Thursday, 25 May 2017

Broken down and rebuilt from scratch - South Melbourne 5 Dandenong City 4

We have options
For a well balanced review of last night's game, read the Corner Flag's story on the match.

For a professional report, see David Davutovic's Herald Sun piece.

The short version
...you will be broken down to the level of infants, then rebuilt as functional members of society, then broken down again, then lunch, then, if there's time, rebuilt once more.
Prelude to mediocrity
Two weeks ago
I decided belatedly to get a flu shot. I hadn't had one for a couple of years, but decided to do it this year because I'm in the final stretch of my thesis work, and besides which, I watch a lot of soccer during the winter and didn't want to be laid up at home unnecessarily. Apparently it takes two weeks to work, so it was a good thing I didn't get sick during that time.

One week ago
Someone used a pair of scissors to break into my car, but found nothing of value to take except for a box of tissues and a pair of my dad's reading glasses. I'm not sure what they were expecting to find in a 1989 Toyota Camry with two of its rims missing. I haven't even bothered checking to see if they took my Achtung Baby cassette; it's not like the cassette player in the car works anyway.

Saturday
I experienced the brief visceral thrill of watching Collingwood beat Hawthorn on television, before rationalising that it was a Hawthorn side missing five of its best, while at the early stages of re-build, and how did we get seven goals down anyway? I then watched Spinal Tap on SBS2, not really thinking that I'd be rationalising anything like that Pies' win on Wednesday, not even really thinking about Wednesday at all.

Sunday
Get to Lakeside, and have a blast watching a game that no one really cares about. Get home, have dinner, write a slapdash and uninspired match report for a game that no one cared about.

Monday
Trying to get some work done. Started to feel that nervousness kick in. Hating every second of it. But so far it's been bearable. As usual, Twitter provides a useful distraction. Late in the afternoon I get a message from a mate about a conversation he's overheard on the tram (see right). I don't know what to make of it, because on the one hand, it's completely unimportant - I mean, it's only South Melbourne after all. And there's also the paranoid matter of it possibly being part of a disinformation plan.
Of course the Fahid Ben Khalfallah (whoever he is) stuff has been doing the rounds on Melbourne soccer focused internet forums for a couple of weeks at least, lest a certain Sydney based radio programme tries to convince you of its having snared some kind of 'scoop'. Later on I find myself thinking about the cup fixture as I'm trying to get to sleep. At least the distraction of an inflamed eye (again) diverts my attention to something else.

Tuesday
Realised I'd lost my USB drive at uni, again. But fortunately found it where I'd left it the day before.
Wednesday
Juniper Hill earned a hard fought 1-0 win on the road in the fourth round of the Oceanian Cup. I skimmed through the relevant parts of Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters and Ange Postecoglou's book for my thesis. And then it was finally time to go to Lakeside.

Nick Epifano shoots and scores with his left for the opening goal.
Photo: Jason Heidrich.
Frivolity leads to near-despair
Having a drink and a feed in the social club while watching a futsal match, the mood was light and festive. I even made lighthearted quip toward Milos Lujic as he was walking in about his choice of hat. I honestly did not feel as nervous about this game as I normally would have. Even when we got outside and Clarendon Corner inexplicably split into Upper and Lower factions, the fact that there was a Rod Stewart lookalike wandering around our bay just reinforced the nonchalance I was feeling. That, and Nick Epifano opened the scoring within two minutes, with a left foot shot of all things. Even when we conceded the equalising goal soon afterwards, I didn't feel particularly bad. Annoyed, but not bad. In any event, the team spent the next twenty minutes carving up the visitors, so surely another goal for us was coming soon, right?

