Only hours before Adelaide United’s match in Wellington kicked off on Saturday, I heard the sad news that Paul Couch, who’d been a wonderful player for Geelong in the VFL/AFL, had passed at the age of 51.
It may not be my first sport but I enjoy Aussie Rules – and support the Cats. Couch was part of the great teams of the late ‘80s and ‘90s – teams which thrilled but never managed to win a premiership despite reaching four grand finals.
Coincidentally, I’d been thinking about the Geelong narrative during the week. Before the drought-breaking premiership of 2007 it was somewhat different.
Optimism could grow quickly among the faithful when the Cats strung wins together and surged up the ladder.
But hard-bitten fans knew how important it was to “keep a lid on it”.
Aaah, the mythical lid.
It was famous enough to get a mention in Network Ten’s commentary of the 2007 AFL Grand Final.
A Paul Chapman goal had just extended Geelong’s lead over Port Adelaide to 41 points. Though it was still early in the second quarter, Tim Lane exclaimed: “A UFO was just spotted over Torquay. Apparently it’s the lid. It’s off!”
Anthony Hudson – a Geelong supporter – was having none of it: “Well, there is a long way to go in the match, Tim.”
And neither was I. Not until three quarter time, when Geelong had increased its lead to 90 points, did I relax and allow myself to enjoy the show.
If you think it’s ridiculous that it took me so long to accept that my team was going to win a one-sided game, it’s because you support another club.
Blowing what appeared to be match-winning leads was a Geelong specialty. Add in years of seeing exciting, high-scoring teams surge into finals series only to fall short – as many of the sides featuring Paul Couch did – and you learn to avoid being too hopeful. You keep a lid on it.
Just as my AFL club was creating a new history, my A- League club would raise fans’ expectations before falling at the final hurdles.
Indeed, in 2007, Adelaide United was in the middle of a five season run in which promise would continually turn into disappointment.
And I’m going to revisit that period. It’s not that I want to put other Reds fans through the pain; rather, given the current team’s outstanding form, I want to encourage them to keep that lid on.
Start with 2003/4, United’s first season and the National Soccer League’s last. On one of the greatest nights in the club’s history, a capacity crowd saw a dramatic semi-final against South Melbourne won by an extra time penalty (back in the days of the golden goal which meant the first score in extra time ended the match). It put the Reds within a win of the grand final but a week later they were on the receiving end of a 5-0 hammering in Perth.
United did win a major trophy in the A-League’s first season (2005/6) by finishing top of the ladder.
[We don’t have “minor premierships” in our sport. In most countries first place at the end of the season wins you the championship. With a nod to the love of finals in Australia, the championship goes to the team that wins the grand final but the team that finishes on top of the ladder wins the premiership.]
But the Reds couldn’t do the double. They lost a two-legged semi-final to Sydney FC and then a disappointing defeat at the hands of Central Coast meant they’d miss the new competition’s inaugural grand final.
The following season saw United finish 2nd on the ladder but this time the club would finally reach the decider. The match would be at Docklands Stadium against Melbourne Victory. It didn’t work out too well.
The Reds could have won an extraordinary treble in 2008/9 with another assault on the premiership and championship, and an against-the-odds run through the Asian Champions League taking them into its final.
But Japan’s Gamba Osaka was too strong in the ACL playoff. Then, in the A-League’s last round, the Reds needed to defeat Central Coast by at least two goals to clinch the premiership. They won by one.
The grand final was more heartbreaking than the one played two years earlier. After being reduced to 10 men by the early dismissal of Brazilian forward Cristiano, United produced an outstanding performance and perhaps deserved better than the eventual 1-0 loss.
So close to three trophies in a season but it ended with none.
Overall those early years were better than more recent ones. Still, United has played in four finals series since without reward.
Last season had been the most promising since 08/9. The Reds were early pacesetters and won the first edition of the knockout FFA Cup competition. But they faded in the second half of the A-League campaign and fell a game short of the grand final.
Now, suddenly, United is top of the ladder with five rounds to play. The undefeated run that has brought the team from bottom spot is one thing but the manner of victory in the last two weeks has been something else.
The match against (then-second-placed) Brisbane last week was supposed to be one of the toughest tests of the season. It didn’t play out that way and the Reds were worthy 3-0 winners. And yes, it got me wondering if increasing optimism will be shattered again.
If I was the only person thinking that a week ago, I’m not any more. After Saturday’s 4-0 win in Wellington, one fan Tweeted: “Ok AUFC. Unless you’re going to win it all please stop. Just don’t put us through it again.”
Ok AUFC. Unless you're going to win it all please stop. Just don't put us through it again.
— Rob Scriva (@rovingrob) March 5, 2016
And I’m sure many other United supporters feel that way.
Paul Marcuccitti’s soccer column is published in InDaily on Mondays. He is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.
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