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While the A-League's Melbourne derby is building in intensity year on year, its forebear in the National Soccer League was a showcase for the local game, featuring stars of the future such as Mark Viduka.
By Ian Kerr and Ben De Buen
With a competition that has just celebrated its first decade, rivalries can seem somehow unripe, especially to outsiders. The A-League can sometimes come across as a manufactured competition with manufactured rivalries.
The strongest football enmities in the world have sprouted from the rich soil of historical grudges, political hostilities, class disputes, economic disparities or ideological differences – often leading to regrettable consequences.
What are the foundations of the rivalry between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City? The derby’s roots are mostly geographic and perhaps, at a stretch, demographic – the younger club (City) challenging the incumbent.
City’s change of ownership has at least added some spicy ingredients to the Melbourne Derby, with a new identity constructed around wealth, a story that isn’t shared throughout the founding A-League clubs that could have been conceived in the same boardroom frolic.
Soon after City’s change of ownership, name and colours, a banner at the derby displayed this escalated antagonism across the terrace: You can change your name, You can change your colours, This city will always be ours.
So while the Melbourne A-League derby may be nascent, its intensity is growing.
Melbourne derbies were a feature of the National Soccer League, the A-League’s predecessor. Teams such as Preston Makedonia, Brunswick Juventus, Heidelberg, Carlton SC and Collingwood Warriors drifted in and out of the national competition during the 1990s.
But South Melbourne vs Melbourne Knights was the Melbourne rivalry in the 1990s. It wasn’t a manufactured rivalry – these were two clubs packed with local stars, challenging for NSL honours.
They started the decade as South Melbourne Hellas and Melbourne Croatia, reflecting the local communities that founded the clubs. During the 90s they were rebranded as South Melbourne Lakers and Melbourne Knights as a sop to those wanting the league to shed its “ethnic” tag.
A change in name didn’t affect the nature of the rivalry.
Over 21,000 crammed into Olympic Park to see the teams play in the NSL Grand Final in May 1991. Andrew Marth scored in the first half, only for Joe Palatsidis to equalise in the second half with only a couple of minutes left on the clock. The game went to penalties. After six penalties were missed in the shootout, South Melbourne eventually won 5-4 and South’s captain, Ange Postecoglou, lifted the trophy.
The Knights beat South in the two-legged major semi-final in 93/94, before going on to lose the grand final, again on penalties, this time to Adelaide.
For Knights fans, it was during the finals series of the 94/95 season that the rivalry reached its apex.
The Preliminary Final was played in pouring rain at a sodden Olympic Park in late April 1995. During the week leading up to the match, Frank Arok, South Melbourne’s coach, asked whether or not this Mark Viduka was as good as he was made out to be. By the end of the match, Frank would know.
The V-Bomber had scored 18 goals during the season, on his way to a second consecutive season as the league’s leading goal-scorer. Was Arok calling into question Viduka’s character? The young striker had been held goalless in the previous season’sgrand final, marked well by legendary defenders Milan Ivanović and Alex Tobin.
A mulletted Danny Tiatto cut down his opponent on 13 minutes and received a straight red. This was the signal for Viduka to prove why he was Australia’s dominant striker – in an era when Damian Mori was banging ‘em in.
Under 15 minutes later Kevin Muscat, who in those days still had hair, gave away a foul on the wing. Krešimir Marušić’s free kick was met with a stunning Viduka header at the far post. 1-0 Knights.
It was from another free kick, ten minutes later, that Viduka scored his second. This time Vinko Buljubasic took the free kick, and after a flick on and a scramble the ball spilled loose for Viduka to chip the keeper.
A man down, Melbourne Knights deserved their lead. Water covered the pitch, and slide tackles were in vogue for the evening. Could a 2-0 lead be defended?
Moments before half-time, enigmatic striker Con Boutsianis put South Melbourne on the scoresheet, staying on his feet while all around him players fell.
The striker Francis Awaritefe, on the losing side in the 1991 Grand Final, joined the fray shortly after half-time in the blue of South Melbourne.
But moments later it was Viduka who scored, completing his hat-trick, and delirium broke out on the terraces.
Marušić broke down the left wing, and slipped a pass across the box where a sliding V-Bomber put the ball in the opposite bottom corner of the goal.
It was Awaritefe who laid the ball on for Boutsianis for South’s second after 72 minutes. A tense finale beckoned.
With time running out, and whistles squealing from the Knights fans, South threw everything at the South Melbourne goal. Lucchetta had a long-range shot that skidded just wide of the goal. Frank Arok, never one to hide his emotions, looked like he was about to self-combust.
Goal-line clearances and desperate defending followed. Viduka himself was back defending, something young people today might not believe. Frank Juric made saves that would have been incredible in dry conditions, let alone a muddy penalty area.
“There’s no-one leaving Olympic Park early,” said the commentator, as streams of spectators could be seen in the background heading for the exits. Seconds later, full-time, and Melbourne Knights were in the Grand Final, where Adelaide City awaited them.
Nowadays South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights play in the local Victorian league, making the occasional cameo appearance in the FFA Cup. The death of the NSL didn’t mean the end of these two clubs. Their exclusion from the new national competition sticks in the craw of many of their supporters.