Melbourne Victory's experience the difference in controversial Grand Final vs. Newcastle Jets
Fairy tales don't always end in expected ways. That was certainly the case for the Newcastle Jets and their supporters, as Melbourne Victory delated the home faithful with a 1-0 win in the A-League Grand Final on Saturday evening.
Newcastle hosted the Grand Final courtesy of being the highest-ranked team to qualify for the season decider. The regional city had been on an incredible high all week, creating the best atmosphere seen at an A-League game in a long time -- which was an unexpected boost for the competition, which, until recent weeks, had fallen flat.
Often, though, there is no amount of home support or team spirit that can overcome a winning culture. That proved to be the difference for Melbourne Victory.
Indeed, the Victory are stocked with winners: Besart Berisha, James Troisi, Leigh Broxham and Carl Valeri, to name a few. These players have untold big-game experience and have the ability to turn even the ugliest performance into a triumph.
The Victory now have four championship trophies in their silverware cabinet, more than any other A-League club, and they show no sign of slowing down.
However, on this occasion, the winner certainly came from controversial circumstances. A couple of Victory players were clearly standing in an offside position as Leroy George whipped in his free kick from the left touchline in the ninth minute. One of those players, James Donachie, nodded back across the face of goal, and Kosta Barbarouses then forced home the earliest goal in Grand Final history in the ensuing goalmouth scramble.
The goal should not have stood. And so, in a season that was already going to be remembered for controversial VAR decisions, it turned out to be a fitting finale.
From that moment on, the game was one-way traffic. Newcastle dominated possession, throughout the first half in particular, and created gilt-edged chances for Roy O'Donovan, Riley McGree and Jason Hoffman. They were all denied by Melbourne shot-stopper Lawrence Thomas.
There was simply no way the Victory were going to be denied. Every attempt to overrun them by the Jets was thwarted with relative ease.
It was the perfect example of a side knowing how to execute in order to win, a point that four-time A-League champion Berisha made after the match.
"We were tested," he explained. "We had [the most] difficult moments you can expect in football this season. I've personally been in many good teams; this year we had a team with a great mentality. We stick together, we believed and this is why we deserve this more than ever.
"To be honest, after [beating] Adelaide [two weeks ago], I could feel it going on in the group, this belief that we went through this season and such a tough time, but the boys keep getting up.
"That is magical, because if you have a team like that who can produce that after a difficult season like this, you can win anything.
"We used that motivation to come here and own this trophy. I believe all the boys before this week were feeling good. We have this momentum going on, and I had a good feeling."
Though there were tough times for the Victory throughout the season, including speculation coach Kevin Muscat would be sacked midway through the campaign with results not going their way, it's nothing compared to the turnaround made by the Jets.
Last season, Newcastle finished rock bottom. Very few would have predicted the club could, within the space of 12 months, go on to finish second in the regular season, host a Grand Final and qualify for the AFC Champions League. But the fairy tale ended abruptly. In an ugly, controversial way, the Jets simply succumbed to a more seasoned side.
In the arm-wrestle that was the 2018 Grand Final, that ability to eke out a result was exemplified by Thomas. Despite ending the game with his face heavily bandaged -- partially from a high foot from O'Donovan, which resulted in a red card in second-half injury time -- the Victory goalkeeper was utterly impervious.
Winning is in the very DNA of Melbourne Victory. It is at the club's core. They may experience turbulence at times, but there is a prevailing sense that they are never far from another title. They have, quite simply, set a benchmark for winning that the rest of the league may never reach.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks