PEAK A-LEAGUE: The 10 greatest moments in A-League Men history

Jamie Dunkin
The Nightly
Scorpion kicks, wild west shootouts, and World Cup winners.
Scorpion kicks, wild west shootouts, and World Cup winners. Credit: Getty Images

The A-League. The place where are our Socceroos are developed, where we have sauce bottles behind the goal, and where truly ridiculous matches play out on the regular.

In anticipation for the 2024 A-League Men Grand Final, here are The Nightly’s picks for the ten greatest moments in the league’s history, in no particular order.

Del Piero’s first goal

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Alessandro Del Piero scores his first goal for Sydney FC.
Alessandro Del Piero scores his first goal for Sydney FC. Credit: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Sometimes in football, time just seems to stop. When Alessandro Del Piero lined up a free-kick some 35 yards out from goal against Newcastle Jets at the old Sydney Football Stadium, time absolutely stopped. From the moment it left his boot, there was only going to be one outcome. As commentator Simon Hill called it, “that’s what they came to see, [...] that is the measure of the man”.

While the Italian World Cup winner may not have been able to drag a struggling Sydney FC side to any trophies, his skill, professionalism, and name power were enough to bring both the Sky Blues and the A-League into a new realm of mainstream attention and attendances.

Del Piero’s legacy at Sydney is the casual football fans he attracted who ended up becoming rusted-on supporters of the club well over a decade later. That is why we have marquees, and why his signing – and that first goal – is so crucial in the league’s history.

The Wild West

Following Perth’s premiership win, their first of the A-League era, they hosted a semi-final against Adelaide United. This one, like so many semi-finals it feels, etched its way into memory.

Diego Castro’s two goals put Glory in a commanding position with just ten minutes to go, before Adelaide fought back with the last kick of the game to make it 2-2 and send the match to extra time.

Glory again took the lead through Scott Neville, only to again be pegged back by the Reds, forcing this already ridiculous match to an even more ridiculous penalty shootout.

After both sides went through countless opportunities to win the shootout, and with both goalkeepers making save after save, it was set up for Joel Chianese to score the winning penalty and grant Glory a first home Grand Final of the A-League era. Less said about the subsequent Grand Final, the better.

2011 Grand Final

Brisbane Roar lift their first men's championship in dramatic circumstances
Brisbane Roar lift their first men's championship in dramatic circumstances Credit: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

When Oli Bozanic put Central Coast Mariners 2-0 up with just 17 minutes left in extra time, few would’ve predicted the match would somehow end with Brisbane Roar winning a first-ever title.

Football is a rare sport capable of moments and matches like this. Despite a Man of the Match performance from future Socceroos captain Maty Ryan, and a plethora of future stars, there is just something about certain teams and certain managers – like Brisbane Roar and Ange Postecoglou.

Erik Paartalu’s 120th-minute equaliser to send the match to penalties is as good as it gets when you talk about football’s unpredictability and its innate ability to produce magic moments.

The subsequent penalty shootout saw Michael Theo and Brazilian Henrique confirm themselves as cult heroes for the Roar, as the Queenslanders became the first from their state to win a national league title since Brisbane Strikers in 1997.

It will take some serious effort to one-up this match as the greatest ever A-League Grand Final, and perhaps the greatest Grand Final of any Australian sporting code.

Sydney Derby XIII

Four years after the first derby at the old Pirtek Stadium in Parramatta came the thirteenth, and the first one to be played at Stadium Australia in Homebush.

61,880 packed into Homebush for the highest-ever attendance in the A-League Men, and the highest in Australian national league history. For just the second time in the A-League’s history, over 50,000 attended a regular season match.

Sydney ran out 4-0 winners thanks to a second-half blitz featuring goals from Filip Holosko, Bobo, Brandon O’Neill, and captain Alex Brosque. From here, Sydney went on to win the league at a canter, losing just one game all season – to Western Sydney.

The derby hasn’t quite hit these heights again in attendance since, but this record will almost certainly remain for decades to come – and the derby will remain the league’s most important and most fierce rivalry.

Western Sydney 5-4 Brisbane Roar

Where do you even begin with a match like this? After finishing the regular season in 2nd, narrowly behind Premiers Adelaide United, Western Sydney Wanderers were set up for a bumper home semi-final against Brisbane Roar in front of a packed house in Parramatta.

It did not start well for the home side, going 3-0 down after 23 minutes before a heroic hat-trick from Romeo Castelen helped the Wanderers claim a 4-3 lead – only for Jamie Maclaren to score his second of the match and send it into extra time at 4-4.

Wanderers found the winner from Dario Vidosic, with the attacking midfielder tapping in a Mark Bridge cross to send Parramatta into raptures, and the Red and Black into the 2016 Grand Final.

