The Sydney club can count the FFA chairman among their fans, but it is Queensland’s night once again
Football in Sydney is rarely associated with the eastern suburbs. The great clubs, players and coaches who have come out of Sydney are almost exclusively a product of the west, from the self-described “heartland” of football in Australia. But tonight’s first round FFA Cup clash between Hakoah and Palm Beach Sharks brings us to the other side of town, to a club flying the flag for the east.
Hensley Athletic Field is in Eastgardens, wedged between Maroubra Beach and Sydney Airport, but Hakoah’s true home is Bondi. Since the old premises just off Bondi Beach were demolished the club has purchased prime land in Paddington, which is a pretty luxurious asset for a side that plays in the third tier of football in New South Wales. “It has been proposed that we build a purpose-built football stadium,” said club committeeman Adam Joseph in the lead up to the match. “But other factions of the Jewish community would like a social club where they can hold events and have poker machines. Nothing has actually been decided at the moment.”
And so we’re stuck at Hensley, which in truth is not much of a football ground. The electronic clock counts backwards from 45 each half, which annoys me for the entire night, and – as the name suggests – the field is surrounded by an athletics track. If we have to play at an athletics field, how nice it would have been to have this match at the club’s “spiritual home” in Wentworth Park, or even ES Marks Field. That really would have been back to the future.
Say what you will about Hakoah, they sure know how to pull an influential crowd. It may be freezing and the rain is pelting down sideways, but one of Australia’s richest men is sitting in the little grandstand amongst us plebs and nobodies. Frank Lowy – a Hakoah man from way back and the chairman of Football Federation Australia – is given a special welcome by the ground announcer, as are FFA bigwigs Brian Schwartz, Phil Wolanski and Frank’s son Stephen, the man some tip to take over his father’s role. FFA Cup manager Oliver Mickoski is also a VIP, as is FFA Cup competition coordinator Nathan Kosmina. Except he’s out there on the subs bench for Hakoah.
Yes, Hakoah have never been far from the corridors of power in Australian soccer. Over a quarter of a century has passed since the club last played in a national competition, but from Walter Sternberg to Frank Lowy and Andrew Kemeny, Hakoah club men have been at the coalface of all the revolutions in the game’s convoluted and tumultuous history. And Hakoah were the last club to win the old Australia Cup in 1968, making their appearance in the inaugural year of the FFA Cup all the more poignant. “We see ourselves as the holders,” said Adam Joseph in the build up to the match.
Palm Beach Sharks, on the other hand, are much more anonymous. Nobody knows much about them, except they are in fine form and 11 points clear the top of the Queensland state league. The excitement that built before kick off is quickly extinguished as the visiting side boss the play in the opening 20 minutes. Their right-winger Daniel Dragicevic is quick and confident, and he scores the first goal after just two minutes. The midfield pairing of Troy Ruthven and Justyn McKay, however, is the key to Palm Beach’s dominance. Tall, tanned and blonde, looking as if they’ve spent more time negotiating gnarly reef breaks than playing football, they strut around the place spraying accurate passes to all parts of the field. It hardly seems fair: surely these frost-tipped interlopers should be brought down by such icy conditions?
For the rest of us, the weather matters. In state league football there are no deluxe stadiums to create a little microclimate, and so when it rains it pours, and when the wind blows the makeshift marquees threaten to sail away into the night. Indeed this place is so mercilessly whipped by the wind that players are forced to take their set pieces quickly in fear the ball will roll away. The shot-put cage at the Wentworth Road end is putting up little resistance, and Westfield Eastgardens glimmers soullessly in the distance, but neither its size nor its bright lights provide any warmth. Is Frank Lowy wishing he built his shrine to mammon a little closer to Hensley so it could double as a windbreaker? The rest of us certainly are. “Sort it out Frank,” I want to say, but of course I don’t because he’s flanked by minders and I imagine he’s got more pressing issues than the state of my extremities.
As I continue my own titanic struggle for warmth, a corner is bundled in by a Palm Beach defender, and as he emerges from the celebratory pack of team-mates, an unmistakable bald spot shines through the evening gloom. Why, if it isn’t Kristian Rees, the former Gold Coast United defender turned Palmer United Party candidate for the South Australian electoral division of Grey! I thought he was working for Mineralogy or had become Clive Palmer’s personal driver or something now? Fingers in a lot of Palmy Pies, this bloke. Good header of the ball too. Good for him.
But not so good for Hakoah, who lookshell shocked. Still, their fans are loyal; every second person in the crowd seems to have a blue club jacket or a white Hakoah t-shirt, and although their team is two goals down, they look for the positives. When Hakoah win a free kick in their own half, a chant of “c’mon you boys in blue” goes up. When a chance is squandered, someone yells “we’re still in it boys.” Yep, they’re a close knit bunch here. The bloke at right back is the club president; Alex and Mark Robertson make for a formidable father-son coaching unit, and the club captain Neil Jablonski coaches the Under-20s. Former Hakoah vice-president and current FFA Director Phil Wolanski’s son, Remy, is on the teamsheet for tonight’s match, while the chairman, Jon Pillemer, only finished his own playing career at the club a couple of seasons ago. “It’s been a long time out of the spotlight,” Pillemer tells me before kick off. “There is a real community here and a lot of people with a lot of history.”
Hakoah come out much stronger in the second half, moving the ball through midfield with far more confidence. Palm Beach, who looked so assured in the first half, are suddenly drawn into a fierce contest. In the 68th minute, Jablonski finds himself in an unfamiliar position down the right flank, and he lobs a cross into the box. It’s met by former Adelaide United target man Lloyd Owusu, who taps the ball into the net, picks it up and runs back to the centre circle, where he places it down for the restart as if to say “game on”.
But there is no fairytale finish for Hakoah. In truth, Chris Lucas should have put Palm Beach further ahead before full time, but after a wonderful first touch and a dazzling run through the defence, he skies his shot well over the bar.
After the referee blows his whistle, the Hakoah players thank their fans, and everyone shuffles out of the ground in search of warmth. As nice as it is to have Hakoah back in the big time, Palm Beach Sharks are thoroughly deserving of the win. Brisbane Roar defeat Stirling Lions in Perth, and there are four teams from Queensland in the final 16 of the FFA Cup. Not bad, these Queenslanders.