Young Hearts: Jamie Young lifts Western United to elimination final win

It couldn’t have been by any other scoreline, could it? Western United booked their place in a two-legged semifinal with Melbourne Victory on Saturday evening after downing Wellington Phoenix 1-0 at AAMI Park on Saturday evening. 

It was the eighth time this season that John Aloisi’s side had won by the slimmest of margins. In doing so, not only did they secure a win over Wellington for the first time since their inaugural A-League Men (ALM) fixture at the start of the 2019-20 season, but also surpassed Perth Glory’s 1999-2000 National Soccer League side with the most such wins in a single season. 

Admittedly, after making a memerific habit of winning by a 1-0 scoreline early in the season, United hadn’t actually won by that margin since a triumph over Sydney on February 23. But like a warm blanket, here it was when they needed it the most: helping them snap a three-game losing run and secure their third finals win in franchise history.

Now, officially, no side in Australian national league history has been better at winning 1-0 than this Western United side. It’s not luck, it’s a habit. 

This result, delivered by a tenth-minute thunderbolt from Aleksandar Prijović, also ensures that the 2021-22 ALM Grand Final will be staged in Victoria, with one of top-three seeded Melbourne City, Victory, or United now guaranteed to be taking part. United’s focus can turn to the first of two AAMI Park fixtures with Victory that will determine one-half of the participants in this year’s grand final on Tuesday. 

But what also cannot be ignored, as has been the case for so many games this season, none of this would have been possible without the work of United goalkeeper Jamie Young. Both coaches were quick to lavish best-on-ground post-game, with ‘Nix coach Ufuk Talay almost bemused at how his side had been unable to find a way past the man in purple.

The veteran custodian produced a series of magnificent saves to keep the increasingly desperate Phoenix at bay as the game progressed; demonstrating just why he was signed at the start of the campaign and why there are whispers that it is he, and not defender Leo Lacroix, that may be United’s best shot at the Johnny Warren medal.

As Phoenix piled on the pressure in just the sixth minute of the contest, the 36-year-old produced a magnificent save as he got down low to his left to block away a shot laced in from Reno Piscopo that, otherwise, was destined for the bottom corner. 

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Four minutes later, Prijovic was collecting a cross from Ben Garrucio that sailed over the head of Dylan Wenzal-Halls and to his position at the back post and lacing and rifling an effort beyond Oli Sail. As good a night as he would go on to have, it’s unlikely that Young, or indeed any keeper, would have saved that one – such was the venom with which it was struck. 

The strike served to completely change the dynamic of the game. Perhaps the ALM’s best side in transition, the visitors were now forced to come out of their shell and chase the game; surrendering the ability to sit back, soak up pressure and react to a side that had made that the bedrock of their best football this season. 

This starved Phoenix of meaningful chances across the first half but, even when the weight of possession and territory did begin to take its toll and shots began to flow as the game opened up in the second stanza, Young was there. 

His save in the 71st minute to keep James McGarry’s header from a Tim Payne cross was one of the best saves that any keeper in any league could ever hope to produce – a genuine world-class effort – and his move to deny a Piscopo free-kick minutes later was likewise crucial. 

On other occasions, fate conspired against Phoenix even without Young’s intervention: Clayton Lewis’ effort from outside the box in the 19th minute flashing wide, a long-range shot from Piscopo clattering off the post in the 62nd minute, or Old’s header from a David Ball header that flashed wide in the 68th. 

It must be acknowledged that United weren’t exactly helpless babes in the woods as all this transpired. They had the best of the game in the opening 45 minutes and would have given themselves a cushion if not for some wasteful finishing such as Wenzel-Halls inexplicably missed from close range in the 65th minute. But, in the end, it didn’t matter. 

United will have room for improvement and will count Rene Krhin on their growing injured list after the Slovenian was withdrawn in the 74th minute with a suspected hamstring injury. Yet sometimes, finals can have a funny way of encapsulating a side’s season across 90 minutes. 

And on Saturday, the story of United’s 2021-22 season was told. It wasn’t pretty, but they don’t care. To the tune of Pet Shop Boys’ version of Go West: 1-0, to the Western.

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Header Image Credit: Western United

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