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The other intriguing grand final contest this weekend

Manton St Tales

A local underdog faces a grand final this weekend which could provide one of Australian sport’s great fairytale results, writes Paul Marcuccitti.

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As we all know, this weekend will see a massive grand final pitting two clubs from different states against each other.

But, at the beginning of the season, who could have guessed that this match would be played in the Adelaide foothills? Or that it might provide one of Australian sport’s great underdog triumphs? Not many of us, probably not even the players, coaches and administrators at Campbelltown City which is one of the two teams left in a race that began with 94 clubs.

If you’re not quite sure what I’m on about, I wouldn’t be too surprised. Semi-professional soccer in Australia tends to fly under the radar, even among fans of the sport.

Nevertheless, in recent years, two initiatives have given teams outside the A-League more exposure.

Of the two, the FFA Cup is the more romantic. It regularly has matches between semi-professional teams and the big boys. Occasionally the part-timers win.

While the National Premier Leagues (NPL), established in 2013, gets less press, it does give its winner something the FFA Cup can’t – the right to call itself a national champion.

Cynics might point out that, in practice, the only thing the NPL has done is provide an end-of-season playoff series for the premiers of each federation. A recent opinion piece by one of the more sensible members of our commentariat even asked what the point of the NPL was.

But if there was no point, we wouldn’t have seen such a display of unrestrained delight from Campbelltown’s players, officials and supporters on Saturday afternoon after Iain Fyfe’s last-minute penalty ensured victory over Sydney Olympic and clinched a spot in this Sunday’s NPL grand final.

Moreover, it continues a remarkable story. Campbelltown – a strong club in recent times but not traditionally one of the genuine aristocrats of the local competition – is enjoying the most successful period in its 55-year history.

The first half-century of the club’s existence nearly ended with just one major championship – a surprise title win in 1986 – and a couple of successes in the (knockout) Federation Cup.

Not bad for the relatively modest outfit in the shadow of Black Hill which once shared Stradbroke Road with market gardens.

It’s not that the Red Devils didn’t have good sides; just that they were often in the shadows of other local powers. Even when trophies headed east (as they often did) they wouldn’t make it as far as the foothills. Instead, they would fill the cabinets of the more storied Adelaide City or Adelaide Blue Eagles or, in more recent years, the nouveau riche North Eastern MetroStars.

And 2013, Joe Mullen’s first year coaching the club, looked like being the umpteenth season in which Campbelltown would be just short of challenging for the title (at best) or finishing around the middle of the table. But in the lead up to a 50th birthday gala evening which would complete a series of events celebrating the club’s anniversary, a small miracle was unfolding in the finals series.

Campbelltown went into the end of season playoffs from fourth on the ladder. Then an early exit was avoided when veteran goalkeeper Les Pogliacomi saved three penalties in a shootout against Adelaide Raiders. The following week saw the Red Devils level after extra time again but another successful shootout (against Cumberland) put them into a preliminary final against MetroStars which had finished the home-and-away season a mile in front of the field.

The underdogs scored the only goal of the game. And the fairy tale was completed the following week with Campbelltown recording a come-from-behind grand final victory over Blue Eagles.

Would the Red Devils fall back into the pack after the 2013 title (as they did after their only other top division championship in 1986)? Initially, the answer seemed to be yes – seventh in 2014 and sixth in 2015.

But 2016 would bring another triumph. A superb season would see Campbelltown enter the finals from second on the ladder. In the grand final, the Newton-based club would upset Adelaide City.

And, irrespective of what happens on Sunday, 2018 has been Campbelltown’s best ever season. For the first time, the club took out the premiership (for finishing top) and won the championship by again defeating Adelaide City in the grand final. The National Premier Leagues title would complete an unprecedented treble.

Not bad for the relatively modest outfit in the shadow of Black Hill which once shared Stradbroke Road with market gardens.

It isn’t a setting that anyone imagined would be hosting the biggest club match (outside the A-League) of 2018. And it may be some time before we see a National Premier Leagues grand final in South Australia again.

To be clear, to get to this point requires winning a state premiership before navigating an eight-team knockout series with the winners from the other federations. The Red Devils defeated Canberra FC and Sydney Olympic while their grand final opponent, Lions FC (of Queensland), eliminated Edgeworth Eagles (Northern New South Wales) and Heidelberg United (Victoria).

The Red Devils are the first SA club to host the NPL grand final and are trying to become the second Adelaide club to win it; MetroStars took out the competition’s second edition in 2014.

It won’t be easy – Lions FC won 23 of its 26 home-and-away matches this season and eliminating Heidelberg was no mean feat.

Campbelltown captain Iain Fyfe. Photo: Adam Butler/80kms photos

But Campbelltown also holds a few aces. It has recorded 12 wins and a draw from the 13 senior matches it has played on its home patch this year. And Joe Mullen, now a three-time championship winner as a coach, has added resilience to his already-capable team.

The Red Devils’ character was on display in Saturday’s match against Sydney Olympic. They were second-best in the opening 30 minutes and fortunate to be only one goal down. But with half-time approaching, some skilful play from winger Yohei Matsumoto teed up Marc Marino’s equaliser.

In the second half, without any obvious tactical change (with the possible exception that Matsumoto was given more freedom to leave his wing), Campbelltown rose. In a sport where we obsess over ability and systems, hard work and determination are often ignored. And the team in red produced a blue-collar performance.

Obviously there will be disappointment if Campbelltown falls short on Sunday but, whatever happens, the club has gone some way to reshaping the soccer landscape in South Australia.

The double already achieved in 2018 was, like most of Campbelltown’s titles, against expectations. It has also continued the changing narrative of the local competition. There was a time when it seemed we had massive clubs (Adelaide City and West Adelaide), big clubs (Adelaide Blue Eagles, White City, Adelaide Raiders and Croydon Kings) and everyone else who sparked less often.

But the massive clubs have been coming back to the field. Newer clubs, such as MetroStars, have given the old guard a shake; Adelaide Comets might do the same in coming years. Add to the mix Adelaide United’s youth team which can warehouse the state’s best-emerging talent. The league may never have been this competitive.

And there’s no question that the last six years have elevated Campbelltown; neither a new club or one of the old powers. This Sunday, eyes from all over the country will be watching a match at its home ground, Steve Woodcock Sports Centre. That is already a victory. A win over Lions FC would just make it more glorious.

Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist. Manton Street Tales – a regular column about the fortunes of Adelaide United – is published regularly during the A-League season.

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