The final Saturday of September 2020 saw the first of the State NPL grand finals being played, with ACT being the first federation to conclude its 2020 competition.
Contesting this match were the defending Champions Gungahlin United and the unbeaten Premiers of 2020, Canberra Croatia.
The game was played at Deakin Stadium, which in usual circumstances holds 1,500 spectators, and saw Canberra Croatia line up with the more conventional 4-3-1-2. Alternatively, Gungahlin showcased the 3-4-3 system that had served them throughout the most recent campaign.
Canberra Croatia were massive favourites going into the game, as since beating Monaro Panthers 2-1 in the opening round – one of the two NSW sides who play in the ACT NPL – they have not looked back, remaining undefeated in all ten games in which they have played, winning all but two of these.
Their opponents Gungahlin would have taken solace in the fact that they were one of the two sides to hold Canberra Croatia to a draw when they achieved a 1-1 result at the Deakin Stadium in Round 2.
However, in the final round-robin featuring the sides who finished the regular season in places one to four, Canberra Croatia hammered Gungahlin 5-0, so it was always going to be a tough ask for Gungahlin to get something from the game.
27-year-old former Western Sydney Wanderers youth player Daniel Barac, and former NSW NPL hotshot Jason Ugrinic – whose father Dean Ugrinic coaches the side – led the line, and between them, they had already scored nine goals.
The player behind them had also played an important part as the central midfield trio of Ryan Keir, Amilio Kista and Niko Ujdur contributed eleven goals between them prior to the final.
Ujdur has particularly impressed and has been linked with a potential move to the A leagues newest franchise MacArthur Bulls.
Their opponents meanwhile Gungahlin had the joint best defence in the first stage – albeit before they lost 5-0 – and with a defence organised by captain Jack Green, they knew that they needed to be on top of their game to stop the Premiers from scoring.
Nevertheless, as any fan of Australian sport knows, once the final comes around, the form book gets thrown out of the window, as Gungahlin proved this last time year, when, by beating Canberra Olympic and Cooma Tigers, they defeated both sides who had been placed higher than them in the regular season.
The goals of star striker Michael John have been important for them across the last two seasons, and he was, therefore, a key man in the Gungahlin side going in this final.
Although his fellow attackers Philippe Bernabo-Madrid and Joshua Gulevski have removed some of the goal-scoring dependency from him this year.
After early Gungahlin pressure had been weathered by Croatia, their star midfielder Niko Udjur, gave the limited crowd the first glimpse of what can offer as he picked up the ball in his own half and with the help of a series of one-twos he strode through the middle of the park, before ultimately firing a disappointing shot high over the bar.
It did, however, serve as a warning to the defending champions.
It only took another seven minutes for the Premiers to take the lead, when the right-back Jordan Lamb sent a pin-point diagonal cross onto the head of Daniel Barac, he obliged with a ferocious header and scored his fifth goal of the campaign.
You could argue that the left side of the Gungahlin midfield should have not allowed Lamb so much space, but not many three-man or four man-defences would have been able to deal with the final header, such as the accuracy of Lambs cross.
Not long after the opener, the home side extended their lead through an outstanding left-footed effort from the edge of the area, scored by the Canberra Croatia midfielder Ryan Keir to give the home side control of the game.
Despite Gungahlin appearing to get back into the game midway through the second half, when the star of Canberra Olympics 2016 FFA cup run Bernabo-Madrid, scored a contentious goal from the right.
However, Amilio Kista put the game to bed with the goal of the game ten minutes later, as he picked up the ball into the middle of the park, ran at the defence and fired a bullet into the top corner of the net.
The deserved winners on the day and the best team across the season saw the Premiers crowned as Champions, with an unbeaten record intact.
While the contrasting systems provided an interesting tactical battle and an open game, it was three moments of outstanding individual brilliance that decided the contest to which no Gungahlin formation would have been able to counter.