“It is one of the biggest games of the season. Derbies are very special, for players, supporters. These two games, Sydney and Melbourne City, are very special.”
Besart Berisha – The Age 11.10.17
If we didn’t know it already from his performances, these words told us that like the fans of his team, he is invigorated just a little bit more by the Melbourne Derby and similarly big games. Since landing in Australia to play for the Brisbane Roar for the 2011/12 season his performances have reflected this, with some of his very best performances coming in the games when the spotlight is at it’s brightest.
Last week, in front of 14,081 spectators at Skilled Stadium in Geelong, Melbourne Victory striker Besart Berisha scored his 91st A-League goal to claim the competition’s all-time scoring record. It was somewhat fitting that, for a player amongst the competition’s most polarizing, the history making moment was shrouded in controversy. The goal scoring opportunity for the Victory’senalty that was, and remains, unclear to everyone apart from Referee Chris Beath. At the end of the day luck is but the interception of opportunity and ability, and Berisha’s record is a just reward for a goal-scorer of rare proficiency.
In 2011 Berisha was unhappily plying his trade in the German Bundesliga for Arminia Bielefield. Arminia was the Albanian international’s eighth club in a professional career that had seen him traverse Europe from Germany and back again via England, Denmark, and Norway.
A team mate of Berisha’s at Arminia was Australian Dario Vidosic, son of then Brisbane Roar assistant Daro Vidosic, and the two had become fast friends.
Vidosic, upon hearing of his team-mates discontent, asked Berisha if a stint in Australia would interest him. It was an enquiry that would forever change the life of Besart Berisha and the history of the A-League.
The Ange Postecoglu led Brisbane Roar had taken all before them on the way to the A-League championship the season before, and with Berisha prowling the penalty box the champions were even stronger. It didn’t take long for the Roar striker to make an impression on the league, he netted his first goal in his second game and put four goals past Adelaide in his fourth. Quickly a Roar fan favourite, the mo-hawked goal scoring machine elicited a different response from opposition supporters. His position as the man opposition fans most loved to hate was helped, if not secured, in large part by his role in a controversial round 17 clash with Sydney FC.
As was the Roar’s trademark they managed to overturn a deficit in injury time with two late goals, the winner an effort from Berisha with 15 seconds remaining in the match. Not content with winning the game off his own boot, the Albanian talisman brought more attention upon himself with an unusual post-match confrontation. While Roar fans celebrated the referee’s whistle and the conclusion of proceedings, Berisha ripped off his shirt before sprinting towards Sydney FC’s Pascal Bosschart. Upon catching up with the Dutchman, Berisha theatrically invited him to settle an apparent difference of opinions mano a mano, before sprinting to the sideline to prepare. Their differences remained unresolved however as both teams scuffled to keep each man away from the other.
The 2012 Grand Final showcased both the sublime and controversial aspects of the Berisha A-League tale. In front of 50,334 the Roar trailed Perth Glory 1-0 after 84 minutes.
With time ticking away, a desperate Berisha rose above the tiring Glory defender Steve Pantalides, to head a Thomas Broich cross past Glory Keeper Danny Vukovic into the back of the net. With the goal, Berisha both levelled the scores in the season’s most important game and became the first man to score 20 goals in an A-League season. Yet as people settled down for the likelihood of extra Time, controversy intervened with Besart Berisha centre stage.
With renewed confidence, the Roar relentlessly attacked their sagging foe seeking an unlikely winner. Then with time all but expired, Berisha made his way towards goal with Liam Miller in hot pursuit and here is when the story becomes contentious. The official explanation is that a lunging Miller collided with Berisha, causing the striker to complete an air-swing and fall over leaving referee Jared Gillette with no choice but to award a last second penalty. Perth Glory fans and many neutrals disagreed, arguing that any contact was not of sufficient force to warrant a penalty. These protestations mattered nought though, when the now recovered striker stepped up and converted his opportunity from the spot. Berisha had claimed his first A-League championship.
Two years later the Albanian and his Roar team-mates again graced the A-League’s grandest stage when they met the Western Sydney Wanderers in the 2014 championship decider. After signing with the Melbourne Victory as their marquee player for the 2014-15 Season and beyond, it was to be Berisha’s final game in Roar Orange. It was only to be expected with the scene set as such, and with the lights shining at their brightest, that Berisha would be front and centre in the drama that unfolded.
Just as they had two years earlier, Brisbane were behind 1-0 in the last ten minutes of regulation time. Again they were saved by a header from Berisha, the Roar striker leveling the scores with barely four minutes to play. Unlike two years earlier the Roar required extra-time to claim the crown but yet again they had their hands on the A-League’s championship and had their enigmatic striker to thank for it.
The 2014-15 season saw Berisha in new colours and the move was a happy one for both club and striker. For a player who thrives on the big stage, Melbourne Victory was a wonderful fit giving Berisha the opportunity to strut his stuff in front of the biggest home crowds in the competition. They weren’t disappointed by the performances he turned in.
Although finishing third in the golden boot, he always managed to score goals when the Victory needed them most.
Big games, big moments and Berisha seemed to find a way to get on the score sheet. Five goals in the four Melbourne Derby’s, goals in each of Victory’s Finals games and the opener in the club’s 3-0 Grand Final triumph over Sydney. By season’s end you could be forgiven for thinking he’d spent his entire career in blue and white, given the affection he received from the Victory faithful.
The following season 2015/16, Berisha would add an FFA Cup Winners Medal to his haul of achievements in Australia. Victory’s Cup Final 2-0 win over Perth Glory was secured with a Berisha goal in the 42nd minute. Later that season his unrivalled goal scoring ability saw him break Archie Thompson’s record for most goals in the A-League.
After breaking the all-time mark, Berisha was naturally happy and a little reflective, “When I came to Australia I didn’t think I could come close to (Archie Thompson’s record) and now I’ve broke the record. Of course I’m proud,” he said.
Berisha was quick to point out the transitory nature of his, and all but one other football record, “One player will break it again, that’s the way it goes in football.” Berisha was effusive of Archie Thompson, the man whose mark he broke, labeling his fellow Victory Legend as a “great, great player”.
As Thompson farewelled one of his records, Berisha was keen to explain that his grip on another may never be loosened, “No one will break his five goals in a grand final. That’s impossible. To put the truth of Berisha’s claim into some perspective, if it was needed, n the 2016/17 A-League decider against Sydney he scored his fifth goal Grand Final goal in his fourth Grand Final appearance.
It has been a remarkable journey for Berisha since finding his way to the A-League. A man who has scored more goals than any other in the history of the competition, he has saved his best performances for the games that matter most. Already a proficient scorer when playing in Derbies, Finals or Grand Finals he is even more proficient again.
With Victory and City meeting once again this Saturday, will Berisha rise again and add another chapter to a career already full of big goals in big games. Based on his record, you would be wise not to bet against it.