The following is an excerpt from Football Central’s upcoming book which profiles and studies the most influential clubs in Australian football history. One of those clubs is Sydney United, and this passage tells the story of their season fighting for silverware in 1988.
In 1988, a strong Sydney Croatia outfit, including nineteen year old Craig Foster, finished a tightly contested season in second place. Remarkably, they were one of three teams to finish on thirty four points, alongside Wollongong City in first and South Melbourne in third. Goal difference proved decisive. Marconi occupied fourth place, just two points off the top of the table.
Croatia navigated their way past South Melbourne in the qualifying semi-final, and then defeated Wollongong on penalties to reach their first NSL Grand Final.
It was to be played against fierce local rivals, Marconi, whose home stadium (Bossley Park) sits only a kilometer north of Croatia’s Edensor Park. Marconi were undefeated in the finals series after consecutive victories against Sydney Olympic, South Melbourne and Wollongong City.
For Marconi, former Socceroos captain Tony Henderson would be playing his last professional appearance before retiring. Like Henderson, fourteen other past or present Socceroos would be gracing a sold out Parramatta Stadium, with 17,000 passionate fans in attendance.
This monumental clash came towards the end of Robbie Slater’s Sydney Croatia career. Afterwards, he would fly off to play in the 1988 South Korean Olympics, return to play for Sydney momentarily and then begin his extensive career in Europe.
Slater describes the occasion, “It was a huge game for the club.”
“It wasn’t a mainstream event, certainly not what [a Grand Final] is today, which is stating the obvious… but it was a big crowd in those days, and bloody hell, there was a lot of noise, I can remember that.”
Marconi were one of the league’s best run sides, with world-class facilities and a steady stream of revenue. They were coached by the equally well organised Berti Mariani, and would present a major threat to Sydney’s title challenge.
Sydney Croatia, at this time, were led by player-coach and former Yugoslav international, Vedran Rozic, who instilled a disciplined European style of football, evident in his choice of 3-5-2 formation.
The first half began tensely, both sides struggling to find their feet on a torn up Parramatta field which bore obvious marks of a recent Rugby League fixture. The opener came just before half time, for Marconi, with Frank Farina cutting the ball back from the byline to David Lowe, who back heeled it smartly towards a willing Steve Calderan.
After half-time, Croatia were desperate for an equaliser, and Alan Hunter supplied one swiftly with a beautiful first time half-volley, unmarked in the goal box. The cross came from Papua New Guinea international, Manis Lamond. Supporters, proudly waving Croatian flags, celebrated loudly behind the goal and a come back seemed on the cards.
Shortly after, each side had a man sent off. Croatia’s Ivan Petkovic received a straight red for stomping on Ian Gray’s foot. Robbie Slater antagonised the Marconi defence, and tempted Marconi’s Gerry Gomez into collecting the United striker with a late tackle, also receiving his marching orders. Both seemed slightly soft decisions, but at the very least, the referee was consistent.
The second half petered out, ending 1-1, the match would go to extra time. Little could have foreseen the chaos to come.