“When Balmain Tigers FC is doing well, grassroots football is at its finest!”
This is the famous war cry initiated by club stalwart, John Koletti, affectionately known as PK (Principal Koletti), and it is never more pertinent than now as we approach the opening round of the Westfields FFA Cup.
The nationwide football community was crying out for an old fashioned, English style FA Cup tournament, pitting the smaller clubs around the nation against might of the A League clubs in a David and Goliath style knockout format, much like the famous competition conducted every year in England.
The FFA introduced the tournament in 2014, with great success, and it is now in its second year as we look forward to the first round proper, with 32 clubs from all corners of Australia doing battle.
With NSW afforded five solitary spots in the 2015 version of the Cup, it was always going to be a tough ask for this NSW State League One club to find their way in to the main draw.
Some resilient application to the task at hand, a collective determination to achieve on the pitch, and that little bit of lady luck which is synonymous with successful Cup runs, now sees Balmain Tigers FC welcome the visit of the national A League champions, Melbourne Victory, no less, to Leichhardt Oval, on Tuesday, August 4, for a 7-30pm kick off.
Let’s take a brief look at how Balmain made their way in to the main draw against all odds.
The NSW Waratah Cup, which feeds in to the Westfields FFA Cup, kicked off early in 2015, and Balmain were provided a free passage in to Round 4 following a Round 3 bye.
Local Nepean Association side, Glenmore Park, played host to the Tigers in their own David and Goliath outing, with many of the locals out in force for the midweek evening match.
Two early goals took the sting out of the locals’ enthusiasm, with Scott Tonkin and Will Donato finding the net to calm the nerves. Balmain then weathered some spirited pressure from the home side before pulling away in the second period, with further goals from the speedy Donato, his second of the match, closely followed by a Johnny Gowdy strike. A trademark free kick from set piece expert, Liam Cole, rounded off the scoring at 5-0.
The unknown was at play once more in Round 5, when Balmain Tigers travelled to play on the artificial surface of 5 Sports, Caringbah, to tackle North Epping Rangers from the Gladesville Hornsby Football Association.
Once again the Tigers quelled the spirit of the locals with some early goals, with strikes from Ahmed Chandab, Scott Tonkin and Johnny Gowdy giving Balmain a 3-0 lead after just 20 minutes. A second goal from Chandab just before the break meant it was game over before half time. North Epping came back strongly in the second half and went close to pulling a goal back, before the ever reliable Tonkin rounded out the scoring a few minutes before full time with his second of the match.
The draw for Round 6 meant the Tigers had to face the might of the Bankstown City Lions, a club sitting in the league above Balmain in the PS4 NPL NSW Men’s 2 division.
Furthermore, the Lions had within their ranks two recent A League players in ex-Socceroo, Michael Beauchamp, as well as Dean Heffernan, amongst others.
Once again 5 Sports at Caringbah was the venue, and the fast artificial turf enabled Balmain to start the game with a great tempo and fly out of the blocks.
Much like the earlier rounds, Balmain took the ascendancy yet again by grabbing two early goals. Ahmed Chandab helped set up Scott Tonkin for the opener, before Tonkin netted with an absolute piledriver from 30 yards for his, and Balmain’s second of the game.
At times the Tigers were forced to defend with plenty of tenacity, but they managed to absorb the Bankstown pressure, before hitting the Lions on the break early in the second half to extend the lead to 3-0. Chandab this time turned from provider to goal scorer with a composed finish. The Lions grabbed a consolation goal in the dying minutes, but it was too little too late as Balmain moved ominously in to Round 7.
Skipper Tommy Hyde paid tribute to a wonderful performance…. “That was probably the single best performance that Balmain have produced in the 5 years I have been at the club. Bankstown City Lions are a really top team packed full of ex A league and Socceroo’s talent, and to beat them in the manner that we did was incredibly pleasing.”
So it was onto Round 7 and a midweek trip to Bathurst to tackle the Western NSW Mariners, a team very familiar to Balmain given the Tigers had beaten them only a few weeks earlier in a State League One league match.
Being part time footballers meant the Tigers had to take time off from their day jobs to travel up to Bathurst via minibus during the day. One such trip can often help with the team bonding and help reinforce the collective focus for the task ahead.
Each game thus far had seen the vocal locals out in force, and Bathurst was no different. But, each game of the Cup had seen the locals silenced with some early goals, and this was also no different.
Ahmed Chandab grabbed the first after a well worked corner, and then Scott Tonkin capitalized on a defensive error to keep up his rich vein of scoring in the Cup.
The match threatened to be derailed shortly after when there was floodlight failure, but it was only lights out for 15 minutes or so.
Literally from the restart it was Chandab who grabbed a classy goal to secure a three goal cushion at the break. In the second half Balmain managed to slow the game down and limit the home side to a handful of chances, closing off the match with a 3-0 scoreline, and sparking plenty of celebrations at full time and on the 4 hour drive home to Sydney!
This latest victory meant that Balmain Tigers had may their way in to the semi final playoff of the NSW Waratah Cup. Even though they narrowly lost this match against PS4 NPL NSW Men’s 1 high flyers, Sydney Olympic (0-1) to a late goal, their official ranking of fifth in the tournament granted the Tigers a much anticipated berth in the main draw of the Westfields FFA Cup.
The Balmain Tigers have come a long way from their initial inception in to the structured leagues of the NSW Football Federation.
