Moe and the miracle championship

Leaders: Moe United Soccer Club 2013 LVSL championship winning coach Lee Dastey and captain Marc McHallam. Photograph: Liam Durkin





THERE are certain moments in the history of any sporting organisation that stand out above the rest.

Certain moments that enter their own place, and even their own vernacular among the chapters of their history.

Moments vividly remembered by those who bared witness, sure to live on long after the event itself took place, or even long after those who participated have moved on.

For the St Kilda Football Club, it is 1966, for Australian Cricket, it is the ’99 World Cup Semi.

For Moe United Soccer Club – it is 2013.

Or more specifically – ‘The Miracle League Championship of 2013’.

The Red Devils of 2013 might not have been the strongest, or most dominant team Moe has ever fielded, but they are surely the most remarkable.

For what they achieved defied everything normally associated with success in a competition that rewards the side that finishes on top of the ladder.

The Red Devils never headed the Latrobe Valley Soccer League (Gippsland Soccer League at the time) table until the very last day of the season – in fact, the last minute.

They left their run late, but were ahead when it mattered most.

How they did it combined unbelievably good timing with big-game performance, and admittedly, a healthy dose of luck.

Luck could just mean the story holds more romance – as there is a high chance something like it will never happen again.

What shouldn’t be lost is that in 2013, Moe United also stopped an opponent winning back-to-back titles, and one that had completed a hat-trick of LVSL championships just four years earlier.

Moe United players gathered recently to commemorate 10 years since their 2013 triumph.

Players and officials came to Olympic Park, regaling tales from what ended up being a truly spellbinding season.

While it was “one we were never meant to win”, or perhaps indeed one Moe had no right to win, the history books will forever say otherwise.

The Red Devils performed a miracle in 2013.

This is how they did it.

Early stages

AFTER a few so-so years, Moe United was eager to turn things around in 2013.

The Red Devils had just welcomed new clubrooms the year before, and with playing coach Lee Dastey preparing the enter his second year at the helm, new silverware would have fitted in nicely with a new facility.

Dastey moved into the top job following a number of years with Moe as a player, coming to the club through a friendship with fellow state-league player Jason Koppen.

With a career at national level with Morwell Falcons, Dastey brought a wealth of experience and class to the role, however, the Moe assignment presented a couple of immediate challenges.

While the Red Devils were one of the LVSL’s most successful clubs, they hadn’t won a league title since 1997, and defending champion Churchill was in the midst of a formidable era.

In the six years between 2007 and 2012, the Rams had won four league titles (including a hat-trick from 2007-09) and finished runner-up on another occasion.

Speaking of hat-tricks, Churchill striker Paul Riess had a blistering start to the season, kicking three consecutive hat-tricks from Rounds 1 to 3. His efforts saw him skyrocket to the top of the league goal scoring, and saw the Rams win their first five games.

Moe by contrast weren’t too far away, and were quietly going about their business.

The Red Devils started the year with a 5-nil win against Tyers, and had another 5-nil result against Newborough/Yallourn in Round 4, although a 2-all draw with Sale United meant they trailled Churchill by half-a-game.

Dastey introduced a new formation in his first season in charge, doing away with a sweeper sitting behind the defence.

“We changed to a ‘back-four’ … most teams didn’t play that way around here, that was a major change,” he said.

“It took a bit of time in the preseason working on that back-four to make sure they (Moe players) knew they didn’t have the cover of someone behind them to clean things up, that was probably the biggest focus we had during that preseason.

“You are relying on your back-four to cover each other, the defender needs to have their wits around looking after each other.

“The sweeper was just outdated, I preferred playing with a back-four myself so made that a bit of a mission to start the season, concentrating on that (back-four) and teaching what we needed to do.

“It was popular during the ’90s, but football around the world moved away from playing with a sweeper but for some reason all clubs in the LVSL didn’t, and still to this day some don’t, it’s probably the only place you actually get a sweeper playing.”

The change might have taken a year to take effect, but signs the back-four was starting to click were evident early in 2013.

“As the season started to build, you started to believe you could be challenging for it (the league),” Dastey said.

“I firmly believed it, but didn’t say it. The previous season … halfway through that season we were eighth on the table and came home pretty well in the second half of the season.

“Quietly, based off that second half of the season and the squad we had, I thought we’re not far off the mark, but coming from where we were I didn’t say it to too many people because most people would have thought it was a strange thing to say.”