When Milos Lujic was pushed in the back in the box, I thought surely that would be the chance to retake the lead, but the ref didn't call it, and City went up the other end and scored. And that's when things started to look really rubbish. We'd had City where we wanted them, off-balance and chasing shadows - especially Stefan Zinni's - and now we were behind and forced to play the game on their terms. We lost our nerve, and started bombing the ball long to Milos, and every one of those balls was cleared away easily by the City defense. Worse, we weren't really putting any pressure on City's players on the ball, so they were able to play as they wanted to.

In the last five minutes of the half it looked like we were getting our mojo back just a bit, so it was a surprise to see Zinni benched and replaced with Leigh Minopoulos. Is Zinni not match fit? Was the plan to only play him for an hour or so and hope we'd have wreaked enough havoc that we could sub him off safely? Whatever the initial plan was, I give credit to Chris Taylor for going for the early sub instead of waiting, even if it's not the sub I would've made myself. The move and whatever was in the halftime talk seemed to work, as we came out in much the same way we had in the first 25 minutes of the game.

[I am reminded here of something I'd read in Postecoglou's book earlier that day, about a coach having really very little opportunity to make an impact during the course of a game, and realistically only four or so minutes in ideal circumstances during the halftime break - it's probably a bit different in a fully professional environment compared to one merely aspiring to reach that level. The overall point here though is that the coach, while not being absolved of match day results and decision making consequences, must do most of their work during the training sessions, and not just on fitness - they must prepare the team to be able to handle itself on the field without the coach's constant interference.]

But the elephant in the room - the makeshift defense - came back to bite us on the arse repeatedly. Letting former South Melbourne Hellas defender and golden boot (2012 season) Shaun Kelly score once was bad enough, but twice? The marking for both goals looked abysmal. How he was able to get so free for that header beggars belief. So 4-1 down, and now I'm slumped in my chair. Worse is to come, because we revert to that nonsense long ball crap, which Ljubo Milicevic deals with easily. As eccentric as he is, he's a fine player, and among his greatest assets is his ability to read the play - not much of a challenge the way we were going about it though.

We had begun the season with four senior and experienced centre backs, and somehow started this game with just one. So while the coaching staff don't escape any of the blame for what happened last night, I would like to berate two people in particular before anyone else. Those people are Kristian Konstantinidis and Luke Adam. Konstantinidis for his finger business suspension; Adams for going on holiday during the season. Oh, and a special brickbat to whoever couldn't manage to keep Carl Piergianni around for one more week knowing that we would be short staffed in this area.

[I am reminded here of a game away against the then all conquering Dandenong Thunder in 2012, where we squeezed out a meritorious draw despite being similarly short-handed, in part because we'd managed to get Filip Jonsson to stick around long enough to play one more game.]

The lack of centre-backs meant that we ended up using Tim Mala at centre-back and Luke Pavlou at right back, throwing our whole backline and system out of whack. It was scenes straight out of Gully from earlier this year. You can't blame a player for under-performing in a position they are clearly not used to or suited to playing in. At some point someone decided that Matthew Foschini at centre-back and Pavlou in the defensive midfield role wasn't the way to go, We got punished for this repeatedly. Every time City went up the field they looked dangerous. They didn't even do it that often, because we had most of the ball, but their efficiency in front of goal showed not only how makeshift our defense was, but also the quality of the chances City created. But that didn't mean that their defense had magically improved. We'd just reverted to being dumb and playing dumb. You might call it a lack of composure, you might call it a lack of leadership; you might call it both, and you wouldn't be wrong on either count.

[Discussing this issue with one of the coaching staff after the game, he felt it could be one of those things which changes the side as we've known it during the Chris Taylor era. Having managed to dig really deep and find that intangible something in order to overcome the frankly ridiculous odds, one wonder what the long term consequences may be. That's not to say that the team hasn't been resilient, that it hasn't won things, that it hasn't come from behind in big games - but has it overturned a game in this fashion? This game wasn't about Taylor's rhetoric and conditioning of a team to win mere 'moments' - this game and its comeback were about overcoming our own implied/inferred mental fragility and the spectre of repeated failures in similar occasions of elevated importance.]

