A year on from the IPL Grand Final upset of the century

Port Kembla — the unlikely underdogs. (Photo — Pedro Garcia)

Last year’s Illawarra Premier League Grand Final taught me to never write off an outsider. I believed I was going to be writing a match report about Bulli breaking their 31-year Grand Final jinx, however, 120 minutes and penalties later, the crowd packed into Crehan Park had witnessed perhaps the greatest Premier League Grand Final upset of the century with Port Kembla crowned Champions.

Before I go any further, there have been 18 deciders played in the 21st century and going through the records I feel the magnitude of this upset is only rivalled by Coniston’s 4–0 defeat of Port in 2001 and Picton coming from eighth to win the 2005 Grand Final (this would take the cake, however, they were playing Dapto who had finished sixth and only three points ahead of them).

Bulli finished the 2017 regular season on a high by clinching the title with a 1–0 win over Wollongong Olympic on the final day of the season. This saw Matt Bailey’s side finish 21 points ahead of Port Kembla who had just held on to fifth spot.

Port didn’t seal their spot in the five until the final stages of Round 22. (Photo — Kiah Hufton)

In the finals, Bulli had the first week off before beating Kemblawarra Fury 1–0 in week two to progress to the Grand Final which would be played at Crehan Park due to an Elton John concert at Win Stadium.

Port would have to win four games in a row to claim their ninth Grand Final — something they hadn’t done all season. They took on Tarrawanna in the Elimination Final and despite being slight outsiders, a three-goal second half saw them win 3–0.

In week two, they played Olympic who had been embarrassed 6–1 by the Fury a week earlier. Despite this, Olympic were the favourites but Port took an early lead, Olympic had two players sent off and Port went on to another 3–0 win.

This set up a Preliminary Final with Kemblawarra. Fury had been battered and bruised for a few months by this stage but they went into the match as favourites given they still had the likes of Matthew McNab, Sam Munro and Shane Murray.

Fury would take the lead throw Murray in the 23rd minute before fullback Lachlan O’Connor was sent off just after halftime. Port were back in the game soon after via a Matthew Werakso header which forced the match into extra time.

In the 98th minute, Munro received his marching for a second bookable offence while Port’s William Mobbs got a straight red after a confrontation with Murray. Port would take the lead in the 113th minute through Jayden Salucci who capitalised on a defensive mix up to score his first ever goal in First Grade.

Port goalkeeper Brad Jardine kept his nerve late on to deny former George Naylor Medalist Robbie Shields to see the match finish 2–1.

This match ranks inside the top three in terms of action across the two seasons I have covered the Premier League.

Spencer hailed his side’s “tremendous character,” after the match which set up a replay of the 2013 Grand Final which saw Port beat Bulli 3–1. The match took its toll on Spencer’s roster with Mobbs, Cameron Morgan and Joey Lavalle already being ruled out of the decider due to suspensions.

At the Grand Final Launch on the Wednesday night, I had a discussion with a Port player where I asked him how he thought the match would play out. I assumed he would roll out a cliche about it being a one-off game but instead, he completely wrote off his side, claiming they didn’t stand a chance. I am pretty sure he was being genuine — but was it mind games?

The Illawarra Mercury’s Mitch Cohen was the master of ceremonies for the evening and he had a line — intended as a joke and I certainly took it as a joke — where he asked Spencer if his side had been training against nine players in reference to their previous two opponents having two players sent off. I feel most people in the room took it in the means it was intended, however, Spencer was not amused.

Cohen also called my colleague Simon Duffin and I to discuss the match and while Duffin was coy on how the game would go, I said — perhaps naively — something along the lines of, “I can’t see anything but a Bulli win on the weekend,” which I echoed in my preview for the match day program.

Oops. (Photo — Pedro Garcia)

Port Kembla siege mentality was set and to give them even more motivation, veterans Chris Smith and Matthew Werakso announced on the Friday that the Grand Final would bring down the curtain on their careers.

Grand Final Sunday — the 24th of September — came around and a solid crowd had made their way into Crehan Park. Tarrawanna beat Bulli in the under 18s, Wollongong United upset Kemblawarra Fury in Youth Grade and the stage was set for what I assumed would be a precession.

A precession it was not.

Half an hour in, Bulli were yet to create a decent chance while Port had managed to have four. Over the next hour, Bulli failed to dominate the match due to Port’s relentlessness and Matt Floro nearly stole the win with a couple minutes left in the 90.

The match went into extra time and Bulli were shot — Port had pressed them into submission and seemed ready to deliver the knock out blow. Ben Zucco was the one who lined up the king hit with an audacious 40-metres lob which forced Yuya Kuwata into a stunning fingertip save.

Penalties. Kuwata saved the first penalty from Floro before Bulli’s Dylan Lewis converted their first and only penalty of the shootout with Marcus Beattie and Tobin Zoomers hitting the woodwork and Ben McDonald’s shot being saved by Jardine.

Kuwata saved another in the shootout — this time off Werakso, however, Jayden Salucci and Justin Potter found the back of the net which gave Zucco another chance at glory.

He made no mistake in picking out the bottom left corner which led to delirious celebrations and the iconic photograph by Pedro Garcia of Zucco surrounded by his teammates and older brother Ricky.

(Photo — Pedro Garcia)

Remarkable. Make no mistake — Port deserved this victory.

Cohen and I went on to the pitch to do post-match interviews with one player Port player who wasn’t a part of the matchday squad — goaded on by a few others — yelling out profanities at us. I had predicted a Bulli win and Cohen had made a joke.

Spencer was reluctant to give an interview at first, however, we pointed out this was a massive occasion and his comments should be put on the record which — thankfully — he concurred with.

“The boys in these last 12 weeks have been outstanding,” Spencer said.

“We played 120 [minutes] last week, we went 120 today and we still found a way to win.”

As for the interview with Bailey — he was dumbfounded and nearly speechless but he admitted the side were not at their best.

Gobsmacked. (Photo — Pedro Garcia)

A month on Bulli would claim the player, coach and goalkeeper of the year through Guy Knight, Bailey and Kuwata respectively. However, their Grand Final hoodoo still lingered.

It was Port’s 21st major trophy — five more than any other club. Given they are the region’s most successful club, it is funny to consider they were such underdogs.

Speaking with Port President Emilio Salucci a year on, he says he understood that Bulli were the favourites but given his club’s pedigree over the years, he believed his side had a good chance. Salucci explained how the team seemed to evolve during the finals series — putting it down to Spencer and brother and assistant Jason’s preparation.

In 2018, the regular season panned out in a nearly identical manner with Bulli winning the title in Round 22 and Port finishing in fifth — 22 points apart. Port would lose in the first week of the finals while Bulli are through to another Grand Final, this time they will face Wollongong United.

In an interview with the Mercury, Bailey believes his side has learnt from last year’s defeat.

“We didn’t do the job last year and we have learnt from that,” Bailey said.

“We need to take those lessons and implement it into our approach and planning for this year.”

“We believe we have done that, but the proof will be in the result on Sunday.”

Time will tell if that is the case. I give United a good chance against Bulli and considering I gave Port no chance in 2017, perhaps I have also learnt a lesson.