Perth Glory battled Parramatta Power and torrential rain to take out the 28th and final NSL Grand Final at Parramatta Stadium by 1-0 this afternoon. The rain had come to Sydney earlier in the day but it started up in 'buckets' just after kick-off and ponded on the surface, making passing a bit of a lottery. Parramatta dominated sections of the game but Perth adapted well to the conditions. Despite Perth striker Damian Mori butchering two chances in regular time, it was he who supplied the ball for substitute Nick Mrdja to score 8 minutes into 'sudden-death' extra time.
For the first time in almost a decade a Sydney team played host, albeit with some debate on that score, to an NSL Grand Final. Most Grand Final's are memorable even if not for the best football. The 2003-2004 season however will also go down as the last of 28 and this Grand Final had it's own peculiar touch. A token and belated gesture was made to the rich history of the league with a group of former players and official acknowledged before kick off, and efforts made to engage the un-engaged Sydney public.
On the park both sides had reason to be confident - Power some class players, especially upfront with Milicic and Petrovski, and in midfield with Colosimo, Pondeljak and Elrich, playing at home on their ground of many wins this season, and a great record of outscoring Perth this year. For Glory last year's Grand Final was still fresh in their memories, the dynamic Mori/Despotovski duo, and a few hundred totally crazy travelling fans, all added to the anticipation.
The game started with Power out on the attack seeking a heart breaking early goal, and Glory ready to punish them. Jade North got up on the right countering Travis Dodd's speculator one-minute-in but generally they felt each other out as the rain fell. In the 7th minute Damian Mori hit a ground shot that skidded menacingly across the turf but was wide of Clint Bolton's at Parramatta's end. By the 11th minute the rain had turned into torrents, testing the ground's otherwise effective drainage system, and ponding so much that the short passing game of Power was staring to break down, and Perth's speedy breaks made problematic.
In the 13th minute crafty use of the conditions saw Bobby Despotovski up on the left, slip the ball inside to Mori whose weighted touch sent it skidding almost wrong footing an advancing Bolton. One minute later Ahmad Elrich got one of his few effective crosses in, but it was headed over the crossbar.
In the 22nd minute Jason Petkovic failed to hold a high ball but was quick to swing around and dispossess the lurking Power attacker as the ball splatted on the sodden ground. In the 25th minute former Power player Mark Byrnes swung his leg high to overhead kick a ball bound for Elrich speeding through.
The game looked close to being abandoned by the 28th minute as rain contined to fall and players fell about, sliding around, in the Power goalmouth with airswings and chaos. Although Perth had adjusted more quickly to the conditions, the game had swung back to Power as they abandoned their short passing game and used Simon Colosimo to drive balls forward.
In the 36th minute Tom Pondeljak carried the ball through the puddles, slipping it to Despotovski, thence to Mori whose shot wrong-footed Bolton but the Power keeper lying in the mud swung his legs to send the ball for a corner. Power tried another route, with the best chance of the half for Parramatta a curling 25m Ante Milicic strike that Petkovic covered as it cleared the bar. Glory had two late chances with a Byrnes header off a Despotovksi corner cleared for a corner, and Adrian Caceras racing in for a shot, which Bolton got down well to smother.
After the break the rain had eased and the drainage started to gain on the flood. In the 48th Travis Dodd swung a cross in to Ante Milicic who met it with a diving header only to see the greasy ball skew off and past the far right post. The 50th minute came and a great ball played by Colosimo to Elrich who had the firmer sidelines to patrol. He sped up the field and cut back a cross from the goal-line, finding Milicic whose header was just wide on the left.
One of the best chances of the game came in the 54th minute and it was Glory. Pondeljak rounded a static Paul O'Grady and got in a cross from the left to Caceres, who touched to ball onto Mori in a clear shooting position. The goal ace shocked the crowd by blasting it way over the crossbar! A minute later Power were at the other end with Sasho Petrovski running strongly with the ball but he was tackled by Jade North, and the ball then covered and cleared by a tracking back Pondeljak.
Colosimo again in the 57th minute, as play was end to end, with a great ball over to Elrich on the firm right but the cross was weak. As the ground drained the play closed down again and there was little in the way of real chances. In the 71st minute Caceres worked a chance for Mori, with a fine cross to the advancing striker but Bolton was quick to move a plucked the ball away from Mori's head.
In the 73rd minute Petrovski made a weaving run into the goal area but shot across goal, wide, on the right. In the 77th minute Jamie Harnwell put a through ball to the lurking Mori but Bolton was again quick to read the play and dashed to the edge of his area to take it out. Almost immediately Mori was brought down by Bolton just out side of his area but no free kick was assigend by referee Mark Shield who was having a very solid game.
Power Captain Alvin Ceccoli put an 81st minute free kick way over the crossbar from 30m, and then Petrovski hit one wide after taking a slight deflection. After that Perth seemed to gain the upper hand, winning a series of free kicks. In the 87th minute Bolton totally missed a ball, which bobbled around for a bit, but was cleared before he could be further embarassed. An 19st minute free kick in from Mrdja and players sprawled on the ground but no penalty, and so it was full-time. Sudden death, or golden goal extra time to be played in this the last Grand Final! We hoped that penalties would not need to be resorted to as both goal areas were very muddy.
Four minutes into extra time and Pondeljak hit a cross from the left to Mori on the right. It was intercepted by Peter Zorbas but as he reached the ball he slipped in the mud and the ball ran to Mori! Surley this was it for Power! No, Mori blasted the ball wide! Perth on the attack again four minutes later and Mrdja played the ball to the left to Mori, and as Mori was closed down he tucked the ball back to Mrdja following it up and he blasted the ball past a hapless Clint Bolton! 0-1, game! Pandemonium.
About 112 minutes of gripping stuff, at times almost farcical, the weather indedd being the great leveller. A Grand Final story to be told over the years, and we the true football fans of Australia reminisce on this last game of the NSL - 2707 players, 5829 games, and 16159 goals, on from that day on 2nd April 1977 when the national Phillips Soccer League commenced.