High-flying Jets crowned A-League champions

Kevin Airs/Getty Images

Kevin Airs/Getty Images

Australia’s two best teams of Hyundai A-League Season 3, the Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets, met at the Sydney Football Stadium to battle for the championship.  The Mariners were slight favourites, after beating the Jets 3-2 over two legs of the Major Semi-Final, which earned them a spot in the Grand Final and a week off.

The Jets had been stretched by the Mariners with the second leg going to extra-time.  A week later they were stretched even further by QLD Roar and forced to deal with another extra-time dilemma, although this time with a positive 3-2 outcome.

The sun was shining in Sydney, the city was buzzing and the match was set to crown a new champion, 3 different winners in 3 seasons a major thumbs-up for the administrators at Football Federation Australia (FFA).  The debate over the neutral venue sparked uproar between football purists and promoters of commercialisation but in the end FFA put together a good advertisement for the game.

This match was full of tension from the outset, not even 10 seconds had past when the Mariners, John Hutchinson, put in a crunching tackle on Jets striker, Joel Griffiths.  The pressure was rising very quickly!  For most of the first-half the Jets contained the Mariners extremely well and managed to keep John Aloisi and Sasho Petrovski off the score sheet during an exasperating 45 minutes.  Nil-all at the break, the Mariners had it all to do in the second-half.

Jets coach, Gary Van Egmond, has been outstanding since taking over the team one third of the way into Season 2 when they were languishing at the bottom of the table.  A remarkable turnaround when you think about it.  A penalty shoot-out loss to Adelaide United kept them out of the 2006/07 Grand Final, one season on after their squad was stripped of its stars they kept it together with good old Aussie mateship to reach the summit.

The second-half began with less caution and more fight.  This match was special for one Mariners player in particular, Tony Vidmar.  It was to be his swansong after a long and illustrious career both home and abroad.  Gut wrenchingly it was Vidmar who would cost his side dearly.  On 64 minutes Vidmar slipped-up and turned the ball over to Jets striker, Mark Bridge, he took-on last defender, Alex Wilkinson, and struck the ball past Mariners goalkeeper and best mate, Danny Vukovic, for a 1-0 lead.

Agony for the Mariners and not the fairytale ending Vidmar would have envisioned.  The Mariners still had plenty of time to pull one back but never really capitalised, some missed chances amid much frustration only added pressure to the already grim looking outcome.  Aloisi and Petrovski tried to find space but were allowed none.  The Jets were too strong, too committed.  The match seemed destined to end 1-0, a victory to the Jets a fair result on the balance of play.

A Grand Final wouldn’t be complete without controversy.  Mark Shield, Australia’s top referee, decided on 3 minutes of added time.  The Mariners won a corner kick on 94 minutes, which they would have considered their last chance to equalise and send the match to extra-time.

When the ball was whipped across the Jets goal-mouth, second-half substitute, James Holland, clearly handled the ball in the box – penalty!  Come on ref, are you serious?  Everyone saw it but the one person who counted.  Unbelievable scenes emerged with Vukovic red-carded for manhandling Shield and Aloisi shown a yellow for dissent toward the referee’s decision.  Ante Covic’s goal-kick signalled the end of the match – the Jets were champions!

A crowd of 36,354 turned-out to see the game’s showpiece event and a new A-League champion.  It was a bitter pill to swallow for Mariners coach, Lawrie McKinna, now a beaten finalist twice in two outings.  The Mariners have not always been entertaining to watch, their late slump in form probably cost them dear in retrospect but that’s football.  The Premier’s Plate and a spot in the AFC Asian Champions League is a hearty consolation and well deserved.

Jets central defender, Andrew Durante, picked-up the Joe Marston Medal which he thoroughly deserved while captain, Jade North, lifted the trophy with Van Egmond and owner Con Constantine, to much jubilation from the fans.  North is the first indigenous athlete to captain a championship winning side in any sporting competition to date in Australia, it would have been a proud moment for him.

Quite fittingly Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was on hand to witness the event.  His earlier media announcement with FFA Chairman, Frank Lowy, confirming Australia’s intention to bid for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, made for an exciting day for the game which keeps on scoring on and off the field.  Rudd has delivered on his election promise to FFA but still needs to be reminded to refer to the game as “football” not soccer.

I am happy for the Jets, they played the best football by far in Season 3, had the leading goal-scorer in Joel Griffiths and the best young coach in Australia in Van Egmond which shows the value of team cohesion.  The Hunter has something to celebrate and it’s not Rugby League, football is growing fast and becoming even more popular than expected in the region.  Another season over with more of the good stuff on its way, rollout Season 4!

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