Peter Desira, Herald Sun
Monday, 1 March 2004
Melbourne Knights turned their farewell to the National League into a cultural celebration of its strong connection to the Croatian community.
The Knights drew 0-0 with sister club Sydney United.
But the club’s biggest crowd of the season was intent on celebrating in typical European style rather than turning the last NSL game into a wake.
While one sign expressed thanks for the memories, another stated “Death to the NSL” — a sad statement by supporters after 18 years in the NSL.
The match was hardly most memorable but coach Ian Dobson said some players cried in the dressing rooms after the match.
“That room felt like they had come off losing a grand final,’ Dobson said.
“More than half had tears in their eyes — it made me feel for them.
“But life goes on and they go on to separate careers from tomorrow.”
The club, formed 50 years ago by Croatian migrants, had toned down the connection in its bid to survive in the NSL but last night turned back the clock to make it a full-blown celebration for the Croatian community.
The club played both the Australian and Croatian anthems, had the Croatian ambassador Dr Mladen Ibler as guest, and Croatian flags were prominent in the crowd of 6000.
It also turned a blind eye to flares and firecrackers — normally banned by the NSL — with up to 80 before and during the game.
The orange smoke gave the game a European feel but the on-field action hardly matched the atmosphere.
Sydney United had missed the the six and the Knights needed results to go their way to avoid ae bottom-two spot.
The crowd carried off the captains — Andrew Marth and Mark Rudan — after the match and chanted and danced to Croatian music.
The club played in five NSL grand finals and won two of them.
It produced many fine players, such as Mark Viduka to Danny Tiatto.
This season was the club’s worst since joining the league in 1984.
Dobson backed the tone of the celebrations but said soccer was moving.
“Today was a great day for the Croatian community — it proved that ethnic involvement had a place in the game,” Dobson said.
“But Frank Lowy has got it right — we want this game to improve. I hope he is taking it in the right direction.
“The game can’t stand still and there will be casualties.'”
Andy Vargas came closest to scoring for the Knights when a well-hit free kick from outside the box bounced off the corner of the post and the bar late in the first half.
Sydney United finished stronger with Knights keeper Tommi Tomich making two fine saves from Labinot Haliti and Anthony Zmire to ensure the club didn’t finish on a losing note.
The match was Andrew Marth’s 398th NSL game.
The captain said he would join Fawkner in the Victorian Premier League to keep himself fit and in the shop-window to join a Australian Premier League club and achieve the 400 game milestone.
Fawkner will need his services, having suffered its fourth defeat in four rounds with a 2-1 loss to Green Gully in yesterday’s round of VPL matches.