Finals and NPL Cup now beckon deliciously, but Heidelberg’s blockbuster version of ‘Avengers: End Game’ – played out a week ago – should not slip quietly into anonymity. The game fizzed, rather than sizzled, but its place in club history is significant. Under glorious sunshine and with a backdrop of placid and picturesque Albert Park Lake, the Warriors finally scaled the summit of destiny and stepped into the promised land known as dynasty. This affair was not as spectacular as the previous seven weeks of sequels, but a formidable and emphatic 3-0 Heidelberg United triumph over old rival Hellas to be sure.
It’s a sporting axiom that championships are hard to win. But the premium for last Sunday’s season round 26 finale was so desperately imbalanced, with Heidelberg’s relentless drive into the history books measured against host South Melbourne’s tepid bid to halt further descent into uncomfortable mediocrity. Ultimately Heidelberg franked unchartered immortality, but it wasn’t always considered a no contest. Coach George Katsakis wore that pallid, hand-wringing demeanor in the days leading up the game.
And Lakeside has never been a terrific place to play good footy. Its open-ended design invites fluky winds off the bay or the lake. The breezes twist and turn and swerve abruptly and anything airborne either takes off like an aeroplane or hits an invisible brick wall.
The storied Greek derby rivalry is one thing, but Hellas also had an abundance of extra motivation on the day. The 60th birthday candles had been lit at the bubbly was on ice and so many remarkable South Melbourne identities from the past had been invited in to celebrate Hellas’ glorious history. Sadly, any semblance of South Melbourne’s once massive, boisterous supporter base was a notable absentee. Also AWOL was a Hellas team capable of providing a genuine, soul-stirring and epic battle as the race for the plate went down to the wire.
With Sean Ellis’ early go-ahead the margin, Hellas was gaining some traction deep into the first half. But the big stage always demands at least one big moment. Enter king of the corrugated abs, Tommy Cahill. Seemingly subdued deep right in a double-team corral, Cahill bullied a space between his tormentors with a right-left fend off of He-Man proportions, before powering through the gap and squaring perfectly for Alex Schiavo, who finished off in clinical fashion.
The final flourish was courtesy of Andrew Cartanos, who’s wonderful, late game, garbage time impatience turned a holding pattern into a yet another trademark bullseye, after he scooted away from heavy traffic and sliced a centimeter-perfect blast past the flailing Hellas keeper and inside the far post. It was an extravagant exclamation point on a slick and polished Heidelberg United performance and one most befitting the state’s most successful club in the modern era.
Both Schiavo and Cartanos were coming off injuries and surely still touch-and-go before the Hellas game, but is it not the indelible mark of this magnificent Warrior squad that regenerating and rejuvenating under extreme duress are taken as a given. I mean seriously, is there another NPL team in the nation capable of covering so seamlessly for absentees of the calibre of Pace, Petrie, Wilkins and Hall and sacrificing the naturally gifted attacking flair of Noon and Way for the more noble team cause?
The Hellas game was merely an historic celebration, a day a genuine sporting dynasty was franked and a chapter set aside in the history books. In 2017, the big successes were joyful and fresh. Last year success came with an outpouring of emotion and some relief in the knowledge that there was nothing illusionary about just how good this team is. The scenes post game at Lakeside last week were no less boisterous, but the feeling amongst the faithful suggested more adulation, appreciation and acknowledgement. They are who we thought they were: Champions.
South Melbourne were done and dusted at the half and the eventual win was as comfortable as any during the Warriors’ 16 points from a possible 18 run to overhaul Avondale’s Avengers (End Game, so to speak!). That run to claim a third consecutive Premiers Plate was so thoroughly from the Cardiac Kids playbook.
Eight of their last nine games on the road. Daunting. A mini choke at relegated Kingston City mid-July should have just about closed the crypt on 2019. Just a jump-start for this mob, though, and a mere five days later George Katsakis’ ‘Invincibles’ produced their best half of footy for the year to humiliate arch-rival Bentleigh Greens at its place. As Bentleigh imploded and Avondale got the big stage jitters, the Warriors thundered home like Black Knight in the 1984 Melbourne Cup. Yes, YouTube it, if you’re too young to recall.
We got three thrillers, including legitimate last-gasp heart-stoppers at Port Melbourne and Avondale. It is the way of the Warrior these days. If in doubt, expect the unexpected and always allow for the remarkable and miraculous. As they do, they simply found a way all along the journey.
We should be astonished at the sheer magnitude of the achievements of this team in this era, under ‘Kats’ and Jeff Olver, the heady excellence of seven titles and a stunning 94-18-25 record over their past 137 games in all competitions puts these guys in exalted company. They are Rolls Royce elite. They are beautiful. Extraordinary. Poised. Experienced. Skilled. Tough. And very, very good.
And so we move on to the Finals, and bloody Bentleigh Greens at Shark Park in Port Melbourne this Saturday. Another quest, another grand stage for this seemingly relentless machine. But I did so enjoy Energizer Bunny Adrian Zahra’s reflections after his MVP performance to help clinch the Hellas game and a permanent chapter in the history books.
“You don’t really know when you’re going to win another championship, let alone three in a row. So we’re going to enjoy it”, Zahra mused. “And eventually one day down the track we’ll look back and think that this was really, really good. Special.”
We all will, Adrian, we all will. Bet on it.
Roll on Saturday. Game on. Warrior Nation.