Some Naval Soccer History (Or When The Köln and Karlruhe Came Down Under)

For anyone who has met me in person, and perhaps a few of you who have read previous blog entries or listened to my podcast One On Wanderers, it doesn’t take long for my love of history and of most things German to bubble up to the surface. Throw in football and they’re the holy trifecta of hobby horses that I (often) ride on. I may not be an expert on the historical minutiae of the German competitive football (though I can heartily recommend the book ‘Tor’ by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger as a starting point), and whilst I know of the German heritage of Manfred Schaefer and Mark Schwarzer I have zero knowledge of Australian soccer clubs that developed as a result of German migration to this country. However, thanks to the resources of the National Library Trove website and some previous exposure to both German and maritime football links to Australia, I’ve been able to piece together some notes about two Nazi warships and their soccer teams down under.

Having dabbled in the history of football in Australia one aspect that I have picked up on is the role that teams from foreign ships had in engaging with local clubs. As would be expected more often than not the majority of visiting ships’ teams were British, either Royal Navy or merchant marine. Take as a case in point this match report from the Sydney Morning Herald of 29th April 1907:

nla-news-page000001317817-nla-news-article14855701-l4-328139c93cf5dd938716579d25a03be9-0001

Interestingly enough in both of the two games were naval personnel played against local clubs the visitors went down (though HMS Psyche was part of the Royal Navy’s Australian Station so it may have had some local crew members, if not football players). At a time when Australian football was undoubtedly seen as a poor cousin to the other codes in this country, and exposure to foreign competition was often an ad hoc affair, then matches against British sailors must have served as some small taste of the international dimension for the sport down under.

I could ferret out some more British naval visitors who took on Australian football teams whilst visiting these shores, however returning to my earlier remarks about German history and soccer, thanks to the inestimable treasure that is Trove I have discovered some teasing nuggets about the German cruisers Köln (Cologne) and Karlsruhe and their links to soccer in this country in 1933 and 1934.

4544543345_fbd40aee5c_b

The Cruiser Köln in Sydney Harbour, May 1933

The visit of the Köln to Australia in the autumn of 1933 was at a most interesting point in Germany’s history, and came only 15 years after the end of the First World War (when the nascent Royal Australian Navy had claimed the sinking of the SMS Emden as one of the most important victories of that conflict’s sea battles). With Hitler’s Nazi Party only having just come to power in late January 1933, the Köln was at the vanguard of German diplomacy when that country was about to set out on a programme of major military expansion. The agenda was set by the ship’s captain, insofar as he was both looking to recognise Australian sensitivities to the (then) recent war and the losses incurred during that conflict, whilst also presenting the ‘face’ of a new Germany:

The Sun, 9th April 1933

The Sun (Sydney), 9th April 1933

Obviously what was said by Captain Schniewind in the press item above was at best misguided, and at worst horrendous propaganda. However at the time the visit of the Köln was a major social event in all the ports it visited, engaged on a ‘charm offensive’ to nominally dispel enmities from the ‘Great War’ . In Fremantle the ship’s crew were gifted a kangaroo mascot, Seppl (joining a lion cub and cockatoo), whilst in Adelaide there was a performance by the ship’s band, visits to Adelaide University and a ‘smoke social’ at the German club.

When it came to sport the crew of the German warship were at a disadvantage when it came to mainstream Australian sports such as cricket and Australian Rules. However, and this is where I personally find the visit of the Köln fascinating from a local football history perspective, the ship’s crew had a team that played soccer games in almost every port she called in at, against Australian XIs.

Ad for Football Match between South Australia & Köln crew, 24/3/1933

Ad for Football Match between South Australia & Köln crew, 24/3/1933

The fact that the games between Australian teams and the Köln’s crew were presented as international matches indicates the desire by local football interests to put the code on a pedestal that particularly Australian Rules couldn’t reach. There was much made of the social, diplomatic and sporting benefits to be had by playing these matches. For example, when the Köln team met the Fremantle Soccer Club ticket sales went to the benefit of a fund for then recently deceased WA sportsman Ron Doig. In Adelaide though the South Australian team lost 2-3 the positive response to their performance was noted by interstate observers. In Hobart the Southern Tasmanian team won 2-0, and the match was played in front of ‘The largest crowd for many years…’, and when they met a RAN team in Sydney the visiting Germans gave the Australians a bit of a football lesson:

nla-news-page000024602357-nla-news-article228888450-l5-04d71fdd3bce23013aa7bad1940baa54-0001


The RAN & Köln teams in Sydney, and matchplay from the 8-3 win for the Germans

The RAN & Koln teams in Sydney, and matchplay from the 8-3 win for the Germans

Now it would be very hard to make any comments on the lasting benefits of these games on Australian soccer without having more information to hand. My suspicion is this would’ve been minimal, as per any type of exhibition football match that is played even in this era (for example, the A-League All-Stars hardly revolutionised support for the code in Australia after two games, and are arguably best forgotten as PR stunts). However the importance of a team of foreign nationals taking on Australians in a sport that was still in its early years of development must have resonated for those who battled to keep football in the wider public consciousness. Of course when it comes to international relations, whatever was achieved by the visit of the Köln in autumn 1933 was wiped out a few short years later when it and other Kriegsmarine vessels were engaged in Nazi Germany’s war of aggression against countries such as Australia.

Almost a year later the Köln’s sister cruiser, the Karlsruhe visited Australia, however unlike the sporting contact between the locals and the first German ship’s crew, the 1934 football match schedule was far more limited. There was only the one match, and this was played in Brisbane against a metropolitan representative team (a first for the then recently reorganised Brisbane District Football Association). The Brisbane team went on to win this match 2-0 against the German navy squad, which was reported as being due to the ‘lack of condition and match practice‘, and I would assume that this match had far less resonance for the popularity and development of football in Queensland than the earlier Köln matches had interstate.

nla-news-page000000027697-nla-news-article1162267-l3-8b9aff10e1888cccf6e7f683c5ea19da-000222-jan-1934-no-title-trove

The significance of these two German ships’ crews playing soccer matches in Australia against local teams in the early days of the Nazi regime is not that crucial, not that important. I personally find the stories fascinating, but I also recognise that contrasted to other international team visits (such as the Indian tour of 1938) these exhibition games were more about entertainment and diplomacy than developing football in this country. However, as I mentioned above, the local football adherents were able to look to the visit of the German naval teams as a reaffirmation of the global context of soccer, when the indigenous code couldn’t do so, and both rugby codes were limited to other (mostly) English speaking nations. I believe it is also important to acknowledge these games as part of the long and significant football relationship conducted between Australia and Germany. Before there was Holger, before there was Ned Zelic playing in the Bundesliga, before there was Manfred Schaefer speaking on German TV about his 1974 team mates, there were the soccer teams from the Köln and the Karlsruhe.

Advertisements

Edgeworth, Cevaps and the FFA Cup

So, how good is the FFA Cup?

Admittedly when it comes to the Wanderers, there will always be that caveat added by all and sundry regarding our first venture in this most recent iteration of a national football knock out cup competition. That shock loss to Adelaide City back in 2014 was arguably a presage of what became our ‘tempus horribilis’, although barely two months later the Wanderers were ACL champions. Since that 1-0 loss away any coverage of  the FFA Cup, most particularly when it comes to the context of any NPL level club upsetting a more fancied A-League opponent, will at some time or another include that result.

Our 2015 campaign was marginally better, thanks to a good win against Brisbane at Penrith, followed by a 0-2 away win over Mitch Nichols’ home club, the Palm Beach Sharks. The quarter final loss to Perth Glory was controversial, with one specific omen of the coming season, vis-a-vis the failure of then marquee Federico Piovaccari to slot home one of the required penalty shots. However to have progressed to the final eight was a marked improvement on our first foray into the FFA Cup, and one that has been matched in the 2016 edition.

Now before I get into the guts of this blog entry on the Round of 16 match between the Edgeworth Eagles and the Wanderers, let me take a diversion and make some personal observations on how I perceive the FFA Cup. In a nutshell, this is possibly the best addition to the domestic football environment since at least the entry of the Wanderers, with a strong argument for the FFA Cup being a partial redress of the errors and omissions made when the A-League was established. The fact that lower tier football clubs across Australia, many with a proud and long history (including perhaps NSL participation) can now play in a cup where they may beat the more fancied A-League clubs has re-engaged many fans of the code with its history and its community. It has also given the so-called ‘new dawners’ a chance to look at the clubs that were crucial to the history of the sport in this country pre-2004. Of course there are still fierce rivalries and some degree of suspicion or anger felt by some, left over from the split between ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’. Having said that there are many A-League fans who revel in the opportunity to watch NPL teams compete either against their latter day clubs, or against each other. I have seen in person how vibrant and enjoyable the NPL experience of the FFA Cup can be, such as when I watched Sydney United take on South Hobart FC last year. Played at Edensor Park, this match saw the 58 year old Croatian based club take on the 106 year old Tasmanian visitors, with the result only going to SU58FC after a 3-3 regular time scoreline and a 3-1 penalty shoot out.

This FFA Cup tournament we have already seen two A-League clubs dumped out of the tournament by NPL teams, with last season’s premiers and Grand Final winners Adelaide United stunned by Redlands United 2-1 at home in Brisbane, and the Central Coast Mariners losing with the exact same scoreline against the Victorian NPL club Green Gully. Here’s just a tiny sample of the reaction to the Redlands’ victory on Twitter:

redvadl-twitter-search

This video shows how important such a result can be for the lower tier club, not just in terms of the on field reaction, but also for the community of fans and members who often put in the hard yards without anywhere near the support and glory that the A-League clubs can provide:

Watching the match from home I was unashamedly barracking for Redlands, though to be honest I have no knowledge of their club’s history, current playing roster or position in their local NPL competition. To cheer on an underdog in such a match, sensing how important football history and community is, recognising the value of the more recent football culture as vivified by the Lowy era FFA in engaging with soccer as it was and still is in Australia, well this is where I believe the FFA Cup delivers in spades.

Focusing again on the Wanderers, this current FFA Cup tournament has mirrored (so far) our last. Entering the mix in the Round of 32, the club took on our perennial bête noire, the Wellington Phoenix, at a cold, wet and miserable Campbelltown International Sports Ground. To be honest the initial performance of the team was underwhelming, and the 0-2 scoreline after 31 minutes seemed to indicate the Wanderers were going to lose again in a pre-season match against the Kiwis. Thankfully the balance was more than redressed by match’s end, thanks to two goals by exciting young striker Lachlan Scott, and a long range pearler from Mitch ‘Butters’ Nichols. Thankfully we had evaded an early exit from the FFA Cup, and possibly even more importantly, we had booked a rendezvous with Northern NSW Football’s Edgeworth Eagles.

