VAR controversy only certainty in unpredictable A-League as Wellington Phoenix draw with Macarthur


One of the best things about a new season is its inherent unpredictability.

Anticipation builds with every shock result, every opportunity for the established order to be challenged by a coach with new ideas or a team with new players.

That has been borne out even at this early stage, with Central Coast Mariners surprise leaders after two matches — an impressive feat regardless of the validity of a table after just three, incomplete match weeks.

This year though, the biggest questions appear to be around the fixtures, with COVID-19 causing chaos around the competition.

There were just two matches in this, the third round of the competition: Western Sydney Wanderers’ 2-1 victory over Newcastle on Friday night and Saturday evening’s entertaining and controversial 1-1 draw between Macarthur and Wellington Phoenix.

Brisbane Roar’s match against Melbourne Victory that was set for Sunday, January 10, has been postponed as a result of the Brisbane lockdown. Perth Glory hasn’t even played a game yet.

Yet despite the confusion off the field, one depressingly familiar frustration still has the power to frustrate supporters, as Wellington Phoenix fans found to their cost at Campbelltown.

Wellington bemoans VAR decision

The displaced Phoenix looked exceptional in the first half, returning to their pre-COVID form of 2020 with a dominant midfield performance thanks to Alex Rufer, Alex Devlin and Ulises Dávila.

The visitors deservedly led 1-0 at the break thanks to David Ball’s 39th minute goal after some lovely work down the left from James McGarry.

It should have been more too, with Ivan Franjic performing heroics repeatedly at the back as the blue shirts of the New Zealanders flooded forward uninhibited.

However, the game turned in the second half thanks to the depressingly familiar beacon of controversy — VAR.

Phoenix midfielder Rufer was sent off for violent conduct after the VAR adjudged that he kicked out at Denis Genreau after the Macarthur player delivered a studs-up challenge in the centre of the field.

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How the VAR came to that conclusion is anyone’s guess. Rufer was lying on his back, eyes closed in pain after Genreau caught him with a studs up tackle before running into his leg, but nevertheless, referee Stephen Lucas was moved enough by the replay to change his decision from an already-dubious yellow card to a straight red.

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In fairness, Macarthur had been growing into the game, but the red card changed the dynamic, and when Markel Susaeta fired past Stefan Marinovic it seemed as though momentum would carry the new kids on the block to a second win of the season.

But Wellington held firm for a share of the points that their performance surely deserved.

NSW no home-from-home for Phoenix

Last year the Phoenix played some of the best football in the competition on their way to third spot on the ladder, before losing in the elimination final to Perth.

However, that only tells a small part of their story.

Wellington Phoenix finished third on the ladder last A-League season.(ABC Image: Brendan Esposito)

As was the case with every team, Wellington’s season was split in two due to the coronavirus shutdown — and the Phoenix struggled massively after relocating to the New South Wales bubble.

Prior to the shutdown, Wellington was flying, predominantly off the back of their home form.

Of the 11 games it played in New Zealand (ten in Wellington, one at Auckland’s Eden Park), Wellington won eight, drew one and lost two — which were, incidentally, its first two home games, the first and third matches of Ufuk Talay’s managerial reign.

However, in the bubble, the Phoenix won just one in six — not including the finals defeat to Perth.

Phoenix has now not won in its last seven games in New South Wales — a problematic statistic seeing as this is home for the foreseeable future.

Wellington supporters stand and applaud, waving yellow flags
Wellington Phoenix have some support in Australia, but the fans have not had cause to celebrate in its last seven matches.(ABC Image: Brendan Esposito)

One of Wellington’s biggest attacking threats during last season’s exceptional run to third on the ladder came, in part, through their talented left side, with Liberato Cacace and Reno Piscopo.

There must be a conveyor belt of talent in New Zealand though as the Phoenix repeatedly tested the Macarthur defence down the left through the hugely impressive McGarry and Clayton Lewis.

Wellington can and will feel hard done by after Saturday’s controversial decision, but must now stew about it for two weeks. Its next match is not until January 24.

Fixture chaos adds to unpredictability

These fixture issues are likely to prevail for the immediate future, although the A-League is confident that it will be able to complete the season regardless.

Bruno Fornaroli jumps up and turns to his right with an angry look on his face
Perth has not played a match since August 26, the semi-final defeat to Sydney.(ABC Image: Brendan Esposito)

“We gained a significant amount of knowledge from the staging of the 2019/20 season which enabled us to move quickly and respond to these latest changes,” A-League boss Greg O’Rourke said in December when 39 A-League games and four W-League matches were impacted by the Avalon cluster.

