First against third, the finals have built to a crescendo pitting two of the best teams in the country against each other. It's a historic milestone, just the second time that the A-League Men has thrown up a derby Grand Final; Newcastle Jets' triumph over Central Coast Mariners in an F3 Derby decider in 2008 is the only other occasion when nemeses have collided on the final day of the season.
But football wasn't discovered in Australia in 2005. And just because Saturday's meeting at AAMI Park represents the first occasion that sides from Melbourne will meet to decide the A-League champions, it doesn't mean it's the first time that two teams from the the city have done so with a championship on the line. Teams from Melbourne, in fact, have met twice previously for the right to be declared the national champions of Australia.
The battle for Melbourne
We last had a Melbourne Derby to decide the national champions on the evening of May 16, 1998, when 16,000 fans packed into the since-demolished Olympic Park to watch South Melbourne's 2-1 win over expansion side Carlton SC in the 1997-98 National Soccer League Grand Final. It was a spirited contest, a show worthy of a decider, but, in hindsight, it was also staged on the fault lines of an intellectual battle that has come to define Australian football.
The scenes themselves were memorable. Hellas' contingent made up roughly three-quarters of the crowd, trumpets and drums combined with a sea of chanting to create a cacophony of noise, all of which was supplemented by a pre-game fireworks show. Europe's 'The Final Countdown' blasted out as the two teams entered the stadium and South ran through an AFL-style banner that on one side read "South 4 Life. We Believe. 3:16." And yes, there were flares aplenty.
"They were special games [against South] and going to Olympic Park ... that was where I fell in love with the world game," Carlton player and future Australia international Simon Colosimo recalled to ESPN. "Olympic Park brought back so many memories and to go out there and see it packed with so much passion from both sets of supporters."
Carlton founder and inaugural CEO Lou Sticca added: "It was a great occasion. Pure football. And for a club that had only just started, we really got under South's skin. We certainly made it feel like there was a real rival that had arrived."
Stars old and new
To examine the players who took the field that day is to get a history lesson in some of the biggest names in Australian football, a cross-section of established stars and a burgeoning golden generation. Luminaries such as Fausto De Amicis, Paul Trimboli, Goran Lozanovski, David Clarkson, Vaughan Coveny and John Anastasiadis featured for South, while the side in navy blue ran out Colosimo, David Cervinski, Andy Vlahos, Dean Anastasiadis, John Markovski, and Mark Bresciano. Vince Grella was also a member of that Carlton squad but didn't feature on Grand Final day.
Marshalling Carlton from the touchline was 37-year-old former Socceroos striker Eddie Krncevic, whose 23 goals with Anderlecht a decade before had made him the first Australian to win a Golden Boot award in a European league. Sticca had immediately zeroed in on the Geelong native to lead the side, comparing his capture to an A-Leagues side convincing Mark Viduka to become their coach.
"[Krncevic] was still probably good enough to play in the final," Colosimo joked. "I was only a young punk. There were half a dozen of us [youngsters]. We were young, green and in every training session, every match we were being tested.
"We were competing with the likes of Andrew Marth or Lubomir Lapsansky, or Jonesey [Markovski]. They're all fantastic characters but one thing they did know how to do was win football matches and drive things. Kreso [Kresimir Marusic], what a player he was, if he was in the A-League today he'd be on every poster in the country. The change room was a fascinating place. There was an unbelievable desire to succeed."
Across from Krncevic was 32-year-old Ange Postecoglou, competing for the first piece of silverware in a career that has now become laden with throphies. He was also seeking to lead his beloved Hellas to their first national title since he captained their 1991 triumph under the tutelage of Ferenc Puskas.
In Postecoglu's first season in 1996-97, he had come under significant scrutiny when South took just one win from their opening seven games, only for a round eight win over Marconi to cool his seat and augur a turnaround that saw the club end their campaign end in a Preliminary Final loss. The improvements continued as South's favourite son steered them to the 1997-98 premiership with a style of football his father, who had first take him to the club as a junior in 1975, "would enjoy watching."