Taking yet another diversion (I know, get to the point Manfred!) Wanderers fans generally love heading up the M1/F3 to Newy and watching our team play the locals. This has meant, until last Tuesday week’s match, a rendezvous with the Newcastle Jets. There are a host of good memories for a host of us, such as the final regular season round match in our debut season, with the 3-0 win over the Jets confirming our first piece of silverware. Then there is the Round Five game at Hunter Stadium last season, when Mitch Nichols won it for us near the death with a 86 minute goal. I would also argue that there is a healthy modicum of respect for the Jets and for the football culture in the Hunter given by many Wanderers’ fans, and vice versa from the Newcastle folk.

In my opinion, and within that context, there were plenty of WSW fans who schlepped up to Magic Park last Tuesday week who were both looking forward to bringing back some red and black love to the Hunter, and engaging with the smaller, yet vigorous, passionate supporters of the Eagles. Perhaps I’m drawing a far too long bow, but even the complimentary nature of the two clubs’ colours validates this willingness for the A-League club to engage with their NPL competitor. Throw in the (arguably unconscious) hope that the local club would benefit financially from a solid turn out of the Wanderers fans, and the attention given to them and NPL football in Newcastle, then the rendezvous at Broadmeadow for away fans such as I was most attractive.

I made my journey up to Newcastle with these thoughts in mind, accompanied by two boon companions from my Wanderers’ fraternity. One was my mate Mick, who was the poor bastard lumbered with driving duties. Mick has been a great mate of recent years, and provided one the guts of one of the best episodes of my ‘One on Wanderers’ podcast. The second member of our trio was renowned Socceroo supporter Pablo Bateson, who has seen more air miles following the green and gold than possibly anyone else in this country. We three set off early on the day, endeavouring to make it a real long term sojourn up north. As done by thousands of traveling fans over decades and decades, we were looking to enjoy some of the local delights pre-match (i.e. have a drink and feed in Hamilton), meet some of the locals (in this case catch up with the legendary ‘Nobody From Newcastle‘ Todd Blackwell, and then make our way to the game. It was a most convivial afternoon, fueled by plenty of football talk, some beverages at the Kent Hotel, and even a catch up with those friends of the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Public Order and Riot Squad from the NSW Police:

andrewmick

From there it was a reasonable easy and short drive to Magic Park, the home ground for the Broadmeadow Magic. Competitors to the Edgeworth Eagles in the local Northern NSW NPL, this very attractive if small venue was allocated the FFA Cup match for the night.

The atmosphere on arriving at the venue was wonderful, thanks in no small part to the number of local fans who were there for a night to barrack for the ‘minnows’ versus the Wanderers. Whilst the Eagles faithful were out in force, including plenty of kids, there were other Hunter football devotees in evidence, some sporting Jets colours, others partisans for Magic, Adamstown, Hamilton Olympic etc. The volunteers were selling raffle tickets and Eagles merchandise, the stand on the eastern side of the ground chockers, the beers and barbecued meats flying out of the tents dotted around the perimeter of the ground.

Mick, Pablo and myself made sure to touch base with several fellow Wanderers fans who had made the trip up, chatting about the day, the match, our lads, the oppo…basically engaging in the usual chit-chat and socialisiation one does before a game. However the immediacy of the community environment for this FFA match was dare I say more fun, more carnival like. Yes, it was a serious game with a definitive expectation that the Wanderers should win. However standing around on the western hill, taking in the sights and sounds of perhaps an intimation of what football has been like for decades in this country, where the dogged band of committed soccer lovers get behind their local club and bugger the bigger, more fashionable rivals; it was pure FFA Cup goodness.

The match itself was a fairly hard fought one, with the Eagles being unwilling to concede early goals. They were unable to break the shackles of their own deep defending except for a brief foray here and there when the Wanderers lost their (dominant) possession due to an errant pass. Some of the Eagles tackles were exactly what one would expect; hard with little respect for the far more well paid professional Wanderers player they flew at. There was a particularly brutal challenge put in on Dimas which the Spaniard was not happy with. This however gave cause for much chiacking and derision from the Eagles faithful. I’ll happily admit it was both infuriating to see such practices from the ‘home’ team, but great to see their supporters giving our ‘stars’ a real old rev up.

As the game progressed the goals began to flow, with ex-Jet Scott Neville snaring the first and the third, with the latter coming after the half time break. Brendan Hamill grabbed a goal between those two, giving the plentiful of Wanderers fans something to cheer for. An old acquaintance of the Wanderers, ex-Mariner Daniel McBreen was the go to man for the Eagles when it came to responding, and he had already provided some entertaining resistance earlier in the match when he gave one of the Wanderers fans a bit of handbags after a contretemp near the RBB. However his more important contribution was scoring a well taken goal after Wanderers’ new Uruguayan import Bruno Pinatares, giving Edgeworth a small sniff of a comeback. Their supporters were keen to vocally do what they could, fueled by pride, piss and cevaps, however two late goals from Brendan Santalab killed off the match. The 1-5 win for the Wanderers was certainly a fair result.

However what was a far more significant result was it was yet another instalment of what makes the FFA Cup such a worthy and enjoyable addition to the football environment in Australia. Two clubs with many disparate attributes were brought together, and alongside that meeting came the chance for people like myself to engage with a community and a history of the sport that sometimes we forget. In the A-League era it is all to easy to be hyped about big derbies between say the Wanderers and the Smurfs, or the two Melbourne clubs. A lot of attention this impending season is already being given to the advent of Tim Cahill as the league’s biggest name since del Piero. Many people in the huge amorphous pool of football fans in Australia see problems, division, challenges that no one can easily solve.

Yet on a chilly night in Broadmeadow, all of that was put aside by those who came to watch this FFA Cup match, and we all came away better for the experience.

Thanks Edgeworth!

 

P.S. The cevap rolls were good, but where was the avjar?

RUOK with WSW

Today is RUOK Day, a day when we are encouraged by RUOK organisation “to connect with others & ask about life’s ups and downs” as part of the public fight against suicide and associated mental illnesses. It is for many folk out there just another awareness event that lines up alongside other worthy charity days such as Red Nose Day, Daffodil Day etc etc. I can understand that, insofar as there is such a plethora of good causes in the public domain struggling for attention, for funding, for active support. However this year, this RUOK Day I have a significant commitment to this event, and (unsurprisingly) this is filtered and concentrated through my association with the Western Sydney Wanderers football community, and by extension others out there in the online and offline band of brothers and sisters that share my passion for the round ball code.

I have already touched upon some of the circumstances that have caused me some serious anguish earlier this year in my post on why I wish I had traveled to Adelaide for the 2015/16 A-League Grand Final. The most damaging experience for me emotionally not just in the last year, but arguably since I left school was the collapse of a sixteen year long relationship. I won’t get into the messy specifics of my situation, as there are some intensely private and personal matters to consider not just for myself, but also for my ex. However I think it is both appropriate and of value to put on the table some of the more general aspects of what has been (and still is) a seriously troubling time for me. This includes confronting certain emotional and mental health ‘demons’, and trying to address the very problems that RUOK Day is focused on. It is also very important for me to put out there the positive influence my comrades in red and black, and in football in general, has had on my ongoing battles. It helps me immeasurably to publicly acknowledge my brothers and sisters in red and black (and some in other clubs’ colours) as being there for me with a kind word or an open ear, never judging, always listening.

One of the earliest expressions of this most-welcome support came on the eve of the Easter holidays. Two of my Wanderers comrades offered out of the blue to meet up in Parra for a feed and a drink, with the added diversion of watching the Socceroos play Tajikistan in Adelaide on TV. Mick and Balks (they know who they are) sat down with me and did what great mates do. They asked me how I was, listened to some of my troubles, told me a few yarns of their own to get me out of my self-absorption regarding my problems, debated aspects of the Wanderers season, laughed with me about the shit state of Adelaide Oval for a World Cup qualifier. This therapeutic conviviality was definitely for my benefit, both in terms of their original motivation, and also in the effect it had on me at that time. I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t going to be left to stew in my juices; these two mates who I have found through our shared love of the Wanderers were there to help me at that time in the best way that they could.

There have been other moments of unsolicited sympathy and a willingness to let me pour out my heart and soul to my Wanderers comrades, and I have been grateful for every one of them, to every one. For quite some time earlier this year I was getting almost daily texts from one of my Red and Black sisters, checking in on me, asking me how I was fairing, discussing topics both football related and those that weren’t. Before one of  the Wanderers NPL2 friendlies I shared about an hour with one of the few WSW mates I have that is of my generation (i.e. an old bastard who remembers Jimmy Shoulder and the Phillips Soccer League), sitting down to chew the fat over a few beers before venturing next door to Popondetta Park. He was more than willing to both let me yammer about my problems, tell me a few things to help me put my issues in perspective, and divert my dispirited sensibilities into football.

I must also refer to two men who have really given me plenty to think about through the agency of their experiences and their thoughts, as I discovered when I sat them down for their sessions on my Wanderers themed podcast, ‘One on Wanderers’. First there was the recording I made with Matt. In this podcast (admittedly produced prior to my relationship breakdown) he made some cogent and (for me) surprising comments on the mental health benefits of active support. It was after my personal life had turned to shit that I really comprehended some of the wisdom and empathetic thinking within Matt’s words. I can verify through my own experiences since then (more on that later) how true his comments are about the positive aspects of active support on relieving depression and stress.

To add to Matt’s football-focused comments, a few weeks after I was fortunate to find an even more expansive and positive message in another podcast guest. Another Wanderers comrade who goes by the name of Mick was incredibly open and brave when he talked about his battles with mental health issues on the episode I recorded with him.  This was produced only a week before things went seriously pear shaped for me on the home front, and through the agency of that podcast I was lucky enough to hear a man, a fellow Wanderers supporter, express his emotions and thoughts in a context very similar to mine. I feel even more fortunate and dare I say a little bit proud (which in turns helps me) that Mick was willing and able to pour forth his experiences, his ruminations on being bipolar, on his time in mental health care, and how he connected his efforts to stay well through football, through the Wanderers.