Whether that is a realistic possibility, with rolling border closures the norm for the foreseeable future, remains to be seen.

Perth Glory is yet to play a game and will not until Wednesday January 20 — moved back from January 16 — when they meet Adelaide who, given current border restrictions, are the only club they could realistically face.

Instead the Glory have had to find intra-state opposition, battling Perth SC in a pre(?) season friendly at Dorrien Gardens on Friday night, where Bruno Fornaroli scored to secure a 1-1 draw.

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“It wasn’t what I wanted, but at the same time, the guys got to play for an extended period against an opposition that wasn’t us, which was fantastic,” said coach Richard Garcia.

At the moment, this interrupted start to the season might not be the one we all want, but at least football is still happening, in its own gloriously entertaining way.

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Wellington Phoenix left fuming after VAR farce opens door for Macarthur Bulls draw


The Phoenix had taken the lead in the 39th minute through David Ball, and around 20 minutes into the second half they were doing it relatively easy.

At that point, Alex Rufer tried to dispossess Denis Genreau as the Olyroo looked to power the Bulls forward from midfield.

It looked a totally innocuous challenge, with Rufer’s lunge spilling the ball free and Genreau treading on his foot in the process, entirely by accident. As Genreau moved on, he was clipped and brought down by the right boot of Rufer, who was prone on the ground, his eyes closed and his head backwards. Again, it looked like a total accident.

But as Genreau received treatment – he would play out the match – the VAR, Kris Griffiths-Jones, beckoned referee Stephen Lucas over to the sideline screen.

After repeat viewings, Lucas returned to the field to upgrade Rufer’s inital yellow card to a red for kicking out at Genreau – to the disbelief of the player, the Phoenix, and pretty much everyone else.

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Talay said the Phoenix would look to have the red card rescinded. His counterpart, Ante Milicic, claimed to have missed the incident.

“It’s a very soft red card. I know my players quite well, Rufer isn’t that type of player. He’s very disappointed,” Talay said.

“He feels that he’s done nothing wrong in that challenge. There was nothing explained to me at all. I saw it in real time. For me, it doesn’t look like anything.”

Four minutes after the red, Macarthur pulled level. Their star Spanish imports Benat Extebarria and Markel Susaeta combined to perfection, as the latter’s lobbed pass set up the former for a close-range shot that Stefan Marinovic will be disappointed he let in at his near post.

The Bulls couldn’t find another goal and it finished 1-1 on a glorious afternoon at Campbelltown Stadium.

Much like their home loss to Central Coast Mariners last weekend, the pieces just weren’t fitting together for the Bulls, who made what Milicic described as a slow and nervous start.

“Overall I was happy with the amount of chances we created towards the end. I’m really pleased with the boys, they gave everything,” he said. “We’ll keep on improving, we’ll get fitter, we’ll get a better understanding the longer we’re together. It’s going to take a while, we knew that.”

The Phoenix fielded their strongest possible team, with former Brighton & Hove Albion striker Tomer Hemed and skipper Ulises Davila promoted after coming off the bench in their 2-1 defeat to Sydney FC.

Wellington were utterly dominant in the opening exchanges and their deserved breakthrough, which came six minutes from the break, was quick and clinical: Davila split Macarthur’s defence open with a pinpoint through pass that put left-back James McGarry into space.

McGarry’s cutback found the feet of Ball, who in turn swept it home with his left past a helpless Adam Federici.

The Bulls, naturally, improved after Wellington were reduced to 10 men and rallied hard for a winner that never came. They should be happy with the point; the Phoenix, on the other hand, are understandably cooking.

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Macarthur FC star Adam Federici on Socceroos teammate Mat Ryan and the cut-throat world of English Premier League goalkeeping


Free to leave in January if he can find another club, the 28-year-old has publicly committed to fighting to win his place back. Federici knows that’s a lonely road to take, as a bloke who tallied just 16 senior league appearances in five seasons with AFC Bournemouth and Stoke City.

“I’m not surprised, just because I know how things work over there,” Federici said. “I’ve been in England a long time and I’ve been through that exact same thing.

Mathew Ryan has committed to trying to fight for his spot at Brighton but has reportedly been told he’s free to leave in January.Credit:PA

“He’s done so well there. But it’s just goalkeeping. It can change overnight. [If] a manager wants to play someone else, there’s literally not much you can do about it. All you can do is work hard in training.

“The only thing I’ll say with Maty, in my experience, and it’s probably something I look back on and wish I handled it a bit better – he’s handled it extremely well.

