Saints Seal Semis Spot
Sean Boyle with the match report
It’s been another classic cup run for Saigon Saints this year. Who can forget the early rounds? Away days in the countryside. The late winner in round one against Bui Vien Wanderers, the entire Phu My Hung debacle, or the time the ref scored the equaliser for Tan Phu Reserves.
For the quarter-finals, the Saints found themselves on a bigger stage versus recently-crowned league champions Sporting Saigon. Complete with a running track, ongoing construction and military officials, The (you guessed it) Military Stadium was a fitting location for the occasion, a setting much like you would see on grainy footage of a tricky away European qualifier. Captured perfectly in the recording of the game and its strangely 90s’ taint. The only thing missing was the floodlights being mysteriously cut by a shadowy betting syndicate.
A rare luxury playing on grass, but both teams would have to adjust to the ball holding up a little more. Or even, as Saints gaffer Conor O’Reilly emphasised in the pre-game team talk, pounce on any under-hit passes from your opponents. And pounce they did, with Sporting going 1-0 up in the first minute. Hoseni latching onto a through ball to slot home. A dream start for Sporting, having just about escaped with a 2-2 draw in their encounter ten days previous.
An in-form Saints had entered the game brimming with confidence, and it was shown to be built on firm ground with a swift equaliser seven minutes later. Oisin Murphy whipping in a peach, a pearler, a left-foot curler of a corner to the back post, where new signing, the talismanic Nathan Sitch, arrived to nod in his 4th goal in three games. Saints were on top, and on the 20-minute mark, Sitch again made the difference. Nutmegging one man to a standstill, ghosting past three more with his next touch, before kindly squaring the ball off the onrushing O’Brien for a tap-in for Chuck Marion.
The Sporting keeper was called into action again on two more occasions soon after, with Tomas Fonseca first setting up Toro before being denied himself by a smart save. But there was no stopping the third, Chis Grant’s corner a right-foot homage to the opener, this time emphatically headed home by Jai Sharma. The goalscorer making a beeline for the corner flag (doing a Fonseca), which he had earmarked as a celebratory prop upon arrival at the ground.
With their initial confidence shot, Sporting found themselves 3-1 down at the break and seemingly out of answers. They had rarely troubled the centre-half pairing of reformed ex-striker, secret left-back masquerading as a centre-half, Jacob Spong, and the experienced nous of Eden Kane. Adrian Carroll and Kevin Sullivan were as imperious as ever on either side at full-back. Gav Hartnett, Chris Byrnes and Oisin dominating the midfield throughout. But as must be in cup matches, it was far from over.
Early in the second half, a series of misfortunate events and a ricochet or two led the ball to Jordan’s shapely thigh, who dragged Sporting back into the game, unleashing a dipping volley that not a reporter in the world would save. With the grass pitch taking more out of the legs as the game wore on, both teams began to tire. Darren, Mick and Dec provided fresh impetus for the Saints, winning battles at both ends of the pitch. But Sporting had found a way back in and, with 18 minutes remaining, were level. Controversy struck during the celebrations as the Sporting goalscorer lashed out at Adrian Carroll over a diplomatic misunderstanding regarding the proprietary rights to the ball. Sporting down to ten men and lucky not to be at nine. Aido is expected to make a full recovery.
The remainder of normal time saw both teams probing, Sporting remaining threatening but Saints coming close through skipper Chris Grant and a late goalmouth scramble where a fully-recovered Adrian nearly capitalised.
Exciting stuff. Drama. Tense music. And that’s just the intro to the video below. But the game would be settled by penalties. And to add more than a sprinkle of farce, only after a 30-minute floodlight imbroglio and some top-level military discussions about turning the lights back on. When the penalties did eventually commence, it was a former Saint first up for Sporting, Dolly having scored from the spot at the death just over a week ago, this time struck the post.
Nathan, Oisin, Chuck and Chris kept their nerve, leaving Jacob to nonchalantly slide the fifth home and the Saints into the next round. The jubilant scenes following the game were in true 90s style, unceremoniously cut by the tricky European away qualifier’s TV producer, but the cup holders were through.