This whole thing started seven months ago when my mate Rich lent me a book called A Season With Verona by Tim Parks. On its own terms it is a wonderfully insightful book into Italian footballing culture but it also resonated with me on another level that relates directly to this blog. I really enjoyed sharing Park’s highly personal and detailed account of how a sports fan experiences the ups and downs of a single season. Like the hopes you carry into the start of the season for what lies ahead. The excitement and mystery surrounding new players or coaches. The characters in the crowd that sit around you during the game who share the experience. The highs, the lows, the wins, the losses, the injuries, the comebacks, the times where real life gets in the way. All of that stuff. So I unashamedly stole Parks’ template and decided to write about A Season With Brisbane Roar.
So for twenty-two blog entries, I shared my thoughts on the 2010/11 season of the Brisbane Roar in the A-League. I went to every single home game this season, bar one. I watched every away game live on TV. I had been a casual Roar fan for the past three years or so but I could rarely find anyone to go the games with me back then. Then all of a sudden, by chance, I ended up with four consistent companions who were regularly available to come to the games with me. My brother-in-law Dom, my mate Rich and his wife Jill and lastly my own wife Jen who became a big supporter in the past twelve months (yes!). This was critical to my seriously escalating fandom. Like the best things in life, watching sport works best as a shared experience.
Part of what initially made A Season With Verona relatable to me was the performance of the team that Parks was following. In 2002, Verona were minnows in the Italian Serie A and in the book they end up finishing fourth from bottom and getting relegated on the last day of the season. In the 2009/10 season for the Brisbane Roar, their former coach got sacked midway through the season for drink-driving on the way to training. Then twelve players left the club shortly afterwards, many openly criticizing the new coach Ange Postecoglou and his methods on the way out. The club finished 9th out of 10 teams. Although we had a promising start to the 2010/11 season when I began writing about the Roar, I fully expected that by the time Round 30 rolled around we would probably be languishing around mid-table at best.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had chosen to write about the club in their most remarkable year where they would go on an unprecedented run of undefeated games, experience a natural disaster that would see their stadium get submerged in flood water, only to recover a few weeks later to host their maiden grand final appearance in front of 50,000 fans. During their first home game against Sydney FC, a paltry crowd of 10,000 turned up to watch them play. Over the course of the season however, the club’s performance caught the eye of not just football fans around the country but casual sports followers in Brisbane who might traditionally follow League or Rugby. It was immensely gratifying to see the crowd figures swell from 10,000-15,000 in the regular season to consistently over 20,000 for their last four home games of the season.
The Grand Final was played at a sold out Suncorp Stadium against the Central Coast Mariners. This was the Roar’s first ever grand final appearance and it was the Mariner’s third appearance in the six year history of the competition. Neither side had been crowned as champions before. Jen, Dom, Rich, Jill, myself and five other friends had tickets for the game and had some of the best seats in the house. Middle terrace, close to the halfway line. The atmosphere in the ground was absolutely electric and I had been sick to my stomach with nerves since about an hour before kick off. We had had an incredible season but who knew what was in store for the final? We were going in as favourites but being on a 27-match unbeaten streak surely meant that the pressure would eventually have to take its toll. We were due for a loss. And the Mariners had pushed us to the absolute limit, drawing 2-2 and 3-3 in previous weeks.
The game was evenly contested from the outset with both sides having clear cut opportunities. From the opening minute of the game, Thomas Broich appeared to be through on goal but was incorrectly flagged offside by the linesman. It set the tempo for the match that followed which would be full of chances. A Mariners’ shot at goal from a corner was cleared off the line by captain Matt McKay who worked hard all game and played an absolute blinder. The Roar fired ten shots at goal by halftime. It became clear though that the Mariners’ 19 year old goalkeeper Matthew Ryan was playing the game of his life. He was blocking everything that came his way. The one shot that beat him rattled off the crossbar and stayed out. It was a tumultous struggle and after 90 minutes, the scores remained locked at nil-all.
