Safro's Sydney: Grand Final loss doesn't define season

“Into the valley of death rode the six hundred, cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left…”

There is a kinship among away fans that is hard to replicate at home as Cove member, side member and non-member meld into one. Multiply that by 50 and one comes close to the feeling of standing among 3000 fellow travelling supporters at an away Grand Final.

Of course, not all Sydney FC fans were fortunate enough to find themselves standing with the Sky Blue faithful at AAMI Park on Sunday afternoon. A ridiculous ticket shortage at a tiny stadium meant that some counted themselves lucky to score Grand Final tickets anywhere. And so three committed Sydney fans, aged 13, 20 and 47, and decked out in their Sky Blue finest, scarves and all, took their seats high up in the bleachers – home fans to the right of them and home fans to the left.

The harsh truth is that the game, from beginning to end, belonged to the home side. In fact, painful as it is to admit, there was only one team truly in the contest. The first half was one-way traffic and while Sydney came back, somewhat, in the second, there just wasn’t a sense that the Sky Blues would find a way through the Victory midfield.

Play the game, not the occasion, goes the mantra.

Sydney played the occasion.

From the opening whistle the visitors were unsure in the tackle, tentative with their passing, did not move off the ball with their customary ease and, in doing so, failed to impose control in midfield.

Melbourne, meanwhile, were very good on the night. Without the ball they chased everything and, having done their homework, closed down Sydney’s playmaker-in-chief, Milos Dimitrijevic.

Which is hardly a new tactic - the Serb has been marked hard all season. The difference, however, is that on this occasion, the playmaker froze under Grand Final pressure and Sydney’s most natural, creative footballer, thoroughly rattled, now second guessed his every move. And when Sydney needed to regain midfield initiative, seasoned coach Graham Arnold needed to bite the bullet and bring on Terry Antonis a lot earlier than he did.

Much Sydney ire has been directed at leftback Nikola Petkovic. There is no doubt that the defender had a horror afternoon but it was the midfield that exposed him time and again through its profligacy in possession and lack of movement off the ball.

Another player who has received criticism is Marc Janko but there was little the striker could do without good service and there was almost none forthcoming, either centrally or from out wide.

All in all, a deserved Grand Final win to the home team that, on the night, was better in all departments.

The Sky Blues’ travelling support was magnificent throughout the contest but by the time the Sydney players had come over to thank them, minutes after the final whistle, there were few travelling supporters left to thank. Sydney fans needed to swallow their disappointment and stay back to thank the players for an outstanding season rather than hastily make for the exit. Perhaps Arnie’s culture change needs to go a tad further.

And so it was left to a few remaining Sky Blue-clad supporters to applaud Alex Brosque’s runners-up speech which was received with surprising generosity by Victory’s non-active support.

Fans were briefly united in horror as Frank Lowy took his now celebrated tumble. Surrounded by paramedics and assorted helpers, no one could be sure that the great man was even alive and so hearts were in agape mouths until the octogenarian, without whom the A-League would never have come to pass, raised himself off the turf and gave out an embarrassed smile. Relief and applause all round.

A personal aside - as the fans began their steep descent down the AAMI Park stairs, a young boy aged no more than 10 or 11, approached me. Wearing a Victory shirt and holding a ball, he said to me that Sydney had played a good game and sympathised with our loss. I disagreed, telling him that his team were much better on the night and deserved their win. We chatted briefly and wished each other luck in the Asian Champions League. And as I turned away, I turned back again, made eye contact with his mother who was by now beaming with pride, and gave her a somewhat emotional thumbs-up.

Parenting – somebody is doing it right.

Sydney’s awful Grand Final display in no way defines the Sky Blues’ season.

Graham Arnold has done an excellent job in rebuilding the team and, in many ways, reshaping the club. After four seasons of rank mediocrity, Arnie is only a year into his revolution so much, much more, is to come from Sydney FC in seasons to come.

Coming up are two high-profile, meaningless friendlies that will please the Eurosnobs and put some cash into Sydney coffers but these games are insignificant.

What matters now is the re-signing of key players and most fans will hope to hold on to as many out-of-contract Sydney stars as possible. One bad game aside, Dimitrijevic has been wonderful and Sydney must hold on to him. It will be tough to fit Jurman, Jacques Faty, Mickael Tavares, Dimitrijevic, Bernie Ibini, Corey Gameiro and Shane Smeltz inside the salary cap but the club must aim to keep as many as possible. Outside the cap, a good number of Sydney fans want to see Janko remain a Sky Blue in place of a bigger name marquee.

On behalf of all Sydney FC fans, thank you Arnie and players for an excellent season of spectacular football and here’s hoping the Sky Blues go one step further in 2016!