Smithies on what sparks a football rivalry

SOMETIMES all it takes is one word, or a gesture, or a tackle that’s a bit later than it should be. Then the fuse sparks into life, and you know a heavyweight contest is underway.

Saturday night is Sydney derby night this week and you can be fairly confident that sparks will fly, but across the A-League there are games that always seem to deliver drama saturated in emotion.

Rivalries can be based on geography, or history, or what’s at stake when teams are in the hunt for the title. But it all adds to the potency of the goals, the saves, the moments of skill and the moments of confrontation.

“There are certain games where the adrenaline just gets you high – you just want to win so badly,” says Socceroos defender Matthew Jurman who soaked up the intensity of the Sydney derby in the colours of both Western Sydney and Sydney FC.

“It’s part of the drama. The fans want players to show emotion and to care as much as they do. It’s the whole spectacle. You know you’ve got to keep your head, but certain players get under your skin and then the fiery side comes out.”

These are the games where you can feel the crackle in the air, and the only question is what form the flashpoint will take.

We saw that in spades when Liam Reddy, then in goal for the Wanderers, threw the ball in Jurman’s face as the defender sought to retrieve it for a Sydney FC corner in a derby five years ago. Jurman’s outraged reaction – and the way teammates and opponents came running to dispute the point – arguably changed the course of the game.

“Sometimes you can rev your team up by showing some emotion,” Jurman says. “These are big games, but sometimes players have started nervously or whatever. We had started a bit flat in that game (and were losing 1-0) and as a defender you’re looking for those early warning signs, especially if the other team is creating chances.

“You’re inside the cauldron but sometimes you need the emotion from a fiery moment to get the team playing. That moment with Liam seemed to kickstart our game.”

Those catalytic moments can appear from the very start. One of the most volatile Melbourne derbies came in 2017 when Victory captain Carl Valeri was cautioned in the first minute for a confrontational tackle on Mickael Jakobsen. It set the tone for a pulsating, riveting contest, with City defying a Victory onslaught to win.

“As the coaching staff, you try to keep a lid on things but the emotion factor comes into play,” says Jean Paul de Marigny who was Kevin Muscat’s assistant on the Victory bench that day. “There’s a type of player who wants to make a statement early on, and someone like Carl you know can manage themselves and manage the game after that even with a yellow card in the first minute.

“Other players you keep a close eye on. With that sort of atmosphere players will react, maybe get carried away. Sometimes you might even have to withdraw them. But as coaches you’re in awe of the players and their desire to win. When I was at Victory, for instance, there were the derbies but also the games against Sydney FC were phenomenal.”  

You can call it professional pride but that hardly seems to do justice to the depth of determination. When teams are fighting for silverware, even long-standing friendships take a back seat. There were plenty of those when Melbourne City hosted Adelaide in 2016 but the only thing that mattered was who would take a step closer to the Premier’s Plate.

“I remember I gave a penalty to Adelaide just on halftime, and after they scored, the fourth official told me that Stefan Mauk had gestured the score to the crowd,” says Strebre Delovski, in charge that day and now refereeing adviser for the A-League.

“As I blew the whistle for halftime, I told the other officials over the earpiece that we had to keep our eyes everywhere, I just felt something was going to happen.”

He wasn’t wrong, and within seconds players were shouting, jostling, jabbing fingers – and in the case of City coach Joey Didulica, grabbing Mauk by the throat.

Didulica was quickly dismissed by Delovski, who brought the captains together in a bid to manage the prospect of a highly charged second half. “I told them it was a great contest, but we had to be smart and they had to try to play football,” Delovski says now. After seven yellow cards in the first half just two more followed after halftime, one for time wasting.

That’s not a huge surprise - it’s a recurring feature of the A-League that very few genuine animosities linger between players. Things are said and done in the heat of battle, but there’s too much history between players for proper feuds to fester.

“Ultimately most players are quite respectful,” says Daniel Georgievski, the Wanderers fullback who has long worn his heart on his sleeve both in Europe and back in the A-League.

“In some countries I’ve played in, people make comments about your family or your mother – here it doesn’t really happen, and it’s probably for the better. Some boys are chirpy and that’s fine, but they don’t get inappropriate.”

In part that’s a reflection of the cut-throat nature of football at the elite level in Europe. “I played against some good mates in Europe, but you’d barely even acknowledge them in the tunnel before the game,” says Perth coach Richard Garcia who played in the EPL for Hull City.

“You look at the rivalry in games like Arsenal v Manchester United, it’s a dog eat dog environment at that level. Players are so desperate to succeed.

“Of course they are here too but it’s the fans that make it here, they create the atmosphere and the rivalry. The players go the extra mile because of the crowd. You go in a bit harder, you strain to win every tackle.”

Sometimes the emotion is a little tongue-in-cheek – like Wanderers centreback Dylan McGowan’s loud demands for an opponent to be booked for a foul in the derby last season, without mentioning to the referee that the perpetrator happened to be his brother.

But Georgievski ruefully acknowledges how the will to win can cross the line of acceptability, after his red card last season for an ugly tackle on Sydney’s Marco Tilio. It prompted a post-match tirade from the usually even-tempered Sydney FC boss Steve Corica – which is as it should be, Georgievski believes.

“These are big games and you’re wearing your team’s badge – it doesn’t matter if your opponent is your best friend or worst enemy,” Georgievski says.

“If you’re being friendly with the opposition during games, you’ll be benched. You have to be yourself, you can’t be loud one week and the opposite the following week.

“The coach has picked you because of who you are. But then sometimes you have a brain snap, just like I did last season. So then you have to learn from it.

“Even at my age, you should be learning every week, being better for all those experiences.”