Cometh the ninety-fifth minute of the game, cometh the underused substitute.
Now cast your minds back to around 8.20pm on Friday night. Down 2-0 at the break, without a goal in three and a half games. Not only was any shot at second place slipping away but the momentum tank leading into the playoffs was about as empty as morale in the city of Perth these days. And then the fun started.
To be fair, the first half wasn’t even that bad. After Isaka Cernac slipped in Nick Fitzgerald for the first goal (slack defending, first Fenton playing him on, then no-one tracking him, then no-one reacting), the Nix had several good chances to tie things up. They just couldn’t find a finish, as keeps being the case. So much of that has to be down to confidence, you overthink things when the goals aren’t flowing, try a little too hard. And to be honest, for all their many qualities, neither Roy Krishna nor Bursny are especially great finishers, despite their 22 goals between them. This is always gonna be a team that works for its goals.
For some reason, Central Coast turned up to play. They did well in possession for the first 45, and had their bit of luck too. How the hell that second goal snuck through under the wall and under Glen Moss is a mystery. It honestly felt like it wasn’t gonna be our day, our week or our month. (Or even our yeeeeear...)
But Kenny’ll be there for you. When the rain starts to fall. Like he’s been there before.
First though, it was Roly’s turn. So often the brightest spark of energy going forward during the Phoenix’s dry spell, he finally broke the deadlock in the 65th with a fine finish. The way he rolled onto the ball with his first touch was sublime, the second was perfectly placed in the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Not the hardest hit shot, it didn’t have to be.
Typically, that’s all it took. One puncture and the floodgates crumbled. CCM suddenly looked like a team fighting off the wooden spoon, the Nix like championship contenders. We rolled ‘em, matey. 24 shots to 9. A corner count of 9 to 3, a cross count of 25 to 16. The Mariners had more passes and nearly even possession on account of the lazy first half, but the final 25-30 minutes it was an epidemic of yellow fever.
Soon after the first goal, Kenny finished off a nice, direct move as Roly’s attempted return pass was deflected into his path. Kenny Cunny slipping it home. This would have been a point well-earned given the hole they dug themselves, but a win would mean so much more. And as it looked like an elusive winner may be a little too much to ask with Central Coast really digging in the heels, up popped Kenny once more.
Having Siggy back matters. In fact, with the exception of left back (Fenton started in place of Muscat here), it looks like we have a clear starting XI. We have a great goalkeeper, a damn fine centre back pairing, a midfield anchor in Riera, and form attacking options in Roly & Burnsy. The spine is in place, and suddenly now our bench looks full of depth. All that we needed were the results to start reflecting the talent.
What a win. What a huge boost heading into the playoffs. Exactly what we needed.
Who Are Ya? Kenny Cunningham, we’ve missed ya buddy. 7 goals in 21 games last season, Kenny was a key player. But this season he’s made just a single start, with 14 more games off the bench. It’s gotta be tough waiting on the bench for your chance, and even tougher to so coolly take that chance when it came despite all the pressure. Beautiful. And a secondary shout out to Peter O’Leary, the referee, who was calling his final game before retiring. Cheers for the extra 38 seconds of injury time, fella. Not that it wasn’t justified, but not every ref bothers making up lost time.
Nek Week the Nix close out their regular season at home to Sydney FC. The Victory have all but sealed top spot, and the only team that can catch them is Sydney anyway (they’ll need to overturn a three point & 7 goal difference deficit), so forget about that. But with Sydney just a point up on the Nix (they beat Newcastle 4-3 on Friday night), this game is a straight playoff for second place. Which is huge. Huge because a second place finish means a bye through the first round and effectively an automatic place in the semis. A loss to Sydney at Westpac (Sunday 5pm) and we could drop to fifth (which is effectively fourth, cheers Perth). A draw and it’s guaranteed third seed in the playoffs. A win and the Nix finish second. We’re getting a home playoff game either way though folks. Fire up.