100 Moments, 100 Memories: The Wanderers in 2012/13 (Part One)

As we rapidly approach the beginning of a new A-League season and the exciting prospect of more achievement from the Western Sydney Wanderers, I think it’s only proper to take a look back at what marked out the special nature of the first full season of the Wanderers. To that end I have been posting what I consider to be the Top 100 highlights for the Wanderers over the 2012/13 season on my Twitter feed (@thoughtsofAGM), and will be continuing this right up to the kick-off at Blue Tongue Stadium in Gosford at 5.30PM on Saturday 12th October, when the team and supporters will be looking for some degree of revenge over the Central Coast Mariners.

Please feel free to comment or query these selections, and I am happy to admit that all these entries are very subjective (and to be honest could be in a different order that I have listed below). Today I am looking at those highlights ranked 100 to 91:

100: Mateo Poljak’s first goal for the Wanderers, against Adelaide United in Round 19

As one of the foreign players recruited to the Wanderers Matteo Poljak formed a significant part of the midfield defence during 2012/13, however he wasn’t always satisfied with stopping the opposition’s goals. As shown in the third match against AUFC  during 2012/13, and the second away game for WSW at Hindmarsh Stadium Poljak was a deft hand when it came to getting forward and helping with the attack. In what was another drubbing for the Reds at the hands of the Wanderers Poljak’s goal took the game out of the home side’s reach, with the final score 4-2.

99. The RBB’s Tifos at the second Sydney Derby

In a stark reminder of the neglect that Sydney FC had shown towards the western suburbs during the pre-Wanderers era of the A-League the Red & Black Bloc eloquently yet simply reminded everyone of where the supporters for the new team came from.

98. Yianni Perkatis makes his senior Wanderers debut against Newcastle Jets, Round 27

With the Wanderers under the pump in terms of injuries and suspensions, the final match of teh regular A-League season saw the team travel to the Jets home ground without Aaron Mooy and his nominal replacement Iacopo La Rocca. Coach Tony Popovic elevated WSW National Youth League midfielder Yianni Perkatis into the starting line-up and the 19 year old showed great potential in his debut. Though slight of frame his stamina and speed was up to the task, and at times he showed that in future years he can regularly slot into the Wanderers’ senior team.

97. Jerome Polenz’s goal-saving tackle against Melbourne Victory, Round 21

During the amazing 11 game winning streak for the Wanderers the backbone of this achievement was the back four of D’Apuzzo, Topor-Stanley, Beauchamp and Polenz. If ever these four defenders earned their salary it was in the away game down at AAMI Stadium against the Melbourne Victory in round 21. Time and again Ange’s men probed at the goal and in what was one of the most freakish defensive achievements of the game and season German right back Jerome Polenz denied Andrew Nabbout a certain score with a sliding tackle that cleanly took the ball within mere microseconds from beating goalie Antie Covic. Polenz came away from this 2-1 victory for the Wanderers a much deserved man of the match For more on this moment (which on reflection deserves to be much higher) visit http://redandblackgif.com/

96. Kwabena Appiah-Kubi comes back to the western suburbs and joins the Wanderers

As one of numerous young football players cultivated by the junior ranks of western Sydney, fleet-footed right wing player Kwabena Appiah-Kubi was one of the first to be signed to the Wanderers. By season’s end he had become a very useful back-up for his senior colleague Youssouf Hersi.

95. The B-Team and their Nikolai Topor-Stanley skit

Probably the funniest moment off-field for the Wanderers during 2012/13 was this clever take on NTS and his booming clearances:

94. The first ever a-League away game for the Western Sydney Wanderers, Round 2

As early as this game against Adelaide at Hindmarsh the Wanderers defence demonstrated that it would frustrate more fancied teams in 2012/13. Although the Reds won 1-0 the game showed portents of future solidity within Tony Popovic’s defensive structures.

