R24 Talking Points: Transfer that never happened has led to an A-Leagues revelation

Check out all the goals from a blockbuster round 24 of the Isuzu UTE A-League.

These are the key talking points from Round 24 in the Isuzu UTE A-League as Sydney FC claimed derby honours, Melbourne City made history and Central Coast Mariners continue to top the table… just!

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The season that almost never was for a new Wellington hero

Finn Surman has been at the heart of Wellington Phoenix’s historic Isuzu UTE A-League season, but it almost never happened.

In the pouring rain in Wellington on Friday night, the 20-year-old defender scored a 95th-minute header that not only vanquished Melbourne Victory 1-0 but secured two milestones for the Phoenix.

The second-placed Phoenix – level on 49 points with the Mariners and only adrift on games won – confirmed their best ever points tally in the competition and highest ever finish.

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Surman has been central to that, establishing a partnership with former Manchester United defender Scott Wootton. Wellingtons new found defensive strength has yielded the best defensive record in the league with 25 goals conceded.

Before 2023-24, Surman had started just 13 matches at A-Leagues level. This term, he has started all 25 of Wellington’s matches.

“It’s almost like everything aligned for him at the beginning of the year,” Wellington boss Giancarlo Italiano told reporters.

“We were talking about potentially bringing in a foreign centre-back. For whatever reason, we delayed that decision and then he just grew with the idea that he could be starting.

“Then we were really comfortable like he can do it. For me, it’s not about the ability or talent. That’s why he got signed. It was more about the consistency and turnover of performance.

“There’s been a lot of work with the boys defensively. They’ve all matured. Even when Lukas Kelly-Heald starts now… all these boys come on. I have no problem playing these boys because they have the right mindset and have worked really hard.

“Finn has been in the environment now for three years. It’s not like it’s a foreign thing for him. He has seen enough. It was more about him taking that opportunity to shine.”

Italiano – in his rookie season as head coach at this level – was the subject of last week’s A-Leagues All Access episode and he spoke about having imposter syndrome, even when he was first appointed by Wellington as an analyst.

After overseeing Wellington’s best ever regular season, he was asked if he had moved on from that imposter tag.

“No. It’s a daily battle. It’s weird. I still look at myself like the analyst to be fair. All of this is a surreal feeling for me,” he said.

“Once I digest it in a couple of years, I think I’ll realise the gravity of it. But I still feel it (imposter syndrome).”

“It’s a bit surreal. For me, the accolades deserve to go to the players not me,” Italiano continued when asked if he could have dreamed about a season like this.

“I just want the group to do the most they can do as a group. There’s a lot of belief wit these guys. I just want to keep pushing them and they don’t regret this opportunity and give 100% from now until the end of the season.

“Am I stoked? Yes I am but it’s not about me. It’s more about the club.”

‘We’re like a box of chocolates’

Melbourne City made history on Sunday afternoon after recording the largest ever Isuzu UTE A-League win, but Aurelio Vidmar was not completely satisfied.

Finals aspirants and three-time reigning premiers City humbled lowly Perth Glory 8-0 at AAMI Park, where Tolgay Arslan scored the first hat-trick of his career.

City scored five goals in 15 first-half minutes to set the tone in Melbourne – a performance that also equalled the Isuzu UTE A-League record for the most goals in an opening half.

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However, interim head coach Vidmar was concerned with City’s second-half display as they look ahead to Saturday’s blockbuster against sixth-placed Western Sydney Wanderers.

Only one point separates the Wanderers and seventh-placed City heading into the penultimate round.

“I thought the first half was excellent,” he said in a press conference. “We moved the ball quickly, super aggressive, created a couple of chances, scored some really nice goals. Really pleased with the first half.

“Just a little bit concerning the way we started the second half. Speaking with the assistant coaches, going into a game like next week, we have to be a lot better than that. We had no control of that first 15 or so minutes in the second half.

“After we scored, we had a lot better control but leading up to that, we gave Perth a couple of easy chances. We have to really tighten up in that area.

“It’s always a little bit difficult. You’re going into half-time with such a big advantage, you can always pull the hand break up a little bit but we really have to be better than that.

“But in saying that, super effort. They really bounced back. It was a game where everyone was really under pressure – it was a must-win. That’s what we did and that’s important.”

Sunday was the third time this season that City have scored seven or more goals in a match, having routed Brisbane Roar 8-1 and eased past Western Sydney 7-0.

Yet, City still find themselves outside of the top six after Round 24.

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Vidmar told reporters: “Our CEO Brad Rowse said is there a switch when these sort of things happen?

“I said we’re like a box of chocolates, you just never know what you’re going to get with us. It’s been one of those seasons.

“Sure we’d like to be more consistent. We’ve had a fair bit of inconsistency in the season.”

It was a forgettable outing for the Glory, who beat City 4-2 in the previous meeting between the two sides.

“It’s embarrassing for us as a team and a club. All you can do is apologise to the fans and say we’re going to come back and do better next week,” said head coach Alen Stajcic.

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Perth owner Ross Pelligra was in the stands to watch the game and Stajcic said: “We need to rebuild the team.

“It’s quite obvious and it’s been obvious all year. The team needs a re-boot and re-build. I’ve been here before. It’s not easy, it’s tough but you have to pick yourself up and be ready to fight another day.

“It’s really about building for the future. The club’s been through a lot this season and today certainly doesn’t help but it’s a stark reminded of how far we’ve got to go.”

Jets coach hails growth: ‘It’s a little step forward’

Newcastle Jets have now reeled off back-to-back wins. After taking down Sydney FC, they upstaged Brisbane Roar 2-0 at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.

