By JARROD POTTER
SOARING to the top of Victorian soccer, Dandenong Thunder put the town on the map with a sensational 2012 season resulting in three high-calibre trophies going into the cabinet at George Andrews Reserve.
This was a town of soccer passion but never immense soccer success until this history-making side was gathered in Dandenong for one magic season three years ago.
The Victorian Premier League (VPL) Championship, never before won by Dandenong despite a couple of close calls, the VPL minor premiership and a knockout tournament victory in the Dockerty Cup.
This three-peat is rarely achieved in Victorian soccer for good reason – it takes an inordinate amount of skill and luck to get through each stage and, most importantly, be able to win it all.
It goes down as one of the greatest efforts in Dandenong sports history for how hard each facet of the treble is to claim on its own, let alone together in a single campaign.
After storming to a 14-6-2 record in the regular home-and-away season, followed by a 5-4 penalty shootout triumph over the Port Melbourne Sharks in the Dockerty Cup finale, Dandenong had earned two of three legs of the sublime treble.
By then speculation circled the sport as to whether Chris Taylor’s men were good enough to etch their names into our state’s soccer pantheon by completing the treble.
The third piece of the puzzle was the hardest of all to attain – winning the VPL grand final.
Held at AAMI Park, the showpiece game on the FFV calendar became a back-and-forth master class between Thunder and Oakleigh Cannons on 14 October 2012.
Forced to battle on with just 10 men in the second half, as Craig Elvin was sent from the field with two yellow cards by the 59th minute, Dandenong had to keep the pressure up and continued pestered the Oakleigh defence like it was at full-strength.
The breakthrough finally came as it has a lot of times before this season – via the boot of wily Welshman Luke Sherbon.
Sherbon took a penalty in the 69th minute after Iqbal Jawadi was brought down in the box and the golden boot of the Welshman to push the Dandenong boys out to a 1-0 lead.
A levelling penalty was awarded to Oakleigh captain Ricky Diaco after second half substitute Dane Milovanovic’s dangerous run was cut off haphazardly by Thunder’s Sean McIlroy.
The match-winner for the amazing treble came as Sherbon went on a beguiling run and put the through-ball to mercurial striker Nate Foster, who cannoned the ball in to the nets.
After 20 nervous minutes, holding on despite the Cannons firing off shots at will at veteran Thunder goalkeeper Stuart Webster, the whistle granted Dandenong Thunder the right to call itself the champion.
Thunder’s coach Chris Taylor – now guiding the wildly successful NPL side South Melbourne – could hardly believe how potent the attack was.
Luke Sherbon, Liam Kearney and Nate Foster at the front, the lynch-pin defence of Craig Elvin, Shane Rexhepi and Bryan Bran while youngsters Matt Theodore, Andrew Mullett and Iqbal Jawadi were the firebrands that were necessary to charge the side rapidly up the pitch.
Rexhepi – whose penalty shot won Thunder the Dockerty Cup – said to the Journal last week that the memories of that year will never leave him, even long after he’s moved on from the team.
“As it was going along just the way that we were playing and the confidence that the boys had and that winning spirit – I knew from the start that we were going to create history,” Rexhepi said.
“You just had that feeling that you’re not going to lose and you’re going to win every game that comes across you – whether it’s a cup final or playing against the bottom team.
“You always look back and smile and sometimes people post videos up on Facebook and I watch the grand final every now and then and I still get goose bumps.
“Think to myself that there is no better feeling than winning cups and winning grand finals with your best mates and team mates and you just want to do it again and again.”
The halcyon days of the Thunder are in recess for the time being after the FFV handed down a monstrous fine and lock-out penalties for the incident at the VPL grand final.
There are only a handful of players remaining from the golden era as the scandal surrounding the lighting of flares at the VPL grand final decimated the club’s resources and eventually its player base.
Hopefully one day the side can scale those heights once again that made the Thunder one of the mightiest in Victorian soccer.