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City Stories: 'Clive, Mitch and the night Yarraside kept singing' by Aidan Fawkes

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

Rarely has a football match been both as memorable and forgettable as that which transpired at AAMI Park on February 17, 2012.

And rarely has the identity of a game’s winning team been so much a footnote as this, now merely the answer to a trivia question: "Who did Gold Coast United lose to the night club owner Clive Palmer made a 17-year-old captain?"

In the annals of the Melbourne Heart history books, the 1-0 win in Round 20, 2012, won't rate much of a mention.

The crowd was poor, the football even worse, and only Eli Babalj's close-range finish from Matt Thompson's clever cutback prevented us from being more of an embarrassment than Gold Coast – and an embarrassment they were.

Babalj celebrates the winner. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images AsiaPac

In the days leading up to the fixture, bottom-placed Gold Coast announced that Mitch Cooper, aged just 17 years and 56 days (on the matchday), would captain the club on his A-League debut, with regular skipper Michael Thwaite suspended.

Coach Miron Bleiberg backed the idea. Palmer liked to “think a bit outside of the box” and had come up with “a great idea which I endorse”, he said.

But Bleiberg’s off-the-cuff line that the appointment was “ceremonial” earned him the wrath of Palmer, who sensationally suspended him for the contest.

Gold Coast lost, Bleiberg quit and the club was disbanded come season’s end, but the match deserves to be remembered for more than Heart's supporting role in one of the sorriest chapters in A-League history.

Because, for 90 minutes on a cold Friday night, with the lukewarm food offering better fare than the football, one part of the story overshadowed the rest: Yarraside never stopped singing.

Heart were on an eight-game winless run that had dropped them from second in late December to sixth by February.

They were up against a basketcase of a club, run by a mining magnate who’d made a teenage debutant captain and suspended his coach.

And despite only one opponent – Kristian Rees – being older than 23, they laboured for 80 minutes before Babalj’s intervention.

Yet Yarraside never stopped singing.

They never stopped singing throughout a woeful first half, in which Fred missed a sitter and frustration set in. They never stopped singing as Gold Coast threatened an upset straight after the break, the “We are Melbourne” chant starting up and not relenting. They never stopped singing as chance after chance went begging, full-time approached and hopelessness started to set in.

Then the goal arrived. Fred to Thompson to Babalj. Cue relief, cue pandemonium.

This was a dismal week for the A-League and there were few reasons for optimism among the Heart faithful, but amid farcical scenes off – and then on – the field, the persistent noise from the south end of AAMI Park meant Yarraside emerged with the most credit.

A memorable postscript to a forgettable chapter and one which said a lot about those committed to the cause in the early years of the club.

Aidan Fawkes

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