There are numerous other people I could refer to, several other occasions or experiences that I could mention, where someone who shares with me a love of the Western Sydney Wanderers has given me a shoulder to lean on, a reason to smile, an ear to pour my heart and soul out to. I’ve had deep and meaningful moments over a stein with fellow WSW addicts male and female, young and old, new friends and not so new. At the semi against Brisbane I was taken into the bosom of the RBB with Lloydie, FCB, Wal and Valter and whilst I was feeling gutted away and outside the active stands at Wanderland, for those glorious few hours focused on that magnificent defeat of the Roar, I was given the heartening comradeship where my euphoria could supplant my depression. Admittedly if we had lost that would have drawn a pall over things. However we didn’t; that 5-4 come back from the dead ‘Miracle at Pirtek’ was the final sanction on a day when my red and black fraternity gave me every reason to feel good.

Perhaps the most crucial moment when I found how valuable, how life affirming it was to have my Wanderers’ mates behind me was the morning after I admitted myself to crisis care. Without going into all aspects of my situation, I was at that most low moment, where one questions why one should keep struggling with the emotional hell you are going through. Beaten down by issues relating to the ex as well as my work situation at the time (or should I say impending lack of work lol), I was in need of a refuge where professionals would make sure no self-harm would come to me. When I was asked to hand over my belt and shoelaces on admittance I was in serious doubt of my ability to go on, to continue to struggle with the feelings of hurt and hopelessness that seeped into every pore and bone of my being. However, when the immediate danger passed and I was later able to walk out of the hospital with trousers and shoes secured, there were my Wanderers mates there to ask me; are you okay? I had come through a very dark passage and they were there to shine a beacon of friendship to light the way.

Before I close off on the subject of how my Wanderers brothers and sisters have been so valuable in these last seven months of emotional trouble, I must make reference to the communal nature of this willingness to care, to listen, to openly discuss problems that give cause for RUOK Day. In the West Sydney Football forum, the home of Wanderers related chat online, there have been threads opened and fervently conversed in addressing mental health issues. It’s there that members and fans of my beloved WSW can articulate their own personal doubts and griefs, or perhaps offer succour to those like me who are in need of support during shitty times. I’ve availed myself of a willing audience for my woes there, plus also offered some thoughts and encouragement to fellow correspondents to try and help them with their issues. It’s a wonderfully positive and helpful conversation that helps set the paradigm of why being with my fellow Wanderers advocates is not just a football fan thing; it’s a real community in the best sense of that word.

At this point, before I finish this blog post, I would like to widen my observations on how my football friends have asked me ‘RUOK’ and then been willing to listen, by commending a bloke who is not a fellow traveler in red and black. A great mate for me and I firmly believe for the wider football community, Todd aka ‘A Nobody from Newcastle‘ has been consistently sending me messages via Twitter, Facebook, in person and by text asking me how I am, what I’m up to, chatting about his Jets or my Wanderers. Todd is the kind of member/supporter that every A-League club needs to look to when searching for that one individual that embodies the best values of their community. He is passionate about football in his Hunter homeland, but equally impressive is his commitment to mates away from Newy who share his love of football. He and I have bounced off each other through bad times and good, and I find his friendship incredibly life-affirming. I may feel miserable about what has happened to me due to my domestic issues and my mental health problems. However whenever Todd asks ‘Are you okay?’, or sits down with me at a pub in Parramatta or Hamilton to iron out the latest issues with our beloved clubs and code, the blues get pissed off quick smart. I would not be lying to say my brother from another A-League club is at the heart of my inspiration to engage with the whole message of ‘RUOK Day’.

I’d like to finish off with the message that asking a friend, a work mate, a relation if they are okay is something that is of so much value, so much help when one feels that it actually isn’t. From recent personal experience I have had family contacts, mental health professionals and old friends ask me how I am doing, sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. I appreciate their efforts, even if at times I have been reticent or have even rejected them. However, when it comes to the ‘RUOKs’ proffered by my fellow Western Sydney Wanderers comrades, from some select and amazing football mates, I have never felt unable to answer back “I will be, thanks in no small part to you.”

RUOK?

cryjsnbusaa1lwj

Why I Wish I Was With The WSW Folk In Crow-Eater-Land

It is very fucking hard for me right now, very hard indeed.

A tick over six days ago I was bathing in the collective euphoria of that now legendary win by the Wanderers over the Roar, when after less than 25 minutes of the game it appeared that our season was coming to a shuddering, ego-destroying end. Those three goals scored by the visitors looked as if they were not just three reasons to bemoan the end of the Western Sydney Wanderers’ 2015-16 campaign, they also insinuated that our team were lapsing into comical errors that were more in tune with our cross-city rivals this season. Then, as if the men on the pitch had decided ‘Okay, that’s enough head start.’ it was the lads in red and black who were doing almost all the roaring. In what seemed like the blink of an eye Romeo had clawed one back, then in the opening stanza of the second half it was Santa delivering the second goal, Castelen the third and yes…quelle surprise…Romeo grabbing a third to put us one goal to the good:

Okay, so Brisbane Roar got one back, and that meant the semi was taken to extra time. However I don’t believe anyone of us who were there that night on the eve of Anzac Day 2016, or perhaps many who were at homes or elsewhere watching the game though that the Wanderers were destined to lose. The Roar had performed enough Houdini-like escapes from defeat in finals matches; now it was time to pay the piper and when Bridge and Vidosic combined to play the tune, well it was yet another magic moment of history for anyone associated with the Western Sydney Wanderers.

So, why am I feeling like three kinds of bad shit right now? What is causing my weltschmerz, my ennui, my depression right now?

To be blunt, I wish I was in Adelaide with my family.

With my red and black family.

With my brothers and sisters who have been there for me in ways that makes me both proud and humble.

Plus, to add salt to the wound of being absent from the ‘greatest trip we’ve ever been on’, my Wanderers family are in my home town, where my other family by blood mostly reside. Where I took my first breath, my first steps. Where I feel the sun shines on me in a different way than it does here where I live. Where the food tastes better, the beer sublime, the local lingo my mother tongue.

Now before I wax too lyrical about Adelaide and South Australia, I will gladly lay my cards on the table and say this is not the emotional state of a man who wants to go back to the land of the Crow Eaters to live. An extended holiday? Sure. A road trip akin to those taken by many of my fellow WSW supporters? Fuck yeah. However I am now (and have been for more years than I probably would admit) well ensconced in NSW, in western Sydney. Hell’s bells; the Wanderers have done more to make me feel attached to the west of Sydney than living in the area (on and off) for over 25 years. To leave here and return to the fatherland would cut that umbilical cord of community and football that is my Wander-love. Yet I cannot fail to feel envious, sad, a little jealous of all who are right now in SA’s capital city on the eve of the 2015/16 Grand Final.

The manner in which so many of my comrades have taken the run westwards, by train, by plane, by car and by bus stirs up plenty of feeling in me right now. I have had some of the best times of my life out in the back blocks of western NSW taking the run towards South Australia. Driving on the Hay plain, with its great wide brown expansive landscape is one of those quintessential life experiences that I think should be mandatory for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to be Australian. The flat and empty earth as you drive west of Hay, heading towards Balranald and further points west is one of those things that can’t be described, it has to be lived.

Then there is the strange delight of hitting South Australia and being asked to undergo a fruit fly inspection. I am unsure if this is a purely SA/Australian experience (I think it is), however it must be such a bemusing and puzzling experience for foreign tourists and even citified folk like my WSW kin to have to pull up at a building near Pinneroo or maybe Renmark if coming in further north and be asked ‘Got any fresh fruit sir/madam?’. I grew up with that, and as a kid would beg my father to be the one who would jump out of the Kingswood to show the man from the fruit fly inspection station that no, we weren’t trying to smuggle tangelos and apricots into South Australia.

I’ve also mentioned above the food and drink culture in SA, and I can’t let the ties that bind me there loose. When last in South Australia I made sure to take in all the goodies I could, even if it may have shortened my lifespan and increased my waist line. Mettwurst, bung fritz sambos with tomato sauce, Yo Yo biscuits, Kitchener Buns, King George Whiting, pints of pale, bottles of green death or woodies lemonade. Pie floaters and real pasties that make anything issued from an eastern state bakery look and taste like a hat-full of scraps and gristle; ye gods, when it comes to the tucker you can get in my home state it’s a friggin’ cornucopia!

As you may surmise, the boy may have been dragged out of South Australia, but he still has a huge chunk of it (wrapped in Balfours pastry) stuck inside him. It is of itself something I can deal with. However what does break the Crow Eater heart within a little is that I know so many of my Wanderers kin are going into this world and they will be looking at this through fresh eyes, with possibly no idea about how good, how enjoyable this scenario in front of them is.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that primarily this is about the RBB and other supporters making their way over to Adelaide to watch the boys play at the SACA (that’s the name I knew it by, none of this Adelaide Oval shit) and hopefully bring back the toilet seat. There is however I part of me that is like the father wanting to take his offspring back to meet the great uncles and aunts, to see the same hospital, the same school, the same church where pivotal life moments directed the parent’s early life. It would make me so happy to sit in a pub with some of my WSW compadres and watch them try their first Southwark. To see their eyes cast perhaps dubious looks over a meat pie turned upside down in a big bowl of pea soup, then  when the first mouthful hits my Wanderers’ friend’s gob those same eyes would glaze over with happiness.

So yes, I am partly jealous, partly sad to think that on the eve of the A-League Grand Final so many of my besties are heading into my old stomping grounds without my tutelage and/or my companionship as they possibly find out about South Australian goodness for the first time. However there is another, more significant reason for my slightly blue mood tonight.

In the last three months my life has been going through the most turbulent, most troubling time I have experience for at least the last couple of decades. I’ve had so many kicks in the teeth from life I’ve had serious doubts as to what actually gives one cause to continue getting up in the morning. There has been some ill-health which thankfully has improved somewhat. In late January I got the word that I was going to be made redundant from a job that I was very happy in. Thankfully that shitty scenario has changed, insofar as I have a new job. There was also the death of a much beloved (feline) member of the family, who had been ‘my’ boy for many a year. Finally, the most important relationship in my life, one that was the focus of my being for 16 years ended, throwing all my expectations and all my emotions into the shitter. It has been a very farken dark time believe me.

Yet through all this period where loss, infidelity and ego-crushing changes have battered my happiness into a pulp, there has been one constant. That is my band of brothers and sisters in red and black. I can’t name them because (a) they’re are so many and (b) I don’t want to embarrass them, however it needs to be said; without my friends from the Wanderers community I don’t know how I would’ve coped with the depressive influences on my life.

