Photo: Smile for Peter
The scene was set at George Andrews Reserve as two of NPL2 East’s promotion hopefuls had the spotlight shone on them for the first time in 2017.
A bumper crowd for the opening game of the season covered nearby streets in cars as the maiden Dandenong Derby had a lot more riding on it than the Jim Memeti Cup and bragging rights. It was the first opportunity to make a statement of intent between two of the league’s heavyweights, both expected by many to fill the top two positions in the East in 2017.
Off the pitch, the biggest blows were arguably delivered by the outfit from Frank Holohan Soccer Complex, with the NPL2 Galacticos of Dandenong City making most of the headlines throughout most of the pre-season.
Mate Dugandzic was the first ex-A-League domino to fall, followed by Nick Kalmar and Ljubo Milicevic – the latter not yet featuring on pitch in Round One. Add to that well-known NPL identities in Steven Topalovic, the Kelly brothers, David Stirton and Luke Eyles, and City were boasting a squad of individuals that would have been the envy of some top-flight clubs, along with an experienced coach in Stuart Munro who has been there and done that in dealing with the tactics and egos of high-level football.
Thunder were no slouches themselves. To tie down 40-goal man Brandon Barnes despite the interest – and open wallets – of top-flight clubs was as good as a new marquee signing. Rodrigo Vargas was the pick of the new arrivals, but there were also reinforcements such as Rinor Muriqi, Alon Blumgart, Aaron Cohen and Tomas Murphy.
Some unknown quantities also arrived in the form of John Kuol and import Josh Bragg, along with head coach Gianfranco Impellizzeri, thrust into the hot seat not long before season’s start due to former Serie A recruit Giuseppe Anastasi’s inability to commit to coaching in Australia.
Most of the time, it’s the final game of the season remembered more than the first. The Thunder know better than anyone that a good start to the season – and three quarters of a campaign thereafter – means little if the collective stumbles before the finish line.
But if the hosts felt like they had a point to prove, on Friday night they laid their cards out on the table. On the pitch, they delivered a knock-out in the first round.
Watched on by former mentor Huss Skenderovic, now coaching on the national stage with Adelaide United, his former club were in inspired form to run out emphatic 4-1 winners, Barnes involved in all the goals and himself netting a classy hat-trick.
The new-look forward line took the best part of 40 minutes to click, but when it did it was a mesmerising sight.
Kuol, on the left wing, delivered in a cross which Barnes controlled and played a one-two with Bragg, whose no-look flick with the outside of the boot found the marksman to apply the finishing touches.
That essentially changed the course of the match. With the hosts buoyed at the half-time break, the next 45 were a clinic.
Murphy, who didn’t find the back of the net in three seasons and 34 league appearances for Green Gully, had one in one at his new club after being afforded too much time in the box, tucking away Barnes’ cutback for 2-0 in the 48th minute.
Muriqi, returning to the club after a seven-year absence, wound back the clock with a lovely left-footed chip to find Barnes in the box, the Englishman doing the rest to make it 3-0 with a clinical low finish.
City did pull one back through James Kelly, whose strike through traffic beat Fraser Maclaren down low.
But moments later was his brother Shaun who was powerless to resist as Barnes beat him to Kuol’s long ball and dinked it past the onrushing Damir Salcin. Game over at 4-1.
The contrast on the opposing benches was clear. Munro and his crew motionless, Impellizzeri embracing each of his substitutes. Barnes, withdrawn in the 87th minute, receiving the biggest hug from his coach and loudest cheer from the packed crowd.
It was a night that belonged to Dandenong Thunder and Brandon Barnes, the first statement of intent in 2017 delivered emphatically by the hosts.