Curtains have come down on the 2021/22 A-League Men season and a new champion of Australian football has been crowned. In only their third year of existence, Western United have proven themselves to be the best of the continent, seeing off local rivals, reigning premiers, and heavy favorites Melbourne City 2-0 at the AAMI Park in Saturday’s Grand Final.
Backed by the wealthy City Football Group – the same people behind reigning Premier League champions Manchester City, Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos, New York City FC of the MLS, and Mumbai City of the Indian Super League – Melbourne City have risen as the new dominant force of Australian football, topping the regular season league table in two of the last three seasons (including the current one) and clinching the overall A-League Men title in 2020/21.
So it came as no surprise that many pundits are backing Melbourne City to defend their A-League Men trophy, considering that their biggest local rivals – and their closest challengers to the title this season – Melbourne Victory were eliminated in this season’s finals series in the semifinal by Western United.
But facing-off against what until now were considered as Melbourne’s “third club,” Melbourne City’s confidence were wiped away as early as the second minute after defender Nuno Reis inadvertently diverted an Aleksandar Prijovic attempt into his own net, the fastest ever goal scored in an A-League Men Grand Final so far.
Star striker Prijovic then doubled Western United’s lead in the 30th minute, this time in a much more straightforward fashion. A Connor Pain effort was blocked by Reis, resulting in the ball being deflected back towards the 28-year old. Striking Pain in the face, the ball was then thrown into Prijovic’s path via a slight deflection from Melbourne City midfielder Connor Metcalfe, before the Serb easily finished things off from close range to extend his side’s advantage.
Things got heated up in the 44th minute after Melbourne City’s Carl Jenkinson appeared to have headbutted Pain, however the English defender escaped without a booking, only to be substituted for Scott Galloway on half-time.
Melbourne City then bombarded Western United’s goal in the second half as they attempted to claw themselves back into the game, only for an excellent defensive display from Leo Lacroix, Tomoki Imai, and goalkeeper Jamie Young to deny the favorites.
In the end Western United weathered through the storm and retained their advantage all the way into full-time, earning the Green-and-Blacks their first major silverware in their short existence.
Western United’s triumph was more incredible considering the various factors that made up the club’s background this season. Head coach John Aloisi was seen by many as an underwhelming head coach due the catastrophic manner of how his previous jobs at Melbourne Heart (Melbourne City’s predecessors) and Brisbane Roar ended, as well as the fact that he had taken a 4-year sabbatical after leaving the Roar.
Moreover, Western United themselves were considered as a team without a home. Despite catering towards the western suburbs of Melbourne as well as the regional cities of Geelong, Bendigo, and Ballarat, Western United had to switch between various stadiums for their home games, including groundsharing the AAMI Park with Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory, due to their own Wyndham City Stadium being far from being completed.
The Green-and-Blacks’ young age meant that they were constantly within the shadows of their more established neighbors City and Victory, thus being considered by many as Melbourne’s “third club.”
But now, Western United are no longer a mere third club. They’re now top dogs of not only Melbourne, but also Australia as a whole. And despite their maiden continental adventure being thrown into uncertainty – the AFC’s decision to switch their AFC Champions League and AFC Cup calendars from a spring-to-autum schedule to an autum-to-spring schedule meant that many member associations had to rethink their slot allocation due to the completion of two domestic seasons before the start of the 2023/24 continental competitions – for now, Western United are allowed to celebrate their way into the night.