There's lots of ways to look at a result like this. Tiredness after a short break from a cup tie three days before which went for 120 minutes, on top of a league game three days before that. The opposition was tired, too, and had its injuries, and the theory is that with our superior squad depth that we should have done better. I'd argue that we did do better in this game than our opponents, but a toothless attack on the night came back to bite us on the arse. Overall though, the game did not reach any great heights. It wasn't unwatchable by any stretch of the imagination, but it lacked any zazz, zing, zork or kapowza.
You could put it down to another overly defensive set up from the coach, who has a safety first approach that's held him (and us) in surprisingly good stead so far this year. The superlative cliché is that a solid defence is the foundation for a championship, but you've got to score goals as well. Or something like that. But he's also a strange kind of tactician, not just a cautious one. The tactical rotation policy made more sense this week than others, but the three subs at once thing was a tad more than baffling. That's a lazy FIFA video game player stunt if ever I've seen one. And why take off Perry Lambropoulos, who's barely played this year, and who was our best player by some way during the first half of this game?
Maybe it was just one of those days. Lambropoulos playing on the right wing put in enough good crosses in the first half, but there was no one there to meet them. Gerrie Sylaidos had a shot tipped wide, and Marco Jankovic had a header saved likewise. Those were the pick of our chances, as we struggled to connect with anyone in the box, or take meaningful shots from outside the box or from its edge. Left footers whose right leg is only good for standing on were the culprits later on, but the lack of two sided shooters didn't help earlier in the game either.
It beats me how players can get to this level without being able to shoot on both sides of their body, but my catchphrase of "if they were as good as we think they should be, then they wouldn't be here" has become so worn that people at games are quoting it back to me in real time. I should probably get new material; but then again, if I was a better writer, then I probably wouldn't be here either.
There was also the pact with the devil made by multiple people on Tuesday night, whereby we bargained for the cup win at the expense of a league loss. That deal made sense at the time - we were top of the table, well clear of the relegation zone, so it's not like we really needed a league win. Knights' players and supporters treated the victory like it was a major event, which I suppose it may have been for them. After a heart-breaking loss three days before, and playing with ten men in the closing stages, it could well be read as a morale booster. Still, their keeper grabbing his genitals and gesturing towards us Hellas fans behind the goal after the final whistle was a bit much. Each to their own I guess.
I think for us the loss was more disappointing than tragic. What it all comes down to is inevitability. While it's not like we ever had to lose another game ever again, the nature of statistics, chance, random number generators - in a nutshell, the universe in its tumbling nihilistic glory - means that we were likely to lose a match at some point. That point happened to be Friday night, but it could have been the Tuesday before. It could well happen again on Saturday afternoon.
As is customary among the fickle, or at least those persistently death-riding this team from within, this loss has opened the door to calls of imminent doom. The doomsayers may be proven right, because having lost the first in a series of four tough (and apparently season defining) league matches, we are told that we are likely to lose all of them, thus proving that we are more terrible than the other teams competing for finals, who vary in esteem to these commentators from "pretty good" to the "almost as terrible as we are, but not quite, because pathological self-loathing means I want us to be worse".
Look, whatever floats your boat and keeps you coming back for more I guess. Some people like positivity, some people like negativity, and some people (probably me) like floating around aimlessly between both extremes, with a dose of contrarianism and giving into whatever the dominant bandwagon is at that point.
It's a very tight season, so any slip up holds the risk of seeing a team tumble down the standings. The Bergers dropped two points to St Albans, and Avondale had to dig itself out of a deep injury time hole to get a point against Hume. That leaves us tied on 22 points with those teams, and just two points ahead of fifth placed Bentleigh. The top five sides have just one loss between them in the past five weeks; the bottom four no wins in five, and the bottom no wins in the last three.
We've made hay while the sun shone, and now we're heading to a difficult part of the season. I'm neither terrified nor looking forward to it.
Avondale away on Saturday afternoon, a huge blockbuster first vs second clash. We'll probably lose.
FFA Cup draw news
Yesterday, Football Victoria held the draw for the sixth round of the FFA Cup. We have been drawn against fellow NPL1 side Eastern Lions. The outcome of the draw could've been worse for us - some of the other all NPL1 match-ups are pretty rough - but we also missed out on being drawn against any of the three remaining state league teams. So, all things considered, this is something in the middle.
The fixture will probably be played in between either the Bentleigh and Heidelberg matches, or in between the Heidelberg and Eastern Lions league matches. Much squad management to come.
Around the grounds
Life in other soccer jurisdictions
The other week I was up in Wollongong for a wedding (all the best to Nick and Seonne!), and favourable scheduling allowed for a trip up the highway to Balls Paddock for Bulli vs Bellambi. Of course I could've taken the coward's way out, toed the party line, and been less of a football hipster, and just gone to the NRL game near my hotel with everyone else. But because I am a soccer historian of sorts, and because I don't like rugby league all that much, and because I am prone to being wilfully difficult, I decided to do my own thing.
Turns out that the main reason I was even able to catch a Sunday game - most Illawarra games are played on Saturdays - is because of a referee shortage.
Now, here's the thing - I know of Bulli and Balls Paddock because of If You Know Your History, but until you see the ground in the flesh a lot of that book learning doesn't quite get fleshed out. Walking down the hill to the ground (which used to be in a slightly different location), and setting foot there, the picture of Illawarra soccer history starts coming together. The northern end hill with massive gum trees; the shed behind the southern goal which was transported piece by piece from somewhere else; Mt Keira and its coal seams in the west.
And no food worth fetishizing to speak of. I had my back turned ordering a sausage in a roll (and a beer) when the underdogs Bellambi - who had had not won a game after five rounds - scored after ten seconds. Bulli applied the pressure after that. but found themselves 2-0 late in the first half from a counter attack. Bulli pulled a goal back early in the second half, but the visitors withstood their woodwork being hit three times, and six minutes of injury time, to win the game.
After the game I was driven around the northern suburbs of Wollongong by local soccer historian Travis Faulks, groundhopping to Tarrawanna, Balgownie, Woonona, Corrimal, and Bellambi among others. Lots of talk explaining the history of the grounds, the waxing and waning fortunes of the various clubs and the game, the power held by the leagues clubs, and the way in which the local scene works - who can afford to compete in their top division and who can't.
Very educational, very informative, and an afternoon much better spent than watching a rugby league game.
Kids, marriages, grey hair. Lots of people on Friday night wondering where the years have gone. Same place they usually do would be the glib answer, but I get what they were driving at. You stop for a moment and find out you're middle-aged. Worse, that you spent a good chunk of your youth watching state league football.