Sunday, 21 April 2019

It could always be worse (and some people seem to wish that it was) - South Melbourne 1 Essendon Royals 0

Zac Bates shows of his balletic prowess. Photo: Cindy Nitsos.
It really was a no-win situation. Given our erratic performances so far this year, our unsettled match-day squads, our coaching change, and our inability to score with any regularity, there are few if any South fans who are optimistic about our chances of progressing to the national stage of this tournament.

However that didn't mean that people were necessarily keen on losing this game; at least not until the last 15 minutes or so, knowing that actually progressing through to the next round could summon a worse fate, in the form of a more severe mauling against a more capable opponent.

Or even worse, distracting us from what looks like being another season battling to avoid relegation.

If we found a way to lose this game, the loss would've been rightly called a disgrace. If we'd won it comfortably, it would've been written off as achieving the bare minimum against a lowly opponent, again rightly so. In its own way, it was reassuring that the team managed to find a third, worse option than either of the preceding two: scraping through on a goal courtesy of a long-ball, and a header by one of our defenders placed into the path of another of our defenders, who slotted home like he was an actual striker, and all of that helped by the Royals defenders deciding they didn't need to track back.

So what kind of result would have placated our fans on Friday? Against a state league 1 opponent at the bottom of their division - and with no 'name' players, with the exception of Melbourne Knights also-ran striker Chris Talajic - probably nothing short of 4 or 5-0 win. Well, that didn't happen, and thus we are miserable.

This miserable state was enhanced not just the failure to second, third, and fourth goals, but also by the performances of some players. Giordano Marafioti got a start, looked dangerous at times (as he should against a state league 1 team if he's serious about this whole NPL business), but failed to take advantage of two very good chances in the first half; one from point-blank range, and another where he was one-on-one with the keeper. At under 20s level, missing those is less of a crime, because playing for South under 20s means you're going to get a heap of those chances; in the seniors, not so much.

Brother Pep was brought back in from the cold after two weeks away from the senior squad - due mostly, if one believes to the rumours, to a poor attitude on the training track - and failed to deliver. His lack of a right-foot was highlighted again, and even as one of his few prominent defenders, I can't help but think this is as good as we're going to get from Pep. He's been tried on the left, the right, and up front, and for the most part nothing has worked, and only some of that can be put down to playing in unsettled formations and unfamiliar positions.

Worst of all, after being benched around the hour mark, Pep proceeded to spit the dummy and march down the players race instead of taking his place back on the bench. So, that's probably someone we can chalk down as exiting the club come mid-May when the mid-season transfer window opens.

But who to put in his place? Well, we could do worse than Zac Bates, who showed a bit when he came on to the field (yes, it was only against a bottom of state league 1 club), but his speed was terrific at least, and he didn't look emotionally cooked after an early season spent injured and on the bench. Ben Djiba also continued to look good at right-back, as well as continue to provide the perplexing spectacle of an actual South Melbourne youth team player starting in the side (and not returning to the club to do so after several years away elsewhere) and looking competent.

More perplexing, and hopefully no serious ramifications come from this, was Kristian Konstaninidis being benched after an hour. One would've thought that KK could use all the game he could get, but he was subbed off to the confusion (and some disgust) of a few people, not least KK himself. Someone in forum land is saying that the substitution occurred because of a lost-in-translation moment between player and coach, and hopefully because we did win the game, that the misunderstanding is smoothed over, because we need a left-back desperately in lieu Brad Norton's absence with injury.

For all the angst about the performance, the Royals rarely threatened our goal. There was a goalmouth spill which was eventually cleared, and a sharp header straight at Roganovic. Then the Royals threw everyone forward towards the end, as you would expect. We hit the woodwork two or three times and missed some very gettable chances, which made things more difficult for us, as it has for most of this season. There was even a moment where it looked like we might get an unlikely penalty, when a Royals defender assumed a ball had gone out and thus rushed to hand it to his keeper (who was the Royals' reserve keeper, who had a solid game), only for there being the possibility that the ball had not actually gone out. Soon enough the officials decided that no player could have possibly been that stupid, and normal service resumed.

Anyway, because we could not find a second goal, we spent the last five minutes cowering in the corner. Not that there's anything wrong with that - it's what you should do when you're in front, and trying to secure the win - but it was unedifying within the context of having to do that against a side ranked two divisions below us.

The hyperbolic reaction to the win would be to say that the squad is at best a mid-tier state league 1 side, but that's why you don't rush home and post straight away. For those of us who haven't quite yet obliterated the quaint desire to see their team win games no matter how aesthetically coarse the method, the win was appreciated, even if the performance still left a lot of questions left to be answered.

As always, it could've been worse! Other NPL clubs lost or barely scraped through against similarly or even less credentialed teams than the Royals. Of course no one cares about those other NPL teams and their near or actual failures, because they are not carrying South Melbourne cultural baggage. It's the price we pay for continuing to support Australia's has-been soccer club.

Hat report
There were new, limited edition hats and caps available at the merch stand, for those who care about such things. Some of them were trucker hats. Not being a trucker, it didn't seem right for me to buy one. Plus I already have my pompom beanie anyway, and who cares if the temperature is pushing 30 degrees in the middle of April.

It was good to see Nikola Roganovic come out with a hat in the second half - not only is that sun-smart, but it also helps avoid situations like this. More confounding was Gerrie Sylaidos' choice of head-wear. By now we are all familiar with the fact that he wears a sort of light beanie during games, usually a white one. But what was the deal with the navy/dark variation used in Friday? It was very warm out there, and we all know that dark colours absorb light and/or heat much more than light colours do.

Music report
Well, after complaining that last week's stadium music, once again we had some variation of the Queer as Folk soundtrack. And then at half-time, we had some variation of a Triple M All-Time Greatest BBQ/Driving/Drinking songs compilation. Is that an improvement? Yes, I suppose so. If you're wondering where exactly I hope my complaints about the stadium music selections end up, it's with the soundtrack to SimCity 3000 being played over the public address system in all of its light-jazz, proto-vaporwave glory.

Next game
Dandenong Thunder away next Saturday night. Since the match falls on Orthodox Easter Saturday.

Final thought
I was out and about on Saturday morning trying to fix the gaping existential hole in my life by purchasing some music on compact disc (it didn't work), and after discussing the merits of El Perro Del Mar's self-titled album (it's ace in its depressive interpretation of '60s girl groups) and the Manic Street Preachers and Richey Edwards' disappearance, the store's proprietor noticed my South Melbourne hat. Well, that led to a discussion about second divisions and such, and also about Western United, which said shopkeeper said he would support because he lived in the area - until such point as I made the pithy comment that he'd have to be driving to Geelong and Ballarat until Western United built their ground, if indeed it ever got built. Hardly the most thrilling story, I know.

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