When Archie Thompson slammed home the winner for Melbourne Victory yesterday, he put the gloss on a stunning end to what was arguably the best regular season campaign of the A-League to date.
Victory’s 3-2 win over the plucky Wellington Phoenix was surprisingly enthralling stuff, as the visitors fought to stay above Adelaide United in the standings while the Phoenix aimed to give retiring goalkeeper Mark Paston a fitting send-off.
Phoenix striker Jeremy Brockie was also chasing Mariners veteran Daniel McBreen in the race for the Golden Boot and when Brockie finished a Paul Ifill cross to level the scores at 2-2, he appeared to have set up a grandstand finish.
That Thompson put paid to Wellington’s hopes of lifting themselves off the bottom of the table with a fabulously worked set piece was ultimately a moot point.
Victory will still need to battle their way through the finals – starting with a home clash against a resurgent Perth Glory – while the Phoenix must clearly rebuild over the off-season.
But the fact is Victory’s final-day win says much about the quality of the 27 rounds of football we have witnessed this season.
The coup de grace was a spectacular final round which featured dramatic victories, big crowds, stunning saves and some special goals.
It started with Brisbane Roar’s comfortable 3-1 win over Sydney FC on Thursday night, a result which lifted Mike Mulvey’s side into the finals.
That left Sky Blues fans in the uncomfortable position of hoping cross-town rivals Western Sydney beat the Jets in Newcastle to extend Sydney FC’s campaign – at least for 24 hours.
The Wanderers duly delivered, collecting the Premiers’ Plate with an emphatic 3-0 win and sparking wild celebrations among their travelling support.
Central Coast Mariners then wrapped up second spot in the standings with a 2-1 win over Melbourne Heart which saw 35-year-old McBreen finish the season on top of the goal-scoring charts.
Meanwhile, a spectacular Danny Vukovic save from the last kick of the game against Adelaide United ensured it was Perth Glory – and not Sydney FC – who wrapped up the sixth and final playoff position, as the Glory drew 1-1 with the Reds in front of a big crowd at NIB Stadium.
Both Perth and Brisbane’s respective late-season comebacks were noteworthy, but of course the real story is the inaugural season form of Western Sydney.
Tipped by most pundits to struggle, the Wanderers instead finished top of the table after mounting an outstanding second half to the campaign.
Somewhat farcically the Wanderers weren’t actually presented with the Premiers’ Plate at Hunter Stadium, which conjures the question of whether they’ve actually accomplished anything yet?
Take nothing away from Tony Popovic’s side – the Wanderers are clearly the story of the A-League season to date – but if they fail to win the championship, have they really won anything at all?
This debate seems to be as old as the A-League itself but instead of looking towards other footballing nations, it’s hard to understand why we don’t just look towards our other domestic codes.
I doubt Hawthorn fans could care less that their team finish top of the table in the AFL last year given that the Hawks ultimately lost the grand final to the Sydney Swans, and I should imagine that’s how the level-headed Popovic will feel should Western Sydney fail to be crowned champions.
It’s disconcerting to see so many supposedly informed football fans claiming that other Asian Football Confederation member nations don’t host finals football when the reality is that until relatively recently, both the J. League and the K-League were enthusiastic proponents of playoff football.
At any rate, the Wanderers deserve wholehearted congratulations for the monumental accomplishment of finishing top of the table.
They’ve won fans everywhere as the A-League’s fairytale team – now the question is whether they can finish the story by lifting the championship trophy.