The moment that separated two sporting heroes locked in a Liberty A-League arm wrestle

Madison Haley and Casey Dumont both produced performances that could have won the Preliminary Final but in the end one of them had to lose, writes Tom Smithies

In an epic contest, the individual battles become pivotal to the outcome. Madison Haley and Casey Dumont personified their team’s endeavours in the Liberty A-League Preliminary Final, and their personal duel was engrossing. In the end, it was just a shame that one of them had to lose.

The history books record the simple fact that Haley scored the winner for Sydney FC, in the dying shadows of the game, but the context was the way she drove her side forward, only for Dumont time and again to drive them back again as the heart of Victory’s resistance.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Haley was the reason that Sydney won, her presence for the whole game galavansing the Sky Blues in attack. And equally that Dumont was almost the reason that Victory stopped them winning; if it was her error that allowed Haley to break the deadlock, the game as a contest would have been over long before had she not been such a redoubtable presence in Victory’s goal.

Last week against Western United, after Sydney had laboured for an hour, their attacks became far more convincing when Haley was introduced off the bench by coach Ante Juric.

For four games in a row she had been slowly reintroduced after missing six weeks with a hip injury; finally she was ready to start against Melbourne Victory, and her ability to link up play and draw defenders around her made an appreciable difference.

“I’m just glad she could play – I wasn’t going to play her that close to 89 minutes and I was thinking, oh, do I have to take her off?” said Juric. “Because I didn’t know if she’d last and I was so happy with her.

“Same with Viney (Cortnee Vine), in the back of my mind I was waiting for them to struggle a little bit and I just tried to keep them on as long as I can.

“Thank God I did because the goal came from that side and Madison was a huge difference in a lot of ways. She just causes problems (for the opposition) – even if she doesn’t get chances, she just has two or three (defenders) on her and she’s very strong, and very smart too.”

She has quite a free role in this Sydney team, leading the line one minute then dropping into pockets of space to use the ball to exploit the pace around her. As Rachel Lowe sprinted goalwards in the first half, Haley knew instinctively where her teammate was and played a sublime no-look pass; those are the moments that fans crave, and can cut any defence apart.

It took a sprint from her line for Dumont to repel Lowe’s shot, one of a string that the Victory custodian made to continue her remarkable form this season.

Goalkeepers have two roles in a team, to defend their goal and to defend the space of their defensive line. Always an excellent shotstopper, it’s in meeting the latter demands that Dumont has excelled this season, dominating her box and more comfortable with the ball at her feet than she has been in the past.

For almost the whole night – almost – her handling under pressure was excellent, claiming corners and crosses with minimal fuss. And then, as every thought was turning to the imminence of extratime, she fumbled a cross and watched in horror as Haley stabbed it over the line.

Casey Dumont is comforted by teammates after conceding the winning goal.

As the final whistle sounded moments later, Dumont stood motionless, staring into a middle distance of obvious pain. The week before she was the hero who scored and saved in a penalty shootout to help her side get past Melbourne City; now the season had been ended by her dropping a slippery ball, at a point where Victory had no time to go and save the game.

“I’ve only seen it quickly on the screen in the stadium and it looked like someone, maybe Nat Tobin, might have just pulled out of the way (of the ball) really late,” said Victory coach Jeff Hopkins. “She must have seen it late, I think it bounced just in front of her.

“It was tough and there’s no blame attached from me or the rest of the group. Casey is what she is, just an amazing goalkeeper, an amazing person.

“If she makes a mistake, there’s no need to tell her, she knows. It’s just one of those things that has happened and there’s no blame.”

In that moment, the two lead protagonists were separated. Madison Haley gets to play in a Grand Final in her first season at Sydney FC and stands on the verge of a title. Casey Dumont has to pack her A-League season away. Every epic contest has to have a winner.