It wasn’t easy and by no stretch was it polished but the Wanderers have leapt to the top of the table with a last gasp 2-1 win over the Mariners in Gosford.
Here’s what we saw.
Flipping the script
Before Saturday night, the Wanderers were coming off back-to-back defeats that were both sealed by heartbreakingly late winners.
Two weeks ago against Melbourne City, it was Harry Novillo’s 85th minute strike that snapped the Wanderers’ 10-game unbeaten streak while Shane Smeltz’s stoppage time goal in the Sydney Derby will hurt for some time.
When that sort of thing transpires more than once, the possibility or thought of it happening again can anchor itself in the back of the mind and weigh down a team from going about their business in their normal way.
So it was refreshing and uplifting to see the Wanderers both avoid such a scenario and dish out some last-minute misfortune of their own.
Rather than your top of the table blockbusters, this was the type of game that while seemingly paltry, will in fact be looked back upon as a crucial bookmark in the story of the Wanderers’ season.
That’s how you empty a bench
There can be no qualms about Brendon Santalab taking top honours from Saturday night, though the striker will no doubt heap praise on his brethren of brothers from the bench.
In what will please Tony Popovic and his coaching staff, the Wanderers’ 88th winner was brewed and bottled by those who came off the pine.
Golgol Mebrahtu, a 79th minute substitute, pressured Michael Neill into coughing up the ball to Mitch Nichols who allowed 87th minute substitute Kearyn Baccus to slide the ball across to 73rd minute substitute Brendon Santalab to tap home.
Having already scored off the bench against the Mariners earlier in the campaign, Santalab is crafting quite the reputation as a not-so-subtle ace in the hole – the 33-year-old is averaging a goal every 73 minutes this season.
As the rounds churns along and the minutes start to take their toll, you’ll find that those who start from the bench will begin to play a more significant part in the outcomes of games.
Aspro continues to grow
A fifth yellow card meant that captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley sat out against the Mariners, paving the way for 19-year-old Jonathan Aspropotamitis to notch up his third start of the season.
And the classy youngster did his burgeoning reputation no harm with a matured display well beyond his tender years.
There were some nervy moments, mostly due to the dangerously slippery turf, though Aspropotamitis was solid throughout, coming up with a number of timely interceptions.
His clever positioning nullified whatever speed advantage the Mariners attackers had, while his comfort on the ball manifested a 95.5% passing accuracy rating – the highest of any starting player in the match.
Having signed on for a further two years earlier this season, Tony Popovic and Wanderers fans alike can rest easy knowing that with Aspropotamitis, the future is in cool, calm and collected hands.
Bridge a certifiable legend
Ah, Mark Bridge – where would the Wanderers be without you?
In Topor-Stanley’s absence, Bridge wore the captain’s armband on Saturday night in what was his 100th appearance in Red & Black.
And being the man for every occasion, the Wanderers’ favourite son marked the milestone with his sixth goal of the season.
Bridge now sits fourth on the all-time Hyundai A-League goal scoring charts and when you consider that he’s not your typical out-and-out striker, it’s a feat that deserves some considerable applause.
If one were to mount a case for the number 19 being the most influential and impactful player in Wanderers' history, there wouldn’t be too many arguments from us.