss.
My main concern however, and it's really not an attempt at a holier than thou manifesto on how South should be run, is that we are in a rut on field this season, and there appears at this stage to be no definitive plan about how to get ourselves out of it. Cup football is by its nature erratic. More importantly as far as I'm concerned, is that we are on top of the ladder halfway through the season, pulling out the occasional sterling performance, which have offered bouts of pleasure and joy, but not enough to allay fears that it's all somehow a ruse - that we don't deserve to be there based on the football we have played this season and the obscene good fortune we've received with penalties, red cards and the like.
This is highlighted most of all by the fact that, even were we to finish on top of the table at the end of the home and away season - and that is of course very much a possibility, especially now that we won't have to rest players midweek for cup matches - that our best and fairest award would probably go to our goalkeeper. And were it not for some amazing work from Roganovic between the sticks last night - as well as some terrible finishing from Bentleigh, albeit after the game was already won - the final scoreline could have been much, much worse.
As has been noted already by many of our supporters, both online and at the ground last night, we are at the stage where something has to change. We have seen this too many times already, when we are involved in big, winner take all games, we are by and large unable to rise to the occasion. How likely that is to change in the near future is anyone's guess, but it seems unlikely. In some, perhaps even many respects, Chris Taylor is the Mick Malthouse of Victorian soccer - a capable coach who is able to drill a good team into grinding out results with a dour and outwardly reliable game plan, but whose teams fail so often on the winner takes all stage because they are unable to go up another gear, or to move to Plan B.
Our team over the past three seasons seems to have been built on the principle that the first option is to do what is tried and true. The second option, when things aren't going our way, is to try that even harder. Only once the team is in a real mess do we start shaking things up, by which stage you are not relying only or even mostly on tactical adjustment on its own terms, but instead as an act of desperation. Last night we went into the game with three defensive midfielders, ostensibly handing the initiative to Bentleigh from the beginning. After a scrappy first five or minutes, we were already on the back foot.
That we were 1-0 down at halftime was clearly not a good outcome, but it could also have been much worse. But did we make any adjustment to try and swing things around in the second half? Not really. Yes, there was an initial burst of energy and even good and purposeful crossing into the box in the opening minutes of the second half, but that all seemed to stem from the 'try Plan A again, but harder' ideology. Then we went down 2-0, and then eventually down 3-0 and down to ten men, and there were to be no heroics akin to last year's comeback at Kingston Heath.
On the one hand, this approach is evidence of the trust that Taylor places in his players and his game plan. One can go on about the perception of playing favourites and there being untouchable players, but in general having the belief that the players you've put out there can do the job is a good thing. But that trust must be tempered by a sense of objective clarity, too, and the understanding that if that trust is not being repaid by the selected starting eleven during the course of a match, then that trust should also be paid to those players you have in reserve.
If there has been a consistent criticism of Taylor's selection and tactical manifesto, it is that it is predictable to the point of ossification. Taylor is on record as saying that he worries little about how other teams set up, focusing mostly on what his team does. That may or may not be a ruse, but surely there is at least some place for taking into account what the opposition does and how they like to play? It's not the be all and end all, but letting Bentleigh play the way they want to play is just asking for trouble. Now one could hammer the point about opposition scouting and such, as this blog and others have sought to do in the past, but the fact of the matter is that we have played and been outplayed by Bentleigh enough times in recent seasons, that there is little mystery to be had on that front, and yet we keep putting out largely the same team in the same setup, all while expecting a different outcome.
Nevertheless, despite all the criticisms many of us will make of the coach and his tactics, at least some of the onus for results like this must go to the players as well. One learned spectator noted last night, and very early on as well, that we aren't exactly the smartest football team in this competition. Apart from undisciplined tackles, like Iqi Jawadi's unnecessary yellow card during the first half, so much of what what passed for situational nous was lacking. At least some of that can be put down to the tempo that Bentleigh play at, and at which we struggle. When there's a dour contest, one can more or less trust our side to grind out a result or at the very least produce a competitive performance. When the opposition pursues a fast and mobile tactical approach, both the speed of the game and the implied speed of the game sees us coughing up possession in dangerous areas at an alarming rate.