There have been instances where people who I had no knowledge of a scant year or more or so ago have become my boon friends, always willing to ask me how I am, what is happening, do I need an ear to bash or a beer to cry into. There is one WSW fan I know who has had a helluva rough time, probably worse than mine. Yet he has been there for me in ways that some of my non-Wanderers friends from university and beyond have not. There have been texts and tweets, visits and chats, shared meals and sessions at the Bavarian where I’ve poured my sick and sorry soul out to my circle of WSW mates, and men and women alike they’ve given me their support without question. It’s the kind of camaraderie that I’ve never experienced with my blood family, with long term work mates or even my past lovers. To find that kind of acceptance, that unique bond of never needing to apologise for who I am and how I feel…well, it’s pretty fucking amazing.

I guess what I want to say as I draw a close on this blog post is that sitting her at my PC, writing up this impromptu column, my thoughts and my heart wing westward over the Great Dividing Range, the Hay Plain, the SA border and down into the city on the Torrens. I am so very proud and happy to know that my team is playing for its (hopefully) first A-League champions trophy, after so much success in its short life. Yet I am also feeling huge needy pangs of desire; to be ‘back home’ with the best family football could ever create.

COME ON YOU WANDERERS!

I Got Those Where’s The New Wanderer’s Home Gonna Be Blues (or Where To Post-Pirtek)

Back on September 4th 2015 the premier of NSW issued a press release indicating that, after years of speculation and lobbying, there would be an overhaul of sporting stadia in Sydney focused on suburban venues. The overall plan included:

  • A new rectangular stadium at Moore Park with 50,000 to 55,000 seats;
  • The completion of the SCG masterplan
  • A new rectangular stadium at Parramatta with 30,000 seats;
  • The redevelopment of Stadium Australia, which may include a retractable roof;
  • A new indoor arena near the CBD; and
  • A new outer western Sydney sporting venue.

Premier Baird went on to say:

“Our first priority is building a new 30,000 seat stadium at Parramatta on the site of the existing facility, with work to begin as soon as possible and construction expected to be completed by 2019.” (source)

With these words the hopes and concerns of thousands of Western Sydney Wanderers members and fans were brought into focus as to where the club’s playing home should be both in the short and in the long term futures. As of today Wanderland, alias Pirtek Stadium is still our home, and for all its problems (which are not few in number) it is the locus of our club culture, our short-lived history and the hub of a wider game-day experience that leaves almost nothing to be desired. After all, it is Parramatta Stadium where the Western Sydney Wanderers played their very first competitive A-League game, saw their greatest wins in the ACL campaign of 2014, and served as the emotional centre for ever member who has been to a Wanderers’ match:

However it would appear that our days at Wanderland are coming to an end, at least in terms of the current venue’s structures and set up. Club CEO John Tsatsimas spoke with the hosts of the Daily Football Show on their Tuesday 16/12/15 podcast and stated that next season the Wanderers would in most likelihood not be playing out of Pirtek due to the construction work needed for the previously cited new stadium for Parramatta:

This of course opens Pandora’s Box of worms both in the short term, with reference to alternate venues to host the Western Sydney Wanderers’ home games until (perhaps) 2019, as well as long term issues regarding the structure, layout and fit out of a new Wanderland back at Parramatta. Where will we be going to see our home games in the 2016/17 A-League season? Will there be, as hinted at by Tsatsimas a scenario where “…one model (for Wanderers home games) would be to use a multitude of venues, dictated by their availability.” (source). Will the Wanderers be wandering between ANZ Stadium at Sydney Olympic Park, Pepper Stadium in Penrith and perhaps Belmore Sports Ground?

Before I put forward my analysis of the pros and cons of each potential ground I must say that in my opinion it would be preferable for an interim home for the Wanderers to remain at one stadium, and one alone. Assuming we have maybe three seasons of A-League football to be played before we return to a new Parramatta Wanderland, it would be most helpful for the purposes of retaining members and simplifying the logistics of the interim move if we are placed at a stadium that has some degree of permanence. In my opinion circulating between 2-3 venues during an A-League season would do more to disenfranchise or impede a larger cross section of supporters, plus add more costs to the club’s ongoing game day expenses, rather than settling on one venue. If, for example games were taken to both Penrith’s and Campbelltown’s stadia there will be a nominally increased liability in terms of expenditure at the venues for matches, as well as creating more logistical problems for a wider cross- section for members and fans.

So, who are the candidates for an interim ‘Wanderland 2.0′, and what are the pros and cons of each. For your consideration, these are the five potential stadia the Wanderers’ faithful may have to call home until we have a rebuilt Parramatta Stadium hopefully ready for us to return to in 2019:

  • Pepper Stadium, Penrith
  • Spotless Stadium Sydney, Olympic Park
  • Belmore Sports Ground, Belmore
  • ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park
  • Campbelltown Sports Stadium, Leumeah

What follows is just one Wanderers’ (semi-informed) analysis of the pros and cons of each venue, taking into account not just the pros and cons that are quantifiable (e.g. capacity, design, accessibility) but also an attempt at making some judgments vis-a-vis the ability for said stadium and its wider setting to live up to the original Wanderland experience. Obviously these are my views, and I suspect what I write below can and will be rigorously questioned by those with a preference for one or more stadia, or who use a different set of values to judge the suitability of the venue(s).

Pepper Stadium, Penrith

  • Capacity: approximately 22.500 (approximately 8000 each in the western and eastern grand stands)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 1.4km (17 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: No (parking available across Mulgoa Road in Panthers League’s Club precinct)
  • Other tenants: Penrith Panthers (NRL)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: Yes (including pre-season, A-League and FFA Cup matches)

dium is the most westerly of all the potential stadia for Western Sydney Wanderers’ home games for coming seasons, and has, as pointed out above, seen service for previous Wanderers’ matches. I have been to all three games (a pre-season match against Adelaide prior to the 2013/14 season, a ‘community round’ match against Wellington last season, and a FFA Cup game against Brisbane immediately prior to this season), and to be blunt two of those experiences were god-awful and only one satisfactory. However before I get into personal comments, there are these pros and cons to take into account.

Pros:

  • Pepper has an appropriate capacity to take an average Wanderers home game, excluding most likely a derby and possibly any semi-finals. A proper rectangular stadium, it has two grandstands that compare adequately with those in place at Pirtek. Like Parramatta the two grandstands face west and east, with the western stand nominally more suitable for corporate and higher value ticket holders. Whilst there are two grassed areas (at the north and south ends) the overall size of Pepper Stadium will probably meet the club’s and the member’s expectations.
  • Penrith is a bulwark of Wanderers support in the west of Sydney, with (according to John Tsatsimas prior to last season’s match against Wellington) ‘having the second highest number of Foundation Members‘. As a region the Nepean area is of major importance to not just the club but football in general, and there has been a long history of players and clubs from the Penrith region contributing to football (such as Mark Schwarzer and the old Penrith City NSL club). Were the Wanderers desirous of moving most if not all home games to Pepper Stadium this would be ample recognition of the popularity of the sport and the club in the west of Sydney.
  • The Panthers Club directly across Mulgoa Round is a major entertainment precinct available for the use of the Wanderers’ fans and members on game day. There are reasonably capacious car parks within its boundaries, and plenty of food and drink options are available for the visitor.
  • With Penrith being on the main western train line, serviced by both urban and inter-urban trains, the ability of most fans to use public transport along the main western Sydney corridor (i.e from Strathfield to the Blue Mountains) is reasonably good. The M4 motorway provides good access to Penrith and the stadium, with the Great Western Highway an alternate route. Travel times from other major suburbs of western Sydney would range from about 20-30 minutes (Blacktown, Richmond, Parramatta) to 45-60 minutes (Hills District, Liverpool, Campbelltown, Bankstown, Katoomba).
  • The relationship between Pepper Stadium and the Wanderers sponsor Pepper Finance is an obvious one.
  • Local state MP and minister for sport is Stuart Ayres, and it would undoubtedly assist the Wanderers’ political cause (such as in the recent stoush with the Parramatta LAC) to be seen to be part of the local MP’s ‘clients’. Considering football clubs in Australia have struggled to find patronage among the various tiers of government this could be a fruitful by-product of moving to Penrith.

Cons:

  • The previously mentioned grassed areas at the northern and southern ends are not suitable for active use, which means that (as seen in those games previously played at Penrith) the RBB would be positioned within the eastern stand seating area. To be blunt this hinders anyone’s view from behind them, who are not in an active bay. Also in summer that area can get exceedingly hot, which is not conducive to active support. As Pirtek is an all seated stadium to move to Pepper would be a downgrade in facilities.
  • The Penrith Panthers group has a vested economic and political interest in Pepper Stadium, with certain benefits allowed to their members (e.g. discounted drinks and food) not passed on to Wanderers members. Considering that the Panthers group once expressed an interest in buying the Western Sydney Wanderers (after going through serious economic problems caused by over-aggressive expansion and the associated debt), and when its offer was rejected by the FFA the same Panthers group compared buying the A-League club to buying an ice cream shop, there is a definite disconnect between the values and agenda of the Wanderers and Panthers. There is also the issue of Pepper Stadium being the home ground of the Panthers NRL team, and with their competition starting in early March of each year and the A-League not concluding it’s season until late April, there will be an issue relating to conflicting schedules, where the Panthers may well have first use rights. Whilst this scenario may not be much different to that in place at Wanderland vis-a-vis the Parramatta Eels, there is arguably not the same vested interest in that stadium contrasted with Pepper. Whilst the entertainment and food and drink precinct of Panthers is very close to Pepper Stadium, it provides nowhere near the quality, range and eclecticism of offerings seen in Parramatta. Plus money spent at those facilities integrated into the Panthers Club area will help fund a sporting club that has a history of being disconnected with the Wanderers and with football. I personally raised issues regarding food and drink prices at Pepper Stadium last season after the Phoenix match and the disparity between what was charged there versus Pirtek Stadium, and as the local media spun the story it was more a case of Panthers wanting to do right by their members first and foremost. Frankly I don’t believe Wanderers should be spending money at a venue that then partially contributes to the income of a rival club and sport in western Sydney.
  • Security, policing and other entry issues at Pepper do raise concerns, particularly as I have experienced first hand the difference in capabilities and expectations of those managing these areas at past Penrith based games. I wrote about the scenario that played out when the friendly against Adelaide was hosted at Pepper Stadium before Season Two, and last season’s Wellington Phoenix match also demonstrated shortcomings with the manner in which access to the ground was controlled. Admittedly Parramatta is no utopia where everything goes right, and with more experience perhaps Pepper Stadium staff and the Penrith LAC could learn with more practice. However I don’t believe anyone can guarantee a better experience at Penrith in this area.
  • From a local resident’s perspective Penrith City Council has hardly been pro-active in seeking to engage with the Wanderers and its fans, unlike (for example) Liverpool City Council. PCC have a demonstrable and obvious link to the Panthers NRL club and it’s promotional and civic relationship with that entity would arguably run contrary to the need to invest heavily in supporting and promoting links with the Western Sydney Wanderers.
  • A further disconnect between the Penrith area and the Wanderers when it comes to home game experiences is the lack of engagement between local businesses and the fans when game days have been held at Pepper Stadium. I know of one pub in the area that promised to do much to support the Wanderers fans after the Adelaide friendly, however within a short time those promises were not met. It has to be said that as almost every major non-Panthers entertainment facility or pub is at a considerable distance from Pepper Stadium the ability for said businesses to engage with the fans is extremely limited.
  • The location of Penrith as a home venue for Wanderers games, whilst more advantageous for those fans and members in the Nepean, Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains area, does put a sizable portion of the Wanderers fan base at a disadvantage (especially those in the Bankstown, Lidcombe, Campbelltown and Hills District). This of course is an issue of variable impacts for every venue being considered. However Penrith is certainly at the most extreme end of traveling distance for many fans. It must also be cited that Penrith train station is a considerable distance from Pepper Stadium (unlike other potential venues) and parking near the stadium can be limited if Panthers car park is being used by that club’s patrons.

