|A healthy crowd in a compact ground. It all felt |
a bit country footy. Photo: Luke Radziminksi.
You'll say that of course that I was always going to turn up, but what turned it for me was the Dandenong derby on the Friday night, where a large crowd was in attendance all around the ground, and who knows what if any advice was given to spectators beforehand. Later on I heard they may have begun to turn people away from George Andrews Reserve, but that's more or less hearsay to me, much in the same way that the rumour started that the grandstand at Olympic Village had been condemned.
More likely in the latter case, it was actually the old media and VIP shed on the western side of the ground that's been deemed even more unsafe than the rest of the venue. That would make sense; after all, if the eastern stand was really that dangerous, why were there spectators and a film crew allowed in there to watch the under 19s and 21s fixtures? But I digress.
Out here in Sunshine, it's rail replacement services up and down the Sunbury line at the moment, which makes getting out to places like Oakleigh that little bit more bothersome. Still, one of the minor perks of covid is that there's fewer people using public transport, so everything went smoothly enough on that front. Caught up with Gains at Flinders Street (but not before trying to jog my memory about which line Huntingdale station is on), then we took another petri dish out to Oakleigh, and soon we were at the ground.
Once at the gate, I saw the first evidence of a covid plan of some sort. Usually my media pass is enough to get me into a ground without too much hassle, but on Sunday there was a QR code on the ticket booth to scan and fill in details for. Good for pleb members of the crowd, albeit it'd be nice if there was some forewarning in case the majority Greek crowd turned up five minutes before kickoff as per custom, and then had to fiddle with phones and digital forms to get in.
Which is another way of saying, considering that as part of my media pass a lication I already had to supply contact detail information, couldn't they just let me into the venue after taking down my pass number? But after no soccer for a year, one doesn't want to complain too much, because the experience on that front went fine enough. I do wonder though whether it will mirror the procedure for entering Lakeside this Friday and the weeks to come. Might be a good idea to put out a note in the socials in the leadup to the game. Maybe.
Once in the ground, everything just seemed mellow. Warm, sunny day, some people I saw last week or the week before, and a whole bunch of people I hadn't seen for about a year. There was also a distinct lack of emotional angst. Maybe everyone's a bit rusty and the angst and anger will come back, or maybe the time off has seen everyone grow a bit older in ways other than just the chronological.
Maybe most of our diehards have realised, finally, that the war is indeed over, and that we should enjoy the time we have left with this club, whether that be two years, ten years, or somehow more. Sure, there's still going to be people who haven't got the message yet that we've surrendered, and thus they'll keep fighting in Twitter's Filipino jungles for a couple more decades; but most people just seemed glad to be back. How many people that were there on Sunday will once again become regulars - outside of a game against old rivals, and for many at least, at venues within short distance of home - remains to be seen.
Without being at all scientific about it, the consensus may well be that people are getting tired of fighting, or at least tired of fighting the forever war that was South Melbourne 2005-2020. Some of them are probably also tired of fighting with people at home to go South games, instead of family functions and sundry responsibilities. I reckon it's been a long time since a South game would've fallen under the category of a family outing as it was in the past. As usual though, I worry that when I make these kinds of observations, I am actually just extrapolating my own feelings onto the wider South Melbourne Hellas community who may have already reached that stage of emotional resignation years before I caught up to what might now be an ancient zeitgeist.
The mellow vibe extended to the surrounds. Middle Park was a classic suburban venue, Olympic Village much the same, and Lakeside a step or two up from either of those while still inhabiting that conceptual space. But Jack Edwards is more truly suburban, and no amount of new electronic scoreboards can change that feeling. Important things happened at the other grounds mentioned - and while it's not like there haven't been important games here, too - it's not really even remotely the same thing.
Instead of being partisan, the atmosphere was closer to that of a large community picnic. I reckon also that were there were considerably more South fans or sympathisers there than Berger fans. That's unusual in that the numbers have been more even over the past few years. Maybe being in more South friendly territory in the south-eastern suburbs, and the fact that the nominal home team support couldn't rally around the Snake Charmer (who was apparently banned from playing his clarinet) distorted that perception.
I don't know how many people were in attendance. The stand wasn't full, but maybe there were restrictions on how many could sit there - or maybe people didn't feel comfortable staring into the setting sun. Around the rest of the ground there was a solid amount of people without anyone feeling that their personal space and enjoyment of the game would be impeded. Is this the kind of crowd that people would envisage as being suitable for a second division, in both numbers and style? I don't know the answer to that question either.
The game itself - and there was a game in the middle of my musings on mellowness - was exciting, and occasionally of a certain quality, though the latter had more to do with Heidelberg's Japanese signing from New South Wales than anything we were able to put together for much of the game.
Just about everyone's said it, and so there's no harm in me saying it as well: South's performance in the first half was rusty at best, and several unmentionable adjectives at worst. Only Heidelberg's profligate finishing kept us in the game at the break. To be fair, while we were cut up in midfield and allowed the Bergers to get into the box far too easily, I was at least pleased to see that instead of panicky defense, we decided to rugby union our way out of trouble more often than not, rather than pussy-foot around the back.
One thing I forgot to mention from last week's report from the St Albans friendly was how much it seemed that Esteban Quintas wanted the team to play out from the back. It didn't really work then, and while we set up in vintage Nunawading style from goal kicks a couple of times, I think someone figured out early enough (maybe due to the narrow ground, or maybe due to Pierce Clark's poor distribution by foot) that it wasn't going to work on Sunday and put an end to it.
Even when we muscled our way back into the game after a shaky start - and apart from the three points, the welcome bullying physicality of Josh Wallen and Marco Jankovic seemed to be the main takeaway for a lot of people - going forward there were clear issues. Maintaining possession in midfield seemed difficult, especially when expecting Gerrie "he's only a little kid" Sylaidos to shoulder a lot of that burden. Henry Hore, who by all reports appeared lively during pre-season, was not quite as effective in this game.
