Noth­ing But Blue Skies

Re­peat­ing in the A-League has proven dif­fi­cult for the best sides. Syd­ney FC might be the ex­cep­tion.



O n a crys­tal-clear night in May, 41,546 fans at Al­lianz Sta­dium held their col­lec­tive breath as Mi­los Ninkovic pre­pared to take the penalty that would se­cure the 201617 A-League Cham­pi­onship for Syd­ney FC.

Ear­lier, Syd­ney and the Mel­bourne Vic­tory had fought out one of the most phys­i­cal, foul-rid­dled and in­tense ti­tlede­ciders in re­cent mem­ory. Af­ter 120 mins of en­ergy-sap­ping foot­ball, the lot­tery of penal­ties would de­cide the grand fi­nal. The Vic­tory missed two penal­ties and with the shoot-out poised at 3-2, Ninkovic was stand­ing 11m from goal and had the crowd up on its feet, like he had done all sea­son.

For Syd­ney FC fans, see­ing their Ser­bian mid­field mae­stro have the chance to win the cham­pi­onship pro­vided the per­fect end­ing to an al­most per­fect sea­son. The moment to come was the cul­mi­na­tion of a record-break­ing A-League cam­paign the likes no one had seen be­fore. Syd­ney’s sea­son kicked off with a 4-0 thrash­ing of their bit­ter ri­vals, the West­ern Syd­ney Wan­der­ers, in front of a record crowd of more than 60,000 at ANZ Sta­dium. The re­sult in­spired an his­toric 19-game un­beaten run; iron­i­cally that win­ning record came to an end in their sea­son’s only loss ... to the Wan­der­ers.

On their way to win­ning the dou­ble, the Sky Blues broke the reg­u­lar-sea­son record for most wins, high­est goal dif­fer­ence, least goals con­ceded, most clean sheets, most points in a sea­son and big­gest win­ning mar­gin, a 17-point gap to sec­ond.

Only a week ear­lier, Ninkovic won the Johnny Warren Medal as the com­pe­ti­tion’s best player. The Ser­bian im­port’s nine goals and ten as­sists in key moments con­trib­uted greatly to Syd­ney FC’s his­tory-mak­ing sea­son.

So, when Ninkovic coolly struck home the win­ning penalty to se­cure the Sky Blues their first grand fi­nal in seven sea­sons, pan­de­mo­nium fol­lowed. So it’s no sur­prise the 32-year-old wants to keep that buzz alive ahead of the 2017-18 A-League cam­paign. “It was an un­be­liev­able moment,” he tells

In­side Sport. “Prob­a­bly one of the best in my ca­reer when I scored that goal. I just ran, I didn’t know where I was run­ning. I wanted to share this with our fans be­cause they were un­be­liev­able. For the 41,546 peo­ple who came to watch us, it was an un­be­liev­able feel­ing. But now I for­get that, as it is a new sea­son.

“But we want to feel this feel­ing again this year. Be­cause that feel­ing can drive

Men­tion­thosethree­word­stoGra­hamArnold,andthevet­er­an­bosshas­aprob­lem... Th­e­sea­sonedA-League­cam­paigner­is­look­ing­for­some­thing­big­gerand­bet­ter. ‘I don’t like us­ing the words back to back.'

you when it is tough and when things are dif­fi­cult. Be­cause we know how good last year was, when you’re win­ning all the time, the at­mos­phere is un­be­liev­able. That feel­ing can push us to be bet­ter than last year.”

You would think af­ter last sea­son’s cam­paign, the phrase “back-to-back” would be a buzz word for 2017-18. But men­tion those three words to Syd­ney FC’s coach, Gra­ham Arnold, and the vet­eran boss has a prob­lem. While it may sound like se­man­tics, the sea­soned A-League cam­paigner is look­ing for some­thing big­ger and bet­ter from Syd­ney this sea­son.

“I don’t like us­ing the words back to back,” he says. “I like us­ing the words ‘be­ing greater than what we were last year’.

“It’s a chal­lenge that has been put for­ward to the play­ers in­di­vid­u­ally and as a team, about be­ing greater in all as­pects of their per­for­mance than in the past.

“I don’t like to re­fer to last sea­son – it’s his­tory. Ob­vi­ously, we had a fan­tas­tic sea­son and we dom­i­nated the whole year. Now it’s a whole new ball game. The grand fi­nal tro­phy and pre­miers’ plate has gone back to FFA. We have the imi­ta­tion tro­phy at this moment at Al­lianz; we want to win back the real tro­phy. It’s about what is in front of us.”

The A-League off-sea­son has again been wit­ness to a busy trans­fer pe­riod, but un­like other teams Syd­ney has kept the nu­cleus of the side that won all be­fore them last sea­son. Arnold be­lieves that sta­bil­ity will al­low the team to reach new heights this year.

