By Patrick Brischetto (@PatBrischetto)
Last night’s Sydney Derby was a reward for the fans who have continued to walk through the darkness as others strayed from the path.
It was for the fans who were there during the glory days of the 2010s and watched helplessly as attendances tumbled and the magic formula the league had slipped through its fingers.
It was for the fans who tried to convince others that the game still had something special about it, but were let down by false dawns and caused others to look at them with derision and concern for their mental state.
The Sydney Derby has been symbolic of the turn the league has taken in recent times. Once a fixture that sold out stadiums and converted even diehard rugby league fans and journalists, it was sleepwalking into being ‘just another fixture’ and a promotional tool for the league to desperately claw at its former glories.
Whilst the tension was still there and the fans that remained did their best to bring a vibrant atmosphere, the magic was fading. The last derby of 2021-22 saw only 10,000 fans venture to Kogarah to watch two teams that would eventually miss the finals play in a fixture that was a shell of its former self.
It needed a spark, it needed something to reignite the passion, the intensity, the hate.
And boy did it get one, thanks to a 37 year-old Serbian.
The story of Milos Ninkovic doesn’t need much retelling. The once Sydney FC legend who had a dramatic and public falling out with club and coach, who was then welcomed with open arms to their eternal rivals in Western Sydney.
Both sides have lay blame at the feet of the other; Sydney boss Steve Corica claims Ninkovic told him that he only wanted to play “20-30 minutes a game”, whilst Ninkovic accused Sydney of forcing him to get citizenship before the season as a condition of being offered a new contract, something the Serbian says was not possible.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that bridges the size of the Harbour Bridge have been burnt, and Sydney fans had been planning their reception for their former favourite son. The tone was set when The Sydney Morning Herald reported that fans had requested to bring pigs heads and rats to Saturday’s clash to greet enemy number one
Whilst that never eventuated, Sydney’s active fans The Cove made their feelings more than clear. His jersey was lit on fire before their march to the stadium, and there was a striking tifo that read “LEGENDS ARE CHERISHED. TRAITORS’ LEGACIES WILL PERISH”.
Every Ninkovic touch of the ball was greeted with deafening boo’s, and every little mistake from the maestro was greeted with a roar of approval. It added another layer to a raucous atmosphere that also included thousands of travelling Wanderers fans in a sea of Red and Black behind one goal; though many missed the Remembrance Day ceremony and start of the game due to concerning and disappointing crowd control measures on the gates, once inside they created a wonderful soundtrack.
Despite this, the on-field action in the first half didn’t match the contest off of it. This match was in danger of once again fizzling out into disappointment.
But it came to life in the second half, and after Sydney had a couple chances after the break, the main man on and off the pitch had seven minutes to remember.
It was as if time stood still when Ninkovic waltzed into the Sydney box and latched onto a perfectly weighted pass from Sulejman Krpic, 34,000 people waited for the net to bulge, but it never did. Instead, indecision meant the ball got stuck under his feet and he could only fire a tame shot straight at Andrew Redmayne.
Sydney’s villain was threatening to be the same for his new team, but he made amends in the 70th minute when he laid the ball off to Kusini Yengi, who beat two Sydney defenders before firing a fierce shot into the roof of the Sydney net and sparked pandemonium in the away end.
The home fans may have been loudest during the week, but after that it was the travelling hordes of Wanderers fans who were in full voice as they helped their boys hope to an exhilarating derby win, their first in over 3,000 days at Moore Park.
And it was clear who their man of the moment was, as they serenaded Ninkovic when he was substituted in stoppage time, and once again after the match when he was paraded on the shoulders of a Wanderers coach.
Whilst the Wanderers were ultimate winners on the night, it was also a win for football, and for the fans who have been longing for a night like this. From the tifo to the traitor to the scenes after the goal, it was just like the derbies of days gone by.
In truth, the Ninkovic saga was just one element that made this game feel complete. The return to Sydney’s spiritual home Allianz Stadium after four long seasons away helped entice more fans to attend and made the atmosphere sound even better in person.
But another aspect is that we may just be seeing the long-awaited resurgence of the Western Sydney Wanderers. With the longest finals drought in the league, it’s no secret that times have been tough in the west with many fans losing patience with the club.
Under Marko Rudan though they look reborn and have a steely determination and toughness not seen since the days of Tony Popovic, and more importantly are rebuilding the bond between fans and players.
Of course it’s not perfect, their attack is still clunky and their wastefulness in front of goal could have proved costly on another day, but their 13 points after six games represents their best start to a season since 2013-14. With the likes of Yeni Ngbakoto, Oliver Bozanic and Tom Beadling still out or making their returns from injury, this Wanderers side could become stronger still.
As is the case in Sydney, as one team rises, the other looks set to fall. Pressure is mounting on Steve Corica with his side losing three of their first six games. After last season’s eighth placed finish, quiet conversations may be beginning in the corridors of power at Sydney FC.
Whilst Corica will point to an injury list that’s left him without his first-choice centre-back pairing for the whole season, Sydney’s defensive structure as a whole has been worrying, and they lacked urgency and fluidity when looking to chase the game on Saturday. Too much reliance is being placed at the feet of Robert Mak and Joe Lolley, and it’s leaving their strikers starved of the ball. He will certainly welcome the World Cup break for his injured stars to recover and to get back on the training pitch
Whether Rudan and the Wanderers will feel the same remains to be seen, but what is for certain is a thriving Wanderers is good for the league, as is a thriving Sydney Derby. And on that front, we got the perfect outcome on Saturday night.
Image credit: Matt King/Getty Images