93. Julia Gillard visits the Wanderers

When considering the birth of the Western Sydney Wanderers hopefully someone will accord the Adelaide raised and Melbourne based Labor PM the honour of being one of the most crucial midwives for the club. Without Julia Gillard’s agreement to the initial funding proposal for the Wanderers in conjunction with the FFA it would have been well nigh impossible for the Wanderers to have been launched when and how they were. During her March 2013 campaign to woo the voters of western Sydney (prior to her dumping as PM) Gillard came to a Wanderers training session (and figured in one of the funniest photos of the season):

92. Kevin Sheedy loses the plot and floats the conspiracy theory against the Wanderers

If ever two sports clubs were utterly different in terms of core values, community connection and success the Western Sydney Wanderers and the AFL’s ‘frankenstein’ imposition of the ill-named GWS Giants are the most powerful examples of such a contrast. As the Wanderers debut season earned plaudits, garnered major success on and off the field and became without doubt the best Australian sports story of the the last two years, the self-promoting Melburnian Kevin Sheedy was reduced to railing against the migrant background of the very area he was trying to win over (and failing to do so) with his impotent franchise. the manner in which Lyall Gorman and the club responded to the thinly veiled xenophobia of Sheedy and the rejection of what he and his club represented to western Sydney was a stark reminder of how powerful football passions were in favour of the Wanderers’ first season.

91. Tony Popovic knocks back Michael Ballack

Much of the gossip pre-season regarding the Wanderers debut marquee player featured on German star and ex-EPL and Bundesliga player Michael Ballack. Whilst many people (including the author of this post) were keen to see Ballack come down under and don the red and black Tony Popovic and the club decided in the end that Ballack was not who was needed, and instead the Japanese legend Shinjo Ono was brought to WSW. In terms of Ballack’s response to this decision (his almost immediate retirement) and the achievements of Ono both on and off teh field, there can be no doubt that Popa and the Wanderers’ management got this major decision 100% correct.

The Sydney FC Vacuum: A Non-Bandwagoner’s Perspective

In the early stages of the Western Sydney Wanderers’ journey, before the start of last season and then more noticeably as the new boys on the red and black bloc grew in stature and results, the standard riposte from the ranks of Sydney FC’s supporters were that the Wanderers were attracting mostly bandwagoners or traitors into the stands at Wanderland. Instead of seeing an organic and popular explosion of support, the advocates of such negative theories believed that the Wanderers fan base had some kind of basis in their own unchallenged role in Sydney’s A-League landscape for the first seven seasons. It wasn’t so much an expression of spontaneous willingness from the western suburbs of Sydney that spawned the increasing ranks of men, women, boys and girls wanting to don the red and black hoops; no, if one believed the ‘Sydney is Sky-Blue’ fanatics anyone who had decided to take up a Wanderers membership or even just come and support the team were the Benedict Arnolds, the Lord Haw Haws of Australia’s largest city’s football environment.

Now I can’t provide any statistical data, nor do I have access to any learned academic arguments from demographers, sports marketing gurus or statisticians from the government. I can only rely on anecdotal evidence and put forward my own situation. Before I commence my refutation, I will admit that there is a small contingent of people who have abandoned Sydney FC. Of course the merit of such a switch is debatable. I would argue that if I was a fan or involved in actively supporting or administering any sporting club, instead of bemoaning the retreat of what may be considered part of the constituency, I would ask why they left, what that meant in the long term to the viability of the club, and how it could meet the challenge and surpass the achievements of the new rival.

However that is for others closer to the Sydney beaches to contemplate, or for those in the conclave around Tony Pignata and David Traktovenko. I can however offer this personal account, these few paragraphs that may resonate for many of my fellow Wanderers fans. I don’t think my story is too unique, however it is one that was missed time and time again by the brains trust behind Sydney FC.

When the A-League began I was excited like so many other long term football fans to see the era of mismanagement and struggling clubs that was the old National Soccer League come to an end. During the very earliest years of its running as the Phillips NSL I was willing to cheer on my old Ampol Cup NSW team St George Budapest, however this was always from afar. Living on the very outskirts of Sydney’s metropolitan area as a kid whose family never really embraced the round ball game meant I never had a chance to travel the 30-40 odd kilometres to see games. By the time I was in such a position I was off to a major regional university, and living in the country meant I had nil chance of attending any games played by the Saints.