Summary:

Pepper Stadium would be a very reasonable option for hosting future Western Sydney Wanderers’ home games, with its record of hosting matches, layout and local supporter base being advantageous. However there are some serious questions over the game day experience that could be had there, and politically, economically and culturally there is nowhere near the proven engagement with the Wanderers that the clubs fans and members deserve.

Spotless Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park

  • Capacity: approximately 24,000 (all seated)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (6 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: Yes (P1 car park station has numerous levels of paid car parks all within walking distance of the stadium)
  • Other tenants: GWS Giants (AFL), Sydney Thunder (BBL), Royal Easter Show
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: No

Pros:

  • An all seated stadium, with a sizable quantity of those seats under cover, there is a plenty of modern comfort and good accessibility at Spotless Stadium. The concourses and layout ensure that crowds can move freely and easily in, around and out of the venue, and as this is venue was refurbished in 2011/12, it is the most modern of the potential venues. The capacity of 24,000 is certainly within the desired parameters of the Wanderers for all home games, and offers an increased capacity for Sydney derbies.
  • The proximity of major transport facilities and routes will mean that Spotless can facilitate access for a large number of Wanderers fans and members, with the Sydney Olympic park train station specifically designed for the flow of large numbers of people attending sporting events in the area. The M4 motorway is very close to the venue, which allows for relatively easy access for those driving to Spotless along the east-west axis of the motorway’s corridor, and parking is available in sizable quantities. Nominally the worst added travel time on weekends for matches would be approximately 15-20 minutes for those traveling to the Sydney Olympic Park from those Wanderers’ fans and members living in the Nepean, Macarthur, Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains areas, with similar savings in time for those in the Bankstown, Lidcombe and similar areas.
  • Corporate and catering facilities at Spotless Stadium are more varied and configured to be more appropriate to the Wanderers’ needs than suburban grounds such as Pepper and Campbelltown.
  • The Sydney Olympic Park location for Spotless Stadium is good for large crowd movement and control, and with the close proximity of other facilities (e.g. Sydney Aquatic Centre) there could be an increase in casual attendees coming to watch a game plus make a day of the trip to the ground.

Cons:

  • Spotless Stadium is configured as an oval, with the focus for current and past tenants being on using that space instead of a more football friendly rectangular configuration. There has been a lack of engagement with other oval or circular grounds used for A-League matches (e.g. Westpac Stadium Wellington, the Adelaide Oval) and anecdotal evidence indicates that Spotless is viewed with much disfavour because of this factor.
  • The multiple existing tenants (GWS, Sydney Thunder, RAS Easter Show) means that Spotless Stadium may offer only limited access during the football season. The Royal Easter Show uses Spotless for many different events during their running in March, which would definitely cut across access for the Wanderers at that time. In December this year the Sydney Thunder Big Bash League cricket team play four games at this venue as well, which means that for possibly 8-10 weeks in the same time frame as an A-League season conflicting requirements for other tenants will impact on the Wanderers’ home game schedule. Whilst the GWS Australian Rules club may only have 1-2 games max being played at Spotless during the A-League season, there is the unpalatable idea for many Wanderers members and fans that a rival code and club could either share in and/or profit from our club’s presence at their Sydney base.
  • The price of car parking at Sydney Olympic Park can be prohibitive, so unless there is some kind of quid pro quo offering for members which may reduce this cost, then moving to Spotless does offer a challenge to those who would drive to the ground. Additionally any home games played on a Friday night may present a challenge to the fans driving to the Spotless and Sydney Olympic Park, as the M4 is notoriously stressed in that area during peak hour traffic.
  • Rail transport to Spotless may well mean changing at Lidcombe for anyone traveling from the west, south-west or Hawkesbury regions, and this will undoubtedly add time and stress that other, more direct venues such as Penrith and Parramatta may or do offer. This is arguably a minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience just the same.
  • Unlike our current home in Parramatta, or indeed other suburban venues we may opt for, the Sydney Olympic Park area is effectively a sterile environment. Yes, there are some more varied options for catering and there are plenty of complementary and supplementary facilities near Spotless Stadium. However unless there is a sizable crowd in place there is a certain lack of atmosphere to the area. It could be that with a paucity of pubs nearby, generic takeaway joints and a short walk from the railway station, the iconic aspects of supporting the Wanderers in Parramatta (e.g. the RBB march) would be dissipated.

Summary:

Spotless Stadium does have some string selling points, most notably those that relate to its modernity and to a lesser extent its location. Having said that there are several big challenges, most specifically relating to the other tenants and their interruptions to the Wanderers’ home season schedule. The oval shape of the ground is also a concern. It may be that Spotless could only figure as a venue for the period between the start of an A-League season through to early December, and thus increase the complexity of the problem (previously cited) with multiple home grounds.

Belmore Sports Ground

  • Capacity: approximately 19,000 (approximately 9,000 seats)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (6 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: No
  • Other tenants: Canterbury Bulldogs (NRL), Sydney Olympic FC (NPL)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: No

Pros:

  • Belmore Sports Ground is a rectangular football field with a capacity of 19,000, which certainly puts it in the same kind of preferred profile for size and shape for a temporary home for the Wanderers. The western stand (which holds the bulk of the 9,000 seats) is part of the recent redevelopment of the ground, and this specific installation of Belmore puts it ahead of less recently modified suburban football grounds such as Parramatta’s Pirtek and Penrith’s Pepper Stadia.
  • Belmore and the surrounding suburbs are prime Wanderers’ community territory, with a long tradition of a football culture. The multicultural demographic of the area has seen clubs from the NSL and earlier play based in the Canterbury district, including Sydney Olympic and Johnny Warren’s Canterbury-Marrickville Olympic (who have since become Bankstown Berries FC). This is a part of (western) Sydney that ‘gets’ football.
  • The major tenants and lease holders are not necessarily going to impose too heavily on the Wanderers’ home games during the summer season. The Bulldogs NRL team would be highly unlikely to play more than one game at Belmore (with their main stadium being ANZ) during the A-League season, which is less than the impact the Parramatta Eels have on Pirtek Stadium. It may be that the Bulldogs will use Belmore as their training facility in the NRL’s off-season, however as this would most likely not clash with the needs of the Wanderers (who are already using alternate facilities out at Blacktown) then this too should not be a problem. it may even be that the facilities provided under the auspices of the Bulldogs would be advantageous to the Wanderers. As for Sydney Olympic FC, whilst they may have some match clashes with a potential Wanderers home game in the last few weeks of the A-League season, the impact could be less than that experienced at Pepper Stadium in Penrith or Campbelltown Sports Stadium.
  • With Belmore train station under a kilometre away there is good access to a major public transport hub. The M5 toll way is about 7 minutes drive away, which will be advantageous for those fans who are traveling to the ground from areas such as Liverpool and Campbelltown.
  • The main business areas of Belmore and Campsie offer some unique and cosmopolitan dining options for visiting Wanderers fans, and with the Canterbury Leagues Club about 12 minutes walk from the ground there are more entertainment options there as well.

Cons:

  • Belmore Sports Ground may have 9,000 or so seats and a modern grand stand, but it it demonstrably deficient when it comes to matching any other current or potential home ground for the Wanderers for total seating and covered areas. It would also be a significant downgrade contrasted to other A-League stadia. It may be possible that temporary stands could be added to the venue, however with three sides of the rectangle provided with only a grass cover, this would be a major problem for the management and fans of the Wanderers. It would also present a challenge (arguably an insoluble one) for locating the RBB and any associated security and policing measures.
  • Whilst the Bulldogs Leagues Club and Sydney Oympic FC are both tenants, and arguably more passive than seen at (for example) Spotless Stadium, there would again be the issue of Wanderers members and fans contributing to the ongoing revenue streams of rival clubs if Belmore was selected as a new home ground. Whilst there are some synergies with the two other clubs, both the Bulldogs and Olympic would see the Wanderers presence at Belmore as a potential cash cow.
  • Canterbury City Council has not, as far as I am aware, not made a political or financial investment in the Wanderers, and thus there would be little benefit in these two key areas for the A-League club to venture to Belmore.
  • The lack of on-site car parking is a significant problem, and unlike Penrith or Campbelltown, the distance between the local league’s club car park and the ground is most considerable. Additionally, those fans and members travelling from the Blue Mountains, Nepean, Hawkesbury and Hills districts would be severely disadvantaged both in terms of rail and car access. With Belmore the most easterly of the potential venues travel time via the M4 etc from Penrith balloons out to almost an hour, whilst public transport would require about 100 or more minutes from Penrith, including both train and bus. This is obviously the reverse of the scenario for those people who live near Belmore if they were to travel out to Penrith. However even those who would be most likely to benefit with access to the M5 from Campbelltown or Liverpool have a cheaper option traveling to Penrith by car (using in some part Northern Road which is toll free). Interestingly enough, the issues relating to parking and the previous point re Canterbury Council are brought together in this article, where local council rangers have fined numerous people who’ve parked in residential areas close to Belmore Sports Ground.

