NEWCASTLE were still waiting for an explanation on Sunday as to why they were forced to play 75 minutes a woman down in their epic 3-2 extra-time W-League semi-final loss to Sydney.
The Jets were behind 2-0 at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday when defender Hannah Brewer was given a straight red card in the second minute of first-half injury-time for a foul on Lisa De Vanna outside the penalty area. Brewer was seemingly deemed to be the last defender despite centre-back Natasha Prior running alongside the pair at the time of the challenge.
Against all odds, Newcastle rallied with goals to Arin Gilliland (53rd minute) and Tara Andrews (92nd) to send the game to extra-time, but De Vanna finished a counterattack eight minutes in to end the fairytale comeback.
Newcastle coach Craig Deans said Brewer’s challenge on De Vanna was “definitely a free kick and probably a yellow card, but I can’t see where there’s a red card, and it did change the game”.
“I’d like someone to explain it to me because from where I was sitting, two players were running with Lisa De Vanna, one made a tackle and the other was still running with her,” he said. “My understanding is that if it’s not the last player or a reckless or dangerous tackle, which it wasn’t ... so it would be nice to get an explanation, but it’s not going to change the game.
“But I don’t want to talk about referees. The game is not about referees. The only thing that annoys me is that it took an opportunity away from a player to play in a game that they’ve worked really hard to get to.”
Deans was “super proud” of his side’s fightback against the class of Sydney, who led through individual brilliance from Caitlin Foord (ninth minute) and a long-range shot from Kylie Ledbrook (35th).
“The first half was disappointing,” he said. “We made a good start but then had a couple of lapses in concentration and we got punished for them. Then maybe with a little bit of the nerves and inexperience in finals, we lost our way a bit for the last 15 minutes of the half, then the red card changed the game.
“That last 75 minutes is exactly what we want from our players, our team and our club. That’s the benchmark now and we’ve got to make sure we keep reproducing efforts like that for the next however many years.”
Sydney will play Melbourne City, who beat Brisbane 2-0, in the decider.
Deans said Sydney were full of praise and respect for Newcastle after Saturday’s game and he hoped they would go on to win the championship.
Midfielder Tori Huster and centre-back Natasha Prior played through injury for the Jets and were among the heroes for Newcastle.
“Tori did no training all week, played 120 minutes and finished the game the way she started, but I think every player was in the same boat,” Deans said. “I can’t fault their application.
“Katie [Stengel] and Jenna [Kingsley] did the work of three people up front. Katie did it for 75 minutes and Jenna for 60. Neither scored a goal but the amount of work they did was impressive.”
Gilliland’s goal came from a back-post header off an Emily Van Egmond corner kick.
With Foord off at half-time with a foot injury, Sydney still looked likely to extend their lead and progress to the grand final but the Jets held firm before substitute Andrews’ heroics in the second minute of stoppage time.
Andrews’ pass put Gilliland on goal and her shot was blocked but not controlled by the Sydney keeper Aubrey Bledsloe. Gilliland regained possession and passed to Stengel who found an unmarked Andrews for the equalising strike.
A stunned home side responded through De Vanna in the eighth minute of 30 minutes of extra time when she finished a one-on-one chance following a counterattacking run from defender Emily Sonnett from a Jets corner.
It came after Stengel had a shot knocked wide. A tired Newcastle continued to press for an equaliser while goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom made great saves to keep them in the hunt.
Captain Van Egmond said the red card call “was just football, and that happens, but I’m just really proud of the girls today, to fight back right until the end”.
“It’s been a really enjoyable season for us here at Newcastle,” she added.
On the second-half revival, she said: “Obviously we had some work to do and credit to the girls, they came out with the right mindset and we got two back, but unfortunately we copped a third in extra-time.
“But I’m just super proud of the team and the club in general.”
In regular time, Newcastle had the better of the opening minutes and had chances when Brewer’s shot off a turnover was tipped wide and Van Egmond’s strike went over the crossbar.
However, it was Sydney, through brilliance from Matildas star Foord, who scored first.
Off a ball from the top from De Vanna, Foord eluded two defenders with skill before a well-placed strike beat Eckerstrom.
Sydney pushed hard for a second against a sluggish Jets and Ledbrook’s powerful strike was denied by Eckerstrom’s reflex block in the 31st minute.
Ledbrook, though, could not be denied in the 35th when she hit a skewed shot on the run from distance to score.
AAP reports: Sydney FC has stretched their unbeaten run to 10 matches to reach the grand final, but the victory came at a high cost.
Foord limped off at halftime with a foot injury, and faces an extended spell on the sidelines in what would also be a blow to the Matildas' upcoming Asian Cup campaign.
The injury partly overshadowed Sydney FC's win as they chase a first title for five years.
"It doesn't look good," said Sydney FC coach Ante Juric about Foord's injury.
"She has had that kind of foot injury in the past and she was out for a long time."
Ledbrook also limped off during extra time after also suffering a foot injury, but Juric expects the veteran to be fully fit for next week's decider against the winner of Sunday's second semi-final between Brisbane Roar and Melbourne City.
"At 2-0 we were sort of cruising and I wasn't happy that we copped two silly goals," said Juric.
"I always felt we would get through, but we always do it the hard way and have done throughout the whole season."