THE FFA CUP IS FAST REACHING THE BUSINESS END OF THE COMPETITION AND WITH THE QUARTER-FINALS NOW WITH US, THE THIRD YEAR OF THE COMPETITION HAS RAPIDLY ESTABLISHED ITSELF AS AN IMPORTANT MILESTONE IN THE FOOTBALL CALENDAR. I MUST ADMIT THE FFA CUP HAS BECOME A MINOR OBSESSION FOR ME. I REALLY DO LOVE THE FACT THAT EVERY GAME IS EFFECTIVELY SUDDEN DEATH AND THAT YOU GO HOME WITH A DEFINITE RESULT, WHETHER IT BE IN REGULAR TIME, TIME ON OR IN PENALTIES. I LOVE THE DRAMA AND EXCITEMENT THAT THIS COMPETITION OOZES.
The cup has had many memorable moments in its short history especially from a Victorian perspective. Our National Premier League (NPL) teams Bentleigh Greens and Hume City FC have progressed through to the 2014 & 2015 FFA Cup Semi Finals respectively, and many highlight reels have been filled with thrilling moments. ‘The Magic of the Cup’ really is the unpredictable outcomes that can happen when a local club gets the chance to take the scalp of the much more fancied A-League club.
The journey to the final rounds starts in the dead of winter and ends in spring. For these players Cup duty has to be backed up along with training, regular club competition and if they are lucky enough progression into the Dockerty Cup & NPL finals.
This then needs to be matched with real life. It’s always easy to forget that the players in these squads are not full-time professional players. These part-time warriors have day jobs and families to manage around working in hospitality, construction, as teachers, students at university or any number of other careers to pursue their dream of reaching the higher tier of the competition in Australia or beyond.
So, imagine being at work all day, driving across town for a training session, which will likely go late into the evening and then getting up the next morning for work? I guess if you are playing once a week and maybe training twice a week but what happens when the intensity picks up and the demands get more time consuming.
A feature of the FFA Cup is that it is played mid-week and you get the opportunity in the later rounds to playoff against an A-League team. This is the prize and the opportunity to make an impact on Football in Australia. The tricky thing is that at this point everything ramps up, interest starts to peak in the media and dependent on your results you find yourself making headlines.
…I said to the boys not to change anything, it’s still 11 against 11, still 90 minutes.
Managing expectations of yourself, your club and your fans becomes a part of the next phase. With this the sacrifices become greater, training ramps up, the likely hood of injury increases and in some cases battling against the odds becomes a massive part of the dream and narrative for those of us who invest our time and energy in the competition.
Reflecting on my involvement with the FFA Cup in 2014, I like most people, spent a lot of time trying to work out what it was all about and how it would work. I eventually realized that this could be an incredible opportunity for the future of Football in this country. 2015 saw me build an association during the regular season with Hume City who were on the cusp of having a golden run in the Cup and before I knew it I came up with this concept for these portraits of players called ‘The Moment – FFA Cup Dreaming‘, who in any given week had the opportunity to achieve incredible things on the park, and would ultimately have to return to their regular life the next. By the end of the 2015 campaign the names Hegarty, Oldfield, Rexhepi, Markelis & Schroen would be recognisable to the mainstream media and not just to fans of the NPL as well as Hume Captain Nick Hegarty’s need change flights to stay in the country to be able to play in the Semi’s became a side story.
So, here we are in 2016. It’s spring and the later rounds of the FFA Cup are upon us. We enter the Quarter Finals with two Victorian NPL clubs still in contention (Bentleigh and Green Gully) and the two Victorian A-League teams also still in the competition. This is quite an achievement for Victorian Football.
These types of opportunities don’t come around often and big moments come from big opportunities.
I have been following the cup closely this season including during my seven week stint in Europe where I anxiously waited and watched to see which of the Victorian teams would progress through the competition. I desperately wanted to be able to continue this work but it really depended on who would make it through to the later rounds (if in fact anyone would). This is how sad it got, I found myself watching games on my mobile over the Internet while sitting not far from a beach in Spain and Malta!
I grew up and live in Melbourne’s west so Green Gully have been a fixture on my football landscape my whole life. I would go to games with dad to watch George Cross at Olympic Park in the old NSL days and the rivalry between these two clubs is well documented. Yes, I have Maltese blood and Gully is the other of the current clubs in the NPL/2 with Maltese roots. The thing about Gully is they have had success, they have had failure, but somehow they keep going.