“If he doesn’t leave, he’ll definitely get his opportunity again. He’s such a good professional, he’d be ready for that, and he can prove his point.”

In Federici’s case, a late-career retreat to the A-League with Macarthur FC – who face Wellington Phoenix on Saturday – has thankfully broken him out of that vicious cycle.

Seven years ago, the proud South Coast product was a Premier League regular for Reading and a key figure alongside former Sydney FC ace Adam Le Fondre in their promotion from the Championship to the top tier. Since leaving the club in mid-2015, he has barely played.

“It’s tough. Goalkeeping’s a different position – I could talk all day about it,” he said.

“There’s one spot. You don’t get to come on in the 80th minute and prove your worth. Once you find yourself out of a team, it’s very hard to get back into a team.

“You end up training like a madman and trying to prove a point every day in training and it does become really difficult.

“When you do that, you’re pushing yourself into the red zone a little bit. It’s exactly what happened to me. You push yourself and you push yourself and you push yourself and I ended up breaking and having a couple of knee operations.”

Adam Federici has barely played since leaving Reading in 2016, but is relishing his time at Macarthur FC.

Adam Federici has barely played since leaving Reading in 2016, but is relishing his time at Macarthur FC.Credit:Getty

Some players are happy to grind away in those circumstances. But Federici was never that type, and when coach Ante Milicic came calling for him last year, a move to the Bulls made sense for all sorts of reasons.

He was man of the match on debut in Macarthur’s 1-0 win over Western Sydney, an emotional evening that will go down in the fledgling club’s folklore.

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It was one game, but it has already thrust his name back into Socceroos calculations. Federici is hopeful of adding to his 16 caps, but is somewhat doubtful, and believes the country is well covered for goalkeepers, even accounting for Ryan’s uncertain future : Mitch Langerak broke the J.League record for clean sheets last season; Danny Vukovic is back from injury and playing regularly for Genk in Belgium; and a new generation of shot-stoppers is emerging in the A-League.

Federici insists he is not playing to prove a point or remind people what he’s capable of. He’s just playing, which for now is good enough.

“I’m not looking to do anything other than just be the best I possibly can each day,” he said.

“I’ve found it hard to get games the last couple of years, and I’ve come back to enjoy my football. That’s the main thing for me: to set my own standards and enjoy it for myself. I get to define what’s successful, not other people.

“If I’m needed or if they want to play a particular way, there’s no better feeling getting to sing the national anthem wearing those colours on a big occasion. I feel like I’m made for those big games.

“But that position’s well covered, I think. I’m just looking to enjoy my football and do the best I can for Ante and the new club we’re trying to build.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m here as well. Ante wanted me here, wanted me to play and he wants to play the sort of football I love to play as well.”

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Michael Ruhs and Liam Rose make their A League debut for Macarthur FC in front of home crowd. | Goulburn Post