"Ange was raw," John Anastasiadis recalled to ESPN. "He was young but you could tell he had the ideas of how he wanted the game to be played. His leadership skills were excellent even then. Where he is now is no surprise to me and I reckon there are bigger and better things coming for him.
"He has a style of football that's exciting and brings people to the ground but it all started from those days. He had a passion for coaching. And when you have passion you're destined to be successful."
A battle for the soul of Australian Football
Part of a broader, bitter debate surrounding the place of traditional migrant clubs in the NSL as the competition, in hindsight, circled the drain, South at the time were seeking to modernise and shake off external perceptions that they were simply a Greek enclave. Earlier in the decade, their spiritual home of Middle Park was bulldozed to make way for a new F1 track and, securing favourable terms from the state government, they moved into Lakeside Stadium in 1994. Investment in training and administrative facilities followed, as did a new name: The club briefly dropped Hellas for the "Lakers" moniker in the wake of an edict from Soccer Australia demanding clubs shed "all symbols of European nationalism."
Paced by John Anastasiadis' 11 goals, South led the league in scoring and lost on just four occasions; they started the season on a nine-game undefeated run, and won the Premiership by three points from Carlton. In his first season back in Australia after over 200 games with Greek side PAOK, Anastasiadis had spent the preseason training with Carlton only to fail to attract a contract offer and instead head to Lakeside.
"I felt that Carlton disrupted our world, for the better," Peter Filopoulos, then the CEO of South Melbourne, told ESPN. "I can't explain it, but Carlton dominated our boardroom and daily discussions at South Melbourne. How were we going to stop them? They were a good team. We wanted to make sure we were the leading club. We weren't going to let this club come in and take over the dominance of South Melbourne in the NSL."
Carlton entered the league that season and served, in many ways, as a prototype for the future A-League sides. Observing how his Brunswick Juventus and other traditionally migrant NSL clubs were shrinking, Sticca envisioned this new entity as a broad church, one not tied to any cultural group and that could attract fans from all over the city. Indeed, just over two decades on, Sticca believes Melbourne Victory's success validates the philosophical underpinnings of Carlton; it was simply that his baby was born seven years too early.
Effectively owned by the AFL team of the same name, Carlyon were fully professional right from birth, adopted the colours and home ground of the Bluebaggers, and featured an eclectic mix of young and new talent. The players were developed and signed from elsewhere, but Princes Park would become the ground where future Socceroos Colosimo, Grella, Bresciano, Josh Kennedy and Archie Thompson gained national recognition.
Defeating Perth Glory, another proto-A-League entity that actually survived to make the leap to the new era, 2-1 in their first NSL game thanks to goals from "Shovel" Cervinski and Danny Allsopp, Carlton would win 12 games that season and possess the league's stingiest defence -- conceding just 24 goals in 26 games.
"We probably, not threatened, but certainly made [South] feel like there was a real rival," said Sticca, who later played a pivotal role in founding Western United. "We were pretty bullish, I was pretty aggressive in those days, so I didn't hold back on where I thought we sat in the future of the game. We beat South 5-0 on the last day of the season."
Regardless of that win, South were still favourites heading into the Grand Final, and they led after just nine minutes when Trimboli broke quickly in transition. The 46-time Socceroos striker's resulting pass for Anastasiadis beat both he and defender Robert Trajkovski but found its way to De Amicis, who promptly cut it back for his teammate to poke home past Dean Anastasiadis, his brother, in the Carlton goal. Cue pandemonium, flares, and a 1-0 lead to Hellas.
"I didn't realise until after the game that I'd scored against my brother but I let my parents have that problem. I just scored," John Anastasiadis told ESPN.
"Of course, it has [come up since] and I'll always come out on top because we won."
Lozanovski almost broke the Carlton crossbar with a free kick from closer to the halfway than to the goal a minute later, with Trimboli just unable to bundle in the rebound.
