That the Melbourne Knights are not, in their present form, an A-League side was perfectly obvious on Wednesday night.
After an opening half in which Croatia was able to make somewhat of a game of it against the reigning FFA Cup holders – heading into the dressing rooms down 2-1 after Gian Albano halved a deficit created by Al Hassan Toure and Ben Halloran – Adelaide powered away in the second half; scoring thrice more to secure a 5-2 win over the NPL Victoria club.
While all but the vanquished fan loves a cupset, Brisbane Strikers’ penalty shootout win over Wellington Phoenix one of the highlights of this year’s Round of 32, the Adelaide and Knights game, as do most A-League versus member federation games, served as reminder of the gap that exists between full-time professionals and their semi-pro counterparts.
However, despite the gulf that existed between the clubs on the field, there was one area that no one can accuse the Knights of falling short: the 4,078 fans that were in attendance on Wednesday night treated to an atmosphere that was dripping in passion, excitement and, perhaps most importantly, authenticity.
There can be no doubt that an outbreak of threatening behaviour or violence would have been a major blow not only to Knights but, unfortunately, clubs throughout the push for a second tier; the disturbing images broadcast across the nation by Fox Sports.
But, thankfully, that never came.
Instead, be it through the ćevapi and ražnjići on offer in the canteen, the presence of a live band singing songs in both English and Croatian in the beer garden of the social club, the fans bursting into life when Albano found the net, the celebration of the memory of beloved Knights figure Mirko ‘Rus’ Rastocic prior to kickoff or even a duck – yes a duck – wearing a checkerboard top and perched on a chair next to the fences, everything about Wednesday night felt like it represented the amazing diversity found in Australian football.
Long after the game’s conclusion, an elderly Knights supporter was waiting outside the exit of the Knights’ social club rooms where the players of both sides had shared a meal, making sure to shake the hand of every Adelaide United player he could get the attention of in order to congratulate them on their win.
Moments such as that, just a small piece of the bigger picture around what made Wednesday night such an enjoyable experience, offers an insight into what clubs like Melbourne Knights Football Club – or clubs like South Melbourne Football Club, Marconi Stallions Football Club, Brisbane City Football Club, Sydney Olympic Football Club, or Adelaide City Football Club – can bring to the Australian game alongside Melbourne Victory, Western Sydney Wanderers, Perth Glory, or Sydney FC.
“I absolutely loved that everything was so Croatian, the place just felt rich with history. There were no dramas with fans, just the usual banter one would find with opposition fans.
“It was lucky that we ended up with an away bay as I was told that was only approved this morning, we weren’t going to get our own bay which would’ve been very intimidating if we had to sit with Knights’ fans.
“I felt very safe, security was near us, not like I felt we required them but it was good as there was nothing separating the sets of fans.”
Ultimately, Wednesday demonstrated that not only do traditional clubs have a history to be celebrated – the Knights hosted the likes of Billy Vojtek, Fausto de Amicis, Danny Tiatto and Andrew Marth as their guests on Wednesday – but also an exciting future in which they can contribute their unique culture, atmospheres and experiences to an Australian footballing ecosystem crying out for authenticity.
The Knights – in conjunction with a number of other ambitious NPL clubs and the Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) – have already been a major driver in the push towards reforms in Australian football.
Still retaining pride of place on the Mark Viduka stand during the game, the “#EraseNCIP” banner now served not as the rallying cry that it represented when it was erected, but instead as a reminder of the club’s drive towards scrapping the unpopular policy governing the identities of Australian football clubs.
Above that slogan was a banner adorned with the words “#ProRelForAus.”
The Knights have been vociferous in their push for the opening up of the Australian football pyramid, releasing a statement in the wake of the release of the National Second Division White Paper to place itself at the centre of discussions surrounding a second tier in Australian football.
With Wednesday evening, in the eyes of some, presenting an opportunity to poke holes in the Knights case for a place in the second tier of Australian football, the club resolved to put their best foot forward.
Over $70,000 was poured into renovations to the famous Knights Stadium in the lead into the visit from Adelaide; refurbishing the ground’s media tower, upgrading the grandstand’s lighting, conducting maintenance to said grandstand’s seating and re-laying sections of a pitch that had already seen almost a full season of NPL action.
A bevy of volunteers also sprang into action, first working tirelessly to aid in the renovations and then shifting into roles such as directing traffic, staffing the canteen and merchandise stalls and various other roles needed to ensure the deliverance of the fixture.
“We spent about 75-grand,” Knights President Pave Jusup told dailyfootballshow.com ahead of the game.
“From club funds and sponsors donating materials and labour. It mostly went on the media tower and lighting upgrades around the ground, as well as general maintenance.
“Tonight, we’ve got 80 volunteers. We’ve got quite a good base of people that are always willing to put up their hand, work hard for the club and get things done. Our club’s been volunteer-based since day one. We pride themselves on that.
“The club is… we try to keep our people engaged because it’s not my club or any other individuals club. It’s a collective.”
Ultimately, the push for a national second division – let alone the introduction of promotion and relegation between the tiers – is one that still requires significant work ahead.
But Wednesday night once again demonstrated that, at its best, no other sport in Australia can match the rich, vocal, diverse and alive atmosphere provided by a football game.
It has served as the latest in a series of reminders thrown up by the FFA Cup of the tantalising possibilities that lie ahead for the game in this country.