The 2016 season has had some great narratives surrounding the club, the appointment of Arthur Papas as coach, an injury to the talented Matthew Breeze in round 1 after 10 minutes game time which lead some pundits to write the club off for the season. Despite the challenges they progressed through the FFA Cup early rounds only to have Keeper Rani Dowisha red carded and unable to play for the round of 32 game against Central Coast Mariners (CCM). The season has had its challenges.
I recall shooting a number of early games and thinking to myself man they are so much better than last year but for some reason whenever I’d say this to anyone they were not rated highly. It was refreshing to hear Luke Walker’s thoughts on this during the shoot;
‘We don’t really listen to the naysayers.. we sort of just go about our business, we know that we’re good enough to win games and go far into the cup. So it doesn’t really bother us. It’s not really a matter of trying to prove a point. It’s more of proving a point to us. We know how good we are, how much we want to achieve.’
So, time passes and things change, they have had a litany of injuries this season but somehow the combination of good coaching, conditioning, experience, youth & talent has begun to pay dividends for the team and the club.
I recall arriving at the club to shoot the round of 32 match and running into someone who said to me “our ‘keeper is out, we have injuries to key players we have no chance.” This was a seriously cold night and the atmosphere was electric. So many people all supporting Gully. I knew if they won this match it would be MASSIVE for the club.
My intention was to wait until I saw where the remaining NPL clubs would finish up in the competition before approaching them to be my next featured group. However, that changed when captain Daniel Jones scored before Liam Boland scored from halfway to send them through to the next round. Well, with Gully being only the second team to take down an A-League club, it was and is an irresistible proposition!
In the end I have shot most of the starting XI from the round of 32 and 16 and spent a little time interviewing the lads individually. I was immediately struck by how humble everyone has been and how realistic they have been about their achievements. It must be hard to contain emotion and keep a level head when everyone is telling you how great you are.
As a photographer normally on the sidelines, entering the inner sanctum of any club can be a challenge. The first thing that I noticed at Gully was the tightness of the group and how happy they were that someone was interested in the club.
This is a small community. I know who the players are and they know me by name through my images but we rarely have a chance to meet one on one. Other than Rodrigo Vargas and Daniel Jones I’ve not had many opportunities to meet the current group of Gully players.
When discussing the round of 32 match with club stalwart Rodrigo Vargas he best described the experience in these words;
‘…it’s given the boys exposure just to see what professional athletes are like. It’s given them a taste for playing in front of big crowds, big occasions, a lot of them probably haven’t played in front of big crowds, live TV….I think it’s given the group a lot of belief as well… but I think a game like that sticks in your mind and coming into finals now it gives you a lot of belief that when we’re trailing 1:0 to an A-League side we still have enough belief in us to come back and win the game.’
The sense of belief in the group and each other is the real take out for me from this experience.
Keeper Rani Dowisha had the misfortune of being red carded in the dying minutes of an NPL game against Bentleigh the weekend prior to the round of 32 match which saw him watch the game from a crowded grandstand.
‘Obviously, at first it was pretty disappointing after the Bentleigh game we sort of knew that there wasn’t going to be much hope of me playing.’ After an appeal was dismissed on the Monday ‘… I knew I wasn’t going to be playing and then after that it became about embracing the night. I understood that a night like that was bigger for the club than any individual I missed out, but someone like breezy (Matthew Breeze) has been injured all season… someone that I felt would have shone on that stage. Once, I understood that it was bigger for the club than it was for me it was probably a bit easier to deal with it, but even then I came in on the Tuesday and I wasn’t even allowed in the change rooms. That hurt a bit as well, so …disappointed as well but what a night it was. I was just completely emotionally invested as a fan and it was one of the greatest nights of my careers even though I wasn’t playing.’
The excitement of the evening and the journey for these players is hard to encapsulate in images alone. For Goal Keeper coach & Backup Keeper Sebastian Mattei to find you suddenly thrust into the Keeper role for one of the most important games in the clubs recent history the experience was full of mixed emotions. He and Rani are close friends
‘I was gutted for Rani especially the fact that he was going to miss the chance to play against Central Coast and we’d put in a lot of work this year to get him ready for the big games like this… he hadn’t conceded a goal in 6 games leading into that game…I was actually really disappointed that he wasn’t going to get the chance to play before anything else…I knew that the opportunity had come to the detriment of a really good friend of mine but at the same time the chance came and I had the chance to play. So, it is good to finally have a chance to play a game but there is a part of me that is a little sad that Rani had to miss out.’