Summary:

Belmore is a very unlikely option due to its location, lack of internal infrastructure and the potential for financial and political issues possibly relating to the Canterbury Rugby League club and Canterbury Council. The benefits of playing at what is effectively a semi-refurbished suburban football/league ground are minimal contrasted to the other candidates.

ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park

  • Capacity: approximately 83,500
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (6 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: Yes (P1 multi-level paid car parking station)
  • Other tenants: Sydney Swans (AFL), Canterbury Bulldogs (NRL), West Tigers (NRL), South Sydney Rabbitohs (NRL), Other Miscellaneous clubs and teams such as the Socceroos and NSW Blues (cricket)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: No

Pros:

  • There is no larger capacity stadium in Sydney, and with a fully seated capacity of 83,500 for rectangular sports there would be absolutely no issue with the Wanderers members and fans being able to find covered seats for any match played there (including the Sydney derby). Whilst ANZ Stadium has not undergone the same modernisation processes seen by its fellow Sydney Olympic Park venue, Spotless Stadium, it still easily surpasses smaller suburban grounds in terms of its recent build, internal infrastructure and ease of access for spectators entering and leaving the stadium.
  • Alongside the improved quantity and quality of spectator seating, corporate and media facilities at ANZ are second to none in Sydney, if not in Australia. With the background of being the main stadium for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and since its opening in 1999 a continuous history of major sporting events (including NRL State of Origin matches, Socceroos World Cup qualifiers, Rugby World Cup 2015 matches and AFC Cup games), there is arguably no other stadium in Australia (aside from the MCG) that has a recent track record of hosting world class events. So as to maximise the revenue from this continuous flow of major sporting events the ANZ Stadium consortium have established themselves as a leader for corporate customers (charging for example up to $1495 for a box at the NRL grand final). There are also the considerable resources available to the media, such as the stadium’s studio spaces for TV and radio, built to Olympic broadcasting standards. Contrasted with the other candidate venues ANZ presents a far more impressive and comprehensive ability to showcase the Wanderers via media coverage, a significantly superior standard of corporate facilities (which would come in most handy for any potential ACL commitments in future seasons)
  • As per Spotless Stadium, due to its location in Sydney Olympic Park ANZ Stadium has significant transportation benefits for any attending Wanderers members or fans (as well as visiting spectators from other clubs). The same ease of access to the M4 and quantity of parking sites makes life much easier for the Wanderers fan or member who drives to Sydney Olympic Park. The same public transport benefits regarding rail also exist for ANZ as they do for Spotless. It might even be considered that bus and River Cat ferry services could also add to the mix for public transport users heading to ANZ.
  • Catering, bar and other franchises within ANZ are in plentiful supply and offer a wide variety. This would again replicate some of the better aspects of Spotless Stadium’s advantages in this area, though where this stadium surpasses its neighbour would be sheer quantity and capacity of food stalls, merchandise stands, bars etc.
  • Free Wi-Fi internet support at ANZ is a plus for those in the Wanderers community looking for that specific point of difference for their home game venue.
  • Whilst ANZ Stadium does have multiple tenants, particularly NRL teams, the calendar for the bulk of the A-League season (as indicated by their 2016 schedule) is relatively light, aside from the period of March-May. The period between the end of the NRL season and Christmas does appear bereft of sporting events.
  • As per Spotless Stadium, the Sydney Olympic Park location of ANZ Stadium means there are additional benefits for those who may wish to use a Wanderers’ home match as the focal event of a day’s visit to the precinct. Plus there is plenty of scope for comfortable and safe crowd management in the precinct.
  • With its size and location ANZ Stadium would be a most capable venue for the Sydney derbies, and whilst the 83,500 capacity may not sell out there is every probability that those who are unable to attend either Pirtek or Allianz hosted matches would be able to come to ANZ. It may be possible that an ANZ Stadium hosted derby could host over 60,000 spectators and become the absolute flag ship event of the domestic football season.

Cons:

  • The sheer size and nature of ANZ Stadium may well mitigate against the most appropriate game day experiences for Wanderers fans and members. As it is a huge space that is imperfectly configured for football matches, there are significant problems with how spectators can see the pitch, and how they can produce a game day environment that would match those at Pirtek Stadium in Parramatta. Whilst seats closer to ground level are not too badly sited for watching a game, the slope of higher seating, the bowl shape of the stands and the height at which the higher stands reach mean that many feel they cannot see the game when there, and the atmosphere (a key part of Wanderland) is ‘sucked’ out of the venue. With a full crowd ANZ Stadium can be a very exciting and engaging venue. However there will be almost no chance that home games for the Wanderers against (for example) Perth Glory, Wellington Phoenix or Adelaide United could draw more than one quarter of the Stadium’s capacity. This means there is every likelihood that ANZ hosted matches will appear to be in a near void of spectators and atmosphere. These issues of capacity and lay out of ANZ will also impinge upon the RBB’s ability to interact with the match, possibly deadening their ability to create that unique Western Sydney Wanderers culture on match days. Plus there is every possibility that with the over-supply of seating those who currently hold club memberships may decide they don’t need to continue to maintain them, in light of being able to buy tickets on a match by match basis, knowing they will have no trouble getting a seat.
  • As per Spotless Stadium, there are issues and challenges faced by ANZ due to its Olympic Park location, that will impinge upon those traveling to the venue by car. Peak hour traffic on a Friday night when a match may be played there could be a nightmare for fans trying to get to the venue via the M4 (or for that matter Homebush Bay Drive, Silverwater Road and other nearby major arterial roads). The price of car parking at Sydney Olympic Park may also be too expensive to sustain.
  • Again, like Spotless Stadium, train travel to ANZ Stadium may not be easy as suspected on first inspection. Having to change trains for the Olympic Park loop service at Lidcombe would be an added complication for many traveling to Wanderers’ games at ANZ.
  • The same problems with Spotless Stadium vis-a-vis the relatively ‘sterile’ nature of Sydney Olympic Park, and how the area doesn’t replicate the same suburban energy felt in Parramatta on match day, exist for ANZ. Large open spaces, the inability to match Church Street’s entertainment and dining options; these aspects deaden game day experience, which is vitally important to Wanderers fans and members.
  • Whilst for the most part the other (mostly NRL) tenants don’t have an effect on the bulk of the potential Wanderers’ home season, they still have a major impact in the last few months of the A-League season. There is also the possibility that large outdoor concerts and similar non-sporting events held at ANZ could impact on the Wanderers home games, and not just on the match day. For example Taylor Swift held an open air concert at ANZ on November 28th 2015, and the pitch was used for seating and the stage. It may be that if a similar event happened during a Wanderers’ season the playing surface at ANZ could be damaged or unusable for a period of time both before and after the concert. As for the other tenants of ANZ Stadium, the multiple clubs from the NRL and AFL can create a congested schedule. In March 2016 there will be a four day period where two NRL games and one AFL match will be played, and such heavy use of the ANZ pitch must result in damage to the pitch unacceptable for football use. Finally, whilst the Royal Easter Show does not use ANZ Stadium as a venue, as the venue does lie within the Olympic precinct it will have an impact on the ability of Wanderers fans and members getting to games.
  • Politically there may be a conflict of interest, or at least some degree of concern for the ANZ Stadium ownership group with the Wanderers playing at ANZ, then returning to Parramatta to a newer, rival stadium. They may consider offering financial and other incentives to the Wanderers as being not in their long term interests. It’s hard to assess the implications, however unlike Campbelltown or Penrith, where the relevant councils may see a transitory Wanderers residence at their local grounds being a reason to encourage longer term investment in their facilities, ANZ Stadium’s owners and shareholders have more reason to cater for existing and/or non-competing customers. It may be that (unlike existing and alternate potential tenants) ANZ Stadium may not offer the same support and inducements to the Wanderers, knowing they will be playing their home game either for maybe 3 seasons at most.
  • There is also the potential impact of the possible redevelopment of ANZ Stadium, as suggested by Mike Baird in the original proposal to upgrade Sydney’s venues. Whilst it is probably not going to happen, what may be the impact of construction work happening at ANZ before the Wanderers return to their new digs in Parramatta. There could even be a scenario where Sydney FC are put into the position of having to move from Allianz Stadium if its redevelopment/replacement occurs, and thus they too may be looking at playing some games out of ANZ.

Summary:

ANZ Stadium is the most capacious option for the Wanderers’ temporary move away from Parramatta, and it’s facilities and location are most attractive. However there are some serious problems relating to the layout, excess capacity and atmosphere there. Also the political imperative to go there is not as advantageous as perhaps at other venues in Sydney’s west. Finally the manner in which ANZ hosts multiple tenants and events could be too disadvantageous for both the Wanderers and their fans and members to deal with, particularly in the period from March onwards.

Campbelltown Sports Stadium

  • Capacity: 20,000 (13,000 seated)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (7 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: Yes (with additional parking available at Wests Leagues Club)
  • Other tenants: Wests Tigers (NRL)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: Yes (including pre-season and A-League)

Pros:

  • Campbelltown Stadium is a traditional rectangular ground with a layout that is favourable to watching football. It’s capacity of 20,000 certainly puts it into the same category as Pepper Stadium at Penrith, and whilst smaller than Spotless and ANZ Stadiums it has the advantage of actually presenting as a ‘football friendly’ stadium. The two stands and seating capacity are better than Belmore and not that much smaller than Pepper Stadium. There are also all the requisite facilities within the venue for media, corporate and sporting needs.
  • With Leumeah train station only half a kilometre away from the stadium there is a strong advantage for those attending Wanderers games at Campbelltown Stadium to use rail to get to the venue. This is certainly a better option than the scenario at Penrith.
  • There is also an on-site car park which does allow for some usage (in the same range I believe as what is seen currently at Parramatta with the car park next to the council pool). Additional parking is available at the neighbouring Wests League Club Leumeah. Accessing the area by road is obviously most advantageous for those living in the Macarthur area. There are some additional time penalties for those traveling to the venue from Penrith, however they are not that different to expected travel time to Sydney Olympic Park in this instance, and with the M4/M7/M31 route to and from Campbelltown the roads are all multi-lane express ways.
  • Wests Tigers are the only other tenant of Campbelltown Stadium, and they do not play all their home games there (also using Leichhardt Oval for NRL matches). with perhaps only 2-3 games an A-League season max being played at this venue there is less exposure to potential pitch damage of scheduling clashes for the Wanderers than (say) Pepper Stadium or ANZ Stadium.
  • Campbelltown and the Macarthur area is both a good source of support for the Wanderers, as well as being where football has a strong footprint. It would be most beneficial for an area that has at times been spoken of as a place for a third Sydney A-League franchise, as well as for the Wanderers if they were to take their home games to Campbelltown.
  • As a council owned facility there is the distinct possibility that there would be political benefits flowing through to the Wanderers and to the local council be forming a partnership over the use of the ground. Conflicting interests, as possibly relevant at ANZ Stadium or Pepper Stadium, may not be as so prevalent or damaging to the Wanderers if they went to Campbelltown. It may even be feasible that additional (temporary) seating would be facilitated at Campbelltown Stadium, with the council’s assistance.
  • Wests Leagues Club is a considerable entertainment and dining facility within a very short distance of the stadium. There are also some reasonably close dining and pub options which expand the prospects of the Wanderers’ fans and members having a positive game day experience.
  • There have been a few games played by the Wanderers at Campbelltown, including a 2012/13 match against Newcastle and a 2014/15 pre-season match against the Macarthur Rams. These experiences will have helped everyone understand what may be expected if the Wanderers were to play more (home) games at Campbelltown Stadium in future, including security, catering and ticketing.