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It was an afternoon to remember for two local football players as they made their A-League debut for Macarthur FC. Read also: Bowral boy Walter Scott will be in action in the “not too distant future” Michael Ruhs and Liam Rose both made their debut on home soil on January 3 much to the delight of fans who came to support the Bulls at their first home game of the season. The two teammates played together at NPL1 side Sydney United 58 FC before joining Macarthur FC, known as the ‘Bulls’ to fans, in its inaugural season. The youngest player in the club at age 18, Ruhs made his professional A-League debut for the Bulls at the first home game at Campbelltown Stadium against the Central Coast Mariners. Read also: Masks to be mandatory at NSW A-L games “It was good to make my debut at home and in front of the home fans,” he said. “It was a buzz to come on and see everyone ringing the cowbells and cheering the team on. “It wasn’t the result we wanted but I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to make my debut thanks to the coaching staff and all the boys.” Ruhs said he was happy with his performance in his first game. “I came on hoping to play a simple game and swing the momentum in favour to Macarthur,” he said. “When I came on I think I made an impact, which is positive for the team.” The Joey’s player and current number 19 for the Bulls has had a life long passion for the game. Ruhs started his football career at the age of five for Liverpool Olympic Football Club, before moving to NPL clubs Mounties Wanderers and Sydney United 58 FC. The young striker has also represented Australia at an international level in 2019 “I made my international debut for Australia in Turkey against Guinea in a U-17 youth tournament,” he said. “I played in another tournament in England, where we played a series of friendlies against Brazil, South Korea and England. “At the end of 2019, I was part of the U-17 World Cup in Brazil against the best teams in the world.” With a strong family support base, Ruhs credits his family as his influence. “Off the field, my biggest influences are my parents, my uncles and grandparents,” he said. “They teach me a lot about being a good individual on the field and off the field. They teach me life skills, values and morals. “On the field, it would probably be Ivan Franjic, Aleks Jovanovic and some of the older boys. They’ve really helped me in the team and become a better person on and off the field. Read also: WSW to get used to A-League heat: McGowan “The transition into the team has been good, a young boy coming into a team isn’t always the easiest thing but I was welcomed by them. “Mark Milligan helped me a lot to transition into the dressing room smoothly and have a good time with the boys and bond.” Ruhs also has some advice for aspiring football players. “Just work hard. Nothing comes in life without working hard,” he said. “Stay dedicated, life is not easy, so stay positive, stay dedicated to your craft, put your head down, look up to people and be the best person you can be.” While it was not Rose’s first foray into the A-League, it was the first time he donned the Bulls kit. The 23-year-old previously played for the Central Coast Mariners back in 2015 and had a stint with Armenian club Ararat-Armenia in 2018. Rose said it felt good to make his debut in front of the home crowd. “It’s a new club and to make my debut is a great feeling,” he said. “Obviously the result didn’t go our way and that was disappointing but I tried to get on the pitch and do my best to help the team. “I’ve been out of the league for a bit and I’m just focusing on doing my best for the team.” Read also: Australian coronavirus vaccine rollout to start February: Scott Morrison The midfielder first got into the game as a five-year-old playing for Mounties Juniors Soccer Club and has his dad to thank for his football career. “I started playing as a kid and I played a few years up with my older brother in a team my dad was coaching,” he said. “My love for the game started back then and it sort of progressed for there. I couldn’t stop playing and developed a love of the game.” Rose also credits his dad as his biggest inspiration. “He’s been a massive help from when I first started when I was young,” he said. “Even now with his advice, he’s not a crazy football parent. He always offers constructive criticism or just keeps me positive and in the right headspace, he’s great at doing that. “He’s a great man and I really look up to him as I do with all my family and people close to me.” The transition to a Bulls player has gone well for Rose who credits Sydney United for helping him get back to the level he wanted to be at. “Sydney United help me find my confidence, they are a great group of boys there and they helped me get back my love for the game,” he said. “Training day in and day out with the Bulls, you start to get that intensity pretty quick and get up to speed. Read also: Claire Polosak: the first woman to officiate in a men’s Test “I’ve been working hard each day and feel that I’m getting better and better and I’m looking to improve every day.” As for any advice for aspiring players, Rose said it’s important to work hard. “Work hard, that’s first and foremost,” he said. “You can have all the talent in the world but if you’re not willing to put in the work it will only get you so far.” The Bulls won their first game against Western Sydney Wanderers at Bankwest Stadium on December 30, 2020. They went on to lose their second game to Central Coast Mariners at Campbelltown Stadium on January 3. Macarthur FC will face Wellington Phoenix in the next A-League clash at Campbelltown Stadium on Saturday January 9, 2020. Macarthur FC and Olyroo midfielder Denis Genreau said the team has a lot of respect for Wellington Phoenix. “With them moving to Australia so the league can be played is a huge sacrifice,” he said. “We’re expecting possibly a similar game to Central Coast. They were really organised against Sydney FC last weekend and we know it’ll be a tough game. “We’ve done a lot of video review on where we can improve and we’re looking forward to Saturday night.” Ruhs and Rose echoed Genreau’s sentiment. “We know it’s going to be a tough game,” Ruhs said. “We versed them in the pre-season so we know how they play. Hopefully at the end of the day we can get the result at home, put on a show and start picking up points.” Rose said he feels good in the lead up to the game against Wellington Phoenix. “Obviously the result last week was disappointing,” he said. “All the boys are raring to go and are looking to right the wrongs of the previous game and put in a very good performance on the weekend so we can get the win.” Macarthur FC has partnered with local football associations Macarthur Football Association, Southern Districts Soccer Football Association, Bankstown District Amateur Football Association, Highlands Soccer Association and Southern Tablelands Football Association. Read also: Liverpool lose at Saints to extend blip

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Socceroos icons Brett Emerton and Vince Grella helped Macarthur FC sign striker Matt Derbyshire


Having also sought intel from his Sheffield United adversary Nick Montgomery – now an assistant coach at Central Coast Mariners – Derbyshire knows exactly what to expect from the A-League.

“It’s not an easy league,” he said.

“People will say, ‘You come over here and blah, blah, blah, it’s going to be easy’ … it’s not. You’ve got some very, very good players over here and some good teams.

