Dandenong Thunder will remain in the highest tier of Victorian football in 2019 after recording a dramatic 1-0 win over FC Bulleen Lions in yesterday’s Promotion and Relegation Playoff.
Ensuring that they lived to fight at least one more day after a Brandon Barnes hat-trick inspired them to a 4-1 win over Melbourne Knights on the final day of the 2019 NPL Victoria regular season, it was again the number ten that proved to be the Thunder’s hero; the big striker popping up in the 84th minute of the game to win the contest for his side.
Though much scuttlebutt has centred around the future of Barnes at Dacland Stadium in 2020, his late winner for the Thunder – his 139th in a Red and Black shirt – will only add the to the legend of the Englishman within the Thunder faithful.
On the other side, it was a cruel end to the season for FC Bulleen Lions.
Relegated at the end of the 2018 season, the side from the Veneto Club had made no secret of their fierce ambition to return to the topflight in 2020 and, juggling their NPL commitments with a run to the Round of 32 of the FFA Cup, had engaged in a dogfight with NPL2 Eastern Conference Champions Eastern Lions into the final round of the season.
Booking their place at AAMI Park after defeating Moreland Zebras in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion on Tuesday evening, Bulleen figures were quietly confident coming into the game.
If they were confident, though, it failed to translate to swashbuckling football in the opening exchanges of the contest; the occasion and the astronomical stakes involved seemingly forcing both sides into a more conservative approach.
Frequently doubled up by the Bulleen centre backs, Barnes had a chance to open the scoring in the fifth minute of play when he was able to find a yard of space inside the penalty area, only for Bulleen custodian Alexander Pavlidis to make a strong save at his near post.
Bulleen captain Eli Luttmer looked to respond with a headed effort at the back post from a Phil Petreski free kick in the game’s seventh minute, but could only force a comfortable save from goalkeeper Pierce Clarke.
They were early chances in a game that was categorised by a sparseness in them, the only truly notable chance of the remainder of the first half coming when Daniel Scopelliti broke into space down the left for the Lions in the 38th minute only to send his shot wide.
As the second half wore on, with Bulleen beginning to play some better football and force themselves into the ascendency, the game’s scant chances increasingly turned into a duel between the two side’s talismans in Barnes and Ben Everson.
Both big men had chances to break the deadlock, Everson having a close-range effort blocked by Nick Modaffari in the 58th minute and Barnes twisting and shooting a ball over the bar up the other end moments later.
Using his pace to steal the ball of Modaffari in the 77th minute, Bulleen’s Johnny Kuol had a golden opportunity to break the deadlock as he burst down the right before cutting inside and shooting but was only able to drag the shot across the face of goal.
But, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Getting to the byline in the 84th minute, Dandenong’s Kieran Dover, under fierce pressure from Luttmer, was able to twist and turn before launching a cross in towards the far post.
Though he got to the ball first, Bulleen defender Andrew Mullet’s subsequent attempt at a clearing header was poor and led to a scramble for the ball inside the penalty area. Looking to make amends, Mullet’s second attempt at a second clearing header only managed to do the opposite; the defender missing the ball completely and allowing it to fall to Barnes.
Despite Mullet desperately draping himself all over him in an attempt to give away a penalty rather than the open shot, the strength of Barnes won out as he fired a low effort into the back of the net from just outside the six-yard box to win the game for the Thunder.