Thursday night shopping is a Sydney institution. I had suggested to my wife that Eastgardens shopping centre was as good as place as any to carry on this tradition.
Of course, I had slightly ulterior motives as well.
After dropping her off with some cash and credit cards I made my way across the road to the Eastgardens football ground.
Some recent articles on The Roar website had piqued my interest and I had discovered that there was to be a qualifying match for the FFA Cup between Hakoah Sydney City and Blacktown City.
So is the FFA Cup worth investing my time and energy in supporting it? Will it bring fans like myself back to grassroots and lower-tier football? Will it bring the ‘old’ football fraternity back into the fold?
After spending a good 30 seconds finding a prime parking spot I made my way to the grandly named Henley Athletic Field. Looking with some consternation at the solitary $10 note in my wallet I thought my FFA Cup odyssey might end at the first hurdle. How much would it cost to get in?
My answer was an open gate with no turnstile. Free! That was a great start and with my $10 note in hand I made my way to the kiosk at the bottom of the little stand that was doing a brisk trade.
There was a good selection of food and after a moment’s study I went for the chicken schnitzel sandwich at $6. It was cooked on the spot with some lettuce, mayonnaise and a brioche style bun. George Calombaris and Matt Preston would have been waxing lyrical. With a well made coffee I was able to find a seat in the small but comfortable and nearly full grandstand with $1 still in my pocket.
The ground itself was of the old East European style with the playing field ringed by an athletics track. The playing surface looked in immaculate condition and far surpassed that of the Allianz Stadium just five kilometres up the road.
The second hurdle of the night was actually a steeplechase hurdle at the northern end. Or perhaps it was a crowd barrier? It must have been the away end as there was nobody there. The big pole vault landing bags looked like fun. I might go there if I started to doze off. At the Port Botany end there were some people, maybe the Hakoah version of the RBB. They weren’t though, actually they were a bunch of kids having a vigorous game of ‘backyard soccer’, which seemed to go for the whole 90 minutes.
Ah but now the players were coming out and yes there was a tangible feeling of expectation. This was cup football after all. Hakoah, in blue, were the home team and were greeted by loud cheers, but they are underdogs to the Blacktown side in white, who plays in the division above them.
The fans certainly knew the players. ‘Come on Brad’ and ‘Get him David’ could be heard. Clearly there were plenty of family and friends in the crowd. When Hakoah scored a chant started which lasted a good 20 seconds until Blacktown equalised.
The play was fast and furious but was it just kick and chase? Definitely not. There were some clever moments of close passing and some good individual ball skills. I get the impression that the style of football is a more purely Australian style than the A-League as there are less overseas-schooled players and coaches. In fact no one gets much time on the ball, it’s high intensity and the fans seemed to enjoy it.
A call went over the loudspeaker, “can the owner of car with registration XXX-999 please move their vehicle”. Nice touch that. And again with a bit more expression, “the owner of vehicle XXX-999 you need to move your car now”. When the call was repeated more urgently with the added warning of “the council ranger is about to book you” the crowd went silent. I half expected the referee to stop the game and grab his car keys, but play continued.
For the second half I joined the fence leaners for a close up view. As Blacktown surged it seemed only a matter of time before they would break the deadlock. A mix up between defender and goalkeeper saw Blacktown take the lead. The beauty of these games is that you really feel part of the action. Everyone could quite clearly hear one of the defenders berating the others with a few colourful adjectives.
As Hakoah pressed for an equaliser the fans became more and more alive. I felt myself getting drawn in and lent them my support. After another chance sailed over the bar towards the shopping centre on my left I was reminded that I was supposed to meet my wife at 9:15pm. Suddenly my desire for extra time dissipated and fortunately for me there would be no equaliser.
Such are the vagaries of the NSW qualification process that Hakoah live to fight another day. In fact they can still afford to lose another match. I think this needs to change. You should not be allowed to lose a game and still continue in a knockout cup.
So what to make of my FFA Cup experience? For the fans, hope remains. The banter after the game is about whether they can make it to the main draw and play against an A-League side. So it appears that the ‘old soccer’ is on board.
Will I suddenly rush out and watch my local NPL side? Not yet. The FFA Cup is my entry point, however over time and with more exposure via the cup, I might change my view.
As far as the FFA Cup goes, at this level it is an absolute winner. I would encourage anyone to get out to one of the smaller venues to watch knockout football up close and personal. I know I will be back.
After all, what better way to spend a Thursday night? I was entertained and fed for less than $10 and my wife bought a new pair of shoes. As she pointed at the small envelope under the windscreen wiper I was brought back to earth. That’s right, my number plate is XXX-999.