Matt Derbyshire celebrates with teammate Aleksander Jovanovic after Macarthur’s inaugural A-League win on Wednesday.Credit:Getty

“Obviously we’re a new team, we’ve got a long way to go. I’m looking forward to the experience and what will be, will be, but we’re going to give everything we possibly can to be the best we possibly can.”

It’s the sort of talk Bulls fans will be pleased to hear from a foreigner – one who coach Ante Milicic says is “addicted to goals” – but the truth is he didn’t really need much convincing at all to move to Sydney, where he also has a brother-in-law who has lived here for nine years.

Derbyshire is a rarity among English players, most of whom spend their entire careers in the Britain and don’t branch out to continental Europe.

In 2009, he spent a period on loan at Greek side Olympiacos, which he enjoyed so much it became a permanent transfer. All up he scored 11 goals in 21 games and penned a four-year contract before a new coach, future Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde, told him to find a new club.

Derbyshire returned to that same part of the world four years ago to join Cypriot giants Omonia, bagging 62 goals in 113 games and two golden boot awards on his way to becoming a club legend.

“I like to be out of my comfort zone, go out and experience the world, as well as doing what I love to do,” he said.

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“Why can you not mix the two of them together? But obviously if you’re not doing well in your football, the life’s nowhere near it. So you have to do well in your football first to enjoy your life secondly.

“That’s the way I look at it. Fortunately when I’ve gone abroad it’s worked out well for me and fingers crossed I can make it work for me here as well.”

Derbyshire did not get many sights on goal in stirring Macarthur’s 1-0 win over the Western Sydney Wanderers on Wednesday but is expected to lead their attack again on Sunday, when they welcome Central Coast Mariners to Campbelltown Stadium for their historic first home game.

“We’ve got a fantastic stadium here and the pitch is immaculate,” Milicic said. “Hopefully we can get a good result. It’s the first home game, that’s the one that will go down in history.

“The boys are very determined to put on a good performance. We’ve got a lot of good people at the club, so hopefully we can justify why we’re in the league and we can add value to it.”

There could be another familiar face putting Derbyshire through on goal: Tommy Oar is in line to play his first minutes for the club off the bench against the Mariners, having battled injury throughout the pre-season.

The 29-year-old winger played the 2017-18 campaign at APOEL, the other big club in the Cypriot capital, and he and Derbyshire know each other well.

“I don’t speak to him – he’s APOEL,” Derbyshire joked. “It’s a massive rivalry there, but he’s a great boy. He’s going to be great for the club and hopefully great for me crossing those balls in.”

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Macarthur coach Ante Milicic dismisses championship chat after first win


Macarthur coach Ante Milicic says hype surrounding the Bulls’ A-League title hopes after their first-up win over Western Sydney Wanderers is nothing more than “coffee shop talk”.

The Bulls’ 1-0 defeat of the Wanderers in Wednesday night’s derby has many declaring Macarthur can contend for the championship in their first season, just as Western Sydney did in their inaugural 2012-13 campaign when they topped the table and lost the grand final to Central Coast.

A commanding squad on paper, the Bulls were able to click on the pitch at the first time of asking despite several players not featuring in a competitive game for more than six months as they left Bankwest Stadium with the first three points in their history.

But Milicic refused to embrace suggestions that his side would challenge for the A-League title straight away.

“Nah, I’m actually not having any of it because I don’t know what that’s based on,” Milicic said.

“It’s just opinion, it’s coffee shop talk. There are so many games to go. Our players and staff have their own internal expectations.

“Yes, we’ll enjoy it, but let’s not get carried away. The world has shown that there can be a lot of twists and turns, and in Australian football, you always get them as well.”

While former Socceroo skipper Mark Milligan and experienced goalkeeper Adam Federici shone for the Bulls, one of the heartwarming stories to emerge from the triumph was that of winger Lachie Rose, who was hugely impressive on his A-League debut after being plucked from relative obscurity.

“Rose is a different one because he didn’t even come from NPL1. He came from NPL2, but we saw something in him. He came in and trained well and did well in the friendly games,” Milicic said.

“He’s just a kid that’s good at football, good at Aussie rules, good at surfing … he’s just a natural athlete, and it was a big night for him, and I’m so pleased that he put in a big performance.”

New Wanderers coach Carl Robinson criticised the free-kick call that led to Macarthur’s first ever A-League goal, which was credited to Milligan after Spanish substitute Benat Etxebbaria’s free kick deflected off the Bulls skipper and past unlucky Western Sydney goalkeeper Daniel Margush.

But Robinson welcomed the competitiveness of the derby and the A-League’s newest rivalry.