So to get back on track. I enjoyed the first two minutes of this match. The other 90 odd minutes, increasingly not at all. That's a strictly personal take, and I do not in any way wish to lessen the excitement and joy felt by our long suffering and loyal supporters which materialised during the comeback; nor do I want to diminish the achievement of the players in somehow finding their way back. But last night, this team broke me.

I only have two sporting loves. The Collingwood Football Club and South Melbourne Hellas. Both have caused me an immeasurable amount of mostly manageable grief, but when in attendance at a game of either of these two I have only voluntarily walked away twice that I can recall. Both times were at Collingwood matches, once in the old Ponsford against Geelong in the early 2000s, and once in the new Ponsford in the mid-2000s against Fremantle. I can't recall what exact minute or what particular sequence of play triggered my walking out of the stands last night - maybe it was the general trajectory of play and the team's attitude - but I'd had enough. I couldn't take anymore, and so I walked into the social club to sit quietly waiting for the inevitable to play out.

I loathe the FFA Cup. I hate how it skews things so much in our league that league performances - the bread and butter of any soccer club - become secondary in importance. I hate the perverse financial and promotional rewards. I hate the gimmickry, and the patronising commentary. I hate the crap-shoot. I hate how this peripheral tournament has taken centre-stage, and set in course a new player wage arms race. That doesn't mean I don't understand the FFA Cup's appeal, its novelty, its charm, its so-called romance. But all those things belong to dare I say it, smaller clubs than ours. Not less worthwhile clubs, but smaller certainly in history and ambition, and indisputably smaller in ego.

For almost no other club in Australia is a knockout tournament hinging on the luck of the draw more than just about a fleeting moment in the limelight, and a happy payday if they're so fortunate. It's not even about making a passing political point for us. The way we think of ourselves, distorted and anachronistic as it may be, forces us to treat this thing as being incredibly serious. This seriousness lends a bizarre and unearned sense of legitimacy upon the worth of the FFA Cup. We judge our success and more often our failures now based on this, These are failures which have, and successes which could have, or so we like to believe, serious long term consequences. This is even in the likely event that those consequences are unquantifiable and what's more, indistinguishable form everything else that we have to contend with in our hopes to get back into the top flight.

On top of our own complicity in setting up this paradigm, everyone outside of us who hopes we do well - or just as likely, hopes we fail - also places a ridiculous amount of conceptual leverage. We could win ten Victorian titles in a row, and none would warrant as much merit for South as reaching the FFA Cup semi-finals, or so the thinking goes. What an atrocious situation to find yourself in every year; not just for us supporters who are locked into this for seemingly years to come, but also for the players and coaches who have an elevated sense of pressure on top of whatever other expectations they have to deal with. Is it any wonder then that I lost the plot yesterday? I thought I could see what was coming, having seen it so many times before.

At 4-1 down, and while I was still in the grandstand, we had some nut in the back of the stand start abusing Chris Taylor, and folk from Clarendon Corner abusing that bloke back. The scene was overwhelmingly familiar - a disastrous performance on a stage set up for us and by us, followed by eating our own, and then onto a Sunday league game in front of 30 people. Then of course there would be the pile on of the haters, the fence-sitters. Left in that wake would've been the people who turn up every week, both in the stands and behind the scenes, who cling on to misguided and repeatedly dashed hopes that this club might somehow dig its way out of this unceasing and only partly deserved purgatory.

The first goal in what came to be the comeback came from a clumsy penalty, which on other days may not have been given. It was certainly not as obvious a call as the push which Milos received in the first half and which should have been given as a penalty, and from which City scored from immediately after. Enes Sivic wasn't in any way malicious, but the way he threw his body at Milos Lujic just looked incredibly stupid. It got Sivic a second yellow, and eventually for Milos Lujic a hundredth goal in South colours, a milestone completely overshadowed by the massive hole we still had to dig ourselves out of. Not that I thought we had it in us, as I remained in the social club feeling miserable alongside various staff members.

