On a stormy September Saturday in An Phu, the Saigon Saints finally got their hands on the cup. A dramatic penalty shootout win ended a barren run of ten years since Ben Peadon lifted the third of a three-in-a-row streak in 2012.
Confidence was high coming into the semis with a 100% record in pre-season and fresh off the back of a double win for Saints and Sinners in the Ashes over the R**ders last weekend. Of course, pre-season counts for nothing if you can't do it when it matters, but as the day proved, this Saints team is made of stern stuff. Everyone had a part to play on Saturday, from the newest signings to the oldest heads.
He may never be the darling of the Saigon International Football League, but one thing no one can deny about Chuck Marion is he's excellent at scoring goals against his former teams. It was mostly (entirely) this that prompted his return to the Saints fold from the wilderness of Saigon Hotshots.
True to form, it was a Marion brace in the semis vs. his old side that booked the Saints their first cup final in a decade. New signing Declan Neill got the opener, an exquisite left-footed volley from distance that bamboozled the keeper; we will hear more about him in the final.
While summer signings like Dec, Jacob (assist) and Gav excelled in the semi-finals, there were some big performances from a few club stalwarts. Paul Hurley is back with a bang, ladies and gentlemen, with the Ashes and now a trophy inside his first two weeks after an 18-month paternity break.
A comfortable three-nil win meant the Saints had a few hours to kill before the final. In what was probably the most crucial move of the day, this correspondent had ordered a load of breakfast burritos from club sponsor and Tex-Mex legends, La Fiesta. No sausage, bacon or jalapenos; limited hot sauce, lots of hash browns were the instructions from club nutritionist, Iaiain Campbell.
Storm clouds had gathered and burst open by the time the final was due to kick off, but after some delay and partial drainage, the final got underway. Both teams started brightly despite the conditions and it was Dec Neill yet again, with the opener in the 14th minute. Closing down a defender's attempted clearance from a Ross Cunningham dink into the box, Dec somewhat fortuitously steered it into the bottom corner.
Eight minutes later and Dec again had a key role to play. The number ten slid a delightful ball into Jacob's path and despite a narrow-angle, it was another cool finish from the Saint's new talisman. A promising partnership
for the season ahead.
However, neither of these men would claim the man of the match award. That would go to yet another new signing, Adrian Carroll, a sensational presence at the back throughout. Adrian has a wand of a left boot, but he would find himself in an unconventional role before the day was done.
Two-nil up and looking extremely comfortable the Saints were in good shape as they approached the half. Eden Kane and Keith Way were immense at centre-half, Keith replacing the equally excellent Mick Condon early in the game. Kevin Sullivan slotting straight back in winning every battle at right back, Gav and Ross bossing a tough midfield battle and Chris doing what he does best stretching the full back down the flanks.
At this point, the footballing gods decided to intervene to add a bit of drama to the proceedings. The young stand-in goalkeeper for the Saints conceded what we will call a soft goal just before the half. With the Saints dropping a little deep in the second half to protect their lead, there was some typically heroic defending. However, as nerves jangled, the young Saints' 'keeper palmed a Sporting corner into the net. 2-2.
Just moments before the whistle blew, Conor O'Reilly made two key switches. Subbing himself on with the penalties in mind and hooking the unfortunate keeper, Adrian taking the gloves for the shootout. The logic behind the decision was almost immediately apparent as the new man nearly clawed out the first penalty from the top corner.
Ross and Chris slotted the first two for the Saints before Adrian repaid the manager's faith by saving Sporting's second with his feet. Chuck and Jacob kept the Saints' noses in front, bringing it down to one kick to bring the cup home. Step forward the Gaffer, Conor O'Reilly.
A high-pressure moment requiring some big balls; even watching it was tough on the nerves! But O'Reilly buried the penalty in the bottom left before spinning away to lead the celebrations.
The skipper, Chris Grant, lifted the cup, signalling the end of the Saints' drought and the start of a promising season 2022/23.