“It’s great. You want rivalries, you want storylines, you want drama, you want controversy,” the Wanderers mentor said.

“They’ll be delighted, we’re disappointed because it’s on our turf. Inside, I’m quietly fuming, but you have to conduct yourself with dignity when you lose.”



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Macarthur FC beat Western Sydney Wanderers courtesy of free kick deflected off Mark Milligan


Benat was introduced off the bench in the 68th minute and nearly scored with his first touch, but his long-distance shot on goal was batted away by Wanderers custodian Daniel Margush.

Fringe Socceroos goalkeeper Adam Federici was busy all night at the other end, keeping the Bulls in the contest with a string of fantastic saves – the last one coming in injury time to foil Kwame Yeboah.

Ziggy Gordon battles with Matt Derbyshire.Credit:Getty

But the win was thoroughly deserved for Macarthur, whose positive attacking football and intriguing mix of experienced campaigners like Benat, and young stars like Hollman and Lachlan Rose already feels like the breath of fresh air the A-League desperately needed.

“First and foremost you’ve got to look at the owners who had a dream a couple of years ago to put together a new club in the competition,” Bulls coach Ante Milicic said.

“With all the things that happened throughout the world it made it very difficult, but in the end we got there and today was an important day for the club, for the club’s history, but also important for the game, and the A-League.

“We want to be competitive, we want to add value … it’s just the first game, it’s good to win, particularly against such a strong team like Western Sydney. We’ll be satisfied tonight but we know we’ll have to quickly recover and shift our focus to the Mariners on Sunday.”

There was no shame in the defeat for the Wanderers in their first match under coach Carl Robinson, who would be rightly pleased with how quickly his remodelled team has gelled, albeit with no end product to show for it.

“I knew the game would be tight, very close. In close games you’re hoping you get a little bit of luck. A few decisions here and there and it wasn’t to be,” Robinson said.

“Performance-wise, I can’t fault them. They applied themselves excellently, the way they approached the game was excellent, and obviously we conceded a goal through a free kick through a deflection which actually wasn’t a free kick.

“But you have to take it sometimes – we’ll learn from it and move on.”

A tension in the air – typical of a derby – was palpable from the outset, but Ziggy Gordon may not remember it well: his first minute in Wanderers colours ended with a ball straight to the head, courtesy of Loic Puyo’s thump on goal from metres away.

Ten minutes later came the controversy. Prized Western Sydney recruit Graham Dorrans unleashed a shot from well outside the box that caught Aleksandar Jovanovic in the stomach. Referee Kurt Ams whistled straight away for a handball penalty, but he rightly revised his decision after visiting the VAR screen on the sideline.

From then on, Macarthur had the ascendancy. Their most promising attacking outlet proved to be Moudi Najjar, the Young Socceroos striker on loan to the Bulls this season from Melbourne City.

Playing on the left wing, Najjar often drifted inside and found numerous opportunities lurking in the space opened up by Matt Derbyshire’s intelligent movement.

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Najjar got his head onto tasty crosses from Ivan Franjic and Denis Genreau but couldn’t hit the target with either, and had his best chance four minutes from the break, when he was picked out again by Rose, only to nod the ball fractionally wide of the right post.

The Wanderers responded with their best stretch of attacking football to that point, with a flurry of shots that tested Federici’s reflexes – all coming in the shadows of the first half.

Ibini had the last sight on goal for the first half, taking a swipe at a loose ball that fell his way which whizzed past the wrong side of the upright, before Federici was again forced to deny efforts from James Troisi and Keanu Baccus on the other side of the break.

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Newcomers Macarthur FC defeat Western Sydney Wanderers


The new boys have arrived with an almighty bang.

The Wanderers may enjoy supporter dominance out in Sydney’s west but on the park, Macarthur Bulls have proven they are ready to match it with them and every other club in the competition with a 1-0 win in their inaugural clash and a ‘Battle of the West’ no less in front of an impressive COVID-restricted crowd of 10,128 people at Bankwest Stadium.

A deflected free-kick in the 72nd minute from substitute and highly touted Spanish import Benat Etxebbaria proved the difference in what was a captivating and high quality first-up derby between the new rivals.

It was clear that former Matildas coach Ante Milicic had assembled an impressive squad on paper and within their first 45 minutes in the A-League, he had already found a way to get them to gel on the park.

Socceroos keeper Adam Federici deserved the majority of plaudits on a historic night, pulling off a string of top-class saves to keep Western Sydney at bay and prove that, even at 35, his Socceroos days may not be over.