Even when we got it back to 4-3, I still didn't think we'd get it back to 4-4. Watching the replay afterwards, my attention is caught by Leigh Minopoulos. Yes the pass from the People's Champ is the right one, as is the run into the box by Leigh, but there's a moment where Leigh does a quick head check just before he collects the ball. It's probably just a reflex, but that moment is so crucial to what happens next, because instead of going for the direct, low percentage but perhaps even necessary shot at goal, he cuts the ball across the six yard box and not only is it perfectly placed, but someone is actually there to drive it home.

The goal for 4-4, I heard it before I saw it. As I've noted before, even though there is a stream of the game being played in the social club, it's on a few seconds delay. The social club's proximity to the arena means that should anything of note happen - especially a goal - you'll hear the cheer well before you see it on screen. What strikes me only now after watching the goal several times, is that for probably the first time in a year - the last time being Kristian Konstantinidis' goal against Bentleigh at home - that we actually had someone waiting at the right spot at the edge of the box. Let's not make it to be something greater than it was - it was an absolutely horrible shot - but at least Daley was in the right place to take it.

There was some discussion about whether Jesse Daley's goal was helped by Michael Eagar obstructing Dandenong City goalkeeper Damir Salcin from an offside position, and possibly even Eagar getting a touch (so far I've only seen Daley as being credited with the goal in official channels. Eagar however was kept onside by one, and possibly two opponents. (After publishing this piece it occurs to me that Milos Lujic is more guilty of obstruction than Michael Eagar, but that shouldn't matter if Milos is also onside, and I think he is, though the footage from stream's broadcast side doesn't make that clear.)

Image credit: Paul Zaro/SMFC TV.
Being off in mental no-man's land, I didn't give Daley the credit for being one of the catalysts of the comeback, but others have noted that after he came on he seemed to bring a bit of poise and composure to the team. I'll take their word for it.


So at 4-4, despite feeling like a ton of crap even though we'd almost got ourselves out of this mess, I went outside again but could not enjoy what was happening. There I was watching one of the most ridiculous comebacks you will ever see, and all I could do was pace up and down the concourse, where much of the grandstand had decamped to, Upper and Lower Clarendon Corner Egypt having combined again in their excitement. I was even told, probably rightly even though I have no truck with any kind of superstition, that I should go back inside the social club so as to make sure of things for us.

If nothing else, coming back outside and pacing up and down the concourse like a maniac saw me end up pretty much right in line with the final, incredible, incredulous moment of the game. In the sequence which would lead to the winning goal, it was certainly unfortunate for Dandy, but for mine that was a handball any day of the week. That's not partisan feeling talking - after all, I was almost guaranteed to be in a foul mood regardless of the result - that was gut instinct. And if I am wrong on many things to do with the game, one thing in which I usually find myself in total agreement with the referees and their decisions is that when it comes to handballs, we're almost always of like mind. You can talk all day and all night if you like about accidental handballs, and ball-to-hand instead hand-to-ball. But gut instinct told me handball, and that's what the ref gave.

Lujic stepped up and scored. A hat-trick on the night, and goals 100, 101, and 102 in his South career in all competitions. Despite everything that had happened that night, and even at 4-4, I couldn't see City getting past us in extra-time had Lujic missed his second penalty. We would have overrun them. As it was, the final score was a stupid 5-4, the method madder than the end product. I am still stunned and upset by the whole experience, probably unconsciously why I have so much of my self-esteem attached to this club in particular, and being amazed that I even had a breaking point. The South fans had gone absolutely mental, and I've got Joe Gorman yelling at me as I stand there in a daze.

