Classic Finals | Hendo goes out in style

Tony Henderson had hoped to go out in style. But even "Hendo" couldn't have scripted it better, scoring the deciding penalty in the '88 decider.

Marconi players Gerry Gomez and Steve Calderan celebrate Zlatko Nastevski's penalty which sent the game to the penalty shoot-out.

Leading into Sunday's Hyundai A-League title-decider, associate editor Michael Cockerill reminds us of some of the great grand finals of the past

Tony Henderson had hoped to go out in style. But even "Hendo" couldn't have scripted it better. Fate delivered him the opportunity to convert the penalty to decide an epic NSL grand final in 1988, and the image of the big Geordie wheeling around, fist raised in the air, after the ball hit the net remains etched in the game's folklore.

It drew the curtain on an unforgettable season - arguably the best of the NSL's history, and one of the greatest of all time.

It was fitting that Henderson should take centre stage. Not because he sought it, but because he deserved it. His 297th and final match summed him up. The reluctant hero.

"Hendo" didn't necessarily want to take the penalty, but he knew he had to. That he celebrated with such classic understatement says it all.

A teenage Tony Popovic (left) helps Mark Babic hold up the banner for the Sydney United players as they enter the field

Marconi Stallions fans, of course, still love him for it. Sydney United fans grudgingly respect him for it. That's 'Hendo' for you. A big personality who chose a big moment to make a big statement. Sound familiar?

Henderson and Johnny Warren did, in fact, have a lot in common. Both played for Australia, and both skippered Australia. Both ended up as presenters for the landmark 'Captain Socceroo' television series which enthralled a generation.

Both shared the dressing room at Canberra City in the inaugural year of the NSL - Warren as coach, Henderson as a player. And both chose a grand final as the right moment to retire - Warren after scoring a decisive goal in the 1974 NSW title-decider, Henderson after scoring the winner on the national stage at Parramatta Stadium 14 years later.

Marconi defender Steve Calderan nips the ball away from Robbie Slater

That the 1988 grand final should go down to the wire should not have surprised anyone. The minor premiership had been a four-horse race going into the final round, and Wollongong Wolves eventually edged both Sydney United and South Melbourne only on goal difference. Marconi finished fourth, but just two points behind.

By no means were the Stallions out of contention. Inside the dressing room at Bossley Park was a coach, Berti Mariani, who was setting new standards of planning, and a group of players blessed with big-match temperaments.

In those days, Bossley Park was known as the "Palace", such was the aura around a club which boasted world-class facilities, and a steady stream of riches flowing from the banks of poker machines.

But much as the Stallions were the benchmark, success had eluded them since the 1979 championship - Henderson's first year at the club. The 1988 grand final against local rivals Sydney United - whose Edensor Park ground could be seen from the grandstand at Bossley Park - was the chance to put that right.

Sydney United line-up before kick-off: Back row (from left): Vedran Rozic, Mark Jones, Graham Arnold, Craig Foster, Alan Hunter, Robbie Slater, Ron Corry (goalkeeping coach), Efrem Bunguric (physio). Front row (from left): Manis Lamond, Tony Franken, Shane Clinch, Sean Ingham, Ivan Petkovic, Wally Savor, Graham Jennings.

This was the golden era of the NSL. A period just before the exodus of Australian players to Europe turned from a trickle into a flood. There were 15 past or present Socceroos there on grand final day.

In my view, the standard of domestic football has only just started to reach those heights again. The only sub-standard aspect of this red-letter day was the awful condition of the pitch. It says much about the quality of the players on show that the game rose magnificently to the occasion.

Sydney United, who had been promoted to the NSL only four years earlier, had assembled a squad to match their ambitions. Vedran Rozic, a former Yugoslav international, had been recruited as a player coach, and he quickly developed a European-style of play.

Robbie Slater and Graham Arnold were the stars of a star-studded grand final side, which included Craig Foster on the bench. In the stands at Parramatta, the Sydney United fans were making most of the noise.

Henderson knew this game was going to be his last: ''I'd pretty much decided it was going to be my last season a few week earlier, but I hadn't said anything to anybody. You've got to know when your time is up, I'm not the type who wants to hang around.

''Then Les Murray came to my house to interview me before the semi against Wollongong, and I just announced it. I'd often spoken to Johnny Warren about the way he'd finished up, and it had always stuck in my mind. In the end, it was an incredible way to go out.''

That it was. But not before the grand final had taken on epic proportions. Steve Calderan opened the scoring just before half-time after a clever backheel from David Lowe before Alan Hunter equalised for Sydney United shortly after the re-start.

Shortly afterwards both teams were reduced to 10 men after red cards to Petkovic and Gomez, and as the shadows lengthened the game went into extra time.

Then came a collector's item - a Manis Lamond header - to give Sydney United the lead, and with time fast running out if seemed the Stallions were to be denied.

That's when Frank Farina chased what seemed to be a lost cause, and as Mark Jones tangled for possession there was enough contact for referee Chris Bambridge to contentiously point to the spot. Zlatko Nastevski kept his cool to dispatch the spot kick, and the championship would be decided by penalties.

At 2-2, Shane Clinch had the chance to win it for Sydney United, but missed. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Tony Henderson: ''We had the first five sorted, but then it came to the sixth penalty. I turned to big Stevie Calderan and asked him if he wanted to take it, but he didn't fancy it.

"I was thinking 'geez, we're down to the two centre halves, we must be struggling'. But then I looked around and thought being captain, I had to take the responsibility. There was no-one else.

''I was walking up to take it and I remember thinking to myself 'I wonder if (goalkeeper) Tony Franken realises what this means'. Anyway, I just made up my mind I was going to hit it as hard as I can. Lucky for me, Tony went to his left and I just smacked it down the middle. When it went in, it was all very surreal.''

Surreal for some, agony for others. ''It was a horrible feeling,'' says Robbie Slater. ''It's something you never forget, even if you want to.

''We thought we were the best side on the day, and I think a lot of others did too. Some of the football we played that season was exceptional. We had our chances, and if you ask him Frankie (Farina) will admit he dived to win the penalty. But it just wasn't meant to be.''

Marconi went on to claim back-to-back titles before losing their third consecutive grand final to Sydney Olympic in 1990. Sydney United?

Despite their impressive reputation for producing a production line of talent, they went on to lose two more NSL grand finals (1997 and 1999) and are still searching for their first national championship to this day. The rivalry, at least, continues in the top tier of the NSW state leagues.

MARCONI STALLIONS (4-3-3): Bob Catlin; Paul Carter, Tony Henderson, Steve Calderan, Robbie Wheatley; Ian Gray, Gerry Gomez, Tom McCulloch; David Lowe, Zlatko Nastevski, Frank Farina.

SYDNEY UNITED (3-5-2): Tony Franken; Vedran Rozic, Mark Jones, Alan Hunter; Wally Savor, Robbie Slater, Shane Clinch, Ivan Petkovic, Graham Jennings; Graham Arnold, Manis Lamond.