Their best effort of a vibrant and dominant first half fell to lively 20-year-old winger Moudi Najjar but his header – one of four that he had on goal in the opening 45 minutes – went narrowly wide of the upright.

That chance seemed to wake the Wanderers up and it was young right back Tate Russell who got them out of bed, bursting down the right to create two opportunities, the best of which was spectacularly tipped over the bar by Federici from a Simon Cox drive.

Western Sydney continued to try to impose themselves early in the second half but Federici kept James Troisi at bay before Macarthur’s celebrations were quickly dulled after the offside flag correctly ruled out a Lachie Rose tap in.

Etxeberria stepped up not long after to slot home his new club’s first goal.

BULLS SHINE BOTH YOUNG AND OLD

An impressive team on paper, the Bulls mixture of experienced and emerging players clicked. Federici shone while former Socceroos skipper Mark Milligan proved he’s lost none if his class. Youngsters Najjar and Rose – plucked by Milicic from the obscurity of the NPL’s second division starred with their veteran teammates from the wings.

WANDERERS FAIL TO CAPITALISE ON OFF-SEASON SPLASH

They poached a coach and three players from their rivals in the off-season, creating more waves than any other club but Western Sydney weren’t able to capitalise on that in their opening game of the season. Ziggy Gordon, the most understated of their off-season signings, had an excellent defensive game, while James Troisi was enterprising at times. Bernie Ibini failed to impose himself, however.

VAR-Y GOOD CALL

After all the dramas surrounding VAR, it was refreshing to see it used accurately to overthrow the howler of a penalty call for Western Sydney 10 minutes in. Former EPL midfielder Graham Dorrans smashed his shot into Bulls defender Aleks Jovanovic and while it wasn’t even clear on camera if the ball hit his arms, they were clearly tucked by his side anyway.

BULLS ROAR TO LIFE

The feeling of the unknown that surrounds the opening clash for a professional sporting team in their inaugural clash is by no surprise a daunting one. In the end it was an historic and euphoric one.

But the doubts that exist pre-game can be harrowing for those who have poured everything they have into getting it up off the ground.

How will they actually go on the pitch, how many fans will turn up, will their supporters actually be heard?

“I feel like I’m waiting for my first child to arrive,” said a visibly jittery Gino Marra, Macarthur FC chairman moments before kick-off.

That anxiety wouldn’t have been eased by the near failure to spot a Macarthur supporter around Bankwest Stadium before their first ever clash, even if it was an away trip for them.

“Finally! You’re the first one I’ve seen come through,” remarked a steward to a lonely Bulls fan crowded out in a sea of red black at the turnstiles, albeit two hours before kick-off.

The apprehension of Marra and all those connected with the club would have been eased within 45 minutes as Macarthur’s impressive team proved they had already gelled on the park.

And then again in the second half as Benat Extebarria’s free kick would trickle in for their first goal and ultimately, first win.

Then there’s the assessment of the league’s newest fan base in the stands and while their attendance was small in number – a few hundred at most – they made their presence felt.

There was the faint ding of cowbells ringing from the away section as the players emerged for their warm-up and it was a sound that permeated around Bankwest Stadium for every enterprising attack.

Somewhat joyously, they were accompanied by the beating of a drum in ‘the Bullpen’ at sporadic intervals during the game and while there is no distinct chant to go with the tune as of yet, it’s already a welcome addition to the A-League’s in-game soundtrack.

We’ll wait to see how that sound grows from ‘The Herd’ for their first home game at Campbelltown Stadium against the Mariners on Sunday from their approximate 3000 season ticket holders.

But if their quality on the pitch is anything to go by from the first up showing, the cowbell rings and those jubilant post-match celebrations will be seen and heard more often than not this season.



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Benat Extebarria steers Macarthur FC to derby win over Western Sydney Wanderers on debut


Benat was introduced off the bench in the 68th minute and nearly scored with his first touch, but his long-distance shot on goal was batted away by Wanderers custodian Daniel Margush.

Fringe Socceroos goalkeeper Adam Federici was busy all night at the other end, keeping the Bulls in the contest with a string of fantastic saves – the last one coming in injury time to foil Kwame Yeboah.

But the win was thoroughly deserved for Macarthur, whose positive attacking football and intriguing mix of experienced campaigners like Benat, and young stars like Hollman and Lachlan Rose already feels like the breath of fresh air the A-League desperately needed.

Rose thought he’d scored the club’s historic first goal in the 51st minute, when he tapped in a cutback from James Meredith, but only realised he’d been ruled offside after he started celebrating.

