As all grand finals should, the 2018/19 A-League decider loomed as a tight and unpredictable affair. Both Perth Glory and Sydney FC had every reason to believe they would prevail at Optus Stadium.
The fervent local crowd gave the locals an extra leg, yet the superb recent form of the Sky Blues had every Glory fan trembling with fear after Sydney’s demolition of Melbourne Victory in the semi-finals.
As expected, a cagey atmosphere marked the early minutes. Both sides had half chances, mostly from promising headers.
Dino Djulbic went close for the home side before Rhyan Grant sneaked in at the near post and had a chance of his own.
Despite those early scares, the contest remained a little conservative. Both sides appeared to believe that the final half-hour of the grand final would make all the difference; biding their time for the dramatic events to follow.
Just short of thirty minutes, Sydney looked to have taken the lead when Michael Zullo and Alex Brosque combined on the left side of the Glory box and Adam le Fondre appeared to either nudge or force the goal home from close range.
Matthew Spiranovic seemed to provide the final touch as the ball trickled into the far corner of Liam Reddy’s net, yet Sydney were to be denied the goal after the assistant’s flag went up and the VAR saw no reason to overturn the decision.
Steve Corica and the entire Sydney bench exploded and rightly so, with the evidence suggesting that Zullo was marginally onside and le Fondre’s positioning legitimate as Spiranovic provided the final touch into his own net.
At that moment, it was hard not to reflect on the events of 12 months ago, when the Newcastle Jets felt the wrath of the VAR in their grand final loss to the Victory at McDonald Jones Stadium.
On that day, technological reliability was the issue yet on this occasion the hardware appeared to work just fine and it was the courage of the officials that appeared to be severely lacking.
The sides went to the break dead locked and goalless, with Sydney FC feeling aggrieved to say the least.
Soon after the break, the Sky Blues appeared to take advantage with a decent period of controlled possession. Yet it was to swing quickly and Diego Castro had the first real chance of the half, with a header that forced Redmayne into a terrific save.
The subsequent corner was cleaned up and a series of hard fouls followed, with both teams refusing to budge from the defensive task they had been assigned by their managers.
Castro and Milos Ninkovic were the major victims, as both midfields attempted to ensure that neither man was given the space to create the potentially match winning moment.
As the hour rolled by, Sydney took some control in midfield and the Perth Glory box became a busy place. Then, against the grain, Castro headed towards goal in the 67th minute, only for Redmayne to deny him for a second time.
By the 75th minute it was clear that the immense lead Perth had built on the A-League ladder during the season was something of a fallacy – there was nothing between the two teams and the final match of the season was enunciating that fact.
The managers went to their benches and fresh legs were thrown in to make the difference. Andy Keogh and Anthony Caceres were the first to enter the fray as the minutes ticked down and the probability of extra-time grew.
Grant and Jason Davidson continued their epic battle down the flank as the 90 minutes drew to a close and it was perhaps the most aggressive and entertaining match-up of the night.
Despite a few hairy moments at both ends of the pitch, neither side could break the tie and extra-time became the focus of both managers.
The first period began with a significant moment, as Alex Brosque left the pitch for the final time in his career.
The Perth Glory fans who booed the champion might want to reflect on the intelligence of those who would dare do the same to Diego Castro, when the veteran Spaniard does decide to leave the game.
To say the first period of extra-time was bland, dull and boring is an understatement – neither side showed a real intention to chance their hand, with risk outweighed by prudence.
The match headed into a second period of extra-time. Once again, the biggest match in Australian domestic football appeared destined for penalties, with neither side willing to take unnecessary risk when in possession of the ball.
With 120 minutes done and dusted, there had been just a handful of chances on goal and only one in the extra-time period. Perth had the best of the final minutes before Shaun Evans blew his whistle and ended the match with only penalties left to decide the 2018/19 A-League Championship.
The two sides traded successful attempts before Andy Keogh, taking the second penalty for Perth, could not score – a disadvantage which turned into a championship loss when Brendon Santalab took their next attempt and he, too, was denied. Reza Ghoochannejhad scored the sealer.
What a tragic end for the Glory with over 56,000 people on hand to witness the feat and a season where they looked to be the best team in the land.
Sadly, they were not and Sydney FC reign for the record-equalling fourth occasion in the A-League era.
What an achievement for Steve Corica and what a crippling blow for Tony Popovic, a man seemingly destined to never win an A-League championship.