The agony and ecstasy of playing in a grand final

SOMETIMES when I go down to an oval near where I live just to kick a ball around, I retake the penalty I missed in a grand final.

It was the one that meant we lost to Sydney FC in 2017. Mostly the ball goes in the top corner, as it was meant to that day, and you think about what might have been.

But I also know that losing a grand final makes the taste of winning even sweeter, it gives it a context which allows you to take in the moment and really appreciate what you have achieved.

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ABOVE: Gallery – Valeri misses from the spot in Victory’s penalty shootout loss to Sydney FC in 2017.

I played in three grand finals after I came to the A-League – the first year we had such a team of winners that beating Sydney FC in 2015 was not really a surprise. We wanted to build on that but the year after, I got ill (with a brain inflammation) and we lost in the elimination final.

The way 2016-17 unfolded, we had what would normally be a good year but Sydney FC were dominant. We forced our way into the grand final, and I knew we had to be at our absolute best – we threw everything at them, and to lose on penalties was hard to take, especially when I missed mine.

But you don’t forget those moments because they can help to build steel in you later on. The season after we had a lot of hiccups – we had players who were unsettled and in the transfer window two of our best, Mark Milligan and Jason Geria, went overseas.  That was a defining moment. The rest of the squad sat in a circle and talked honestly about what our aims could be for the rest of the season.

The senior boys took charge – Besart Berisha, Jimmy Troisi, Leigh Broxham, Rhys Williams and myself. When we finished fourth we knew we would have to make history to win the grand final, and that we would have to beat another dominant Sydney FC side along the way.

People say that semifinal against them was one of the A-League’s most amazing games, and Sydney bombarded us in the second half. When Terry Antonis scored an own goal with the last kick of the game to equalise for Sydney it nearly destroyed him, and would have destroyed a lot of teams.

I’m not sure if Terry realises even now how so many players got around him, trying to support him. When we kicked off in extra time he was playing in the centre but it was like mentally he was gone. Brox and I decided to switch him to the right side, and he slowly came back to life – and then suddenly he produced that incredible run to score the winner.

The grand final in Newcastle a week later was a very different game, but for some reason I was incredibly nervous beforehand. In the possession drill in the warm-up, I was on the bibs team but I kept passing to the other side. I knew what was at stake, the history we could make. At some points in that season we had been booed off by own our fans; they told me I was too old, I should retire.

We actually didn’t play anything like our best, and certainly not as well as we had against Sydney the year before. Perhaps we got lucky when the VAR malfunctioned for a few minutes, so our goal stood, and that meant we could sit back and defend the lead.

But there’s more than one way to win a football match, especially a grand final. We weren’t consciously driven by the memory of the year before, but this time we were able to strangle the game. Newcastle relied on energy and momentum; so anything we could do to break that up, kill every moment, we did. The atmosphere was electric but around me the boys were talking calmly and playing the game plan to perfection.

And so we did make history. Winning is always the best feeling, but those are particularly fond memories.

  •  Former Socceroo Carl Valeri captained Melbourne Victory in the 2017 and 2018 A-League Grand Finals. 

Carl Valeri