For all the things that have changed, the more things stayed the same. For at the conclusion of the 2019-20 A-League season, with the smoke of yet another chaotic year clearing, it once again is Sydney FC standing atop the heap, this time having secured themselves as the greatest dynasty.
Sunday marked 324 days since the campaign commenced, a year that will likely go down as one as the most monumental in Australian football. Club vs. country arguments, political machinations and devastating bushfires all dominated the headlines as the competition forged ahead with its 15th season, before the grim spectre of COVID-19 descended and turned league conversations from reformational to existential.
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Eventually, a hub-based race against time to complete the season was established, and it was against this macabre backdrop that coach Steve Corica's side defeated Melbourne City 1-0 and added a third A-League title in four seasons. It adds to the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2019-20 Premierships and the 2017 FFA Cup. The circumstances will matter little to Sydney though who now, after previously sharing their perch with Melbourne Victory, Sydney City, Marconi Stallions and South Melbourne, stand alone as the most successful national league side with five championships.
Consistently one of the best-run sporting organisations in Australian sport -- success at A-league level is matched by similar accomplishments in W-League, youth and even eSports competitions -- the sustained period of success the Harboursiders have experienced across this past half-decade, first with now-Socceroos head coach Graham Arnold and then Corica, has been built off the back of one key pillar: stability.
Under coaching master and apprentice, they have instituted a distinct style of playing and adhere to it with ruthless and unflinching proficiency; players are always aware of their job, and the job of the man next to them. Combined with the quality they assembled, it always meant that they were capable of finding a way to win games. It was a Sydney trademark that they would, even if they had been comprehensively outplayed, somehow find a way to eke out a result.
Such was the case on Sunday evening, when after 15 minutes City had out-possessed their foes 72% to 28% and had five shots to Sydney FC's one, while Jamie Maclaren and Craig Noone, two of City's well-credentialed players, had both butchered clear goal-scoring chances. In the 19th minute, Harrison Delbridge had his side ahead 1-0, only for the VAR to intervene and bring proceedings back.
On any other night, it would have been hard to imagine a scenario in which Corica's side weren't down at least one or two goals and chasing the game. Yet the score remained 0-0, and as Adam Le Fondre had a penalty appeal turned down up the other end there was a sense that momentum, while not swinging dramatically, was shifting in favour of the defending champions.
"I thought they played really well, especially for the first 15-20 minutes," Corica said. "They shocked us, they were on top. But I think the disallowed goal helped us, it woke us up a bit and from then on we controlled the game. We played really well after that, once we settled into our style."
City still came in the second half, yet back-to-back efforts from the Sky Blues on the hour mark demonstrated that they were ever-so-slowly gaining the ascendancy. Then, as the game moved into extra time, it happened. Receiving the ball in the centre of the field, Luke Brattan scanned the scene before him and noted City's block, having moved over to defend his side's foray down the left, had completely lost sight of right-back Rhyan Grant as he drifted in towards the back post. One pinpoint ball later and the mulleted maestro, who was awarded the Joe Marston Medal as best afield, was chesting the ball beyond City custodian Tom Glover and into the back of the net.
It was a fitting capstone to Sydney's dynasty-sealing win; one of its newest contributors setting up its longest-tenured member to win a game that they didn't necessarily play all that well in, but still found a way.
Reinforcing the stability they display on the pitch, no club in the A-League has mastered the arcane exemptions, allowances and regulations buried within the A-League's salary cap regulations quite like the Sky Blues; enabling them year after year to not only attract the best talent but also retain their difference makers. Corica might have declared them a "different playing group" in the hours leading into the contest, however, seven of this group was also present when the Harboursiders downed Perth Glory in the 2018-19 Grand Final. Now though, with COVID-19 completely upending the footballing economy and landscape, the question becomes how long this can last for?
Despite common sense dictating otherwise, surely at some point not all of these difference makers could be fit inside the cap for much longer? Sydney's regular season was highlighted by them seemingly once again setting themselves up to make a fool of the competition's equalisation measures: re-signing Milos Ninkovic, Paulo Retre, Andrew Redmayne and Michael Zullo. Nevertheless, these deals were agreed with a salary cap unaffected by COVID-19 and with it now set to shrink by at least 30%, if not more, Sydney FC's vaunted stability is set to be tested.
"All these players are signed for next season," Corica said. "Obviously we don't know what's going to happen, of how much the pay cut is going to be. That's next season to worry about, I just want them to be proud of what they've achieved this season because it's been an amazing year for the club.
"Obviously we want to try to keep this squad together as long as possible, we believe it can win more trophies. We'll have to look at that when we know what the extent of the [new CBA] deal is."
Indeed, reaching the peak of the mountain is hard and staying there is harder, but staying there while the ground shifts beneath their feet might the biggest challenge this Sydney group ever faces.