Driving to this game we passed a middle-aged couple in a Magna. He was wearing a Spirit shirt. She was studying the street directory, presumably trying to find Belmore. Readers familiar with the geography and society of Sydney will have no trouble imagining the challenge this trip set the Spirit couple. No wonder the Spirit supporters huddled together at one end of the pitch. Not for them the mingling common to other Sydney derbies.
Northern Spirit is the phenomenon of the season. Although hardly phenomenal on the pitch, their ability to regularly fill North Sydney Oval has given the Ericsson Cup a new profile in Sydney. Like the Kings and the Swans before them, they have managed to grab many of the vast uncommitted Sydney audience too snobby for Rugby League and too smart for Rugby. Spirit are not quite the non-ethnic triumph widely claimed - many of their fans at Belmore would have watched a lot more English football than Australian - but at least their support seems not as fickle as that of the Kings and Swans. Until the last few rounds, Spirit were playing some of the dullest football in the league, but the crowds kept coming.
Due to the queues outside, I missed the start of the game, arriving just in time to see the first of two Spirit goals from free kicks. The first goal resulted from some pretty awful defending, notably Brett Emerton's generous header. The second was simply a good free, finding Bilokapic at the far post, who put Slater in.
Things should have swung Olympic's way shortly after, when Mark Rudan was sent off for a professional foul on Emerton. There was a lot of Spirit complaining about this, presumably because Ante Juric was not marched for an earlier tackle on Slater. At least Juric made a token lunge at the ball. The ball was long gone when Rudan collared Emerton. More intriguing is Simon Micalleff's love of the red card. I've never seen any stats on this, but I'm sure I've seen him send as many guys off as the rest of the refs panel combined. Consistent or not, most refs wouldn't have marched Rudan or anyone else for that tackle.
Olympic dominated possession from then on, but the pattern of recent games was repeated, with endless pressure not producing goals. Cardozo capped a good period with a well-taken goal just before half time. After that it was frustration for the Olympic fans, Tome being the main culprit. In my report on the Adelaide City game, I think I accused Norman of being efficient. Time for a retraction. After Tome put wide a couple more free headers, Branko Culina agreed. Off came Norman, to be replaced for the second time in two games by - guess who? - Scott Baillie. I can see what Branko was thinking - big guy, good in the air, hungry for a game etc. But strikers need a few more attributes than that. Scott, reliable and experienced stopper, was completely anonymous at the other end of the pitch. And Adrian Cervinsky was sitting on the bench.
Fortunately Pablo Cardozo continued to build his goal a game average. Pablo can t do it all on his own, but he made a pretty good stab at it. He had a goal disallowed early in the second half. Micallef ensured that both sets of fans were on his case by pulling play back for a free kick well outside the area. Eventually he gave a penalty for a foul on Carlos Gonzales, which Cardozo converted.
This set up a frantic last ten minutes, with Olympic getting agonisingly close and Spirit staging occasional raids on the break. Robert Enes had earlier made it 3-1 to Spirit with a goal on the break, helped by Kresimir Marusic. In years of following Olympic, I've often reflected that regardless of different coaches and players, they hardly ever score this type of goal. I'm happy to listen to any explanation of this peculiar fact. Seeing other teams do it only increases the frustration.
The print journos raved about the game the following day. As it happened, my party included an occasional Swans fan, seeing his first NSL game. As the game could hardly be beaten for entertainment value, he was most impressed. For myself, being beaten by a 10-man North Shore outfit was not exactly a satisfactory result. Hopefully the Magna couple is still trying to find their way home.