Australia crowned a new champion yesterday as Newcastle Jets, the A-League's underdogs, had their day, edging local rivals Central Coast Mariners in a tense grand final.
Yet, football being football, as one Aussie fairy tale reached a romantic conclusion yesterday, there was a decidedly unhappy ending to the distinguished career story of a highly-respected former Socceroo. The twist in Tony Vidmar's tale came after 65 minutes of a tight tactical battle between the two New South Wales sides, as the 76-times-capped former Rangers and Middlesbrough defender marked his final match before retirement with a costly and uncharacteristic mistake that effectively settled the match.
Forgoing the safety-first option, Vidmar attempted a risky manoeuvre to evade Mark Bridge just inside his own half and when the ball became tangled beneath his feet, the Newcastle striker pounced.
"I saw 'Bridgey' coming from the corner of my left eye and I thought he was going to come inside me," explained Vidmar, "so I've gone to leave it and it's got stuck between my feet. The rest is history. A mistake from myself has cost us the game and I'm going to have to live with that. There weren't too many clear-cut chances [and it was] a defining moment in the game."
Bridge, an Australian U-23 international, ensured that the error was punished ruthlessly as he raced away from his 37-year-old marker before curling an unstoppable shot low into the bottom right-hand corner.
Jeers turn to cheers for Bridge
It marked the perfect end to a topsy-turvy season for the 22-year-old striker, who found himself the whipping boy of the Jets fans as his form faltered and rumours of a move to Sydney abounded. Bridge's recollection of the goal itself was certainly refreshingly short on clichéd diplomacy - "Vidmar sort of stuffed up on halfway," was his blunt description - and the young striker expressed a hope that he will still be in a Newcastle shirt come the start of next season.
"They (the Newcastle fans) have been good the last couple of weeks," he said. "The odd person has given a boo, but I take it as a compliment that they want me to stay. It feels great scoring (and) in a grand final the feeling is times 10. It's every kid's dream to do it on such a big stage. It feels amazing. Everyone doubted us at the start of the season, I think we were tipped to come seventh or eighth."
The Jets, whose name and club crest allude to the local Williamtown Royal Australian Airforce Base, certainly didn't figure among the favourites when this, the third season in the A-League's fledgling history, kicked off in August. After all, although they reached the semi-finals in the previous finals series, their budget reflects the means of a club that hails from a city of less than 300,000 people and is dwarfed by previous champions Sydney FC and Adelaide United.
Yet, as it proved, only goal difference separated them from the Mariners at the end of the A-League's regular season, and despite faltering against their New South Wales rivals at the start of the finals series, a tactical masterstroke from coach Gary van Egmond set up yesterday's unlikely title triumph. Identifying that the Mariners' success rested largely on a steady, consistent supply to strikers John Aloisi and Sasho Petrovski, Van Egmond opted to ditch his usual 4-4-2 formation in favour of a three-man central defence and five-man midfield that stifled the Mariners and starved their front two of ammunition.
Newcastle duly dominated, and man of the match Andrew Durante, a key player at the heart of the Jets' defence, was in no doubt of the significance of this tactical switch. "I think the formation that we used today really affected them," he said of the Mariners. "Playing three at the back, we played the stoppers in front of them and they couldn't play the ball at their feet which is their strength. They didn't know how to cope with that tactic."
The Mariners did enjoy a late flurry, and might even have had a penalty, but any hopes they had of emulating Melbourne Victory's Premiership and league title double last season all but evaporated when Danny Vukovic was sent off as the clock ticked down. Coach Lawrie McKinna was gracious in defeat, admitting that his side had "no excuses" after slipping below their usual standards, while his Newcastle counterpart was left to look forward to a bright future for these one-time also-rans.
"We do have a young team and they are only going to get better," Van Egmond said of a squad that provided seven players to Pim Verbeek's recent Socceroo training camp. "Our buying and selling wasn't great this year, especially our overseas contingent, but our youth development has been top notch. We need to make sure that we keep the players who have done the job. Stability is the key."