Whatever misgivings and unease I had and possibly still have, I felt good for most of our supporters. I felt good for the people working at the club above and beyond the call of duty, as they have done for many years, trying to put in place everything so that the club can leverage opportunities like this, opportunities which we have inevitably blown. I felt great for our supporters, who have to put up with a lot of crap. And I felt good that for the first time in seven years that we could celebrate a win like this in our own social club. I even managed to join in with the general joy, admittedly after I'd consumed a neat gin to restore some sense of existential equilibrium.

I would also like to relate a conversation I had with a now former contributor of South of the Border. This contributor and I have often had very different views on any matter of social issues. In more recent times, our views on matters at the club and those running it have also gone in wildly different directions - these things happen. But on certain matters, we do find ourselves in agreement, and informed by a sense of vanity I like to think it's because we watch a lot more football at this level than most people at South. I probably watch too much.

The point here is that there were people at South who apparently were happier to play Dandy City over Northcote. Now, no offense to Northcote, who have beaten Dandy City this season, but I would have rather played the mob from John Cain Memorial Park any day of the week. Northcote are a team based on heart - they will grind out results, but they have no outright star quality. They are team fortunate enough this season to be in the weaker side of the NPL 2 divide, and they are team based around winning promotion in a competition that is a marathon, not a sprint.

Thanks to Dion for passing along these screenshots of this text
message conversation his dad was having with an absent fan.
Dandy City, in the stronger NPL 2 East, are also gunning for promotion, but the kinds of players they've recruited and the gradual build from a slow start also seems to indicate that they were taking very seriously an FFA Cup push. Apart from knocking out the Knights and Bulleen, the quality they had on the park last night should have been enough to dissuade even the most foolish of our people to think that this was a safe or easy draw. Certainly it was better than many of the other options, but it was not the best of all possible outcomes. After all that, it was impossible for me not to feel a little bit sorry for Dandenong City's players, but what good would mine or anyone else' sympathy do? As for our people, I let Leo Athanasakis and assistant coach Chris Marshall know that if our players ever tried a stunt like that again, they'd have to answer to me. A stupid, nonsense threat if ever there was one.

On the way home, the tram was on time, and the connection to the train was good. What else could any reasonable person want?

Next game
Now that the circus has left town, it's back to plain old unimportant league action against Port Melbourne at home on Sunday.

Comings and goings
Gavin De Niese has left the club, joining NPL 2 East side Springvale White Eagles.

Dockerty Cup news
Concurrent with our victory last night taking us to the national stage of the FFA Cup, that win has also seen us move into the Dockerty Cup semi-finals, where we have been drawn against Bentleigh Greens. The game will be played at a neutral venue. The game will be played on one of Tuesday 6th, Wednesday 7th, or Thursday 8th June.

Final thought
A-League or NPL, it does not matter to us;
The only thing that really matters, is FFA Cup South Melbourne Hellas.
See everyone on Sunday.

16 comments:

  1. Thank you to everyone who has waited patiently for this. Even in the heart of the celebrations last night, having people asking me to stay up all night to make a post was endearing in its own way, even if it wasn't going to happen.

    Watching the final ten minutes again on the screens inside the social club, I still couldn't believe we'd won. I was still upset at an Epifano pass across the box being met by no-one.

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  2. Even more than the Knights game from the corresponding fixture two years ago, this felt like everything we'd endured since 2004 coming to a head. Our aspirations shouldn't have to rest on something like this.

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  3. Thank you also to Griff for getting me to proofread his match report, which helped clarify some of what I wrote here.

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  4. Credit also to the ball kids (there seemed like a million of them) for getting the balls back to our players in quick time during the last ten minutes).

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  5. And how would you feel if you were that defender that Dandy brought on late and your main contribution is to give away that handball penalty...

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  6. In regards to you preferring to play Northcote over Dandenong, I will say that Heart > than Strength.

    It is heart that one is the game last night.

    Foti

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  7. Words cannot describe.

    Can't help but feel sorry for Dandy, they did everything right and in any other circumstance would have won the game.

    The football gods blessed SMFC last night.

