Australian sports writer Kieran Pender on the thrilling climax to the A-League season, as unfancied newboys Western Sydney Wanderers face perennial bridesmaids Central Coast Mariners...
Insert awful 'everything is upside down in Australia' gag here...
Regardless of the result, SundayÃ¢ÂÂs A-League Grand Final was destined to be a clash of fairytale endings.
On one side stood Western Sydney Wanderers, established barely a year ago, who had conquered overwhelming odds to claim the Premiership and were eager to complete their incredible debut season. On the other was a Central Coast Mariners side that had seen three Grand Final victories slip from their grasp, most harrowingly when they lost despite holding a two goal lead in the final minutes of extra time.
It pitted the original fairytale club, a small team without serious financial muscle who had gambled on youth, against the newcomers, a side that only came into existent on April 4 last year.
After waiting more than a decade for a team, Western Sydney was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, lacking a manager, players or an established supporter base. Although one followed the other, they entered their first season only six months later, led by an inexperienced coach with a hastily assembled squad and a relatively little-known marquee signing in the form of former Japanese international Shinji Ono.
Early favourites to finish last, the Wanderers initially struggled, failing to score until their fourth game. Yet supported by the exuberant Red and Black Bloc, former Crystal Palace player Tony Popovic soon found his feet and led his charges to the A-League Premiership on the back of a 12 game winning streak.
It was the ultimate sporting story; from nothing to A-League title holders in little over a year. And it was beamed around the world, receiving a mention in the New York Times and even featuring heavily in AustraliaÃ¢ÂÂs somewhat anti-football press.
But fairytales alone donÃ¢ÂÂt win football games, let alone Grand Finals, and Western Sydney ultimately faltered in their most important clash yet. Despite fighting valiantly in an entertaining first half on Sunday, the Wanderers suffered a cruel blow when veteran Dutch defender Patrick Zwaanswijk nodded Central Coast into the lead minutes before the break.
Patrick Zwaanswijk opens the scoring for Central Coast
In front of a packed Sydney Football Stadium, seemingly willed on by an incredible mass of Red and Black, the A-League debutants attempted to reassert themselves in the opening stages of the second half. Yet despite several promising forays, Western Sydney was ultimately left wanting at the back. And with little over 20 minutes remaining, German import Jerome Polenz handled the ball in the box to gift Mariners striker Daniel McBreen an easily converted penalty.
The rest, as they say, is history. Try as they might, the Wanderers couldn't pierce Central CoastÃ¢ÂÂs defensive line, and were unable to repeat BrisbaneÃ¢ÂÂs last minute two goal heroics of 2011.
Western Sydney kept opposition boss Graham Arnold sweating until the end, ever wary that his nightmare could be repeated, but the impressive defence he had marshalled so often in training remained firm.
Finally, in their fourth Grand Final in eight seasons, Central Coast returned triumphant. The small side with too few resources and too many financial problems had secured the Grand Final trophy, eloquently known as the Toilet Seat, in front of a near-capacity crowd.
Victory for the Mariners means everything. Although you may need to lose some to win some, multiple losses on the A-LeagueÃ¢ÂÂs biggest day have caused serious soul searching at the club. They certainly didnÃ¢ÂÂt appreciate being labelled Central Coast Chokers, and will be glad to have lose that tag.
Victory at last: Central Coast celebrate Grand Final glory
But more importantly, the victory is a fitting send-off, marking the end of an era for the Gosford-based side as their youthful talent finally matures into Europe-ready footballers. Goalkeeper Mat Ryan is almost certainly departing, after impressing during trials at Tottenham and West Bromwich Albion, while Bernie Ibini-Isei and Trent Sainsbury are also being pursued by overseas suitors.
Having finally completed his task, it wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be a surprise to see Arnold take up a position elsewhere, and several older players might look for one final payday in Asia or the Middle East. Although the Mariners pride themselves on an excellent youth academy, and other talented starlets are waiting in the ranks, it seems certain some rebuilding will inevitably occur next season.
Elsewhere, this season saw the arrival of marquee megastars Alessandro Del Piero and Emile Heskey at Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets respectively. Both players were gladly welcomed by a league still finding its feet, and both impressed on the pitch.
With the campaign now over, eyes will slowly turn to the transfer market as talented youngsters are lured abroad and fans salivate at the prospect of even more exciting marquee signings. Visits from Manchester United and Liverpool will also keep the faithful occupied, as will important World Cup Qualifiers.
Eventually, Popovic will return to his office at the Blacktown International Sports Park to ponder the season just gone. He will no doubt reflect on his incredible achievements, but also contemplate what could have been.
After guiding the side from wooden spoon favourites to A-League Premiers and Grand Final runners-up, Popovic will be hard pressed to top his first season at the Wanderers. Yet having had success replaced by the bittersweet taste of defeat in a matter of weeks, Western Sydney will be desperate to go one better next year.
And after the amazing achievements of Popovic and company this campaign, it would take a brave soul to bet against them completing that fairytale ending next time around.
Kieran Pender is an Australian sports writer, former deputy editor of GGArmy.com and a regular contributor to the Football Ramble. Follow him on Twitter.
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