What's of concern here is not only that issue of not being able to match it with those kinds of teams or assert our game plan in those situations - though of course that is the main issue - it is also the fact that we have players on our books that have arrived from a league above us where the tempo is by its professional nature already much faster, but also because we have players that still hold the desire to play at higher levels, but who clearly struggle to cope with both high tempo football and the ability to find a way, either individually or collectively, to change the tempo of a match to suit our game plan or at the very least disrupt the efforts of the opposition.
These things are not said for the sake of completely denying the possibility of positive change, or even possible success in the latter half of this season. As despondent as we all feel after this match, especially when this loss is taken as being an exemplar of a failure long in the making (or perhaps even as evidence of a trend of losing in big matches), we haven't reached the heights that we have these past three seasons or even this season by luck alone. That is to say, we do have some good players and even some very talented players at our disposal, which we have seen evidence of enough times to know that those talents are not fleeting aberrations. Even the most outrageous fortune can only get you so far.
But we are perhaps at the point where the squad, or certain parts of the squad, are on final notice as regards to being South players. Every squad, no matter how successful, eventually reaches its point of no return. Much of the rest of the season then will not only be about trying to salvage a championship - which is an odd way of looking at things, but we are an odd people in our expectations - but also providing an opportunity to definitively assess who is worth keeping, and who it is time to move on. And that applies not only to those whose skills or temperament may not be up to scratch, but also to those whose commitment to the cause is lacking. Part time footballers they may all be, but a part-time attitude shouldn't and won't cut it at this level.
Against my alleged cynical and negative nature, as well as perhaps my better judgment, I am choosing in the harsh light of day to see this 'disaster' (such as it is) not as the end of something, but as the possible start of something hopefully new, and more successful than that which has preceded it. The only other option is to accept mediocrity, and we have all experienced enough of that during our post-NSL stint to never want to go back to that ever again. The challenge is there to be confronted; we now wait to see how the coach and players answer the call, not just against middling and low ranking opposition, nor even those whom the stats and pundits say are our peers, but against what we ourselves think we can achieve. If there has been a sense that our aspirations as to what we can achieve and the manner in which we may achieve those aims have been too narrow, this is the time to rid ourselves of those self-imposed limitations.
Or we could see everyone go into self-preservation mode. That could be fun, too.
Other ordeals which pale into comparison with the experience of our collective grief
While I enjoy the sometimes overly sadomasochistic nature of taking public transport to games around town, sometimes even I find myself wondering why one would put oneself through this torture.
(yes, yes, I know I do it in part because I can't drive very far especially at night, and because I love my team, and because I like public transport, but there is a level of madness involved at times, as a certain dear friend who has recently come to rely more on public transport than they have for a long time has come to acknowledge - though I'm not sure that in his drunken state he was being complimentary or derisory of my apparently well learned patience with late night services)
With works ramping up on level crossing removals in the south eastern suburbs, Gains and I avoided the Frankston line completely and ended up taking the Sandringham line instead out to Hampton. That line is reliable, fairly short, and you end up taking the same bus to the ground as you would if you'd caught the bus to Cheltenham station on the Frankston line.
But what should have been a straightforward if slightly elongated trip in terms of time, ended up being messier and more frustrating, and even included a possible omen of our doom. So apart from having to deal with Gold FM playing crap songs (I maintain that Spandau Ballet and Smash Mouth are awful), we ended up being dumped at the bus stop at Westfield Southland in order that the bus we were on could be taken back to the depot. Great.
While waiting for the next 828 heading towards Berwick, I got thirsty. I could see a vending machine inside the building. Sadly, Frank Lowy had closed up shop for the night, denying South people (ie, me) access to the probably overpriced but still fruitful albeit mediocre bounty available just metres away and yet so far out of reach. There you go, there's your laboured allegory for this week.
Still, we managed to get to the ground on time to see a long line at the gate, Harry the drummer with a whole kit set up, and planted ourselves underneath the shed. Poor sight-lines and copious amounts of tobacco smoke made that position untenable, so we moved to the hill behind the Bentleigh bench, and then behind the goals in the second half, where we were taunted by the home side's keeper. It's fair to say that the whole experience was a monotonously classy affair.
The one mercy was getting a lift back to the city. Thank you to Nick Tsiaras for giving myself and Gains a lift back to Flinders Street. It saved us from suffering further grief. The best thing is, it'll be even worse next month, when the whole Frankston line gets shut down for 37 odd days, and we have to do this all over again.
Bulleen at home. Please note that this game has been moved from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.
Do I want to know why Clarendon Corner were chanting about going to the Pancake Parlour?