NRL triggers GF feelings for Wanderers
Western Sydney striker Mark Bridge still can't shake the utter deflation he felt when the Wanderers lost the A-League grand final to Central Coast.
Having already become the first expansion club in Australian sporting history to win silverware in their inaugural year, the Premier Plate-winning Wanderers were on their way to completing a fairytale that had seemed unimaginable just six months earlier.
But Bridge, who played the full 90 minutes that fateful April night, still remembers vividly how his heart sank inside the cauldron of Sydney's Allianz Stadium when the fulltime siren sounded to mark the Mariners' 2-0 championship victory.
"I don't know about the other boys but I still can't get over it," Bridge told AAP.
"Every time I think about it, like even watching the NRL grand final and seeing Manly lose, you just feel how bad that is."
Bridge is indulging the prospect of his team going one step further this season, starting with a grand final rematch away to the Mariners at Bluetongue Stadium on Saturday.
The 27-year-old became the club's unlikely success story last season when, after leaving Sydney FC where his "head just wasn't there", he scored the Wanderers' first goal in the fourth round against Brisbane Roar.
Bridge went on to become the A-League's sixth-highest goalscorer, notching 11 plus five assists in 26 appearances, including a hat-trick in their thumping of Adelaide in December.
It was enough for him to be awarded the Wanderers' inaugural player of the year and for coach Tony Popovic to decide in September to extend his contract until the end of 2016/17.
"I love it here. I feel like I've not only improved as a player but as a person as well," Bridge said.
"I think I've matured a lot over the last 12 months, and I'm learning every day which is what you want.
"Pretty much after we won it at Sydney (in 2009/10), a lot of things happened off the field within the club and away from the club ... and I wasn't doing the right things off the pitch which had been well written about.
"But I feel like I've grown up and I've fixed all those things."
With the off-season arrivals of Tomi Juric (from Adelaide United) and Brendon Santalab (from Chongqing Lifan, China), coupled with the proven flair and execution of attacking midfielders Youssouf Hersi (five goals, eight assists) and Shinji Ono (eight goals, three assists) in the mix, Bridge is hoping the goals will keep flowing.
"I'd like to say I'll score 30 goals but you've got to be realistic," he said.
"Yeah look, 11 goals was fantastic for me last year. If I can get that again, I'll be extremely happy but, as long as we're winning, I really don't care.
"I know everyone says it all the time but, really, if we go through undefeated and I don't score one goal, I couldn't care less."