Goals to Clayton Taylor and Golden Boot contender Apostolos Stamatelopoulos gave Newcastle consecutive wins for the first time since February 2023. Not since 2018 have they won three straight matches in the Isuzu UTE A-League.

“We’ve had nine draws,” head coach Robert Stanton reflected. “That’s now 15 results we’ve had. Out of 25 matches, I think when you look at that, the draws have killed us. We’ve been in games.

“Over a month ago we were away to Perth, 2-0 up and threw it away. We’ve made a little step forward. We’ve grown a little bit more, matured a little bit more as a whole – staff and players.

“It’s a reflection in the result and performances too. We want to play a more proactive game but sometimes the opposition don’t let you, and you have to adapt.

“You’re seeing another shift in the team’s mentality and identity growing from the team.”

Stamatelopoulos’ 16th goal of the season closed the gap on the Golden Boot leaderboard to just two; the Jets striker is one goal shy of Perth Glory Adam Taggart’s tally of 17 as Melbourne Victory star Bruno Fornaroli leads the way on 18.

Not only did that Stamatelopoulos goal seal an impressive win for the Jets but it also saw the Australian striker equal the Newcastle club record for most goals scored a in season, a record now shared with Adam Taggart who hit 16 goals back in the 2013-14 season.

“His performances and the goals and stuff is the reflection of the hard work he continuously puts in. The attitude and mindset he has come into the club, the approach, winning mentality. A hard-working ethic.

“He pesters my assistant and other staff members for video non-stop about how he can get better.

“Because of what he’s done, it’s become contagious and that’s a leadership quality… he is leading from the front.”

The question Wanderers boss didn’t like after Derby defeat

Western Sydney Wanderers equalised in the 95th minute to only then concede three minutes later in a heart-breaking 2-1 loss to cross-town rivals Sydney FC.

It is a result that has left Western Sydney’s finals hopes in the balance with two matches remaining.

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In the aftermath of the loss, a reporter began to talk about Wanderers veteran Milos Ninkovic, who could potentially play his final home game when Melbourne City visit CommBank Stadium in Round 25.

“This is not about Milos mate. He’ll say the same thing mate,” Western Sydney boss Marko Rudan replied post-game.

“There is no room for sentiment, mate. I want to talk about the game. I don’t want to talk about individuals.

“Come on… You’re better than that mate, you are. It’s not about individuals now mate.

“We have a big game. It’s about the football club, the team, not about individuals mate.”

Central Coast’s mindset yields result: ‘Top-of-the-table clash’

On Saturday afternoon, Central Coast Mariners travelled to Tarneit with top spot on the line while their opponents Western United were second from bottom.

But defending champions the Mariners paid no attention to the table as they emerged 2-0 winners at the Regional Football Facility.

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It was far from a vintage performance but when it was put to Mark Jackson that still managing to win when not at their best was the sign of a Championship side, the Central Coast head coach replied: “100%.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game coming here. We looked at the form table over the last five games and Western I think were third in the form table.

“So our mindset all week is we’re coming into a top-of-the-table clash. We had that mindset.

“We weren’t happy with a few things in the first half but we have a great bunch of players in there who respond to challenges and direction from the staff. They carried it out in the second half and got a deserved penalty.”

With the win, the Mariners not only stayed ahead of Wellington Phoenix in the race for the Premiership, but they wrapped up a top-two spot.

“It’s a new experience for me as a manager, so I’m drawing on experiences from people at the club,” said Jackson, whose side departed Melbourne at 2am (AEST) on Sunday morning for this week’s AFC Cup Inter Zonal Final first leg against Abdish-Ata Kant in Kyrgyzstan.

“Matt Simon, who has lived through that and players who have lived through it as well, even last season.

“It does take a little bit of pressure off but we will be ready when that comes around. It seems we have a lot of games before then.”

Veart explains penalty decision after Adelaide loss

It was a mixed night for Nestory Irankunda and Adelaide United on Friday night.

In what was potentially his final game at Coopers Stadium before joining Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich at the end of the season, the 18-year-old opened the scoring with a stunning goal before missing a last-gasp penalty as Adelaide lost 2-1 to 10-man Macarthur FC.

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All eyes were on Irankunda in stoppage time after the Reds were awarded a penalty. With first-choice spot-kick taker Zach Clough no longer on the pitch, the teenage sensation stepped up but saw his penalty saved by Filip Kurto.

“With the penalties, we have the one penalty taker which is Zach,” said head coach Carl Veart. “If Zach is not on, it’s up to the playing group to pick whoever is going to take it.

“Disappointing but there’s not much we can do. Penalties either go in or they don’t, Nestor wanted to take it. He had belief in himself and practices them enough.”

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Irankunda was visibly upset after the match and Reds boss Veart added: “I missed a lot of penalties in my career as well.

“He wanted to take it, so I backed him in to take it. Just unfortunate he didn’t hit it the way he wanted to hit it. Yes, he’s disappointed.

“He always shows his emotions quite openly. He put in a lot of effort in tonight. He wanted to go out on a good note to all the people who have come and supported him.”

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While the result dealt a major blow to Adelaide’s slim finals hopes, it boosted Macarthur’s chances of a top-six finish.

Two goals in four minutes during the last 10 minutes of regulation via Ariath Piol and Tommy Smith snapped the fifth-placed Bulls’ two-game losing streak and kept the team five points inside the top six.

“We’ve been through a lot this season with the AFC Cup and the travel,” said Macarthur head coach Mile Sterjovski.

“I really felt like they were playing for each other tonight. It’s come at a very important time for us with a couple of games to go and trying to secure a spot in the finals.”