South Melbourne’s 2017 FFA Cup journey has featured consecutive late game heroics and a recent refereeing controversy. But their story took another twist after the draw for the final eight saw a mouth-watering clash against the team that knocked them out of the Round of 32 two years ago.
When South travelled to the Gold Coast to face Palm Beach Sharks in 2015 the club were back on the national stage for the first time since the 2004 demise of the NSL.
The Victorian NPL club were red hot favourites to progress to the next round but unfortunately stage fright got the better of them and they were knocked out on penalties.
A blockbuster home game against Melbourne City, Sydney FC, or Western Sydney Wanderers may have been what club officials wanted, as it would’ve guaranteed a massive home crowd and a significant pay day. But South star Nic Epifano says drawing the side from the Gold Coast is a dream result.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better draw,” says the 23-year-old. “After that disappointing loss to the same team two years ago, it means we have a great opportunity to redeem ourselves against them. It is perfect. This is really a huge opportunity for us to make the semi- finals of the tournament and I don’t think we will make the same mistakes as we did last time.”
Looking ahead to the quarter final and arguably the biggest game in South’s recent memory, Epifano believes the club can go further than just the final four.
“We can win it to be honest,” he says. “It’s been our best campaign of the FFA Cup and this year our main objective was to prove everyone wrong. You have to believe that you can win it, otherwise you’ve already lost. Being one game away from the semifinals – obviously it’s huge. Not only for me as a player but for the club as South Melbourne deserve to be on the national stage again.”
While reaching the final eight in the FFA Cup has been their best result to date, South’s journey to the quarterfinal has been a charmed existence. First the club needed two late wins in extra time in the previous two rounds. Then on a cold windswept bitter August evening a small home crowd braved the elements to watch their Round of 16 tie against Western Australian NPL side Sorrento. The South faithful who braved the conditions were rewarded after they won 4-1. However, the game was marred by a controversial red card to the Perth team. Epifano performances in that game highlighted his undoubted skill and while he conceded that South rode their luck, the winger felt it was one of their best results of the season.
“That was our most complete performance of the year,” he says. “We dominated them. Unfortunately for them the referee gave them a red which probably wasn’t, but I still think we destroyed them to be honest. It was one of my better games: I scored two goals and set up one, but I don’t really focus on me, as long as the team is winning that is the most important thing.”
While Epifano’s recent performances on the field have made positive headlines, the winger hasn’t always been in the news for the right reasons. His temperament in the past has let him down and this was evident when he was suspended for the first five games of the Victorian NPL season. However South coach Chris Taylor, who originally brought Epifano over to South when he became coach in mid-2013, believes the winger is misunderstood.
“Nic is a little bit different to everyone,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
“When he scores a goal, he doesn’t run up to people and celebrate. He just wants to get his head down and get away from people. I just think that’s part of his character and part of his upbringing.”
Epifano admits that being an introvert in a sport that is played in the public eye has been challenging but having Taylor as a mentor has been important.
“He’s supported me for five years now. He’s backed me to the hilt no matter what,” he says.
“I’ve never really celebrated goals to be honest. I just want to get on with the game. It’s really not me, I just stick to myself mainly. I just worry about my own game.”
Epifano believes the bad blood between the fans has dissipated and that the relationship has improved this term.
“It’s great this season,” he says. “There’s no hard feelings with anyone. We all get along and they’re always there supporting us.”
Many believe that Epifano can play in Australia’s top tier and Taylor is puzzled as to why it hasn’t happened yet.
“I’m very surprised he hasn’t been picked up by an A-League club as yet,” he says.
“But in the A-League nothing surprises me in terms of how players are recycled. Players can be released by a club and in the next minute four or five other clubs are wanting them. I certainly think that we’ve got two or three that deserve to be looked at, it just seems to be that it’s pretty much a closed shop at times.”
The skillful attacker hasn’t been fully ignored by the A-League. Epifano spent two seasons with Melbourne Heart’s youth team but never graduated to the first team. And last year had an unsuccessful trial at Perth Glory and he revealed that being overlooked has been frustrating.
“Yes, it is,” he says “I think Glory was probably the closest I’ve been to making it. But what can I do? I just have to keep playing and hopefully get seen and once I get the opportunity I’ll take it. But I am happy at South and they have always let me go on trial when another team comes knocking. They don’t have a problem with that and I am always welcomed straight back. A-League clubs don’t really like taking a chance on NPL players. There are so many good players in our league that could take the next step but clubs just need to take that chance on someone.”
While A-League clubs have put up road blocks, one way of playing with the big boys is through South being included in an expanded competition and Epifano says that would be a dream scenario.
“It would be amazing,” he says. “I have been there for almost five years now and to go into the A-League with them after all that time would be such an honour. It would be unreal to be honest. When I heard that we were going have Roberto Carlos as coach I didn’t really believe it and then when I actually saw him turn up at our home ground earlier this year I thought ‘wow, this is amazing’.
“The club is ticking all the boxes to get into the A-League and just imagine if we win the FFA Cup? I don’t think the FFA would be able to ignore us for that much longer.”