Green Gully pulled one of the most audacious escapes in Australian footballing history on Sunday afternoon, coming back from a 2-0 deficit in second-half injury time to prevail over Moreland City in extra-time and remain in the Victorian top flight in 2019.
Corey Thomas’ 15th-minute strike had Moreland sitting pretty for much of Sunday afternoons contest, and when Ratip Cieli struck with an 89th-minute dagger Gully had seemingly been condemned to their first relegation since they were booted from the NSL’s Southern Conference in 1986.
Fate, however, had different ideas.
Gully’s last, forlorn forays forward in a desperate pursuit of top-flight survival were rewarded: Manny Muscat and Callum Richardson scrambling shots over the line in the 91st and 94th minutes to send the game to extra-time.
Then, after stalemate for 25 minutes, Nick Krousoratis etched himself into Green Gully folklore: blasting a shot past a despairing Kieran McDowell in the Moreland goal to ensure his side’s continued NPL existence.
For 91 minutes, Sunday’s contest threatened to become a microcosm of the calamities that had befallen Green Gully during the 2018 season.
Fielding a squad full of quality, Gully looked fluid and controlled in their moves forward in the opening half; attacking threats Krousoratis, Josh Barresi and Mitch Cooper all looking incisive as Gully showed clear attacking intent.
Conversely, Moreland’s thrusts forward throughout the contest were marked by a frenetic sense of controlled chaos; the NPL2 side constantly looking to move the ball quickly and get the ball to NPL2 Golden Boot winner Apai Ukono early and often.
But after fifteen minutes of play, it was chaos that prevailed over control: as Gully was made to pay for flubbing a golden chance to open the scoring as Moreland marched up the other end and took a 1-0 lead against the run of play.
With the ball at his feet in the 14th minute of play, co-NPL2 Goalkeeper of the Year McDowell sold his centre-half Mathew Reid into trouble, sliding him a ball that placed him under immediate pressure from Krousoratis.
The Gully attacker pounced, knocking the ball free from Reid and playing it to Barresi, who then fed it through to George Lambadaridis.
Lambadaridis should have completed the attack with a goal, yet could only fire his shot from just outside the six-yard-box straight into a defender.
Breaking quickly up the other end, Moreland immediately made Gully pay.
Collecting the ball on the right wing, Chris Cristaldo looped a perfectly weighted pass to Ukono on the Gully touchline.
The Moreland number nine took a touch before cutting the ball back inside to captain Thomas, who slid the ball low around the outside of Gully keeper Lucas Spinella to make it 1-0.
Perhaps stung into action by falling a goal behind a side that clearly did not possess the quality they did, Gully had a renewed purpose following the restart, having the best of the chances throughout the remaining 30 minutes of the first half.
Barresi tried his luck with a lofted effort that found the roof of the net in the 27th minute of play before Krousoratis forced a good save from McDowell low to his near post in the 30th minute.
Former Gold Coast United captain Cooper then almost found pay dirt in the 39th minute, running onto a through ball at the back post only to once again be denied by McDowell.
Four minutes before the half time whistle a scene reminiscent of the 2017/18 A-League Grand Final played out when Cristaldo whipped an inswinging free-kick into the Gully six-yard-box.
Leading with a high boot, Moreland’s Reid luckily avoided booting Spinella in the face in a manner similar to Roy O’Donovan did to Lawrence Thomas in the A-League decider, instead colliding with the Gully custodian and earning himself a yellow.
Gully was almost caught napping by Moreland following the restart, Sam Mitchinson having to sprint back to launch a last-ditch tackle to deny a threatening Lisandro Paz a shot in the 52nd minute of play.
It was the first clear chance of a half in which Moreland took control of the contest, with a volleyed effort by Cristaldo on the hour mark and a venomous long-range effort from Ukono that just sailed over the crossbar a minute later highlighting the NPL2 side’s chances.
With time ticking away it was panic stations for Gully, who was faced with the unfortunate situation of having to throw men forward against a Moreland City side built to break quickly through long balls down the channels to Cristaldo, Paz and Thomas and up top to Ukono.
And on 89 minutes, it appeared as though Moreland had done enough to secure the victory when substitute Mathew Sporle’s fast break shot was blocked into the path of Cieli, who hammered his follow-up shot home.
Perhaps the magic of Avondale’s miracle victory over Bentleigh Greens the week before still hovered over NPL Victoria though, as a glimmer of hope would emerge for Gully only seconds after the restart when an in-swinging Jonathan Bounas cross ricocheted off the head of Cooper for a waiting Muscat to poke home from the top of the six-yard box to make it 2-1.
Reinvigorated with belief after just two minutes earlier appearing consigned to NPL2, Gully then threw everything they had at the Moreland defence and were rewarded; forcing the game into extra time with just seconds left.
A Jay Davies corner in the 94th minute rebounded off the head of a Moreland defender to a waiting Muscat at the back post.
The former Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne City defender then drove a powerful header of his own back to a waiting pack in the Moreland six-yard-box where Richardson was just able to nod the ball over the goal line to make it 2-2 and send the game to extras.
Then, in the 116th minute of the extra period, Krousoratis became a legend.
Feeding a ball through the Moreland defence for Cooper to run onto and shoot, he continued his forward momentum so that he was there waiting for McDowell’s parried save; hammering a follow-up effort that the Moreland keeper couldn’t keep out despite getting a touch on, making it 3-2.
Header Image: Football Federation Victoria / Mark Avellino Photography