Camden Tigers are the champions, and the crown of the Men’s State League competition has never found a more fitting owner.
There’s the easy way and there’s the hard way.
But there’s also the Camden way.
And after 120-minutes of enthralling football, after a season of setbacks and adversity, one suspects that Camden wouldn’t have it any other way.
But a night that would end in glory began in despair for Dean Bradley’s side as experienced striker Stephen Lloyd received a straight red card for an altercation with Bankstown defender Haruki Nakano after just 15 minutes.
Lloyd trudged off the field, dejection written on his face, as the realisation that his actions might have cost his team the Grand Final sunk in.
Emotions flared following Lloyd’s dismissal.
The Camden faithful appealed for every foul, begging for retribution.
Bankstown, meanwhile, sought to impose their numerical advantage on the game with crunching tackles and expansive football.
Dean Bradley shifted to a 4-4-1 after the sending off, leaving Jayden Russell alone up front.
Despite his isolation, Russell wreaked havoc in the Bankstown defence, beating players with exquisite skill and drawing several fouls – much to the delight of the Camden backline who welcomed each reprieve.
The tactical adjustment from Bradley was proving to be a stroke of genius as his side maintained defensive solidity but continually threatened Bankstown with blistering counter-attacks.
Claudio Canosa encouraged his team to maintain patience and spread the ball wide, looking to stretch the ten-men of Camden.
But Bankstown looked bewildered, and apart from a scuffed shot from Tom Markovski in the 33rd minute, did not trouble David Harris in the Camden goal.
The referee’s whistle brought a first half full of explosive emotion but void of goal-scoring opportunities to an end as both sides marched off the field – Camden undoubtedly happy with their stern defensive work and Bankstown frustrated by their inability to capitalise on their numerical advantage.
The second half began in complete contrast to the first.
Just two minutes into the second period, Camden shocked everyone in the ground when they took the lead.
Jayden Russell fired a shot from just inside the box that stung the palms of Bankstown keeper, Adam Biernat. The ball spilled out to the feet of Dean Mugridge who pounced on the chance to tap the ball home.
The Camden crowd erupted.
But their cheers would soon fall silent as Bankstown levelled the scores just minutes later.
Shannon Hankin collected a searching ball in between Blake Szumski and Mitchell Clarke in the Camden defence before squaring a pass to Tom Markovski. The dangerous Markovski danced his way past two defenders inside the box before sliding the ball into the corner of the net.
Suddenly, after a famine of action in the first half, the Grand Final had exploded into life inside early in the second period.
With both teams fighting so desperately for control of the ball, the midfield battle was proving vitally important for both teams.
But the centre of the park was dominated by the towering presence, literally and figuratively, of Camden’s captain, Callum Rogers. The midfield general led his team courageously, with merciless defensive work and astute attacking play.
Dean Bradley brought Bailey Simpson on midway through the second period and the winger’s blistering pace immediately troubled Bankstown’s defence.
In the 79th minute, Simpson collected the ball inside his own half, skipped past several weary challenges – leaving a trail of despairing Bankstown players in his wake. Simpson spotted the run of Russell who latched onto the ball, before cutting inside on his right foot and curling a shot which sailed agonisingly close to the top corner of the goals.
However, the Tigers’ defence began to tire, and it was Bankstown who began to enjoy the lion’s share of possession.
And their possession almost delivered the winning goal if it wasn’t for some desperate Camden defence, blocking multiple goal-bound efforts on the line.
With no team able to deliver a winning goal inside 90 minutes, both sides readied themselves for the tense drama of extra-time.
Camden, entering extra-time for the second week in a row, continued to attack bravely when the referee resumed play.
And they were rewarded for this positivity 12 minutes into the first half of extra-time when the referee awarded Camden a penalty.
All eyes fell on Jayden Russell as he stood confidently over the ball.
If there’s one player you want stepping up to take a crucial penalty in a Grand Final, it’s Mr. Reliable – Jayden Russell.