Before any reader of this post chimes in with ‘You abandoned your team and became a Wanderers’ bandwagoner.’ I was by the dying days of the NSL not a fan of any domestic football club full stop, end of story. If anything I had removed myself from the earlier passion I had for football partly because other things in my life took precedence, and contemporaneously the ability of the domestic game to cut through the noise of other sports and become noticeable particularly in regional New South Wales was barely possible. There was always the Socceroos to follow, though they too had their usual lengthy bouts of quietude and inactivity, due to the long pauses between World Cup qualification attempts and the media vacuum that corresponded to their efforts.

By the time I was back in Sydney the National Soccer League was slowly being garroted by a woeful confluence of maladministration, petty bickering, financial woes, complacent fans and the inexorable dead hand of the NSL still living up to popular perceptions of it being the ‘wogball’ wellspring for Socceroos to leave and go overseas from. I had no antipathy to those clubs who had begun their lives as community support groups for so-called ‘New Australians’. Having said that Melita Eagles, Sydney Olympic, Apia Leichhardt were never really going to win me over to the latter NSL competition. I thought that teams like the Wollongong Wolves, Northern Spirit, West Adelaide and Perth Glory each had their positives, but none of them were in the running to win my support. I guess you could say I was neither disaffected from or lost to the sport. In fact I was one of the worst kinds of football fans in Australia; I had no significant emotional devotion to the game that connected to where I lived, among my neighbours and friends, family or work colleagues.

Come 2005 and after what seemed like an interminable slumber for the sport Football came alive for folk like me who had simply lost the plot when it came to sticking hard and fast to all its levels. The euthanisng of  the NSL under the direction of Frank Lowy’s relatively newly formed Football Federation Australia was the clean break I believed the game needed, and combined with that magical night in November 2005 the onset of the A-League was like the first movements of a sleeping giant arising from its bed. However whilst I was in raptures over the Socceroos, there was still a chasm in my football world, and that was the absence of a team in the newly formed domestic comp to win me over.

So this is where Sydney FC stood for me, and I suspect hundreds if not thousands of other western Sydney based football fans in that early phase of the A-League; a potential suitor for a football fan who loved the game more than ever before, but yet to really commit to the new era and the new A-League. I was quite excited as a Germanophile who remembered the efforts of the Mannschaft that had won the World Cup for West Germany in 1990 to see that Pierre Littbarski was the coach of Sydney FC, however he was the only name in that club structure that attracted me. If anything I was somewhat repelled by the whole ‘Sydney Bling’ mythos, the carryings-on of ‘All Night Dwight’ and the overall showy, facile, glitzy facade that at heart was the antithesis of my experience of football in this country. To see a club sitting comfortably in its eastern Sydney home ground environs, getting as many headlines in the social pages of the tabloids thanks to Dwight Yorke, and making no effort to bring me into its fold either directly or by influence, well it was not what I wanted. My favourite aspect of the early days of Sydney FC was they formed a wonderful punchline for the sporting satire of Roy Slaven and HG Nelson.

There was a very brief phase where I had a minor dalliance with the idea of supporting Adelaide United, though this was no more than an occasional “Hope they win.” kind of commitment. This was due to my link to the city as it was where I was born, and in other sports such as cricket and Australian Rules I always look kindly on South Australian clubs and teams. I was probably most vulnerable in becoming a Red when Coopers signed up as a major sponsor, but like many a beer fueled idea that was a transitory and futile blink of the mind.

Meanwhile, as Sydney FC lurched from occasional success to more frequent incidents of internal turmoil and ugly football, I was left to my own devices by the domestic league in my part of Sydney. I went to every Socceroos home game in Sydney during the post 2006 World Cup period and not once was I ever seemingly on the Sydney FC or FFA marketing radar. According to Wikipedia the Sky Blues condescended to play the Perth Glory out at Parramatta in their Round 26 game of the 09/10 season, and repeated the exact match-up at the same location the following season in Round 15 however they neither grabbed my attention with these sideshow efforts, nor did I find such ventures from a club anchored in the east of Sydney to my liking. I vaguely registered the seething resentment to Terry Butcher, and was mildly intrigued by the despatch of Victory by SFC in the grand final of 2009/10 thanks to a thrilling penalty shoot-out. I was however a neutral, with no attachment to the team that should have really captured me there and then if it ever could have. The coming and goings of coaches, the lack of a resonating western Sydney perspective on the SFC venture all contributed to my ennui for the (eastern) Sydney football franchise

