For some weeks, it’s felt as if the A League regular season closing script has all but been written. The only details left to fill in has been the who, the what and the when, and at the weekend we got our answer: it was Luke Brattan with a wonder goal in the dying minutes of Brisbane Roar’s game against Melbourne Victory to ensure the Queenslanders topped the table and secured the Premiers’ Plate.
While the title has been the Roar’s to lose for several months now – and a late season wobble briefly gave other teams hope they’d achieve just that – the truth is it was more a question of when than if and had Brattan not struck in the dying moments against the Victory, there’s a good chance Brisbane would have taken the title this coming weekend at home to Melbourne Heart.
Not that this should take away from the drama of Saturday night in Brisbane. With the Roar knowing a win would secure the Plate and Victory desperate for a least a point to keep up in the battle for second, the game was as entertaining goalless draw as you’re likely to see with Lawrence Thomas in the Victory goal blocking everything Brisbane could throw at him. Headlines were already being written to hail one of Victory’s finest battling performances of coach Kevin Muscat’s short tenure when Brattan popped up a minute into stoppage time.
That the Hull-born midfielder was even on the pitch was little short of a miracle. Having sustained a hip injury in the first half, Brattan was somehow still on the pitch after 90 minutes, despite barely being able to run. Yet as Brisbane’s German playmaker Thomas Broich drew three players towards the ball in the dying moments, Brattan was on hand to collect the lay-off,pick his spot and unleash a piledriver into the bottom corner to send the Suncorp Stadium wild.
In some ways it’s quite fitting that Brattan should be the man to fire Roar to their first moment of glory this season. Sure, there’s plenty of stars in the Queensland team, from the maestro Broich to the temperamental yet brilliant nutjob Albanian striker Besart Berisha, but it’s the midfield trio of Brattan, Matt McKay and Liam Miller (yes, that Liam Miller) who have been the heartbeat of the team, shielding the defence while patiently retaining possession until the likes of Broich can do what they do best.
There’s no doubt that Brisbane have been deserved winners of the Plate. The Roarcelona tag may often be uttered with a smirk but the team have frequently operated on another level to their opponents – their 3-0 demolition of Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park earlier this season is probably one of their most complete performances, while Sydney FC have been taken apart 4-0 and 5-2 this season. At their very best, it’s not hyperbole to compare the Roar to Europe’s great entertainers, as there are plenty of similarities between the style of play and off the ball work of both teams.
For this the credit has to go to English-Australian coach Mike Mulvey. His background, which includes youth and caretaker management roles at the now-defunct Gold Coast United and a season in charge of Melbourne Victory’s women team may not have hinted at his ability to play free-flowing football underpinned by a steely resolve. But Mulvey’s down-to-earth no-nonsense attitude combined with a sharp tactical brain has been an almost natural progression from the era of current national team coach Ange Postecoglou (we’ll overlook Rado Vidosic’s underwhelming time in charge between the two).
Even a mid-season announcement that talisman Berisha would be joining Melbourne Victory next season has failed to derail Roar’s title challenge. Rather than freeze the striker out or make life difficult, Mulvey has let Berisha hat he does best and the Albanian has repaid him with 11 goals so far this campaign. Such has been the maturity of Mulvey’s approach you wonder if Jurgen Klopp may be searching for his number for advice on how to handle wantaway superstars.
Roar deserve every part of their Premier’s Plate this season but there’s still the matter of the Grand Final to tackle. For those not familiar with Australian football, at the end of the season, the top six go through to the finals. 3rd play 6th and 4th play 5th, with the lowest ranked team left then meeting the Premier Plate winners and the other team playing the regular season runners up. The winners of these two games then contest the Grand Final.
By walking away with the league title, few would bet against Brisbane doing a deserved double, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion. For all their excellence, the Roar have regularly come unstuck against a very ordinary Newcastle Jets side, while there was a hint of a wobble in the run-up to securing the title with a loss to Melbourne Heart and draws against the two Sydney sides. In short, Mulvey’s men can be beaten.
Despite inflicting half of Brisbane’s losses, the Jets are by no means guaranteed of a finals spot and are only just hanging on to sixth. But such is the topsy-turvy nature of the A League that Sydney FC – a side that has veered between gloriously inconsistent to downright basket case and sit outside of the finals slots could still potentially finish second or third, a spot they held until a few weeks ago.
Victory, Western Sydney Wanderers and reigning champions Central Coast Mariners may all fancy their chances in the final, but the smart money could be on Adelaide United, assuming they don’t collapse in the last three games. The Reds been one of the form sides in the second half of the season and while Roar are likened to Barcelona, Adelaide have an actual Catalan in charge in the shape of former Barca youth coach Josep Gombau.
But even for Gombau’s impressive job with Adelaide, it would be no surprise if he’s sent glowing reports on the Grand Final favourites back to his home country. Luke Brattan and co are unlikely to ever replace the likes of Xavi and Iniesta anytime soon but based on their sheer entertainment factor, few would begrudge them a second piece of silverware this season.