Russell approached the ball, engulfed in the jeers of the Bankstown fans behind the goal, and calmly sent the keeper the wrong way.
But just as they did earlier in the game, Bankstown looked to hit back immediately.
Two minutes later, Tom Markovski found himself in space on the edge of the box and tried an audacious chip over the Camden keeper. Lunging, David Harris got desperate fingertips to the ball, preventing it from nestling in the net and enabling a covering defender to clear off the line.
The extra-time period was a seesaw of emotions and chances as both sides fought relentlessly for a winning goal.
On the stroke of half time in extra-time, Bankstown won a corner and threw players forward. However Camden managed to scramble the ball clear and into the path of Christian Cevenini who looked up and saw nothing but green grass in front of him.
Cevenini streaked away towards the Bankstown goal as defenders hopelessly trailed behind. Showing his class and composure, Christian ‘the iceman’ Cevenini calmly slotted the ball past the despairing keeper.
Leading 3-1 with just 15 minutes to go, some Camden fans began to believe the Grand Final was won.
But, as Bankstown had done all night, they responded straight away.
A powerful header from an in swinging cross was saved at point-blank range from Harris, before a goalmouth scramble resulted in Tom Markovski poking the ball home.
3-2. Bankstown surged.
All the momentum was with Claudio Canosa’s side as Camden tried desperately to repel their incessant attacks.
But with just 5 minutes remaining, Camden would seal the Grand Final in spectacular fashion.
A Bankstown goal kick was won in the air by Camden, and the ball fell into the path of – you guessed it – Jayden Russell.
The striker – who had been the best player on the pitch all night – chased down the headed clearance as the ball raced towards the Bankstown keeper. Russell won the race, diving at the ball; he stabbed at it with his out-stretched toe as it dribbled delightfully into the empty net.
Russell raced away to the adoring Camden fans – who now dared to believe that the Championship trophy would be adorned in orange & black.
When the referee’s whistle blew for full-time, the contrasting emotions between the two teams told the whole story.
Camden embraced as one; a team of champions had become a champion team.
Bankstown collapsed onto the ground, unable to stand beneath the weight of regret and sorrow.
At the end of the match, Camden coach Dean Bradley praised his side’s character to win the game with only 10 men.
Bradley was also quick to highlight what a tremendous year it has been for his team – winning the Grand Final and Club Championship.
“It was all a dream”, said Bradley, channelling his inner Biggie Smalls.
“We set our targets at the beginning of the year to win both the Championship and Club Championship. I knew we had the team to do something special, and what we have achieved this season and tonight has been truly special,” exclaimed Bradley.
For Claudio Canosa, it was a disappointing night where his side failed to demonstrate the outstanding form they had displayed all season.
But as Tom Markovski spoke so graciously in defeat during the post-match presentation, he was quick to highlight the fact that this season must be counted as a success for a team who only joined together at the beginning of the season.
As Camden lifted the Championship trophy high into the night sky, to the cheers of their devoted fans, there was an overwhelming feeling of justice as the best team on the night prevailed in one of the most remarkable Grand Finals the Men’s State League has ever seen.
Bankstown United 2 (T. Markovski x 2)
Camden Tigers 4 (D. Mugridge, J. Russell x 2, C. Cevenini)
Bankstown United: M. Anwia, A. Biernat, J. Craig, C. Denkov, D. Hamilton, S. Hankin, M. Harrison, I. Iparraguirre, A. Kartsioulis, A. Lazarou, G. Magela, T. Markovski, J. Miladinovic, H. Nakano, J. Ninnes, S. Robertson
Camden Tigers: B. Brooker, C. Cevenini, M. Clarke, S. Doherty, M. Green, D. Harris, R. Hastie, S. Lloyd, D. Mugridge, N. Mugridge, M. O’Rourke, C. Rogers, J. Russell, M. Serone, B. Simpson, B. Szumski
Valentine Sports Park
Saturday 2nd September 2017
– By Ryan Latty