Bob Jane Stadium Sunday 25 January 1998
If there was a quota for the use of the "Get Out of Jail" card, South Melbourne has exceeded it by tendering it in consecutive weeks.
If producing it for the injury-time penalty equaliser against cross-town rivals Melbourne Knights at Somers Street last weekend didn't strain the bonds of decency, its production this evening for an injury-time deflected winner against hapless Newcastle Breakers certainly did.
The ground announcer, and the radio station covering the game, marked down Goran Lozzanovski as scorer. To be true, it was his shot which was blasted towards goal with the home support baying their displeasure at the likely 1-1 scoreline, but it was surely Paul Trimboli's midriff which altered the direction of the ball after Breakers' keeper Brad Swanscott had already committed himself to the save. Experienced strikers like Trimboli know how deadly deflections can be, and it wasn't as if the ball struck Trimboli unawares - he had seemingly made a decision to intervene and his involvement was effective.
What was an unhappy crowd, turned instantly to one prepared to forgive South Melbourne players for their earlier inability to alter their short-passing game style, unsuited to this evening's conditions.
What had in previous games delighted Bob Jane supporters was the way David Clarkson, Billy Damianos, and Trimboli, together with their less central team-mates, took control of the ball, playing passes to feet and along the ground, tormenting their opponents until a vulnerable point was created and through which a dangerous rapier-strike would be launched. Within a few minutes of the game kicking-off, it was apparent that the surface water would place this at peril. But it seemed not to have registered in South players' minds, although almost all spectators, and certainly Newcastle, realised there would surely be spoils on which Newcastle could profit.
Not even with more rain falling were the home players promted to rethink.
Clayton Zane and Robert Ironside - two strong and tall players - were used as targets by Newcastle deciding to play the ball through air rather than water, and over twenty metres rather then five. Throughout, Zane was especially effective at holding a ball and awaiting support. Even when Newcastle went behind following Con Boutsianis' cross to the far post where Michael Curcija headed home just after the hour, it seemed Newcastle could still find something were South to proceed with its ground-passing game plan. And indeed they did, deservedly so, as never once did the visitors drop their heads, even under the pressure of their status as the least winning Ericsson Cup side.
With the alloted ninety minute period almost elaspsed, and the crowd's attention mostly on making a quick escape from the car-parks, and the players' on getting into warm showers, South made a hash of a defensive clearance. Tansel Baser, who otherwise had an excellent game - sometimes it takes a conscious effort to remember he is still one of South's young players with a solid career still to unfold - skied an attempted clearance. Fausto De Amicis - finally getting due recognition of his understated defensive competence and midfield creativity by getting his international call-up last week - likewise failed to clear as the ball returned to earth. It seemed there were others also culpable, but Newcastle players, by now smelling blood, committed to the ball, quickly had it switched to the left from where a cross was made to Zane, unmarked in the six-yard box, and from where he deftly equalised.
This was too much for the South supporters, who had feared such an event, and now had their hopes of leading the pack through the February break, cruelly dashed. Every South Melbourne coach knows there are several thousand other coaches - even if only in their own minds - sitting in the paid seats behind. None needs to justify themselves, as none - thankfully - will ever be provided the responsibility, but this never mitigates the harsh criticism now being volubly expressed and directed squarely at the man holding tenure.
But the melodrama had not yet concluded.
A South attack leading to 83rd minute substitute Vaughan Coveney's deadly low cross into the six-yard box had everyone, including Newcastle defenders, chasing it, and facing the full width of the goal. With any one of a bus-load of players from either side likely to smash it deliberately or accidentally over the line and into the net, the desperate toe-tips of Mathew Austin were first to reach it and knock it over the bar from close-in.
Newcastle got used to the idea that this may be their game after all, but within another minute, Lozzanovski's shot and Trimboli's deflection were enough to consign Newcastle to their unwanted record, and South to top place on the Ladder, as news had come through that Sydney United had lost.
In a post-script, as the joy of the South players departing the field was contrasted with the despair of those representing Newcastle, it was good to see the experienced Ironside in deep and close conversation with Swanscott, presumably consoling the young keeper, and letting him know that no-one would blame him for failing to stop the deflection.
But even in the midst of the smiles and the mutual congratulation, South and its fans knew a season cannot be based on such fortuitous breaks.