Simply, the day had to come. And as the echoes of adulation and applause die away, we know that Heidelberg United Alexander will never be the same again. I’d hoped that the NPL Cup series would be something of a farewell tour, but Perth’s gutsy win left me sick in the guts and a little red-eyed. This remarkable team, this wonderful time and this golden era is coming to its end.

No more miracles. No rabbits from hats. No hats to pull them from. Kats and Jeff could have re-loaded, re-booted, re-wired or re-jigged, but the end had to come sometime, and time of death was finally called at around 7:00 pm last Sunday, in twilight, as the sun set on a remarkable era. Glorious while it lasted, but there was no railing against that last fading light at Port Melbourne. And with that, the curtain falls on something magnificent.

Perth were younger, hungrier and flying. It meant plenty. At the final whistle they flew off the bench like Olympic sprinters and the entire victorious WA contingent hugged and danced like Titanic survivors. This meant something. Heidelberg, on the road and across the Nullarbor. It’s a huge win for them, just as it has been us in the cross hairs for the better part of three years. NPL teams of all shapes and sizes have come at Heidelberg during this reign of unprecedented success. The Warriors have walked with massive targets on their backs. Other clubs pencil us in as THE game to win and can’t wait to have a shot. But, to paraphrase the words of Johnny Rotten, you might all hate us, but we hated you first. Oh, and stop by for a peek at our trophy cabinets.

Unwanted wood and one insane, eye-rolling offside no-call were key conspirators in ensuring no last late show for this legendary generation of Cardiac Kids. Worse still, there was no next week to look forward to or to atone, perhaps not even a next season. There were a misty-eyes on Sunday evening. Nobody was bold enough to say as much out loud, but this golden era had to end at some point and I reckon last Sunday was the final stop on the journey. The final defeat and a melancholic weariness.

Huge respect to Rueben Way for his flying the flag effort to the bitter end against Perth. Watch the final ten or so minutes again and Way was massive, fighting and clawing like a cornered leopard at both ends of the paddock. Les Doumbalis was magnificent from start to finish. As always, Luke Byles desperately tried to lift his teammates, but it simply wasn’t to be. Too much, too few.

Would it have mattered? Could we have limped through a road trip to Wollongong – still minus Harry, Lewis and Jack – and dragged the finale out? Did it matter? Instinct got them close against Perth, but these blokes are tired and they’ve done enough. Sure, the faces were familiar, but they were cooked, baked and played like tired faded facsimiles of the heroes of mighty deeds done. The physical and psychological burden of this team’s unprecedented run of dominance has taken its toll, seeing off fresher, hungrier and often younger challengers – being hunted – on a weekly basis. “I’m spent, I’m tired and I’m done”, said one veteran.

If the defeat stung us – and it always does – spare a thought for Steven Pace. This was it. He’ll have no redress. That loss was it. For good. Hindsight is wonderful and even though Pacey announced his retirement after the Perth game, I reckon the beginning of the end – for both player and team – commenced stealthily back in late July. Heidelberg’s unlikely tilt at the Premiers Plate stayed alive with a 3-2 win at Dandenong City, but it was also the night Pace’s shoulder popped out once and probably dashed any thoughts he might go around again. The outpouring of love and admiration for Pace on social media this week was no less felt by his Warrior teammates. Sensing Pace’s footballing mortality and appreciating the immediacy, this was the clarion call which rallied the boys for that breathtaking run for a third consecutive Premier’s Plate. And I think that final stunning sprint to the league championship unexpectedly simply drained the tank dry.

Change, rejuvenation and regeneration are footy club inevitability. But few will argue that the loss of Pace is, indeed, the neon signpost marking the era’s end. Pace is a figurehead, a leader, the type you construct a team around. His loss will leave a significant emotional void. Others will go too. Maybe another big name, maybe more. And where do the likes of a hugely underused Tom Cahill – last season’s top scorer – and Chris Theodoridis now fit in the scheme of things? As always, Katsakis plays it very close to his chest about the blueprint going forward. But that’s next year, and right now next year feels a very long way away.

The journey, they say, is the reward. So, as we close the books on the past three seasons, it is worth recording that Heidelberg United’s journey has been a something of a fairytale. The silverware was the bounty, but amongst the 94 wins over the past four seasons came games and goals and days when we felt like kings of the world, when the adrenaline coursed through the veins, the fists pumped and simply nothing on earth provided more sheer joy than these blokes. For every bleak Sunday like the Perth game, we had the second half on the road at Bentleigh, or the stunner to win the plate at Avondale. Days priceless and incomparable. Speaking of Avondale, I’d say spare a thought for them, or rather, aren’t we fortunate not to be them? We’ve won riches beyond our wildest dreams in recent years. Avondale have coughed up two grand finals and a premiership in a little over twelve months. We’ve been more blessed than most.

We’ve not passed the baton to another contender. And there’s nothing to say that the next steps, the next generation, the next era, won’t be as lustrous and sparkling. Hey, this is Heidelberg United, and we do brilliant bloody well. We’ve been witness to the most successful Heidelberg United-Alexander era of all time. Period. Celebrate it. Appreciate it. Savor it. Cherish it. As we may never see the likes of it again. Be grateful that we saw such greatness at all. Just say thanks. Thanks boys. Warrior legends.


FOOTNOTE – It is one of the most iconic and understated last lines in movie history, spoken by Farmer Hoggett in the 1995 film, ‘Babe’. The plot is irrelevant, except to say Babe the Pig delivers the extraordinary in a sheep dog trial and the gruff but grateful Hoggett looks down at Babe, all misty-eyed, and says simply: “That’ll do pig, that’ll do”.