A young Aleks Milicevic with Adelaide City players Dong-Ki Kim, Nathan Day, and Matthew Kemp. (Image: Aleks Milicevic; Design: Will Cuckson)

Ernie Merrick was hired by Football Australia as its inaugural Chief Football Officer with his job description requiring him to be a “disruptor.” Little did he know that his first act of disruption would come when drawing the Round of 16 matchups for the Australia Cup.

Merrick innocuously drew Adelaide City and Adelaide United, and in the process opened up a Pandora’s box nearly 20 years in the making. Adelaide City’s last year on the national stage was the 2002/03 NSL season, joining the South Australian Premier League for season 2003.

How did the national competition replace the South Australian-shaped hole City left? The hasty, but successful, inception of Adelaide United.

Ever since, the Reds have had the national spotlight, with City usually limited to the confines of South Australian football, with Australia Cup appearances the rare exception.

The two sides have faced each other in the NPL and off season matches, but the 2022 edition of the Australia Cup will see both senior sides face off in the competitive match for the first time, nearly 20 years after concept became reality.

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Aleks Milicevic is someone that understands the importance of this match, having supported Adelaide City since the age of seven and being involved with Adelaide United on and off since its inception.

He spoke with The Inner Sanctum about his memories as a young Adelaide City fan.

“My dad followed them because of Milan Ivanovic who came from Red Star Belgrade, so we have supported Adelaide City ever since then,” Milicevic said.

“I saw the final in 1994 on SBS when Damian Mori scored that goal from 40 yards out!

“My first Adelaide City autographs were from Tony Vidmar and Carlo Talladira at Central Market at a sponsors event.

“I was a junior player and my dad was a coach there, we used to sell match programs outside the ground, then I was a ball boy before I joined the cheer squad towards the end of the NSL. It has definitely been a pretty good upbringing supporting the club.”

A young Aleks Milicevic with Adelaide City defender Milan Ivanovic (Image: Supplied)

Adelaide City’s exit from the NSL and the subsequent creation of Adelaide United placed a lot of South Australian football fans in a conundrum.

The selling point for the Reds was that a lot of ex-City players jumped ship to the newly-formed club, wanting to retain the national spotlight and the benefits that came with it.

“I followed Adelaide United after like a lot of people did, a big part of the team was ex-Adelaide City players,” Milicevic continued.

“That is how I got involved in Adelaide United, with the start of the Red Army, helping build that up in the early days to what it is today. I was really heavily involved with Adelaide United for a long time.”

Aleks Milicevic leading a Red Army march during the time he was heavily involved with Adelaide United. (Image: Supplied)

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Fittingly, it was the Australia Cup that reignited a spark for Milicevic’s old love. Damian Mori’s Adelaide City side hosted Tony Popovic’s start-studded Western Sydney Wanderers in the Round of 32 of the first edition of the competition.

Despite not many giving City a chance, it was a memorable night for the former powerhouse of Australian football.

City’s return to the national stage reached a crescendo when Tom Love’s brilliant solo effort stunned the highly fancied visitors, the youngster writing his name in the Australian football history books and Black and White folklore.

Adelaide City had recorded the first ever major ‘Cupset’ on the national stage of Australian football in the modern era, and it had fans dreaming big once again.

“You know what, that was the first Adelaide City match I went to since the end of the NSL,” Milicevic recalled.

“Watching Tom Love skin three to four players and score that goal had me thinking, ‘wow, I think this club has some life in it.’ It was a sign that we could be even greater than what we are. It took me a few years after that to get back fully involved, but I think that game definitely lit a spark in me.”

Matthew Mullen celebrating Adelaide City’s shock victory over the Western Sydney Wanderers with legendery club volunteer Joe ‘Zeppy’ Camilleri. (Image: Adam Butler/80Kms)

South Australian football can feel like a small circle at times, and with almost 20 years passing since the seeds of this rivalry were planted, a lot of business has transpired between the two clubs.

Movement between the clubs in the last 12 months means that Adelaide City Champions Lachlan Barr and Asad Kasumovic will be involved on Wednesday night, but they will be wearing Adelaide United Red.

Meanwhile, Carl Veart, a player that was once idolised in Black and White will be plotting his former side’s downfall from the Reds’ technical area. Despite a former hero turning villain for 90 minutes, Milicevic has fond memories of Veart the player.

“I remember when Carl came back from Sheffield United and you just knew he had a lot left in the tank,” he said.

“Everyone had seen over the years how good Carl Veart was, how he distributed the ball, his shots, the way he commanded games, him and Aurelio Vidmar, those were some good times!

“When he came back to City he was the same player and he stayed that way until he retired.”