What's more, it didn't really make any difference on whether a player had played something closer to a full season last year (say, in Queensland) or not (pretty much everyone else). Some people played better than others, and there was no real method to it other than the people I generally expected to play well did so, and those that I have longstanding doubts about, didn't.
It's funny though how sometimes dumb luck smiles upon you, and shows you what you may be good at. For us, that aforementioned physicality and the height that comes with it, might well be the thing that carries us to at least mid-table mediocrity in 2021. Six years ago at the same venue, Tim Mala put in the best cross of his life to find Nick Epifano at the back post, who controlled well and snuck the ball in past the goalkeeper.
On Sunday, at the same end of the ground, Josh Wallen lumped a mess of a cross into the box, which fell onto the head of the very tall Harry Sawyer, who had front position in front of the very short Heidelberg keeper trying to reach the ball; after hitting Sawyer's head, shoulders, and back, the ball proceeded to fall over the goal line before the Berger defenders could clear it away.
The well-worn truism remains the same as it ever was - they all count the same. But a bit more polish and method wouldn't go astray.
Now the state leagues, mercifully, don't have VAR. And even if they did have VAR, you'd hope they wouldn't have overturned this goal. Still, goalkeepers being protected species, regardless of whether VAR exists or not, I don't think anyone was expecting the otherwise perfectly legitimate goal to stand. In that respect, the celebrations were muted as if there was VAR involved.
Anyway, having gone ahead, we may have learned something about this team: that it looks better with a lead than without one. With the game in the balance, we looked more vulnerable than our opposition. With the lead, and with the opposition committing more numbers forward to get the goal back, we were able to break forward a few times on the counter-attack. That we were unable to add to our single goal was disappointing, as was the late fade out which saw the otherwise tired Bergers find a second wind, but we held on and won the game; our first win in round 1 since 2016.
Neither team was at its fittest. That's round 1 for you, and it's especially evidence of how much lockdown interrupted pre-season has stalled preparations. We were a bit fitter, a bit stronger, and a bit luckier. Sometimes that's enough. It's not a win that solved any of our on-field problems, but it did help expose them a bit more and hopefully gets the coaching staff thinking about more tenable solutions. Pierce Clark had a good game in terms of shot stopping, but a messy game in other facets. We have a lot of defenders to choose from, and not all of them can play in the same team. Apart from Brad Norton, our back four was tall, heavy, and somewhat flatfooted against speedy smaller players.
Having Luke Adams at right fullback also meant limited opportunities for overlapping runs. At one point in the second half Daniel Clark played a ball into the corner, expecting a run from Adams, but the run never came. And yet despite the disappointment contained in that sequence, I also get why Adams wasn't there - if the pass went awry in some fashion, all of a sudden there'd be no-one behind Adams to close down the channel on that right wing.
Attacking wise we have some talent which misfired a bit, especially when trying to work together. Much of the plan going forward became long diagonal balls to backtracking opponents, and hoping to win the second ball crumbs. That tactic worked a bit more than I expected, but I wouldn't expect that to work so much against the better teams. And the tactic also has the whiff of George Cross rugby tactics circa the mid 2000s that gives me the heebie-jeebies, if for no other reason than the fact that George Cross are several divisions below us for reasons like a reliance on that tactic.
At the end of the game, the celebrations were politely raucous, and contrary to one interpretation of a post-match photo of yours truly, I was content with the result, if not exactly the method used to reach that point. And then I had to find someone I'd promised to loan two portable blank hard drives. Then I saw my FNR colleague and NPL commentator Josh Parish, and asked him if he was able to work any of the insights I gave him into the game. Then I saw Ben Coonan, producer of the little Football Belongs ethnic vignettes. And then I went home.
Eastern Lions at home on Friday night. Lions are once again everyone's pick to get relegated, but that doesn't mean they should be taken lightly. I mean, they pushed hard against us last year
Optus Sport Football Belongs podcast
The other week I was on a podcast with Roy Hay, John Didulica, and David Davutovic, discussing the 1964 Slavia vs VFL XI match at Olympic Park, as well as other digressions.
Greg Stock has been scanning and uploading Canberra City and Cosmos match programs, and sending the South related stuff our way. His efforts have filled in three or four gaps, including one where I didn't expect a program to exist - a 1980 pre-season friendly.
On the streams
A half here, a half there, and bits of pieces everywhere else.
For better or worse, I'm going to be experiencing more NPL action via the streams than in person than I used to. I suppose that we should be reassured that this service is still going, though I'm not convinced that they need to do the under 21s matches. Then again, I'm not convinced that the under 21s need to exist, because I'm not sure any player reaching that age should be doing anything other than playing regular senior football. Still, while the service exists, we home viewers might as well as make use of it, much as the commentators and film crews make use of the experience gained. Friday night, I saw the first half of Port vs Knights, where the latter looked like they had a plan for the first time in a few years, while the former looked trapped by the way they'd been instructed to play. The second half of Thunder vs City was more competitive, but apart from playing spot the ex-South player, I saw nothing that would indicate a title threat. I watched the first 15 minutes or so of Eastern Lions vs Bulleen, enough to learn that Bentleigh will be fine, and Lions probably won't be. By the standard of Friday night's games, the first half of Avondale vs Oakleigh, and the bits I skimmed later on, were a revelation: fast-paced, competent, flexible, and hard football from both teams - and mistakes were punished with prejudice. The second half of Hume vs Altona Magic also had too good teams, albeit with less fluency.
It was good to be back. There's no comparison to seeing a game in the flesh.