By Josh Parish
The resurrection is complete.
After two abject seasons, dwindling crowds, and supporter protests at training sessions, Melbourne Victory are back to their trophy-winning best, defeating Central Coast Mariners 2-1 at AAMI Park on Saturday night.
Of course, Project Popovic will not truly be deemed a success until the Victory lift an A-League Championship, but the FFA Cup – the club’s first piece of men’s silverware since 2018 – will do nicely for starters.
Fittingly, it was a Tony Popovic favourite – his ex-Perth Glory wingback Jason Davidson – who netted the crucial goal, curling a stunning 70th minute free kick from the edge of the box into the top corner.
Although a tentative first half barely lived up to the pre-game pyrotechnics, the game truly exploded to life in the second. The climax came in stoppage time, with substitute Chris Ikonomidis hitting a sumptuous half-volley into the far corner, and running straight into the baying north end crowd. The celebrations sparked a mini pitch invasion as active supporters were pushed – or intentionally vaulted – over the waist-high concrete barrier, knocking the electronic signage to the ground in the warm-up area behind the goal.
As stewards and police worked quickly to shepherd the fans back into the grandstand, the Mariners sprung forward and managed a last-minute reply. Captain Oli Bozanic – scorer of the opening goal for Victory in the 2015 cup final – instinctively flicked out at a bobbling ball in the box, catching it perfectly on the outside of his left boot and slicing it in off the post.
The goal was scant consolation for the Mariners, who’d been shorn of their star attraction before the squads were even named. Newly-arrived Scottish sensation Jason Cummings, after scoring on his Gosford debut, was ruled ineligible by Football Australia per competition rules, having been signed after Central Coast had already played their semi-final. The Mariners’ appeal – on the grounds that Victory had played their semi-final 11 days later, theoretically giving the home side an extra week to sign a new player – fell on deaf ears, and Cummings was forced to watch the action from the stands.
Hard-working, under-resourced and unfashionable, merely making the final is a symbol of the progress the Mariners have made, first under Alen Stajcic and continuing under Nick Montgomery. The loss will sting, no doubt, but after three consecutive wooden spoons between 2018 and 2020, the only way for this young group is up.
“The performance shows we can match it with the big boys,” reflected joint-Mark Viduka Medallist Kye Rowles post-match. Recently called up to the Socceroos squad, Rowles shared the best on ground award with Victory’s Jake Brimmer, and claimed the squad has fully bought into the culture that Montgomery is building.
The 2021 FFA Cup, perennially postponed, was for many months the tournament that seemed doomed to a pandemic-enforced abandonment. Now an anachronism – the federation which bares its name has long since rebranded – the trophy will henceforth be known as the ‘Australia Cup’, connecting the modern competition with the original tournament that was last won in 1968.
For Popovic and Victory, this is only the beginning. Not only will this trophy maintain their positive momentum towards an A-League title push, it grants a place in the playoffs for the Asian Champions League. On March 15th, they will travel to Japanese powerhouse Vissel Kobe for a place in the group stage.
“What an opportunity,” beamed Brimmer post-match, as the prospect of facing Andres Iniesta appeared to dawn on him.
“With the team we have this year, I think anything is possible.”