Few hiccups

COMING into Round 6 against Monash, the Red Devils carried a record of four-wins, one-draw and zero-losses.

A fortnight later, Moe had added two losses to that record.

The Red Devils lost 3-2 to Monash, in a result that was perhaps a precursor to Moe’s recent struggles taking on the Wolves, and then 2-1 to Falcons.

While the losses were marginal, they threatened to come back to haunt the Red Devils later in the season.

Fortunately for them, Churchill dropped their Round 6 game to Sale 2-0, the same team Moe tied with in Round 2.

Moe met Churchill in Round 8, and played out a stalemate across two halves that saw neither side trouble the scorers.

The nil-all draw may have given the Red Devils confidence against the top side, but the catch-22 was that they had gone three rounds without a win.

Dastey, who had previously remained tight-lipped, perhaps upset the soccer Gods during this time.

“Early on in the season we started quite well and I thought we might be a chance to have a decent season,” he said.

“The first time I mentioned challenging for the title, we suffered our first loss.”

Hanging in there

MOE stabilised their season by going on a five-game winning streak from Rounds 9-13.

The Red Devils went on a scoring spree during this period, kicking 22 goals, highlighted by an 11-nil drubbing of Tyers in Round 10.

At the other end of the pitch, the back-four defence appeared to be working like a charm, as Moe only let through three goals.

The percentage boosting wins were certainly welcomed, as was a 2-1 result against Sale, making up for the draw from earlier in the season.

Victory against Sale, described as one of a few “critical results” by Dastey, was gained in injury time.

It was not to be the only time Moe found a winner late in the piece during the 2013 LVSL season.

Gone for all money

FOR all of Moe’s good work however, Churchill was more than equal to the task.

The Rams too won five games in a row following their draw against Moe, and then went two better to make it seven-in-a-row.

Moe’s loss to Fortuna in Round 14 saw the Rams go eight points clear on top of the ladder after they beat Newborough/Yallourn 3-1.

Things didn’t get much better for the second-placed Red Devils the next week, who despite flipping the result on Monash and winning 2-1, found themselves still eight points off top spot.

Moe was in the same position as the previous week, but now with even less time on their hands.

The reality of the situation could not have been clearer – with three points awarded for each win, the Red Devils would have to win the last three games of the season to even be a remote chance of claiming the league.

Even then it was wishful thinking.

Surely there was no way back from here.

The odds would have been 500-1.

Even Dastey, and Moe United captain Marc McHallam were ready to concede.

“It felt like a formality that Churchill would win the league,” Dastey said.

“When you are that far behind right near the end you don’t think it is going to happen. With three games to go we thought it would never happen,” McHallam recalled.

Given a Churchill league title looked like it was only a matter of days away, rumours began circulating that championship merchandise had already been ordered.

Tide turns

WITH their season now only belonging in the category of ‘mathematically possible’, Moe sought to end its campaign on a high note.

A Saturday night fixture between Churchill and Olympians didn’t give the LVSL public much to get excited about.

Dastey did not pay much attention to this match, thinking Churchill would have no trouble dealing with a side who had won just four games up to that point.

However, in a shock result, the underdog prevailed, winning 3-2.

“I wasn’t checking their result expecting anything to happen,” Dastey said.

“I jumped into bed around midnight and just happened to have a look at their result and saw that they lost, so that was pretty unexpected, Olympians at the time were pretty far down the table.”

When Moe beat Falcons 3-1 the next day, there was all of a sudden renewed hope at Olympic Park.

“Your interest sparked from there because up to that point it was all gone, you knew something could happen,” Dastey said.

As the numbers were crunched, it became clear if Moe beat Churchill in the second-last round, there would be a two-point difference between the two in the race to the league.

“What was expected to be over, all of a sudden wasn’t. Everyone knew, ‘hang on, we’ve got a big week ahead of us to get a result if we can against Churchill’, and then go into that last day, at least we’re a chance, I think everyone felt that,” Dastey said.

Falling into place

BEFORE playing Churchill in their season-defining match in Round 17, the two clubs faced off in the Battle of Britain final.

The Rams came from behind to win the cup final 3-1, and entered the penultimate match of the regular season looking near-certainties to secure two trophies in as many weeks.

Even a draw would have put them in an unlosable position; six points clear with one round to play.

The game didn’t end up being far off a draw, but it was the Red Devils that found the winner they so desperately needed.

