Yesterday there were people trying to convince me - or perhaps more so themselves - that I looked happy. Some of those people were at the ground, others merely catching a glimpse of me smiling on the Fox Sports broadcast just before the start of the game. Whatever floats their boat I guess. I was with my mates, and it was almost certainly going to be our last game of the season. A long, long season.
My happiness or at the very least not miserableness was the natural response to being at a game of no consequence, no matter how anyone tried to dress it up. The lead up to the game from many of our people was understandable. A chance to capitalise on a rare and imperfect opportunity. Ticket prices set, food organised, and the club even putting out notices about public transport options. The fans made their banners and flags, invited as many people as they thought would come, and kept tabs on the weather in an obsessive manner. I hated the commercial television networks' use of eight day forecasts before this game, and I hate them even more now.
The final crowd of 5,747 was neither disastrous, nor earth shatteringly brilliant. You can blame the midweek slot and the interstate opponent, or the Socceroos and Ange Postecoglou sucking up all the limelight in the lead up. You can blame the impending bad weather, or the $25 entry charge. But maybe after being out in the cold for 13 years in the manner that we have been, this is all that we have left. It's not exactly been like starting from scratch, but at times it hasn't been too far from it. Sometimes it has been worse.
As much as I would love to go to town on Bill Paps and his talk of selling out the ground, the harsh reality of the situation remains. No crowd would've been big enough, no scoreline good enough, no atmosphere electric enough to make the game mean anything more than what it was; we, suffering but still afflicted by pride, having to face them, not Sydney FC specifically, but an entire soccer and mainstream Australian culture that has no place for us except in such rare and strange circumstances.
Take out the financial viability questions because only a few people will ever know for sure whether we could cut it in this state or any at all. Take out even the ethnic equation of things for just a second, because as a club we've largely moved beyond that, with last night being the best example of it so far. From my point of view at least, there was no cringe factor. Yet the experience as a whole was antithetical to the way top flight sport is done in Australia, by which I mean that despite the general professionalism of the way the event was handled as a whole last night, at no point was it slick. It was, to use those words now tainted by hipsters, artisanal, organic, handmade, at times even rustic.
General admission seating and a lack of oppressive security all round helps a lot in that regard, but at no point did the atmosphere at the ground, both before the game and during, feel forced or predetermined or pre-approved. It was, for want of a better term, a boutique experience in the best possible way, different from just about anything you get in top flight sport in this country. That in itself though, much as I would love to see it sold as a highlight and as a strength, as a beautiful point of difference, can only be seen in our era as encapsulating the shortcomings of being small, of not being exactly like everyone else. So it goes.
On the field, pretty soon the gulf in capability was made apparent. This wasn't simply a case of the best team in the country taking on a second division side; they were taking on a second division side from one of eight second divisions, and a side that had played one competitive fixture in about seven weeks, missing one of its more important players. Sydney's speed of thought, speed of movement on and off the ball, and their surer touch was always going to bring us undone at some point. The fact that we didn't completely sit back and try to absorb pressure was admirable, but also more liable to see us punished.
Not that it would've likely made any difference in the long run, but for a team like ours, missing Brad Norton unbalanced the whole thing. Our players were initially overwhelmed by the occasion and the lack of space afforded to them, and they often second guessed themselves. Mistakes that would lead to nothing in our league veered closer to life or death situations here. Nothing unexpected about that for anyone involved, but it's one thing to know it and quite another to experience it. Perhaps if they could bottle those moments where we took the initiative and showed no fear, there may be something worthwhile that we could take into next season.
Our team, like others at a similar playing level - and there's so many of them - is largely made up of those who have reached the A-League but have been discarded by it, and especially those who will never reach its ranks. Often enough, despite whatever gnashing of teeth there may be about lack of opportunity, there are good reasons for this. The players at our level are too slow or too small or not polished enough. It's not for lack of heart though. Matthew Millar is a prime example. Last night he was one of our best, for mine especially in the first half (though others will point to his second half) as he got into dangerous positions on the byline on a few occasions; but the quality in the form of an end product was just not there.
