Macarthur FC’s equaliser against Melbourne City on Saturday illustrated perfectly this madcap and endlessly entertaining A-League season. The ball travelled 95m in transition, in 15 seconds, during which time eight players were closely involved – only one older than 23. The goal clinched a draw, leaving the sides first and fifth on the congested table separated by just four points.
The pivotal scene began on the stroke of the 77th minute when 19-year-old Marco Tilio high-fived 22-year-old Aiden O’Neill and made his way onto the field. Sporting brilliant white boots to contrast with his black kit, and carrying Michael Jordan’s No 23 on his back, Tilio jogged towards the left corner flag, an A-League facsimile of a poison dart frog.
“I always threw the ball in,” Johan Cruyff once quipped, “because then if I got the ball back, I was the only player unmarked.” Scott Jamieson, perhaps a future coach of Barcelona, had the same thing on his mind as he raised the ball above his head deep in attacking territory. Tilio presented with his back to goal, offering the two, to complement his captain’s one. But his first touch, a cushioned right-footed volley, was clumsy, turning the routine one-two into a jolting one-tw …
Twenty-one-year-old Denis Genreau pounced. Against his former employers he burst away down the right flank, looking up repeatedly for an advanced target, but finding none to his liking. Behind, the speedy Tilio ate up a five-metre deficit in the blink of an eye with a determined chase. The skill execution at the throw-in can be forgiven, especially for a teenager’s first touch late in a match, but the willingness to recover so urgently bears the hallmark of character that will take a player far.
As play zapped towards halfway, Tilio’s industry outwitted Genreau’s indecision and City reclaimed possession. Across glides 21-year-old Connor Metcalfe, a Rolls-Royce of a midfielder, the opening goalscorer and subsequent player of the match. He shaped to make a straightforward pass back to Curtis Good, the defender having shifted from his central location out to the touchline ready to pump a clearance into the channel. But Metcalfe’s composure was not called upon. Instead, Tilio took control of the situation, passing infield to Good’s defensive partner, 18-year-old Kerrin Stokes.
At the moment the pass was struck it appeared a customary out ball, the kind A-League teams are drilled to execute regularly throughout a match to recycle possession and shift play from a congested portion of the field in order to supply teammates in space opposite. Eighteen-year-old Michael Ruhs understood this all too well and, unbeknownst to Tilio, was already zeroing in on Stokes like a predatory cat waiting for a juvenile ruminant to stray from the herd.
When the hospital pass was struck Stokes was facing towards Macarthur’s goal. The ball travelled about 15 metres, during which time Stokes thought he had enough time to reorient his body to face his own net. He miscalculated. With his feet busy completing their core function of keeping their owner upright, there was not enough time to manoeuvre them into position to make contact with the ball. The air swing was all the invitation Ruhs required.
A pair of 18-year-olds with the fate of a top-six clash in their hands, barrelling shoulder to shoulder with the ball in dispute 35m from goal. Among the many reasons the A-League exists, this highlights one of them.
Ruhs is four months Stokes’ senior, but nobody would bat an eyelid if they were told the margin was four years. As he shoved his broader, more muscular frame between that of his Joeys squadmate and the ball, a more tender-hearted referee may have paused the game for schoolyard bullying. Undeterred, Ruhs continued his rampage, carrying the ball into the D, while 23-year-old Tom Glover charged out to his penalty spot to narrow the angle. It was a scene replayed time and again in the old 35-yard shootout days of MLS.
Glover remained on his feet, holding his nerve until the gap between striker and saver was just two metres. Ruhs did not panic. He opened his body, ensured the ball was in optimal position beside his right instep, and stroked it through Glover’s legs and into the back of the net. The first, but surely not the last, goal of the young Bull’s professional career.
The celebration was instinctive, Ruhs tearing off at speed with his white shirt billowing behind, then launching into a gratifyingly old-school leaping air-punch. A fitting finale to a breakneck 15 seconds of action that captured the essence of the present and hope for the future. The season distilled.