There was no shame in the defeat for Western Sydney in their first match under coach Carl Robinson, who would be rightly pleased with how quickly his remodelled team has gelled, albeit with no end product to show for it. There was also clear improvement needed from strike duo Simon Cox and Bernie Ibini.

A tension in the air – typical of a derby – was palpable from the outset, but Ziggy Gordon may not remember it well: his first minute in Wanderers colours ended with a ball straight to the head, courtesy of Loic Puyo’s thump on goal from metres away.

Ten minutes later came the controversy. Prized Western Sydney recruit Graham Dorrans unleashed a shot from well outside the box that caught Aleksandar Jovanovic in the stomach. Referee Kurt Ams whistled straight away for a handball penalty, but he rightly revised his decision after visiting the VAR screen on the sideline.

From then on, Macarthur had the ascendancy. Their most promising attacking outlet proved to be Moudi Najjar, the Young Socceroos striker on loan to the Bulls this season from Melbourne City.

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Playing on the left wing, Najjar often drifted inside and found numerous opportunities lurking in the space opened up by Matt Derbyshire’s intelligent movement.

Najjar got his head onto tasty crosses from Ivan Franjic and Denis Genreau but couldn’t hit the target with either, and had his best chance four minutes from the break, when he was picked out again by Rose, only to nod the ball fractionally wide of the right post.

The Wanderers responded with their best stretch of attacking football to that point, with a flurry of shots that tested Federici’s reflexes – all coming in the shadows of the first half.

Ibini had the last sight on goal for the first half, taking a swipe at a loose ball that fell his way which whizzed past the wrong side of the upright, before Federici was again forced to deny efforts from James Troisi and Keanu Baccus on the other side of the break.

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Macarthur FC to make long-awaited debut


A “battle of the west” is the perfect way for Macarthur FC to start life in the A-League.

Four years of toil and anticipation culminate on Wednesday night when the Bulls meet Western Sydney Wanderers at Bankwest Stadium.

It’s a dream come true for the people of the South Western Sydney region, many of who have never previously supported an A-League club, according to Macarthur chairman Gino Marra.

“We’re getting a lot of fans that are new to the game and that was one of the reasons (Football Australia) chose the region,” Marra said.

“It’s the fastest growing region in the country. There are 35,000 participants, the majority of which weren’t supporting an A-League team.”

Not even the Wanderers, despite the “west” link.

“There’s a divide between the north and south west, and this is a great derby we can build on,” Marra said.

“From now on, and in years to come, the battle of the west will be the main derby in town.

“More importantly we’ve got a good relationship with the Wanderers. We’ll be fierce competitors on the field but strong friends off it, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

Wanderers’ fans perhaps won’t agree on the “strong friends” sentiment and the belief that this new derby will outdo Western Sydney’s intense rivalry with the A-League’s most successful club, Sydney FC.

However, it’s good for the Bulls ­­– and the competition ­– to have an immediate arch-rival.

A-League officials have made no secret for their love of derbies, and when two separate bids ­– United for Macarthur and South West Sydney FC – joined forces in 2018, there was little doubt they would become part of an expanded competition.

“The council-backed bid was a great bid as ours was. It was the right decision,” Marra said.

“We’ve got a fantastic relationship with council. They’ve been very supportive, and it’s allowed us to build something special.

“It’s an extremely difficult process but we were always confident about what football meant to the region, and how we can be more than just a 12th (A-League) team.”

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing along the journey, with billionaire property developer Lang Walker’s decision in February this year to sell his 50 per cent to share in the club to local businessmen Roy Mammone and Michael Gerace leading to a host of departures.

They included then executive chairman Rabieh Krayem and football director Ken Stead.

“It is what it is – football’s football,” Marra said.

Departures aside, it was the retention of inaugural coach Ante Milicic that could prove to be the decisive factor in Macarthur’s bid to contend for the title in their first season.

Milicic had the option of remaining with the Matildas following the delay of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for 12 months.

But Marra never doubted Milicic would honour his Bulls deal.

“We never even had a discussion about a ‘Plan B’,” Marra said.

“Ante was always a key appointment for us and we knew, especially being a start-up club, that he could manage the whole football operation for us.

“He’s done that. He’s built a phenomenal team not just on the field but off it, and he’s got some great people around him.”

They include key recruits in former Socceroos pair Mark Milligan and Adam Federici, English striker Matt Derbyshire, and Spanish duo Benat Etxebarria and Markel Susaeta.

“I’m excited, nervous … this whole thing started four years ago and we’re at the point now watching the team start,” Marra said.



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