SYDNEY, May 5 (Reuters) - A ninth-minute goal from Kosta Barbarouses and goalkeeping heroics from Lawrence Thomas handed Melbourne Victory a record fourth Australian title after a 1-0 win over the Newcastle Jets in the A-League playoff final on Saturday.
The Jets finished bottom of the league last season and were looking to complete a fairytale turnaround in front of a capacity crowd of 29,410 at their own stadium.
Their hopes took a hefty early blow, though, when Leroy George swung a free kick in towards the Newcastle goal, James Donachie headed the ball back and Barbarouses lashed it into the net off a defender.
A single goal did not look like being enough, however, and the home side had the better of an entertaining first half only to be kept at bay by Thomas, who had put in a similarly impressive shift in the semi-final against Sydney FC.
The man of the match finished the game with his head swathed in bandages after being kicked in the face by Jets striker Roy O’Donovan in stoppage time, the Irishman earning a red card for his desperate lunge.
The Jets had been better contained by the experienced Victory side after the break and it was the 4,000 fans who had made the 1,000 kilometre journey from Melbourne who were left to celebrate the return of the title they last held in 2015.
“It’s amazing,” New Zealand international winger Barbarouses said.
“The boys had to dig so deep, we were massive underdogs tonight and the boys came through. Lawrence was fantastic.”
Thomas’s first save denied O’Donovan from close range in the 17th minute but the second on the half hour mark was even better, the goalkeeper getting down to stop a Riley McGree drive and doing just enough to prevent Jason Hoffman netting the rebound.
The Jets, reflecting the spirit of their phlegmatic Scottish coach Ernie Merrick, stuck patiently to their game plan but were unable to make the breakthrough.
The visitors worked their way back into the match after halftime, though, and O’Donovan put his body on the line to stop them from doubling the lead in a goalmouth scramble.
Victory boss Kevin Muscat has been part of all four of the club’s titles - a record tally for one club in the short history of the A-League - two as captain under Merrick and two as coach.
Saturday’s was probably the toughest to win, achieved from fourth place in the league after a rollercoaster ride of season during which Muscat was booed by the club’s fans at times.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges this season but we’ve faced them all down,” Muscat said.
“It got to the point that it seemed like the whole country wanted us to fall over at the final hurdle but the boys dug deep and in the end it was just an almighty battle.” (Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ed Osmond)