It took until April 2012 before I finally had a mast to nail my football supporter’s colours to. With the launch of the then unnamed western Sydney club for the A-League I was provided with that window of opportunity that the FFA and Sydney FC had never thought to properly offer me before. Here was the genesis of a football club that would reflect my place of being, would be sited close enough for me to go to home games without taking a packed lunch and a GPS, would hopefully not be all about bling, transitory brilliance and manifest inadequacies. It wasn’t tied into the old NSL structures, however it became apparent as the vision was clarified that it would reflect football’s past. The process of the new western Sydney club’s establishment was all about asking what I (and thousands like me) wanted, instead of imposing its values on me and effectively saying ‘Take it or leave it’.

When the time came to finally sign up and become a foundation member of the Western Sydney Wanderers I did so without any pangs of illusionary kinship with Sydney FC. I was not in anyway shape or form someone who had rejected them after being beholden to them in past season; if anything Sydney FC rejected me and thousands of other ‘westies’ season after season. This wasn’t a still-born Rovers style offering, nor was it an inducement to jump aboard because the Wanderers would undoubtedly dominate the A-League thanks to patronage, sponsorship and a cast of star players (all these elements were in very scant supply before 2012/13 kicked off). I had spent upwards of 30-odd years waiting for a club that I wanted to support and that made it obvious that it wanted me to come along. I became a devotee of the Western Sydney Wanderers off my own bat, with no links to Sydney FC and no inducements in previous seasons to really consider them as a viable option for my support.

So as I close this tortuous and personal account I again reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post. I for one never have felt the petty jibes emanating from the Cove and their hangers-on about Wanderers fans being traitors or johnny-come-latelies to have any real basis in fact. I have my own experiences and history to draw upon, the firm belief in my own convictions to underscore why I never did and never will support Sydney FC. Whenever I or one of the myriad of Wanderers fans stand up for our team we do so not out of some kind of treasonous conspiracy against our past ‘love’, but as an affirmation of the football values that the Western Sydney Wanderers offered to us; values we’d not been offered before.

Sydney may have once had some part of its football culture colouring approximating azure, or maybe even ultramarine. However since the advent of the Western Sydney Wanderers, for me and thousands like me, it is definitely, distinctly, absolutely red and black where Sydney FC failed to fill in the palette.

Looking Back On Last Season: The Dino Kresinger Factor

In the formative season of the Western Sydney Wanderers there were a lot of intriguing personalities, players who had come to the newly formed squad either with great reputations, unfulfilled promise or a solid career which was taking them in a new direction. There was the Japanese Tensai, Shinji Ono, a true legend of Japanese football who signed with the Wanderers in the wake of the failure of Michael Ballack to come to Wanderland. Then there were two worthy stalwarts of the Socceroos second-line during the golden years of 2006-2010, in Michael Beauchamp and Ante Covic. From Europe came Jerome Polenz, a former German youth team representative who had started at the substantial Bundesliga club Werder Bremen, then went from their down a division to Alemannia Aachen and Union Berlin before flying to Australia. Mark Bridge and Nikolai Topor-Stanley were looking for fresh fields after running aground on the shoals of stagnation at Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets respectively.

And then there was Dino.

The tall, bald Croatian had played for eleven seasons in the HNL, turning out for five clubs in that league including Lokomotiva Zagreb and Cibalia. Part of the (symbolic) Croat minority at the Wanderers (alongside the younger Mateo Poljak and Aussie Croatians Ante Covic and the coaches Tony Popovic and Ante Milicic), Dino’s reputation was that of an honest tradesman of the game who could use his beaming hairless cranium to good effect in front of the goal mouth. His height and physique promised much value from his participation in the Wanderers games if and when long balls were played towards him. Therefore hopes were high as the 2012/13 season began.