Cons:

  • The grassed hills at the northern and southern ends account for about 35% of Campbelltown Stadium’s capacity, and for the Sydney derby matches (plus perhaps games against Melbourne Victory) a fully seated venue would be preferable. Even if this were to be done the venue may not meet the requirements of these high demand matches.
  • The facilities and internal infrastructure for Campbelltown Stadium are not as modern and as well developed as seen at the two Sydney Olympic Park stadia. This includes catering options available within the ground’s precinct, as well as corporate facilities.
  • Leumeah train station is located on the South West and Cumberland train lines, which means anyone west of Blacktown would need to change trains. Of course this replicates the scenario for those traveling in the opposite direction from the Campbelltown/Macarthur/Liverpool area to Pepper Stadium in Penrith.
  • With Wests Leagues Club right next door to the venue, the Wanderers fans would be injecting serious money into a rival sport’s franchise in a key growth area for football and for the club. It could be argued that this is not entirely dissimilar to what happens now in Parramatta, or would happen in Penrith. However this doesn’t lessen the potential for a move to Campbelltown hurting the Wanderers future engagement and expansion in the area, by providing a new revenue stream for an NRL club.
  • Whilst there are some off-site, non-Leagues Club dining and entertainment facilities available near Campbelltown Stadium, they are not the equal in terms of quantity as seen in Penrith or possibly at Belmore. Campbelltown Stadium is located within Leumeah’s mix of semi-industrial, semi-residential environment, with no major CBD near by.
  • Ticketing for Campbelltown is run by ProTicket, which would put it nominally at odds with the current arrangement the Western Sydney Wanderers has with TicketMaster. This will need to be resolved as part of any resolution of ticketing rights for Wanderers fans who are members.

Summary:

Campbelltown Stadium does have some major benefits in terms of its capacity, lay out, accessibility for sizable portions of the Wanderers community and its location in the Macarthur area. However it is not fully seated in its current configuration, and there may be issues relating to how it may host major games such as the Sydney derbies. The presence of Wests Leagues Club nearby is a benefit in some respects but a problem in others.

Conclusions:

There is no doubt that every single one of these stadia have benefits and problems when it comes to hosting the Western Sydney Wanderers when it comes to home games after this season. None are 100% in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of being just right. ANZ is arguably too big, Belmore too small. Campbelltown is the right shape but doesn’t have enough seats, Spotless has enough seats but is the wrong shape. Pepper is positioned in a strong hold of Wanderers support but has a rival code’s club dictating the space within and around the venue.

As I said beforehand I believe that if possible only one venue should be chosen to host all Wanderers matches if possible, and if that was the guiding principle my preference would be for ANZ Stadium. However upon consideration of each venues’ strengths and weaknesses I can’t see the Wanderers’ owners and management agreeing to this hosting model. It may well be that ANZ does get utilised for Wanderers’ home games, but only or derby matches, and perhaps against Melbourne Victory. Other than that I think that the suburban rectangular ground are more likely. Spotless may have its advantages, but its configuration and crowded schedule are too problematic.

Within that scenario Belmore is out of the running because frankly it is not of a standard facility-wise and offers far too many challenges for the club and spectators alike. That leaves Pepper Stadium in Penrith and Campbelltown Sports Stadium in Leumeah. It may be that Pepper Stadium is the more prudent choice in terms of capacity, proximity to large numbers of Wanderers members, has a sponsorship alliance with the club and is reasonably well sited in terms of transport options. However, personally I don’t believe the Wanderers should be investing money and the members’ good will into a venue which has some past issues regarding security and price gouging, and is too closely tied to a monolithic NRL club which has no interest whatsoever in seeing the Wanderers prosper. Campbelltown on the other hand replicates the benefits seen at Penrith, without the significant problem of a major NRL club monopolising the venue and the area.

Therefore, I would think that once the Wanderers leave Pirtek at the close of this season, so that Wanderland 2.0 can arise from the debris and construction site, it would be of most benefit if we play most of our home games out of Campbelltown, with perhaps derbies and maybe one or two other games played at ANZ, where we can expect a 20K plus attendance. I would not be surprised if we end up playing out of Pepper Stadium, or indeed we do indeed ‘Wander the west’ until we have a new home stadium back in Parramatta. However for the interests of club and members/fans alike Campbelltown  and ANZ seem better bets for the interim.

 

Why I Am Glad The Boycott Ended Before Saturday Night (or a Paean to a Wanderers versus Victory Classic)

I have seen some wonderful games at Wanderland since climbing about the Red and Black experience before the kick off to the 2012/13 A-League season. The first derby against the smurfs. The 6-1 demolition of Adelaide where I saw first hand a Bridgey hat-trick as well as Dino’s very first goal in a competitive match. The semi against the Roar where Dino again wrought a miraculous goal with his left heel; a goal that’d make Berisha weep in envy. The 1-0 wins over Guangzhau Evergrande and Al Hilal in the 2014 ACL campaign, the 2014-15 Round 19 derby where Bulut almost single-handedly beat our eastern suburb rivals, and in the same disastrous domestic campaign a nearly flooded midweek Wanderland come-from-behind conquering of Melbourne City.

Yet when it comes to quality opponents and quality games hosted at Pirtek Stadium, it takes a lot of effort to match the Melbourne Victory and most particularly Saturday night’s amazing game.

To put this into some kind of perspective, let me state from the get-go that of all the clubs in the A-League that rival the Wanderers the one that I have a more than passing respect for is MVFC. I have a soft spot for Newcastle due to a few factors such as the nature of their bumpy ride in recent years, they have a proud, parochial football culture in the Hunter not too distant from here in the west of Sydney, and one of their most loyal supporters (indeed most loyal of any club’s supporters) is a great mate of mine. Adelaide also gets a nodding smile as it is the pissant town I was born in a long, long time ago. Wellington I find I can take with plenty of equanimity; they are neither a club to encourage great loathing or great liking. As for the other clubs, well it ranges from pure unadulterated hate to dismissal as mostly irrelevant.

I expect those attitudes are not entirely isolated among other fans across the entire A-League spectrum.

However when it comes to Melbourne Victory I cannot find volatile emotions like despising, hating, pitying, loving. No; the most successful A-League club over the last calendar year in terms of trophies won on the pitch, as well as a business model off the pitch deserves the respect one gives to a great rival following a similar path in this world. The kind of attitude that might be fictionalised in a dogfight between Biggles and a German ace in World War One. Or that feeling engendered between two old political war horses such as Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser post-Dismissal. For all the pantomime villainy of Berisha or the aura of ‘being a prick’ that surrounds Kevin Muscat, Melbourne Victory give as good as they get from us, and undoubtedly share the burden of being the two most important clubs in the A-League in the two largest metropolitan markets. With combined MVFC/WSW membership in 2015/16 to date exceeding the combined memberships of Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne City, Perth, Wellington and Central Coast by a good margin, it is blatantly obvious where the majority of the hearts and minds of the A-League have found a home Throw in the 2014 ACL championship for the Wanderers and the three domestic trophies for the Victory in 2015, and the bulk of the available silverware for Australian A-League clubs in recent history has been heading to these clubs as well.

These kinds of numbers, these kinds of quantitative measures mean that when I (and I believe many of my fellow Wanderers fans as well) look at the Victory and put that into the context of a match, we know this isn’t going to be a friendly, a hit and giggle affair. The proof of this idea has been demonstrated again and again in the history of our meetings since 2012/13. For example, it could well be argued that the Wanderers’ best ever game in season one was that played in Round 14 at home against the Victory, with two magical goal from Shinji Ono:

In the 2013/14 season there was another cracker between the two biggest clubs in the A-League, when in Round 12 a last minute Gui Finkler stunner gave the home team a draw that stunned everyone who was fortunate enough to see it:

More recently, with the Wanderers weary and beaten down by injuries and travel in 2014/15 MVFC took all available 9 points and scored 9 goals to 2, demonstrating that in the battle between the most heavily subscribed A-League clubs the Victorian-based team was in the ascendancy. By the end of that season the overall record stood at three Wanderers wins, five Victory wins and one draw; a healthy rivalry that leaned a little to the Melbourne-based club. Hence the appreciation of what was going to be a very tasty encounter Saturday night at Wanderland, the tenth match between us and them, in the tenth round of the 2015/16 season.

Of course what made this match even more attractive and more significant was the relationship between the Wanderers fans (including the RBB) the Victory fans (notably the North Terrace actives) and the recent walk-outs and boycotts. As the two most high-profile supporter groups targeted by the likes of the News Limited gossip monger Rebecca Wilson, and with a reputation for unseemly behaviour among the the ‘non-football cognoscenti’, epitomised by an ugly incident involving some criminal acts away from AAMI stadium, both clubs’ fans may be regarded as having a deal of animosity and unruliness. However, putting aside the specifics of that situation which involved a smaller amount of arrests than have taken place at recent large musical festivals, in the last fortnight it was the Wanderers and Victory fan bases who led the popular revolt against the FFA’s policies vis-a-vis the banning process as it has been implemented. Whilst other clubs’ fans started their protests against the FFA by following a negotiation path (such as the Cove), the RBB and North Terrace were united in voicing their initial discontent with a walk out in their respective Round Eight matches:

Interestingly enough the administrative leadership of these two clubs echoed the attitudes of discontent as their fans, hence these statements from John Tsatsimas and Ian Robson (respective CEOs for the Wanderers and Victory):

“We will always advocate for the rights of our members (in both public and private forums) who are exceptional in both their behaviour and their passion for this club and who have been branded unfairly in a negative manner, This includes members who feel they are unjustly banned.” (John Tsatsimas Source: 25/11/15)

“We’re proud of what we do and the fans are at the heart and the core of that. That’s why we fight hard to protect those that do the right thing, which means by definition we have to be hard on those who do the wrong thing.” (Ian Robson Source 2/12/15)

So, coming into the Round Ten match between the Wanderers and Victory there was a shared history of playing some high quality football matches against each other, synergies in terms of politics and attitudes from the respective clubs’ leaderships, a parallel approach to protesting the FFA from the most active fans, and finally the vitally important aspect of this being a first versus second top of the table clash. With the fragile peace of the FFA and active fans in place, there was every expectation this would be a cracker of a game on almost every level.