“I feel that we have a greater squad than what we had last sea­son in terms of in­di­vid­ual play­ers,” he says. “Af­ter three years at this club, the play­ers are fit­ter than they have ever been. The play­ers clearly un­der­stand what I want. I only brought in four or five new play­ers, so they’re the only ones who have had to gel into how we play, as opposed to 10 or 11 play­ers. It’s about get­ting the right peo­ple; get­ting the right characters who are des­per­ate to win ev­ery game.

“The tran­si­tion has been much smoother this pre-sea­son and up to now it has been out­stand­ing and we’re look­ing for­ward to the start of the com­pe­ti­tion.” H is­tory shows that go­ing back-toback is not an easy task in the A-League. Only the Bris­bane Roar has won con­sec­u­tive grand fi­nals, which it achieved in 2011 and 2012 un­der the lead­er­ship of cur­rent Soc­ceroos coach Ange Postecoglou.

Add to that: no club has fin­ished first on the A-League ta­ble and lifted the pre­miers’ plate two years in a row. But Syd­ney FC cap­tain Alex Brosque has his­tory in his sights once again.

“The stan­dards that we set last year were great, but win­ning the pre­mier­ship is so im­por­tant in the A-League,” he says. “There’s a rea­son no one has been able to do it twice in a row. So far that has been the mes­sage that Gra­ham Arnold is go­ing to use to drive us this year.

“Last year was about achiev­ing cer­tain goals and cer­tain tar­gets and want­ing to be­come a great team. This year is dif­fer­ent. Rather than try­ing to do all those things, it’s about main­tain­ing the same at­ti­tude. Our at­ti­tude was fan­tas­tic last year, but it’s al­ways dif­fi­cult to back up. So men­tally it’s go­ing to be about how strong we are and to make sure what hap­pened to Ade­laide United and so many other teams doesn’t hap­pen to us.”

Last sea­son’s grand fi­nal hero Ninkovic not only has eyes on what the club achieved last sea­son, he wants the tro­phy cab­i­net to be full by sea­son’s end.

“Per­son­ally, I don’t think we need to

prove or to show some­one that we are the best,” he says. “What we did last sea­son, it was un­be­liev­able; no­body had done any­thing like that in the A-League be­fore. But this year we just want to win ev­ery­thing. To win the FFA Cup, to win the pre­miers’ plate and the grand fi­nal, and we also have the Asian Cham­pi­ons League. We want to play some very good teams in Asia and to show them that we are very strong.

“We lost some key play­ers but it’s not too much. Most of the play­ers have stayed and we know each other. So, this year is go­ing to be much eas­ier than last year. If I want to com­pare last pre­sea­son at this time and to­day, we are much, much bet­ter at un­der­stand­ing each other than last sea­son.”

While Syd­ney has kept the nu­cleus of its squad, the club has lost two big per­son­al­i­ties in goal­keeper of the year Danny Vukovic, who moved over­seas, and right back Rhyan Grant, who suf­fered a ma­jor in­jury.

Ninkovic ad­mit­ted the club will feel the ab­sence of both play­ers for what they pro­duced on and off the field. “I feel very bad for Rhyan Grant, be­cause he’s a nice guy,” he says. “He’s a very im­por­tant player in the dress­ing room, he’s very strong men­tally and he will come back soon. He was the best right back in the league last sea­son. But we signed Luke Wilk­shire, who I know from when I played for Ser­bia against the Soc­ceroos in the 2010 World Cup.

“Then there is Vuka [Vukovic], who is a great guy and a great goal­keeper. He was the best goal­keeper last sea­son. Of course, he is a big loss for us. But our new goal­keeper, Andrew Red­mayne, is very good. When we played against Arse­nal he was un­be­liev­able."

Be­sides Grant and Vukovic, Syd­ney FC has also lost two wingers, with fan favourites Filip Holosko and Bernie Ibini de­part­ing in the off­sea­son to over­seas clubs. How­ever, Arnold looks to have made a shrewd piece of busi­ness in bring­ing in Pol­ish in­ter­na­tional winger Adrian Mierze­jew­ski.

Mierze­jew­ski has played for Poland 41 times and when he signed with Tur­key’s Trab­zon­spor in 2011-12 for €5.25m, it made him the most ex­pen­sive trans­fer in the his­tory of the Pol­ish League. With Cham­pi­ons League and Europa League ex­pe­ri­ence against teams such as In­ter Mi­lan and Ju­ven­tus, Arnold be­lieves Mierze­jew­ski will add some pol­ish to Syd­ney FC’s squad and along­side Ninkovic will pro­vide even greater at­tack­ing threats.

“He’s a top-qual­ity player, his pedi­gree and his CV says it all,” he says. “To have two of those kinds of play­ers in the one team shows the im­prove­ment that the

“All the play­ers have qual­ity… It’ s not like they won the league last sea­son and now, how to say it in English? ‘Their noses are high.'”

team still has in it.”