Unfortunately for many of the spectators and members who had only just signed onto the brave new world of the Western Sydney Wanderers, the first few rounds through October and November revealed some serious questions over the big Croat. His vaunted heading skills were slightly off-cue at best, woefully wayward at worst. His problems in using the ball at his feet were significant, and moments like those in the first round game against the Mariners where he had an elegant pass to Jerome Polenz almost lead to a goal were almost as rare as a Sydney FC fan in the RBB. Lumbering around the front third of the pitch he would run like a man trying to look like he wasn’t standing still, and yet showing all the signs of being immobile. His turning circle was as wide as a pantechnicon trying to do a three point turn in a one way alley, and his overall performance made him the first squad member to be booed by certain sections of the Wanderers supporters.

Yet whilst all this fumbling and ponderous work was underway from Dino, there was that certain something within him that had the faintest spark of hope. It wasn’t a God-given footballing talent, a thunderous right boot that intimidated goalkeepers, a genius for tactical positioning that put him in the right place at the right time. No, it was probably the greatest attribute any football fan on board with the Wanderers mission in this, the formative season. It was stubbornness. Dino was never willing to surrender, never willing to say ‘Fuck it, I’m done’. In a community that respects the battler, the always trying, the person trying to go beyond their external or internal limitations, Dino Kresinger still demanded attention and some applause.

Gradually through the rounds leading up to Christmas he began to motor like an old World War II heavy tank. Cumbersome but inexorable, stolid and stoic he lumbered around grounds with steely resolve. Whilst he had missed playing in the Wanderers first ever win in the A-League (the Round Four defeat of Brisbane Roar 1-0 away from home), and was used more often than not as a substitute in the next few weeks, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Injected as a replacement for the then in-form Joey Gibbs during the second game against 2011/12 champions the Brisbane Roar, Dino rumbled onto the pitch at Parramatta Stadium to derisive cat-calls. These soon turned to cheers and hollers of approval as the towering Croatian was brought down in the Brisbane box mere minutes before the end, giving the Wanderers  a shot at scoring a goal from the penalty spot. Ending his own period of frustration with a well-slotted goal, Shinji Ono completed the good work begun by Kresinger, thus giving Dino that fillip he needed within the fans and I firmly believe in himself and the squad as well.

The following fortnight’s game was however when the true apotheosis of Dino began. Kresinger had been used as a sub in the preceding week’s game (the legendary Derby II victory over Sydney FC), and came into the Round 12 match versus Adelaide United finally back in the starting line-up. This promised to be a challenging game for the Wanderers as the Reds were solidly locked in the top of the table battles at this point of the A-League’s season, whilst the Red and Black boys were banging on the door of the top six with new found confidence. However in what turned into the first truly joyous explosion of Wanderers passion and power at Parramatta in their fledgling season, the visitors were rocked to the amazing scoreline of 6-1. And Dino with that thick, balding bullet-like bonce of his made damn sure of slotting in the third of those six goals for the Wanderers dead on the cusp of half-time, sending the faithful into paroxysms of joy. The lumbering striker who mere weeks ago was being written of as a dud, a joke, a hopeless Croat clown, had become the new favourite son of Wanderland.

Dino with the faithful of the RBB, celebrating the win over Adelaide Round 12 2012/13

Dino with the faithful of the RBB, celebrating the win over Adelaide Round 12 2012/13

From thereon the previous whistles and boos coming from the Wanderers’ supporters at the game died off. There were still plenty of moments to laugh at Dino, whether it was due to a sprayed shot that had a better chance of hitting the nearest Westfield shopping centre than the targeted goal, or because he still ran around the park like an agitated Frankenstein. However this wasn’t cruel or vindictive hilarity, but more the joyous celebration of a man who was more ‘one of us’ than any other Western Sydney Wanderer. His fist pumps became the stuff of forum chat legend, and alongside ‘Who Do We Sing For?” the next most important chant around any ground featuring the Wanderers was ‘Dino, Dino, Dino, Dino!’. Then as 2012 became 2013 and the Wanderers began their climb to the summit of premiership success, Dino kept tracking along the path onwards and upwards, never quite sealing the win with his goal scoring (of which he went back into hibernation). Instead he became the point man for the second ball on the offensive, looming like a towering target for a clearance from Covic or Beauchamp or Topor-Stanley to aim for. Then, when the ball plummeted down towards him he would use that boulder-like head to cannon the ball forward, or perhaps shield its receipt from the ferreting feet of the nearest defender.