Archie Scores Five

Most A-League Grand Finals tend to be very tense affairs, usually decided by one or two goals at most. Poised on the knife’s edge, featuring gritty tactical fouls, and very few shots on target at all – let alone goals.

Then there’s Melbourne Victory legend Archie Thompson scoring five goals in the 2007 A-League Grand Final as the Victorians won 6-0 against rivals Adelaide United. No, this record has not been broken.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising Thompson managed to score five goals – he already held the record for most goals in an international match with thirteen against American Samoa in that match.

It took 13 years before another player ever managed to score five goals in one match again, when Thompson’s beloved Victory were hammered 7-0 by Melbourne City as Jamie Maclaren equalled his record. But Archie can take solace in knowing nobody will beat his Grand Final record, at least not for a very, very long time.

Riley McGree’s scorpion kick

Newcastle’s finals dreams looked dead after 45 minutes in their 2017/18 semi-final against Melbourne City when Bruno Fornaroli’s effort stumbled into the back of the net.

But there’s always room for magic. Just before the hour mark, with the local crowd urging them on, Riley McGree produced possibly the greatest goal in the league’s history.

Daniel Georgevski’s forward run saw the ball played into McGree, who played a quick ball to Ronald Vargas, who chipped the ball up behind McGree who somehow, and nobody is still quite sure how, managed to flick it over his head with his heel, looping it over Dean Bouzanis, and securing himself a spot in A-League history.

Melbourne City were shocked. Newcastle were shocked. Riley McGree was the most shocked of them all.

Then came the world’s reactions.

McGree’s goal went instantly viral, with it later nominated for FIFA’s Puskas Award for the best goal of the year. He became the third Australian to have their goal nominated after Lisa De Vanna and Tim Cahill, but somehow lost out to a stock-standard goal by Liverpool’s Mo Salah that almost nobody can recall now. Go figure.

2006 Grand Final

Follow, follow, follow... Steve Corica scores the winner in season one.
Follow, follow, follow... Steve Corica scores the winner in season one. Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The A-League’s launch in 2005 was described as “soccer’s last roll of the dice”. The previous three decades had failed to make a dent in the mainstream as football stared down the barrel of a slow death. The National Soccer League, old soccer, was dead. New football, the A-League, was born.

Enter, Frank Lowy. Enter the A-League. Enter Dwight Yorke.

The first A-League Grand Final saw a perfect scenario for the young competition, with Yorke’s Sydney FC playing perennial underdogs and unlikely giants Central Coast Mariners in front of a packed-out Sydney Football Stadium.

The match itself wasn’t one you’d be rushing out to buy the DVD of bar one moment of sublime quality from the marquee man Yorke.

Carrying the ball well inside the box, feinting and faking on the ball with all that Premier League pedigree he had, he sucked in two defenders before playing an inch-perfect cut back to Steve Corica who calmly passed the ball into the net, and then wheeled off in celebration in sun-kissed Moore Park.

Sydney won the match 1-0, earning their first of five championships in the men’s competition, and that result helped cement the league has more than just a one season fad, and football as a serious sport in a crowded Sydney market.

The First Melbourne Derby

Melbourne Heart’s entry into the A-League in 2010 meant the A-League finally had a proper derby, with the Melbourne Derby born between originals Melbourne Victory and the new boys Heart.

Heart’s marquee man John Aloisi put the expansion club into the lead after just 10 minutes, before future Socceroo Robbie Kruse equalised after some lax defending just after the half-hour mark.

A deep Heart cross found a certain Alex Terra at the back post, as Heart took the lead yet again. Their task of holding on was made more difficult by a second yellow for Aziz Behich, but the expansion club secured bragging rights in the first Melbourne Derby.

Since then, the Melbourne Derby has taken on many new meanings and with countless new subplots. When you’re after atmosphere in a Melbourne sporting match, you go to a Melbourne Derby.

Mariners hit City for six

In 2017, if you were told a match between Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne City ended in 6-1, you would’ve without a doubt assumed City had hammered Mariners.

But in the 2023 Grand Final, somehow, and nobody still knows how... Central Coast Mariners, the smallest club in the league, put six past giants and flat-track bullies Melbourne City in the big dance.

Thanks to a hat-trick from Jason ‘CumDog’ Cummings and fairytale moments from three other Mariners, the Coasties secured the second-largest margin of victory in an A-League Men Grand Final and finally turned themselves around from several years of abject failure and misery.

Mariners have a chance to go back-to-back with a Grand Final this weekend against Melbourne Victory, hosted at a sell-out Central Coast Stadium.

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