In the FFA Cup quar­ter-fi­nal win against Mel­bourne City, Mierze­jew­ski gave Syd­ney FC fans a taste of his skill on the ball, with his drib­bling skills and pass­ing range run­ning the City de­fence ragged. Af­ter just over a month with his new club, Mierze­jew­ski is im­pressed with the qual­ity of his team-mates and the fo­cus they have for the sea­son ahead.

“We are the best team in Australia,” he says con­fi­dently. “I am sur­prised when I watched the last Aus­tralian na­tional team game that there was not one player from Syd­ney FC there.

“All the play­ers have qual­ity. I can see the level and the stan­dards of train­ing here is re­ally high. It’s not like they won the league last sea­son and now, how to say it in English? ‘Their noses are high.’ They are still work­ing hard and want to be bet­ter.

“I’m just the new player, the rest have been train­ing to­gether for the last two or three years and last sea­son was proof that it was go­ing the right way.”

Mierze­jew­ski’s re­cent stint with Saudi Ara­bian club Al Nassr saw him fea­ture in the Asian Cham­pi­ons League and with Syd­ney en­ter­ing that com­pe­ti­tion in Fe­bru­ary, that ex­pe­ri­ence will be cru­cial.

When Syd­ney last played in the ACL in 2016, the club earned a fa­mous 2-1 vic­tory over Chi­nese Super League side Guangzhou Ever­grande, which was led by Brazil World Cup-win­ning coach Luis Felipe Sco­lari. The win helped the Sky Blues ad­vance past the group stage for the first time in their

his­tory. But in the next round, a freak lon­grange goal by Shan­dong Luneng knocked them out.

Dur­ing that time, Syd­ney’s A-League form suf­fered and it saw them miss out on the fi­nals in 2015-16. The sev­enth-placed fin­ish was Arnold’s worst-ever re­sult in his coach­ing ca­reer. Af­ter last sea­son’s suc­cess, it’s hard to be­lieve Arnold was un­der pres­sure at the be­gin­ning of last term. With Syd­ney playing in the ACL and A-League again this sea­son, the vet­eran cam­paigner ad­mit­ted some valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence has been gained.

“First and fore­most, I know that we have a group of play­ers who are more pre­pared for that,” Arnold says. “I don’t want to look back at what hap­pened in the past. Ob­vi­ously, I’ve learnt lessons from the past. It’s all about mov­ing for­ward.

“The most im­por­tant thing in the past for

“Did­we­playthekind­of­foot­ballthatBris­baneRoarplayed?No …Butin­termsof ac­tu­al­statis­tic­san­drecord­s­thenit’shard­to­gopast­whatwe­did.”

me has been the sched­ul­ing, which has been tough. But FFA has fixed that by mak­ing a much bet­ter draw for the A-League teams who are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the ACL and so there is a good break in be­tween the weeks, which gives you the op­por­tu­nity to be suc­cess­ful in both com­pe­ti­tions. We have a top-qual­ity squad that is hun­gry to do well in all com­pe­ti­tions.”

With Syd­ney break­ing so many records last sea­son, a de­bate be­gan as to who should be con­sid­ered the best team in the A-League. Bris­bane RoarŠholds theŠrecordŠfor the long­est un­beatenŠrun of any Aus­tralian foot­ball code, which stands at 36 league matches with­out de­feat. But if the Sky Blues win back-to-back cham­pi­onships, they will have won four A-League ti­tles and will over­take Vic­tory and Bris­bane Roar, who have three.

How­ever, Brosque feels the Sky Blues are forg­ing their own iden­tity. “To be hon­est, we as a team never com­pared our­selves to Bris­bane,” he says. “In my opinion, did we play the kind of foot­ball that Bris­bane Roar played? No. For me, the way that Bris­bane played in that year was prob­a­bly some of the best foot­ball that we’ve ever watched.

“But in terms of ac­tual statis­tics and records, then it’s hard to go past what we did last year. We’re just look­ing at it as be­ing our own thing and un­der­stand­ing that what we did was some­thing spe­cial and great and we want to be spo­ken about on our own terms.

“That will be some­thing that will drive us again. What we did last year was great and men­tally it was fan­tas­tic. But we’re go­ing to have to be bet­ter in ev­ery sin­gle way if we want to do it again.”

Keep­erDanny Vukovic is a big loss for Syd­ney FC, but An­drewRed­mayne [¦§¨©] is a handy re­place­ment.

Gra­ham Arnold has brought in Pol­ish in­ter­na­tional winger Adrian Mierze­jew­ski.

Mi­los Ninkovic closes in on glory in the 2017 grand fi­nal's penalty shoot­out. ‚ƒ„ ƒ…†‡ Ninkovic's team­mates close in on him in cel­e­bra­tion of a fa­mous Syd­ney FC ti­tle.

Syd­ney FC coach Gra­ham Arnold was alone at the top last sea­son.

David Car­ney and Syd­ney FC claimed an his­toric Asian Champs fi­nal win over Guangzhou Ever­grande, but their 2015-16 A League cam­paign [€‚ƒ„…] ran out of steam.

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