The result – a 1-nil victory to Moe, sending the race to the league championship into the final round.

Even then, the Red Devils were still two points from the silverware. Moe had to play Traralgon City, a side it had beaten 4-2 during the season, while Churchill had to take care of Fortuna, a team it had narrowly defeated 2-1 the same week as Moe’s corresponding early season game to Traralgon.

Although Fortuna was midtable, they had still won 10 games, and given history, Dastey knew Churchill would have a fight on their hands.

“They’re rivals (Churchill and Fortuna), so we knew Fortuna were never going to lie down and give them the result,” he said.

Adding more spice to the final round was the fact the Churchill/Fortuna game was played on Saturday night.

With Moe to play on the Sunday, the Red Devils would know their destiny by the time their heads hit the pillow.

Sure enough, Fortuna gave Moe the result they were after, defeating Churchill 3-2.

The stage was then set: all Moe had to do was beat Traralgon City in the last game to win the LVSL championship.

Against all odds

IN a season of so many twists and turns, it was perhaps fitting there was so much drama on the last day.

For Moe supporters however, they surely wished there wasn’t when they found themselves down against Traralgon City – a team who had only won four games for the year.

With the league title on the line, it was high-stakes drama of the tallest order.

As Dastey recalls, nothing was going to plan.

“We came here (to Olympic Park) against Traralgon City, it was a game we were expected to win, and we were terrible, we put in a really poor performance in the first half, we were 1-nil down,” he said.

“With 20 minutes to go we were still 1-nil down, missed a penalty myself, we got an equaliser and needed to push for a winner and managed to get it in the last minute.”

Sam Lietzau wrote himself into Moe United folklore with two second half goals, including the winner on the stroke of fulltime.

Capping off the climax was former NSL player Manny Gelagotis in his swan-song, finally able to play for his hometown, having a say in the final play. Gelagotis kicked a long ball to Dastey, who crossed it to the back post where Lietzau did the rest.

McHallam accepted the accolades amid a euphoria of disbelief.

“It was ecstasy that feeling because we thought we’d blown it, it must have been literally the last play of the game,” he said.

“You can’t write that scrip, the way it happened, I don’t think they’ll ever be a league that ends like that again … unbelievable.”

Dastey too said it was pure disbelief at what had transpired.

“Couldn’t have left it any later, it was nerve-racking for everyone because we knew we were having a terrible day and just had to keep fighting, hoping something would go our way,” he said.

“It was disbelief, you went in with a lot of hope that day to get a result but it was looking bad for a long period, it was disbelief that we managed to get something because we didn’t create a lot that day and didn’t get a lot of chances.”

Aftermath and legacy

THE triumph made it eight senior championships for Moe, and undoubtedly, their most remarkable.

The Red Devils would go on to win another title in 2016, and the Battle of Britain just last year.

Churchill, to their credit, got redemption the next season by taking out the league title, but it remains their last LVSL senior championship to date.

In terms of a fairy tale, just about everything aligned perfectly for Moe United in 2013, from the midseason slump, to peaking late in the season, even to the scheduling of Saturday games making their path to an improbable championship clearer.

Dastey, a Moe United life member who’s sons have played and still play with the club, labelled it the most unique season he has played in.

“Championships don’t come around too often, from where we were at the time, probably not expecting to win that season, the way it came about was pretty surreal,” he said.

“There probably is a bit of luck in there for anyone who wins a league, we just happened to get our points towards the end of the season. We dropped our games early in the season where Churchill dropped their games late in the season, I suppose it evens itself out but it is more dramatic by the way it happened.

“Any club could win leagues in the future but it’s probably rare you’re going to get that sort of scenario, a lot of it does stick in the mind of the players, we’ve talked about it over the years, it was a different one but one you’ll never forget.”

For Moe United Soccer Club, the miracle of 2013 will take some beating.

“The club has won a few over the years, each one is special for those involved at the time, but the guys that have been around the club for many years think of the 2013 one as pretty special,” Dastey said.

“You don’t win too many, it’s definitely the most exciting, no matter what level you win at, to win it that way makes it memorable.”

Miracle makers: Moe United’s 2013 championship-winning team, gathered for their 10-year reunion. Photograph: Liam Durkin
Unbelievable: Moe came from an impossible position to win the 2013 Latrobe Valley Soccer League championship. Photograph supplied