Ex A League star, Johhny ‘jockey’ Buonavoglia, and ex-coach, Alex Kaltenegger, were two of the instrumental catalysts that saw Balmain Tigers compete and then win the State League Two competition in 2008, and the club have been a very competitive unit in State League One ever since, with greater aspirations to climb the ladder further.
Let’s take a peek at some of the direct match ups we can look forward to on August 4.
Scott Tonkin/Ahmed Chandab VS Melbourne Victory defence ; with eleven goals between them thus far – Tonkin with six and Chandab with five – the Balmain Tigers strikers are in confident mood ahead of their up and coming test against the team with one of the A League’s best defensive records.
I asked Tonkin how he was preparing for the match, and what effect it has had on the squad….. “Ever since the draw was made, our intensity and league performances have picked up, as everyone wants to play against Victory.”
“The team have a mix of emotions, a little nervous, but definitely also excited. We’re hoping we can at least put on a good show, not get pushed around, and make sure we enjoy the experience.”
Tonkin has scored in each round thus far, and will be keen to make the night one to remember with a goal against the nation’s top side.
Tommy Hyde VS Besart Berisha – Melbourne Victory’s gun striker has proven a handful for any defence in the country, so Balmain can expect little consolation from the fiery marksman.
But Balmain’s ‘Mr Reliable’, skipper Tommy Hyde, is a calm and composed defender, with plenty of experience, and will relish the challenge against one of the A League’s best marksman.
I asked Hyde how he plans to approach the job of marking Besart Berisha….
“Obviously it’s going to be a massive task, and going from watching him play week in week out on TV to actually matching up against him on the 4th of August will be the biggest challenge of my career. Saying that, we will be working hard on our defensive shape and discipline on the night, and I’ll be relishing the chance to go toe to toe with him, as I’m sure the rest of our back line will be. Hopefully I can give him a taste of some old fashioned English defending, assuming I can catch him. ☺”
The Balmain players will be looking towards their enigmatic skipper for some guidance pre match, so I asked Tommy how does he plan to calm his team’s nerves just before kick off?
“Quite simple really, I’ll be asking the boys to bring the highest level of intensity they possibly can, leave everything out on the field, and most importantly, enjoy the experience. We’re playing at an iconic venue, against the best team in the country, screened live on Fox Sports…..really, the players won’t need any more motivation.”
Tommy also highlighted the impact this Cup run has had on the club.
“It’s been simply massive for the club. The exposure since the draw took place has been great for the club, and on a larger scale, we are hoping making the first round will really give us the platform to push the club forward, attract some new fans, sponsors and most importantly, some more junior players. For the first grade players, simply put, we are living the dream! It’s a great opportunity for us to test ourselves against the best and we are realistic to know this type of opportunity won’t present itself again, so we will be relishing every second.”
Joe Di Giulio VS Kevin Muscat – the football community is well aware of Kevin Muscat’s passion on the sidelines during A League matches. What they’re not aware of is that Balmain Tigers have their very own coaching mentor in Joe Di Giulio, a calmer and more composed sideline presence, but no less passionate. Even though their worlds are usually miles apart, for 90 minutes on August 4, these two gentlemen will be on an even keel, both hoping to steer their troops in to the second round of the Cup.
We asked Balmain Tigers coach, Joe Di Giulio, how he was preparing for the biggest match of his coaching career.
What does it mean to the club to be in the first round of the Westfields FFA Cup, and to be drawn against the current A League champions, Melbourne Victory?
“It’s massive for our club, it’s the first time in history we have reached a tournament of this level, it has increased our profile in the local area, and means so much to everyone at the club.”
What do you put your team’s success in reaching this stage down to?
“The commitment of the players to do well, especially given we haven’t performed too well previously in Cup tournaments. A good example of this was when we drew Bankstown City Lions, some may have thought that was going to be the end of us, but we rallied, stayed committed to our game plan, and came away with a deserved victory.”
What are you going to say to your team five minutes before they leave the dressing room to tackle the Victory?
“No one is giving us any chance of winning, the pressure is definitely on Melbourne Victory to win, and win well. So I will tell my boys that win or lose, make sure they do their best, for yourselves and your families, and enjoy the experience.”
For a club on a miniscule budget, Balmain Tigers have shown that desire and application can take you far, and there are plenty of staff and players alike who display these qualities week in, week out as they continue to make a footprint on the football community.
Perhaps the last word should go to Principal K – aka John Koletti – who has been an integral part of the club for many a year and is being rewarded for the hours upon hours of effort he and his fellow colleagues put in to keep Balmain Tigers operating.
“For myself and the other staff of the club such as Tass Fiakos, we volunteer our time and effort to allow Balmain Tigers to perform at their best in the NSW competitions. This latest chapter reaffirms that all of our hard work has come to fruition. The FFA Cup (match versus Melbourne Victory) has created a real excitement and buzz for all the players, but it has also promoted the club in many circles, and will hopefully attract sponsors, players and more fans in the coming years.”
The odds are stacked heavily in favour of a comfortable win for the Melbourne Victory, a squad of professional footballers who are the current A League champions of Australia. But I do recall quite a few years ago now, where Wrexham – then 92nd in the Football League in England – toppled Arsenal 2-1 in the FA Cup, when the Gunners were sitting top of the first division.
The Westfield FFA Cup has and will continue to produce wonderful fairytale stories – whatever happens on August 4th, 2015, know that the Balmain Tigers are already Victory-ous.