It was an incredible night in Parramatta, something that was never expected and surely will never be repeated: a 6-1 victory to the Central Coast Mariners in the A-League Men grand final.
There was perhaps one moment where it could have turned. Samuel Silvera looked comfortable as he received the ball from Jason Cummings in the 34th minute at CommBank Stadium, his side ahead 1-0, almost as if the world was slowing down for him. He had started the game on the right and not looked comfortable, nervous even, with loose touches, errors and turnovers uncharacteristic of his season.
Perhaps recognising this, Mariners boss Nick Montgomery, who was denied coach of the year honours earlier in the week based on a technicality, had switched him with Béni Nkololo just over 10 minutes prior and been immediately rewarded when the French winger broke down the right and set Cummings up, on his second attempt, to fire past Tom Glover in the City goal.
A lead secured and nerves settled, the Mariners began to rise like a tide, lifted by the wave of yellow and blue-clad supporters at their end of the ground. Conversely, City – the three-time defending premiers seeking to establish themselves amongst the pantheon of the greatest sides in Australian football history – looked off the pace in the final third. Marco Tilio, one of the brightest stars in the league, was finding space, only to send his efforts tamely at keeper Danny Vukovic.
“It looked like they wanted to win the game more than us,” said City coach Rado Vidošić. “They outplayed us in the first half. They bullied us. They won every 50-50 ball. Even the smallest players, they were unbelievably committed. We just maybe thought someone else was going to do it for me, and it didn’t happen.”
And now Silvera was on the ball, looking up and seeing only Nuno Reis, a centre-back shifted over to the right and instructed to stay home as Bos sprung forward in attack on the opposite side, in his way. Decision made, a sudden burst of pace, and he was beyond him, driving into the penalty area and driving a shot into the bottom corner of the net to make it 2-0 to the Mariners.
City responded – you knew they would, they’re too good not to – and pegged one back with five minutes remaining in the first half when Jamie Maclaren dragged a cutback to Richard van der Venne to hammer into the net. But thanks to Silvera, the Mariners had that two-goal buffer. At half-time, club chief executive Shaun Mielekamp tweeted out a single word, part affirmation, part prayer, and part theft of intellectual property from the writers of Ted Lasso: “Believe!”
Ten minutes into the second half, Andrew Nabbout slid a ball through for Van der Venne to send past Vukovic but not past the rapid rearguard action of Nectarios Triantis. City was pressing, but the Mariners, in the best way possible, were desperate in their defending.
And then potentially the most remarkable half-an-hour in Australian football history occurred: a City collapse almost as epic as the tale woven by the Mariners.
In the 65th minute, Silvera turned his man and played through Cummings, who was tackled. Substitute Jacob Farrell lunged for the ball and was felled by Nabbout. Penalty to the Mariners, penalty for Cummings, and 3-1 with 25 to go.
Then there was another penalty, this time for a handball on Callum Talbot. Up stepped Cummings and again the ball found the net. Four-one, a hat-trick and the record for the most goals in a single Mariners season for the Scotland-born Socceroo – who has confirmed it was his last game for the Mariners before heading overseas. “Everyone knows how much this club means to me,” he said post-game. “Dundee let me go and [Montgomery] and the Mariners gave me the opportunity. The last year and a half has been a dream come true. I need to enjoy the moment now.”
It was a humiliating collapse from a City side that has now been to four straight grand finals and lost three, and it became a rout when Silvera delivered a trivela onto the head of N’Kololo to make it 5-1. It was an open-hand slap from the league’s smallest team, one whose uneven training pitch is prone to flooding and whose gym is a converted shipping container, to the ALM’s outpost of the City Football Group.
And then, just because they could, they added a sixth through Moresche. As for the celebrations to come? Cummings gave a hint: “You ever seen the film Project X?”