"If Johnny A is playing and it's a big game, you know if you give him half a yard he's going to punish you," Colosimo said. "There is absolutely no doubt about that."
But Carlton made their way back into the contest, with Bresciano thundering a deflected shot into the South crossbar in the 26th minute and then just heading a Vlahos cross over the bar four minutes later. A potential hammer blow was avoided on the stroke of half-time when Anastasiadis failed to make proper contact on a Bill Damianos cross.
"South had been there, as a club, they had been there numerous times," Colosimo said. "They knew what it meant to play in a Grand Final. There was a lot of history in that space and we were lucky we had some wonderful leaders and we were able to stick to what we were trying to do, stick to the game plan, and work our way back into it."
The game plan worked and Carlton were level in the 78th minute. Collecting a Trajkovski cross with his back to goal, Bresciano laid the ball off to Marcus Stergiopoulos, who had only replaced Cervinski seconds earlier. With his first touch on the pitch, the defender, an earring dangling from his left ear, laced an effort beyond the wrong-footed Michael Petkovic in the South goal.
"I haven't forgotten [the goal], because every time you go near Marcus he tells everyone about it," Colosimo laughed. "The momentum was with us. It was an interesting sub because Marcus was a full-back.
"But he comes on, calm as, sends a little bender around a few players into the bottom corner and it's game on. There was a lot of belief in that team. We never played not to lose, we always played to win and that's what got us there."
The game already on a knife edge, the action somehow became even more frantic. The unmistakable sounds of desperation and anxiety emanated from the crowd as extra time loomed.
Then, a moment of controversy -- the type of incident that, if it happened today, would be slaved over in agonising detail across social media.
Was it a foul?
Gathering the ball in his own half in the 89th minute, Trimboli launched a long ball towards teammate Con Boutsianis -- who had replaced John Anastasiadis just moments earlier -- and defender Sean Douglas. As the ball arched back towards the earth, Douglas fell to the turf and Boutsianis advanced through on goal. "NO CALL" was the cry from the commentary as he strode forth and calmly chipped the charging keeper, Dean Anastasiadis.
Colosimo, having been unable to get back in time, immediately turned towards referee Eugene Brazzale, expecting the signal that the goal had been disallowed for a push on Douglas. But it never came.
"There's a lot of question marks around VAR," Colosimo grinned, 24 years on. "I would have loved to have VAR then, let me just put it that way."
"Yeah look, I mean ... there was no VAR then so we can't really say," John Anastasiadis chuckle. "I think it was a nice little nudge but it wasn't enough to warrant a free kick. It was too close to call and the referee made the right call."
Filopoulos agreed with John Anastasiadis, believing that Douglas stumbled. Slightly less diplomatic, Sticca believes Carlton were robbed and that, on another day, his side would have been crowned champions.
Play resumed under a haze of flare smoke with the score 2-1 and moments later it looked like Boutsianis had made it three when he turned in a Coveny cross at the back post -- only for this goal to be disallowed. Carlton streamed forward in response and Markovski won a free kick on the edge of the area, which Bresciano splayed wide with what turned out to be the last kick of the game.
South players rejoiced as Carlton's slumped to the turf. Fans invaded the pitch as the presentation stand was erected, swallowing former South player Paul Wade as he attempted to make his way over to take part in the presentation of the trophy to winning captain Trimboli. De Amicis was awarded the Joe Marston Medal as best afield.
"It was just great," reflected Anastasiadis, who is now an assistant at Western United. "For me personally, it was a magnificent feeling to make so many people happy."
Eventually, the party made its way back to Albert Park, with Postecoglou already planning what was next.
"I remember being back in the social club at Lakeside. Upstairs and downstairs were jam-packed," Filopoulos said.
"I managed to get an early scotch with Ange in the bar and I remember him looking at me and I said 'we've done it, big fella' and the first thing Ange said was, 'Let's celebrate tonight, but tomorrow morning we're getting back on the bike and we're going back again, back-to-back.'
"That's the sort of club we were."