How a spray and a tweak crunched a Cup Final dream as coaches’ emotions run high

Sydney FC 3-1 Brisbane Roar | Sky Blues fight back to claim Australia Cup crown

Steve Corica and Ross Aloisi are at very different points of their coaching journeys, but experience told in Australia Cup final

In the basement of Allianz Stadium, Steve Corica sat with the smile of a cup-winning coach beaming through a beard whose almost completely grey countenance betrays his five years as Sydney FC head coach – a longer tenure than any of his predecessors.

In the same chair a few minutes earlier, Ross Aloisi had sat and bemoaned the way a performance of vitality from his fledgling Brisbane Roar team had not been rewarded with victory in the Australia Cup final. 

Just a few weeks into his first head coaching role, Aloisi has not had time to garner any significant grey hair – though bitter lessons like this final might speed that process along before he knows it.

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Both are Australian football men to their core, both played overseas and returned to grace the A-League. But the fascination at the climax of the Australia Cup was to see them at such different stages of their coaching lives, and both promising much this season with their respective teams.

On the surface Corica remains as urbane as ever, more comfortable deflecting questions about himself into answers about his team. But there’s an edge to some of his responses that suggests he won’t die wondering this season. 

Roar head coach Ross Aloisi looks dejected alongside his players after the 2023 Australia Cup Final.

Last year there was intense speculation about his future as Sydney slid down the table; in the end they made the semifinals, and a few months later have won the Australia Cup, the only domestic trophy to have escaped Corica until now. It’s some turnaround.

At halftime this victory looked a distant prospect, so thoroughly were Brisbane controlling the contest. At which point, Corica had seemed to decide that some home truths were in order.

Joe Lolley in the end won the Mark Viduka medal for player of the match, but only after a first half of heavy touches and overhit crosses. The difference after halftime was simple, he revealed: “Him just saying that I was really bad!” he said, addressing Corica. “And I agreed. We were all just a little bit off it and then, to be fair to yourself, you just chewed us up for the second half and, we made a few changes as well and it worked. We took control of the game.”

Winners of course always write the first draft of history, but a neutral might suggest that “taking control” flattered Sydney a little – their way back into the contest was a needless penalty, and shortly before it, Jay O’Shea had missed a fine chance to make the score line 2-0 to Brisbane.

But the mentality of the Sydney team was impressive in riding its luck where necessary and finding some thunder at the end. Some of that undoubtedly was distilled from their manager’s displeasure, though Corica himself wanted a more nuanced assessment.

“Well, they got a spray but also there were a few little things that we tweaked at halftime, we made the (two) subs which I think were necessary,” he said.

“But we also tweaked a few things, you know, be a little bit more compact. Tactically, we tweaked a few things with the ball and we were so much better in the second half.

“We were braver. We played forward, we made better runs and we got to the areas that we wanted to get with the ball, but the pressing was a lot better in the second half.

“We were aggressive. We stepped forward and that’s full credit to the boys. Obviously they needed a bit of a rev up. They got that.”

Fabio Gomes of Sydney FC lifts the Australia Cup trophy and celebrates victory with team mates .

In contrast to Corica’s smile, Aloisi could not disguise his pain.

The evidence of this Australia Cup run is that he is giving his team the freedom to play a brave, proactive brand of football. At times, as in the second half, the very young members of the squad may be overwhelmed. But the football they promise could be exhilarating, if they absorb and act on lessons along the way..

“With the first half, I was extremely proud and happy with our performance and we were very unlucky not to go in at halftime two goals up,” Aloisi said. “Sydney were very good in the second half but also, we need to be braver like we were in the first half for the beginning of that second.

“I just hope that our supporters can see the type of football that we’re trying to play and hopefully we can get better results during the season.”

The frustration of a lost cup final bubbled over in Aloisi’s incredulity at VAR not being in place for the game, even though it has not been used through the Australia Cup campaign. Had the video referee had the chance to reassess Jake Girdwood-Reich’s ugly elbow on Henry Hore, Sydney might well have played more than half the game with 10 men.

“I don’t want to take too much away from the game because it was a game of really good football,” he said. “But when a player swings an arm and then the referee says to our players that if you got him with the elbow, it’s a red card, but because he didn’t get him with the elbow, it’s not a red card…

“I know people make mistakes and I get it, but where’s the VAR? This is a hugely important game for both clubs.”

Hopefully the memories of those incidents will be replaced by more positive discussion points, as Aloisi’s first season as a head coach unfolds.

“A lot of people haven’t seen me coach in a long time,” he said. “I learnt a lot over in Japan, as I’ve mentioned, under Kevin Musket (at Yokaham F Marinos). 

“I’m surprised that the players have adapted to the brand of football that we wanted to play in such a short period of time.

“We’re into our 15th week of preseason, I think, so it’s not that long. That first half was probably one of the best games of football that I’ve coached. We were outstanding and created a number of chances. You score two or three and things look different.

“But it didn’t happen.”