Then, after Dino had worked his magic as the tall man up front on attack, freeing up the midfielders like Bridge, Hersi and Ono to score when needed, the popular Croat would then form a significant part of the imposing defence of Popa’s team. The ball may have been firmly at the feet of a Heart, Jet or Phoenix defender as the opposition was looking to play it out the back, however before you could say ‘Look at that big lumbering bastard go!’ Dino was steaming towards the enemy, on a rampage like the bulls of Pamplona. With a full head of steam up Dino must’ve been like the equivalent of a good old fashioned Rugby League forward barreling straight at some vulnerable back, ready to cream his victim through sheer momentum. It was noticeable again and again that Dino’s pressing in both defence and attack may have been ugly, but by Jesus it worked a charm for the Wanderers.

With win after win, victory after victory the Western Sydney Wanderers emerged as the feel good story of Australian sport, bringing football to a new level of support and excitement not seen down under since that night in November 2005 when the Socceroos finally laid to rest the World Cup hoodoo, qualifying for Germany the next year. And there in the epicentre was Dino Kresinger. Again and again his name would be chanted like the words of a Tibetan prayer, again and again he would throw his burly bulk into the air to pass the ball onto one of his more adept team mates. In the third match of the season against Brisbane, played at the Roar’s home ground it was Dino’s header that set up the important goal for Youssouf Hersi. Then, in the final match of the regular season up in Newcastle, Dino showed everyone at the ground and watching on television that he still had the targeting skills of a drunk blindman aiming a blunderbuss at an ICBM, his header at Jets goal in the 33rd minute ending up being the most spectacular of dummy shots, allowing Mark Bridge to score yet again.

By the end of the regular season Dino Kresinger had become a folk hero for the Wanderers’ faithful, a talisman who may not get the job done himself but would facilitate the efforts of all those around him.  However in what could be described as poetic justice, as a symbol of all he achieved in tandem with the club and the fans, there was one last moment of pure ineffable magic left from Dino.

It was the semi-final held at Parramatta Stadium and for the fourth time of the 2012/13 season the Western Sydney Wanderers were facing the previous season’s champions. The Roar had come into the finals with a solid run of results, however it only took sixteen minutes for the popular Croat to secure a vital goal for the Wanderers.

The Famous Dino Back-Heel...Versus Brisbane Roar at @anderland, Semi-Final 1 13/4/2013

The Famous Dino Back-Heel…Versus Brisbane Roar at Wanderland, Semi-Final 1 13/4/2013

In any other game and in any other context there would have been every possibility that Dino would not have scored. However for whatever reason the football Gods and his own inner talent contrived to give him possibly the most delightful goal scored by any Wanderer that entire first season. With the main beneficiary of his work in the earlier part of the season (Mark Bridge) now becoming Kresinger’s supplier, the man from Hratskva received his cut-back pass and with the deftness and aim of a Brazilian genius Dino deftly slanted the ball off the back heel of his left foot, sending the Roar goalie into confused depression with a goal for the ages.

Thankfully I was there that heady April night, standing in my sideline bay at Wanderland, my passion for all things Wanderers fueled by a season beyond belief and the courage and drive shown by the likes of big Dino. During most of the home games when I had seen Kresinger play I like so many of my colleagues joked about his lack of goals, his slow running gait, his inability to turn around without putting on his rear hazard lights. However in that fleeting moment when Dino leaped above the normal and scored a goal with his left back heel, well jokes and criticism was thrown away like a week old tray of used cat litter. Jumping around as if my arse was on fire, grabbing and hugging strangers in the same madcap spirit celebrated on VE Day back in May 1945, Kresinger’s goal was simply a magic moment that required unmitigated and totally free happiness; a football festival that only he could provide.

The remainder of the season was too anti-climactic for Dino, the rest of the squad and the fans. The grand final was lost a week later and Dino’s magic failed to return, so the saga ground to a slightly maudlin halt. Yes, everyone was remarkably upbeat about the past season, the achievements, the stunning rejection of nay-sayers and critics in a time when the Western Sydney Wanderers went from being noobs to masters of almost all they encountered. Yet at the post-season celebration in Parramatta we all knew the coming news. Dino had been a folk hero, a stalwart, a true part of the heart and soul of the Wanderers’ first ever squad. However the big Croat was probably not coming back for another season. He knew it, we guessed it, and a few days after this farewell to the class of 2012/13 he was gone.

