Back in 1983, I was lucky enough to play in an exhibition match where the star of the show was the late great George Best. With about ten minutes to go, a ball was played over the top to Best, who was clearly offside, and was flagged so by the linesman. The referee, aware of who the crowd that night had come to see, let play continue and Best confronted the opposition keeper, flicked the ball over his head, ran round him and volleyed it into the net. The crowd left happy, thanks to a forward-thinking referee.
Tonight, I watched as referee Ben Williams forgot to think about the responsibilities he has to one of the blockbuster games on the A-League calendar. Yet despite a terrible officiating performance from one of the most highly regarded officials in this country, Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar put on a game for the ages, one of the best matches in A-League history, especially in the first half.
It must be galling for Victory coach Mehmet Durakovic to know that impulsive officiating cost his team the chance to end the Roar’s unbeaten run. Losing goalkeeper Ante Covic in the first minute to an admittedly deserved red card, and then going behind to the resultant Henrique penalty, the Victory rallied wonderfully. Archie Thompson was outstanding, as was Harry Kewell.
The moment Matthew Foschini was ridiculously given a straight red card by Williams in the 33rd minute for a challenge that deserved a yellow and no more, the game changed from an explosive end-to-end thriller to a cat-and-mouse contest in which the Roar failed to find a way around, over or through a magnificently organised Victory defence. The recently maligned Durakovic deserves as much credit as his exhausted troops, for managing his second half structure and substitutions perfectly. After the game, he echoed the sentiments of many when he called the Foschini red card decision unacceptable, and commented that a 25,000 person crowd had turned up for a contest that was ultimately spoiled.
The Brisbane Roar moved the ball as slickly as usual in the second half and the Victory had no choice but to defend deeply. In a way, they may have given future opponents of the Roar some ideas about how best to combat this phenomenon of the domestic game. However, the Roar were off their game at times tonight, though every credit needs to be given to the Victory nine for that. Sometimes, it is easier playing against eleven players because the mindset has not been decided by a circumstance beyond their control.
What should be remembered is that the Victory attacked Brisbane prior to the second red card and looked every inch a likely winner as a result. The partnership of Kewell and Thompson threatened constantly. Perhaps the Roar can be undone by a speedy striker with a classy partner who has the vision to play the early and direct ball behind a pressing defence. All A-League strikers should hereforth be sent to sprint training and “parking the bus” shouldn’t be considered.
All A-League referees meanwhile, should learn what that ref back in 1983 knew: the crowd comes to see the players.