An extended dose of professionalism or even a consolidated second division would improve things, but establishing either is not within my capabilities; at best I'm here only to note the mostly obvious shortcomings of any attempt to establish such things. There is also something to be said for the notion that in FFA Cup games between A-League and state league opponents, the A-League team should be allowed to field two visa players, the same amount allowed to NPL teams as per their ordinary league business. Certainly it's been a thought bubble that a few have simultaneously had on and offline, and I'd be for such a move. Still, one must also acknowledge that even if such a rule was brought in, the calibre of visa player available to an A-League team easily outstrips what's available to a state league club.
It doesn't help either that Sydney's first goal was offside. You need all the luck in the world to get close, and we didn't get ours. 2-0 down at half-time, and despite having looked OK at times, there was no sense that there was any way back. But then Leigh Minopoulos scored that goal, and for the next 20 minutes all things seemed possible.
There was little chance that it could last, certainly not without an equaliser. We almost got there - Millar's long range effort after their keeper was caught way off his line would have brought the house down had it gone in - but as the match wore on you could see the tiredness not merely creeping in, but storming in. The equaliser didn't come, and we ran out of gas. Some of the goals we let in were especially poor. But what a 20 minutes it was. It didn't all of a sudden make the struggle of the past 13 years worthwhile, but it was enjoyable, joyous even. There'll be plenty of chances next year and the year after and the year after that to wallow in the miserably meaningful; yesterday was about enjoying the absurd inconsequential.A mint finish from Minopoulos 👌 Fully deserving of being a @NAB Golden Goal for @smfc tonight! #FFACup #MagicOfTheCup pic.twitter.com/mvHBRVnGB5— Westfield FFA Cup (@FFACup) October 11, 2017
After the Sydney goals rained in and the margin blew out, I got tired of chanting and of having an obstructed view thanks to hands and flags and people standing on seats, and worst of all, the score of opened umbrellas, so I went down to the concourse area. As the rain kept coming down, I got a good view of Clarendon Corner, the only full bay left in the ground, singing, chanting and enjoying themselves. What surprised me most though was how many people throughout the ground stayed to the end. The result was done, the weather was stuffed, there was no good reason for pretty much anyone apart from the usual people to stay. Yet they stayed.
That rain was something else. I guess we all knew that there was going to be heavy rain on the night, but I can't remember a Lakeside game that had a storm like that for some time. It was initially blown in from the north, chasing a lot of people out of the southern stand around to the northern side. Then the wind changed and moved it around so it blew into the northern stand. The running track threatened to turn into a lake, but the ground itself seemed to hold up well. Most surprisingly perhaps, our boys seemed to handle the conditions better than the Sydney players, especially during our best period, with even long passes to the wings being perfectly hit on several occasions.
All I wanted from the night was that we would avoid embarrassment on the field and off it. In my opinion we managed to avoid both, if not comfortably then by enough. Oh, and we scored a goal. Leigh Minopoulos, the player that gives me the most joy of any player in this team, wrote himself into a little bit of South Melbourne and Australian soccer history. Almost 18 years ago, John Anastasiadis bundled home the first Australian goal at a Club World Championship. Last night Minopoulos became the first player to score for a state league club in an FFA Cup semi-final. They're trivia questions that no one outside the dedicated few of us will be able to answer, but that's part of the story, too.
What to do with our good fortune
There's an episode of The Simpsons - atypically, I've forgotten which one - where the kids of Springfield are lined up outside the Noiseland Arcade, being shaken by a bouncer/security guard to see if they have enough loose change in order to be allowed inside. One hopes that the overpriced souvlaki (just like a proper top-flight stadium experience, as one wit noted), the $25 entry price for most patrons, and the $10 charge for social club members in direct opposition to the promises made by this board, have all raised enough money to pay off our debts to players, as well as current and former employees, with whatever's left over going towards paying off the loan the club took out to finish off the social club.
South of the Border off-season mode begins
There'll be awards no one cares about, and the usual periodic round up of news. There'll also be an AGM to discuss. And book reviews. I also have some other business to take care of and finish, so don't expect too much from me unless something dramatic happens.
Missed it by that much
There was some chatter out there that we had signed Gold Coast City striker Sam Smith. Smith, a 27 year old Englishman who didn't play against us in the FFA Cup due to injury, has instead re-signed with Gold Coast City.
To the bloke who noticed that my keys had fallen out of my pocket during the second half.
The season is finally over, thank goodness. See you all back in a few weeks time for the start of pre-season.