So within nine months of his arrival Dino was heading back to Europe, where he now plies his craft for Slovenian Prvaliga team Zavrč. Some of us, the tragic and the passionate still need to hear news of Kresinger’s achievements back in the Balkans and so far he has given us some moments of smiling satisfaction. However when all is said and done his departure from the Western Sydney Wanderers has taken us away from those first few rounds of frustration, through the balance of a season which was simply amazing, into a slightly empty feeling of waiting for the new season to begin without him.

Thanks Dino…loved your work!

Dino...signing off

Dino…signing off

Heading Towards Wanderland; A Personal Odyssey Begins…

My journey towards becoming devoted to the Western Sydney Wanderers started a tick under forty years ago, at the dawn of Australian ‘soccer’s’ first great blooming on the international stage.  In an age when football really was anchored in the ‘sheilas, wogs and pooftas’ world so accurately described by the legendary Johnny Warren, the idea that a group of semi-professional Aussies had succeeded in qualifying for the World Cup in the then West Germany didn’t quite resonate in my childish mind. However I was already a kid who loved his sport (whilst not necessarily being the best practitioner) with some TV watching experience of the Munich 1972 Summer Olympics and the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games. I’d joined up in 1974 with the U/10s for North Epping Rangers and had a busy if unskilled career as a fullback ahead of me for the next couple of seasons. However it was all small beer contrasted to what was happening on the other side of the planet, in cities like Hamburg and West Berlin, where men who would become icons for me took Australian football to the world.

Watching the family black and white TV in our Sydney home all those years ago, it was amazing to see pictures coming from more than half a world away where Australians of all colours and national heritage were playing teams filled with strange names from strange lands. I didn’t know who Franz Beckanbauer was at the time, and if you asked me Gerd Muller was I would’ve drawn a blank not just then but for many a year later. However the men who wore the green and gold on those far off football pitches were like giants for me then. They were to become my first sporting idols, predating the likes of Lillee and Thommo, Ashley ‘Rowdy’ Mallett and Ian Chappell, swimming’s Mean Machine or athletic’s Cathy Freeman. The 1974 Socceroos were my entrée to the main meal that is now the Western Sydney Wanderers.

The 1974 Socceroos…Manfred Schaefer middle row, last on right

There was Atti Abonyi and Johnny Warren, wonders from the great St George Budapest team. Anglo-Australians like Jimmy Rooney, Col Curran, Peter Wilson (the team captain) and Ray Richards were combined with the ‘new Australians’ Doug Utjesenovic, Branko Buljevic and Ivo Rudic. In a time when Aboriginal Australians were not generally seen wearing the national colours of our sporting teams there was Harry Williams, again part of the great St George Budapest. In goal was the safe hands of Jack Reilly, backed up by his successor the blonde haired Allan Maher. Noddy Alston and Peter Ollerton were two ex-Poms who’d found a home in the Socceroos, whilst for me the man of the hour, the all-time favourite was the Teutonic milkman and rock-hard defender, Manfred Schaefer. With a face that looked like it had been more used to punch ups on the rugby league field than keeping out probing German and Chilean strikers, Manfred was the man who I wanted to emulate. No-nonsense, never give up, wanting to do his best, still a little unpolished or even amateurish, but with a heart and passion for his adopted nation and the sport, he was an icon for me and I believe even now stands as an example from the past for my current beloved Western Sydney Wanderers.

So in that unlikely beginning last century a nascent personal passion for football was born. I was an Anglo-Australian kid playing soccer, or as it was more commonly known ‘wogball’, at a time when my heroes weren’t squat hairy thugs like those who packed down for Sydney rugby league teams. Nor were they the high-flying aliens from Victoria who played that weird bloody aerial ping-pong game. I’ll admit I used to trade Scanlon’s footy cards in primary school, and yes I did play a bit of touch footy in my mid to late teens with a lad who went on to play for three Sydney based rugby league clubs. However there was always underneath it all the love of the game that Manfred Schaefer played all those years ago. The game that marked out Johnny Warren as a byword for Australian soccer/football, becoming its most strident missionary as fierce as Martin Luther pushed Protestantism.