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    1. How good was some of their finishing?!

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  8. Kimon Trimboli26 May 2017 at 09:49

    Hey Paul,

    You perfectly articulated the angst that is the daily existence of us old "Hellasites". Yes our poor club hinging our self-worth on successful progress in pot-luck quasi-cup is ludicrous however ......

    Fuck that felt great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    After all, isn't that at least one of the functions that our club was set up to provide to us humble members? Plenty of heartache but moments of pure, unbridled joy :o)

    See you on Sunday

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    Replies
    1. Angst is one way of putting it... myself, I like the Greek term 'άγχος', that beautiful and intangible combination of angst, stress and anxiety.

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  9. The first thing that really stood out about this review was the reference to Postecoglou. No doubt his immersion in Australian Rules Football allows him the ability to note this major difference between the 2 codes. AFL coaches have the opportunity through runners (and water boys etc) to send unlimited amount of messages. Fuck I hate that!!

    Was the Pavlou/Foschini thing about seniority, and midfield being more prestigious than defence?

    Once (if?) we get that ONE good run in the FFA Cup where we get to play an A League team in front of 15,000 fans at Lakeside, and realise it means diddly squat, maybe then the whole FFA Cup obsession will wither to a large extent.

    Rod Stewart? Or Ron Wood? Speaking of long haired characters, I note that the family that involved themselves at that fracas at Oakleigh have not been since (or were they at Green Gully?)

    PS the Social Club needs to fix those Cutlery holders! My poor friend was made to look like a fool! Not to mention 'Lemon Potatoes' not being 'Lemonata' and no Bougoudi (or whatever that Northern Greek dish is called)

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    1. AFL runners don't just send messages but now also sit there directing traffic. It's interesting that for a game in which coaches have sat at an elevated level for so many years, it took so long for tactical evolution to take place.

      Postecoglou doesn't talk a lot about AFL in the book, except in reference to it as a cultural force in opposition to soccer, and wogs in general at the time.

      For that dish, I think you're thinking of bouyourdi.

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  10. Looking at the video again (losing count), Milos makes something of a really nothing ball for our second goal. You can say the penalty is fortuitous because of the way Sivic comes in, but he wouldn't have to do that if Milos didn't get Kelly off-balance for the header. 100 goals, and a lot of that from being a classic six yard box forward, but not enough credit for the things he does when he doesn't have the ball.

    Even if a lot of that, too, is the frustrated gesturing for better delivery, lol.

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  11. Really enjoyed this post...disheartened was an understatement for how i was feeling at 4-1 down. Was exchanging texts with a mate who was watching the live stream. He flicked over to the liverpool match at 4-1 down. After my update on the scoreline being 4-3 he switched back on...have to say that neither of us have taken so much joy out of a match in a long time.

    Also thanks for the blog post. Its always a pleasure to read it but this blog was infused with a senseof...anoce all else...passion. The day you stop the blog will be a very dad day - dare I say it...a small heartbeat of the club extinguished?!

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    1. Thanks for the very flattering comments. There are so many of these stories already of people giving up on the stream, both South fans and neutrals. I'm feeling better about it now, but when I revisit this post and re-watch the videos I find that I'm still overwhelmed by the experience. The intensity of the game and everything added on it is remarkable. Those watching as neutrals or without being embedded within the culture of the club as it exists now I don't think can understand.

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  12. Paul, a fantastic write up of what was nothing short than one of the most extraordinary football matches ever seen in this country.

    This is something the guys at the club can build upon and hopefully the club is able to progress throughout the Cup and host a few matches.

    Glad you enjoyed the neat gin.

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While I like people commenting on the blog, it would be useful if different posters could at least leave some sort of nickname to make it easier to sort through all the different 'anonymous' posters. If your post doesn't get approved straight away, it's probably because I haven't seen it yet. Lastly, just because I approve a comment for publication does not mean that I endorse its content.