For Captain Daniel Jones the FFA Cup effect has added an element of excitement not present since he first came over from England before the A-League started.
‘The local competition was getting 5-10,000 people at some of the bigger games so that was quite an eye opening when I first came over. But, since all that has settled now the attendances have dropped a bit. It’s probably one of the biggest I’ve had in many a year now…I approach every game the same whether it be a friendly or a big game like that. But when I drove into the car park and saw the A-League pop stars getting off the coach it was quite exciting, with the cameras there.
It’s been a great experience; it’s bought a new dynamic to the whole competition, to the club, to NPL and grass roots football really. At this late stage of my career now it has rejuvenated the enjoyment of certain aspects and the possibilities and opportunities to play higher-grade clubs. So, it’s been exciting it’s been good.’
The FFA Cup offers an opportunity to be noticed and for people to re-discover the stories that exist at a grass root level. For defender Matthew Reid the links with the club go back to his grandfather George (on his mum’s side) who captained the club.
‘It’s been unbelievable for me; an unbelievable experience growing up playing for the juniors for the club and seeing the dominance that they went through. I always thought that would be something I want to be a part of and finally give something back to the club it’s given me so much.’
For the team, the FFA Cup is all about taking in the moment and enjoying the experience regardless of the results. Every game that they play challenges them to become more competitive and gain more experience as a group playing in important competitions. Every game ,whether it is against an A-League club, State League team or fellow NPL sides, offers an opportunity to hone your skills and progress further to become the best you can.
The honest assessments by the players about their progress in the competition has been refreshing.
In the earlier rounds, it’s funny we played against some very low division teams that we actually struggled against and sort of got some wins last minute. We actually battled through and I think… the opposition got harder and we sort of picked up. It’s sort of been interesting. The difference in level I think once the pace increased we also had to pick up our game and I think it’s helped us actually lift to the next level.
The realization that they were playing an A-League club for forward Anthony Ragusa felt like a ‘… surreal moment, when we were warming up, you looked at the other side of the field and thought, crap this is an A-League side we’re playing against. So, when you come against teams like that you just try to take in the moment, to take it all in and try and be as calm as I could. You can’t really go out there and be nervous or scared because then you’ll just stuff up a lot. I just tried to go in and be calm, cool and take the game like any other weekend, like any other team.’
The thing I love about the FFA Cup is the unpredictable nature of it. When you think the game is done and dusted then all it takes is for a last minute special something to happen and it’s game on, suddenly in the dying seconds of a game someone scores or a penalty is awarded and then the sure thing result is changed. This is truly the ‘Magic of the Cup’ for Green Gully the magic has been with them in the RD of 32 and 16. Liam Boland managed the unthinkable his 40 yard strike to goal in the dying minutes of the CCM game sealed the deal.
My brother was on the sidelines and I remember just seeing him & bursting into tears. My mum, dad and brother flew over from WA and they were all there on the sidelines and everyone swarmed us then five seconds later Tara Rushton is pulling me over for an interview and I didn’t know where I was or anything I was lost it was crazy.
Regardless of how far Gully or any of the remaining NPL teams go in the competition ‘The Magic of the Cup’ is about the comradeship & opportunity to succeed beyond your greatest dreams.
It’s about keeping a level head and focusing on the game at hand. I think the players own words are the best way to give you an insight into the determination of these lads.
To be honest, I don’t really get too hyped up or too excited. It’s great to see but I’m still focused on…I’ve got my feet on the ground and I’m still focused on the games ahead and that I still have a lot more work to do, get over this injury and just work hard so that I can play week in week out.
The ‘gaffer’ gave us all our homework to do, so every player had their job to do and knew what we needed to do to win the game. So, I had my job to do I did my homework I just tried to do what the ‘gaffer’ told us to do.
From playing on the pitch I didn’t think you could see a difference from playing an A-League team and an NPL team it was a little bit higher intensity but it comes down to the amount of effort you put in and we put that effort in and I think people on the sidelines watching couldn’t tell the difference. We really believed in ourselves and the crowd got on our sides because we were trying and all those things come together and we got a good outcome. You could say it could be a bit of luck but I believe we deserved it.
Thank You to Raymond Mamo, Arthur Papas, Daniel Jones, , Paul Chircop, Katie Lambeski and the players at Green Gully SC for allowing me to have access to everyone.