Carl Veart during his time as an Adelaide City player. (Image: Adelaide United/Twitter)

On the Black and White side, many players will be playing with a chip on their shoulders. The likes of Jai King, Dakota Ochsenham, Daniel Bressan, Aladin Irabona Charlie Devereux and Zak Waters all used to be part of the Adelaide United NPL setup.

They would love nothing more than to prove a point against the one professional side in town that used to employ them.

Even Adelaide City Chairman Greg Griffin used to own Adelaide United before selling the club to a consortium represented by Piet Van der Pol. Perhaps, none of the above represent the interconnection of the two clubs in the past two decades as well as Adelaide City coach Paul Pezos.

Pezos was a successful player for City, as well as its accomplished women’s side coach. Adelaide United were that impressed that they offered the young coach a deal to lead its NPL setup.

Throughout this years leading the Young Reds, Pezos oversaw the development of the formative stages of the careers of players such as Al Hassan Toure, Mohamed Toure, Alex Popovic, Kusini Yengi, Lachlan Brook, Louis D’Arrigo and many other highly successful players at the NPL level.

Pezos eventually left the Reds to take over the mantles of Adelaide City’s senior men’s program, and if you ask fans like Aleks Milicevic, he’s been a godsend.

“Pez has basically mined a piece of coal into a diamond as far as I am concerned, what he’s done in the last two years is just sensational.”

In just under two years, Pezos has managed to put the pieces back together for a City side that nearly got relegated after an off-field scandal saw it nearly demoted due to point deductions in 2019.

Since taking over, Pezos has won a Championship, a Federation Cup, while just winning the NPL SA Premiership and on the way to defending his sides’ 2021 crown. He’s losing no fans on the national stage with City impressing in the Australia Cup with consecutive appearances.

“At the moment it is a great time to be an Adelaide City fan and a big reason is because we have a great coach in Pez who has built a great culture while playing an attractive style of football,” Milicevic stated.

“He has always been a great communicator and he loves the fans and everyone that is involved in the club. He definitely is a great character to have at the club for sure.”

Being a great motivator that is able to maximise the output he receives from his players, there is no doubt that Pezos will have his charges ready to go for one of the biggest clashes in South Australian Football history.

Paul Pezos during his time as the Adelaide United NPL SA coach along with assistant Stav Gelekis. (Image: Adam Butler/80Kms)

Milicevic is expecting to see many fans attend the game and rekindle their passion for Adelaide City, just like he did in 2014.

“It is a spark of a new rivalry. There are a lot of people out there that will come out of the woodwork to support Adelaide City.

“They will support Adelaide City over Adelaide United due to its history, the passion that the club has provided, the tradition of the old NSL club they used to watch growing up.”

Despite his history with both sides of this divide, when asked who he would be supporting on the big day, Milicevic had no doubts in his mind that he would be backing his first love for a simple reason.

“Adelaide City is more of a traditional club compared to being a franchise,” he said.

“It is something you can compare to Port Adelaide entering the AFL from the SANFL; we are a traditional club of Australian football when compared to Adelaide United who were formed as a commercial franchise club.”

To many Adelaide United fans, these may come across as fighting words, but the connection Milicevic has had with the Black and White throughout his life cannot be denied.

A young Aleks Milicevic holding an Adelaide City Force banner along with at the time Leader of the Opposition in South Australia, Mike Rann, and father Milan Milicevic. (Photo: Supplied)

“I just feel like I’ve been looked after more in that community rather than being looked after at a franchise level,” he continued.

“I have to say I am backing Adelaide City, not just because I am currently there doing voluntary work for the club, but it is also about what Adelaide City has done for me.

“It is about how they have looked after me and my dad, through his coaching and me as a junior in the club, to being given the opportunity to sell match programs for the club and then being a ball boy myself, being involved and winning that kick for goal competition.”

Many fans will be caught in a similar conundrum as Milicevic, some feeling a deeper connection with the Black and White, while others have only known the Reds, their commitment to them similarly unwavering.

Whatever choice fans make on the day, one thing cannot be denied: passion, and Australian football is starving for it.

Matchups like this were once a far-fetched dream and the Australia Cup has made them a reality, even if it is just for one night. Fans throughout the country will be eagerly awaiting the introduction of a National Second Division so these encounters can become regular occurrences.

This may not be the traditional Italians against Greeks, Adelaide City against West Adelaide derby, but it is one that has been simmering for the better part of 20 years.

The storyline will shift to tradition against modernity, a historic club looking to return to its past glory days going up against the new establishment that was created to replace it.

On Wednesday night both senior sides will be fighting for bragging rights in the in the first on-field chapter in a story that has been created and developed almost exclusively off it.

A ticket to the quarter-finals of the Australia Cup and not knowing when the next chapter of this story will be written being enough motivation to ensure fireworks in an evening of South Australian football that will be looked back on for years to come.

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