For me the lead up to the game involved a riff off my usual processes before a Wanderers game. I headed into the local Bavarian Bier Cafe for some German pork goodness and a litre stein. There I met with some of my comrades, RBB and non-active alike, and we chewed the fat whilst I chewed the schnitzel. There was plenty of discussion about form, players, the FFA, the boycott’s cessation, and then came the RBB march, which I and many others watched with pride and happiness:

Then it was a quick Hofbrau Dunkel-soaked stroll over to Wanderland, the usual rigmarole of getting into the stadium, grabbing a seat, saying hello to my game day acquaintances nearby, and awaiting kick-off. The Wanderers had an almost totally fit squad for Popa to call on, with only Piovaccari being a nominal first team absentee. For the visitors (whose fans were in decent numbers down in the away fan seating) their biggest gap was their absent captain Carl Valeri. However these were two line ups brimming with quality; Andreu, Nichols, Bridge, Dimas, Vidosic, Castelen and Jamieson for the home team, Ben Khalfallah, Barbarouses, Berisha, Vukovic, Finkler, Bozanic for Victory. The opening twenty or so minutes were exciting, attractive, filled with fast paced and creative football, and to be honest there could’ve been several goals scored. Redmayne almost gifted a Victory goal, if it hadn’t been for an errant Berisha finish followed by a goal line clearance from Scott Jamieson. At the other end Mark ‘Fat Head’ Bridge had two golden chances that he missed with all the aplomb of a man who did this regularly during his golden run in 2012/13. From there the match settled into thrust and counter-thrust, the referee arguably being more interventionist than he needed to be. However there was one man who stood head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch; the Wanderers’ import Romeo Castelen.

If ever a player deserved to shine as part of the new attractive, aggressive, possession-based Wanderers’ system it is Romeo. Brought into the club before the 2014/15 season, he was in some eyes a natural replacement for Youssouf Hersi. Like his countryman, Castelen was given the role of playing in a right wing position, nominally both creating chances and finishing them off, whilst where necessary drifting into the centre or even over to the other flank for defensive requirements or counter-attacking thrusts. Sadly for Romeo the combination of a dysfunctional schedule for the entire club, resulting from the Wanderers’ ACL and CWC commitments, plus his own injury woes meant he had minimal impact through the annus horribilis of last season. Aside from a very good game against a depleted Brisbane Roar up at Suncorp he never went near matching the standard of his predecessor from the Eredivisie.

This season however Castelen has blossomed, undoubtedly due to having a better fitness regime and a more suitable tactical structure in place which is aided and abetted by the Spanish midfielders Andreu and Dimas. He caused all manner of worries for Adelaide when the Wanderers picked up their first point of the current season, and whilst he again missed some matches due to injury, his return to first team play in recent rounds has shown he is a very important, high quality element of the Wanderers. However he took this to a new level in Saturday’s match against the Victory. As outlined in this Sydney Morning Herald report Romeo was in shining form against the current A-League champions. It was the kind of effort that, in the context of past Wanderers versus Victory matches, was right up their with the aforementioned Ono double in season one.

The manner in which Castelen dominated his opposition whilst on the field was certainly eye-catching, not just for the partisans of either club in the match, but also for the neutrals. He was able to make Macedonian-Australian international Daniel Giorgievski look cod ordinary, and Victory’s Tunisian ace from last season Ben Khalfallah also seemed to cower under Romeo’s shadow. Vukovic was the one who felt the worst of the Dutchman’s work, starting with some incisive passes that almost set up a goal for Bridge, which was subsequently scuffed. Then just before half time Castelen put his foot through the ball in such a manner it took a wonder save via the Victory goal keeper’s left leg to keep the scores locked at 0-0.

In the second half he turned from major threat to shuddering terror for the visitors. There was a deserving call for a penalty denied and more florid movement with the ball on the right flank, before he finally had Fat Head do the right thing by one of his passes:

Then, to top things off Castelen finally put the ball into the back of the Victory net in the 78th minute after he hit a hard shot low and straight at Vukovic. Sadly for the Victory but happily for Romeo and the Wanderers family the shot was badly handled by the visitor’s goalie, hence:

 Not long thereafter Castelen was subbed, being replaced by Golgol Mebrahtu. I’ll be honest; when it comes to Golgol I have a soft spot for this Wanderer, insofar as he has had a helluva time battling injuries since he first joined the club. I can still recall with admiration and respect his goal scored against the red and black, when he represented Melbourne Heart, in the closing stages of the Wanderers remarkable run of wins in season one.

Mebrahtu has barely worn the Wanderers’ colours competitively since he first signed for the club, and it must be assumed that the coaching staff believe he can add a lot to the existing squad having kept him on the books for so long. He played an important hand in the FFA Cup Round of 32 match out at Penrith before the start of the 2015/16 WSW campaign, however again succumbed to an injury. Bottom line, with Castelen off the pitch it was rewarding to see Golgol given a chance to get a run and remind us all of his capabilities (within the last 10 minutes or so let in the match).

Another ex-Heart player who appeared for the Wanderers (getting another full match under his belt) was Andrew Redmayne. The goal keeper who arguably had the worst reputation among regular starters in the A-League before 2015/16 has become a far better stopper than he once was, undoubtedly due to the influence of Zeljko Kalac. Yes, there was a terrible fumble that could’ve led to a goal in the early stages of the first half. However, not long thereafter he turned what should’ve been a Barbarouses goal around the right goal post, Ante Covic ACL Final style, then in the second half made a crucial save to stop a solid shot from Connor Pain from drawing the Victory level.

In some respects it is unfair to single out the likes of Castelen and Redmayne for their heroics. This was a total team performance that was at a standard I have not seen before from the Wanderers. It wasn’t a dogged, driven, defensive effort like those that won the club trophies and plaudits in their first ACL campaign. Nor was it a counter-attacking, reactive style of play where Topor-Stanley would hoof the ball up towards a forward who might lay it off for a second man, as used with great effectiveness in the first Wanderers’ A-League season. When you see the high press, possession based style being implemented by Popa and his other training staff with his squad, including the crucial Spanish trio of Alberto, Andreu and Dimas, it is hardly surprising that words such as ‘breathless’, ‘relentlessness’ and ‘a joy to watch’ are bandied around.

However what was happening on the pitch was only part of the story. There was, returning to the off-the-field culture issues of active support, media disinformation and FFA administrative and PR fuck-ups, a need for this match to be a show case for all that was great not just about the Wanderers, but the entire experience of football in Australia. Thankfully, the supporters who attended the match, whether part of the overwhelming majority of red and black fans and members, or those who traveled as Victory partisans, were in big numbers and wonderful form. The crowd of 17,073 was the highest number to attend a regular A-League season game at Wanderland outside a WSW versus Smurfs derby, thus belying the ridiculous lies from the likes of Rebecca Wilson re people staying away from the A-League games due to active supporters. Fox Football commentator Simon Hill made pointed reference to her and others of her tawdry, ill-informed ilk whilst celebrating the atmosphere and passion that was on display in Parramatta:

From my own personal standpoint over in the Eastern Stand, it was a game day experience where the joie de vivre of just being there (particularly after the troubles of the boycott held during the previous round’s matches, or the walk-out undertaken up in Gosford the week before that) added a soupçon of happiness to the raucous, passionate, energetic, at times ribald atmosphere. Every chant had a bit of extra bite and bounce to it, every insult hurled at the ref and linesmen came with a hearty laugh, and even the Victory supporters seemed to share in the joyful excitement. I’ll admit there was a certain chant that may have raised eyebrows  (‘intercourse the Victory, intercourse the Victory, Melbourne boys are still number two’), and I guess wowsers and overly sensitive folk may find it offensive. Of course I could make a point about the hypocrisy of attacking people for using a swear word at the football versus finding no moral problems with watching convicted criminals at the AFL or NRL, but I shan’t. Instead I’ll just point out the most potent problem with that chant; at the end of the match ‘Melbourne boys’ were n fact number three (on the ladder). Oh, and to further undermine the haters’ paradigm of anti-social soccer hooligans  lighting flares, and mass arrests, not a single moment of pyro use arose at the ground, and as far as I am aware not a single arrest was made by the bored, inactive members of the NSW constabulary. The RBB were simply superb, acting as the touch paper to ignite an explosion of football passion.

Photo courtesy of FourFourTwo Australia & Eric Berry

Young RBB Members

When all was said and done post-match I made a point when seeing some Victory fans outside Pirtek Stadium to thank them, and congratulate them for traveling and helping us show how very, very, very good it is to experience Australian football at its best. It only seemed fair to recognise that without an opponent of such a high quality the Wanderers’ couldn’t respond accordingly. Nor for that matter would it be right to not, after the dust had settled, to shake hands with similarly passionate fans who have shared our recent fight against maladministration and misrepresentation.

Let me close by heading back to what I said right at the beginning of this post. I’ve seen some marvellous games and shared in some memorable moments of camaraderie in my three and a bit seasons of being a passionate Western Sydney Wanderers’ member. At the very summit is that Sunday morning last year when the Red and Black faithful congregated outside Parramatta Town Hall to witness the Wanderers’ claim the ACL crown in Riyadh. However, only a few virtual feet below that Everest like peak of satisfaction and happiness wrought through football and through WSW is the K2-like 2-0 win against Melbourne Victory on December 12th 2015. I was bloody ecstatic to be there, and the win was made all the more sweeter because I shared with my brothers and sisters the moment of standing up and saying to the haters and to the FFA, ‘Fuck you…WE ARE FOOTBALL!’