By this point I was already emotionally drained from the excitement and tension. It felt like an absolute journey. A normal football game probably shouldn’t feel that long but this was different. Not least because when the game started, the sun was shining and it was an absolutely scorching late afternoon in Brisbane. Then on the stroke of halftime it started absolutely pissing down with rain. Then when the rain cleared in the second half, the sun began to set and there was a pinkish evening sky which was complimented by the orange haze drifting around the stadium which came from the flares being set off in The Den. Then the stadium lit up the floodlights for the night sky at Suncorp for extra time. That’s when disaster struck.
As extra time began, a groove settled in the game where Brisbane Roar pressed for the winner and the Mariners sat back and looked for opportunities to score on the counter. Eventually, one such break away for the Mariners resulted in a corner kick and in the ensuing scramble, Adam Kwaznik fired in a goal from close range to put them up 1-0. The Roar looked crestfallen with captain Matt McKay sinking to his knees. The Roar tried to rally but by pushing forward so much, it only helped to expose the tired legs in the backline. Once again, the Mariners lead a counter attack charge that saw Kwaznik fire a shot at goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos who could only parry it away. Oliver Bozanic reacted first and slotted home the second goal for the Mariners. 2-0 up in the Grand Final with only 15 minutes left.
I was absolutely crushed when the second goal went in. I knew in my heart of hearts that we had lost the game right there. I felt deflated, slumped in my seat, watching the perfect season go up in smoke. I couldn’t believe it. Their keeper had looked unstoppable all game and now they were up 2-0 and were going to steal the show. I wrote in a previous blog entry about my history of predominantly supporting teams that don’t have a history of winning championships. I tended to naturally gravitate to the underdogs. I should be used to this. In the Brisbane Roar however, I had become absolutely attached to this team and this incredible season. To see them bounce back from last season to where they were now. To come back from behind to stay undefeated all year against highly fancied opponents. It seemed bitterly unfair and a cruel blow to lose the final this way.
Ten minutes passed in the second half of extra time and although the Roar were doing their best, the scored hadn’t changed. It was all over.
Then something remarkable happened.
And that was how the 2010/11 season for the Brisbane Roar ended. With a hugely improbably fightback and a fairytale finish. It capped off The Perfect Season. 28 games undefeated. The Streak intact.
When Brisbane took that corner with 120 minutes on the clock and Erik Paartalu headed in the equalizing goal, I absolutely, categorically lost it. Although I was yelling, high-fiving and hugging with the other 50,000 people, mentally I just could not believe it. What are the chances that you’d experience your home team in a grand final making that kind of come back? I somehow managed to regain some modicum of composure for the penalty shootout. The whole stadium stood and watched, arm-in-arm. Theoklitos was peerless at this stage. He was full of banter and was telling the Mariners that he would keep their shots out. Previously, when the Mariners scored their second goal, you could see that one of their strikers Danny McBreen had some words to say to Theo. When Theoklitos swatted away McBreen’s penalty shot, you could see he had a few of his own in retaliation. Then Henrique stepped up to score the goal that would seal the game for the Roar and cover him in glory.
It’s been a remarkable season. Coach Ange Postecoglou put together an incredible squad virtually from scratch. He took a bench-warming Phoenix player, an ex-Greenock Morton player from Scotland, a rejected Norwich City goalkeeper, an obscure Costa Rican striker, a talented German journeyman, two defenders from a club that ceased to exist this season and brought them together to be the toast of the A-League competition delivering some of the best goals and passages of play that this competition has ever seen. I felt priveleged to have seen it happen and I’m glad I kept a personal record of the season as it unfolded. That grand final was truly something special.
I’ll end this already-too-long blog with a word from my favourite player of the season, Thomas Broich, who was asked his thoughts on the grand final match. He’s quoted as saying:
“The game was unreal…really crazy. This was quite the essence of football.
This is what football is all about.”
BRISBANE ROAR 2 CENTRAL COAST MARINERS 2
BRISBANE ROAR 4 CENTRAL COAST MARINERS 2
BRISBANE ROAR ARE THE 2010/11 CHAMPIONS OF THE A-LEAGUE