MELBOURNE, Australia -- One hundred-and-ten days after the start of the A-League Men's Melbourne derby between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory was abandoned amid violence on one of Australian football's darkest days, Wednesday's much-delayed conclusion to the match gave it one of its most absurd.
A cursory glance at the record books in a few decades, when the exact circumstances have faded from memory, will show that City took out a 2-1 win, re-establishing a five-point buffer atop the table and dealing a blow to Victory's late push to secure a playoff spot. But there's so much more to the story.
What the scoreline won't show is that Aiden O'Neill's second goal came a shade over 157,000 minutes after he'd scored the opener, not the 46 that the match clock would suggest. It won't show that Bruce Kamau, who provided the assist for Nishan Velupilay's 89th-minute goal to reduce the deficit to one, was on the books at OFI Crete when the game kicked off on Dec. 17 last year. It won't disclose that this was bizarre a contest that was resumed, not forfeited, after a three-and-a-half-month hiatus, and not restarted with the scores tied at 0-0 and 90 minutes remaining but, instead, with City leading 1-0 in the 21st minute. But given how the A-Leagues got here, maybe an absurdist conclusion was fitting. At the very least, it was better than what had gone before.
Last December, the traditional Christmas clash between the two rivals made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons: called off in disgrace after Victory fans stormed the field 20 minutes in, caused an estimated $AUD 150,000 worth of damage, and injured five people. Those five included match official Alex King and City goalkeeper Tom Glover, who was taken to a hospital with a concussion and needed stitches after having a metal bucket filled with sand hurled into his head.
The images of Glover being dragged off the field by his backup keeper Matt Sutton under a haze of flare smoke, blood pouring from his head as City goalkeeping coach Mike van Houten put himself between his player and the incoming pitch invaders, instantly made their way around the world. Even with a FIFA World Cup final the next day, how could they not?
It couldn't have come at a worse time, either. The A-Leagues were already dealing with the fallout of the problematic decision to sell venue hosting rights for the league's championship game to New South Wales for three seasons at the time. The violence at AAMI Park -- which had hijacked a planned protest of that decision -- only served to suck almost all of the oxygen out of Australian football. The momentum from the Socceroos' magical run to the round of 16 in Qatar, with Garang Kuol almost taking eventual champions Argentina to extra time, felt well and truly extinguished less than a fortnight later. The game had managed to shoot itself in the foot in almost record time.
Victoria Police launched Operation Astute, leading to 35 people being charged with a range of offences including assault, violent disorder, criminal damage, riotous behaviour and discharging missiles. A further five people were issued with a fine, penalty notice or caution, four more were interviewed and released with the intent to summons and two were identified but unable to be located, including one male who boarded a flight for Europe shortly after the riot.
Taking charge of the footballing portion of the investigation, national federation Football Australia issued a swathe of individual sanctions that included three-lifetime bans on any organised football activity and hit Victory with what its CEO James Johnson called the "heaviest penalties in the A-League era". These included over $AUD 500,000 worth of financial penalties covering fines and lost revenue, significant restrictions on crowds throughout the rest of the season, and a suspended 10-point deduction that will hang over the head of the club until the end of the 2025-26 campaign that will fall if the federation determines an incident meets the criteria of a "triggering event."
What the sanctions didn't decree, however, was that the game be awarded as a 3-0 forfeit to City. Or that the game be restarted at 0-0, despite well under a half being played when it was called off. No, instead the federation, citing the integrity of the competition, determined that the abandoned fixture would resume in April from the 22nd minute, with Melbourne City leading 1-0. Asked to pick between option A or option B to determine how the incident should be addressed, Football Australia instead decided upon option C.
"It was tough at the time for the club," Victory coach Tony Popovic said postmatch. "You feel like you're getting over the worst part of everything that happened, then you get reminded a bit tonight. We would have been all reminded less had the game started at zero [minutes] and 0-0.
"I still feel that's when the game should have started if we played. I thought that was in the regulations but obviously, another decision was made and we've had to carry it. Now, hopefully, finally, we all move on from that."
Straight from the off, the bizarre spectacle about to unfold was obvious. As the two teams entered the pitch, it was similar in tone to two classmates, having been caught fighting, now being forced to return to the scene of the crime, shake hands and awkwardly demonstrate some level of remorse and ability to work together as part of an educational experience. But the passage of time -- which included an entire transfer window -- meant that replicating the exact XIs that were present at the time of the game's suspension was impossible.
Thus, two 'substitutions' were made by City ahead of the restart; Florin Berenguer and Andrew Nabbot replaced the injured Richard van der Venne and Mat Leckie and Victory, in a statistic that may never be matched, made seven, including two players -- Damien Da Silva and Fernando Romero -- that weren't even on the club's books when the game began. This is all to say nothing of the prematch shenanigans that saw Scott Jamieson determined to be eligible despite receiving a red card in City's last game due to Wednesday's fixture technically already having begun. This news, however, was only communicated to City after they had completed their final tactical session under the impression that they would be without their captain, meaning he was relegated to the bench.
As City's prematch song, the ironically titled "Happy Together" by The Turtles, finished players awkwardly took up position around the field as the referee made his way over to Glover and, after receiving the all-clear from the television director that they were live, dropped the ball at the keeper's feet. Defending the goal in front of Victory fans for the remaining 24 minutes of the opening half, 25-year-old Glover, who had overthrown an attempt to clear a flare from the field into Victory's terrace just before the pitch invasion, was serenaded with boos interspersed with a chant of "you got smashed by a bucket."
Just as both sides had begun to settle it was half-time, and there was real scope for tactical adjustments or changes to be made as neither side had been able to establish any kind of rhythm. Both coaches intimated that the contest only resembled a proper game of football when the second half began and both sides could find a sense of normality. It's likely no coincidence that both goals of the evening came within this second stanza.
"Absolutely the most bizarre," City boss Rado Vidosic said of the affair postmatch. "We knew that it was going to happen but after the game [last Sunday] we started really thinking hard, what are we doing? We don't really need this. I'm glad it's over. Let's put this to bed."
Indeed, eventually, the records will simply say that City beat Victory 2-1 in the Christmas Derby. No controversy or irregularity. In reality, it will go down in the annals as a bizarre ending to one of the most shameful moments in Australian football's history. A moment that symbolised the malignant malice that lingers within the local game.
But now, at least, this chapter is finally, mercifully, completed. A chance to look forward, even if the hurt feelings and underlying anger remain.