Coming forward the 39 years or so since that glorious era of childish wonder at the first great Socceroo squad, the Western Sydney Wanderers now bring to me in concentrated domestic doses the reminder of what passion and excitement comes from following this great game. If it hadn’t been for Rale Rasic and his boys and men the ranks of the red and black in Western Sydney would be thinned by one ageing but very passionate football fan.

Some Thoughts on the Police Presence at Penrith (WSW vs AUFC Friendly 22/9/13)

Generally speaking I am one of those types of people who has no problem with the police. I understand that they have a very demanding job, can be open to charges that at times may be spurious or aimed purely at provocation, and are attempting to enforce laws that occasionally are less than sensible or can be interpreted in such a way by the courts that the police actions are perhaps unjustly rendered null and void. However, my attitudes changed somewhat after last Sunday’s game at Centrebet Stadium in Penrith, when the Wanderers took on Adelaide United in a trial match.

For the first time ever I felt that I was being considered as some kind of potential miscreant, under the over-eager and ever-watchful eyes of what seemed like a near battalion of male and female police officers. There were multiple vehicles patrolling or stationary at any point that could be considered within proximity to the game’s venue, or the potential routes used by Wanderers fans to get to the stadium. As an example of this, parked outside the pub where I joined some colleagues (both regular Wanderers fans and RBB active supporters) a NSW police car was parked exceedingly close to the entrance (where separate to the police surveillance there were private security men undertaking pat downs and ID checks). Then, as I and my colleague left the hotel to walk the couple of kilometres to Centrebet we were under the ever present gaze of police on the road.

To emphasize the extent of law enforcement deployment at the ground, upon arrival at Centrebet Stadium there was a plethora of vans, cars, police horses, foot patrolling cops, all supplemented by a security force that would do well to be employed on the Green Line in Baghdad. It was as if instead of going to a friendly game of football in outer suburban Sydney my friends and I were being corralled by the old Soviet Army like the Wehrmacht’s survivors from Stalingrad. Even entering the stadium was like some kind of high security rat maze, where we were lined up and drawn towards the gates through wire mesh barriers that would not look out of place in a cattle feedlot.

Now I do appreciate that because of some unfortunate incidents last season my club and specifically the Red and Black Bloc have a mostly unwarranted reputation for some disorderly conduct. I won’t launch into any great discussion of the relative merits of such charges, beyond which I will say that the RBB last season in Parramatta behaved in general no worse than say a gathering on New Year’s Eve in Circular Quay, and I think much better than recent rave festivals held not too far from Penrith. Whatever the RBB’s reputation, the reception Parramatta gave the Western Sydney Wanderers faithful last season grew from tolerant to simply unabashed passion. Yes, the Parramatta police had some issues however in the days before and after last season’s grand final the Wanderers fans and RBB were given the red carpet treatment by the council and local businesses.

Jump forward a few months and in a new town that had never experienced the phenomenon that is the Wanderers the local constabulary (either off their own bat or on direction from political masters) decided that the incoming WSW fans were to be shepherded like convicts being disembarked off the First Fleet’s ships, and at the merest whiff of anything remotely abnormal to their expectations a rapidly descending hand of the law would take the targeted Wanderer fan by the wrist. As far as I am aware there was no undue force or brutality, however this was not where the overreaction lay. It was in the air, the atmosphere of being at an event where I and my colleagues were thought of as crims in waiting.

I could be an anti-authoritarian conspiracy theorist and make some claims about the potential for the police to always look at using brute force or at least the symbols thereof to suppress anything that has the potential to threaten order. Perhaps there may be a smidge of proof to this idea. Personally my belief is this is a reflection of the local commands’ inability to understand the phenomenon of passionate football supporters assembling for the wanderers. I’m also more convinced by the idea of the local command looking to extract as much money as they can out of their paymasters by running up a sizable operational bill on a Sunday afternoon. Whatever the motivational grounds, on Sunday 22nd September 2013 at Centrebet Stadium Penrith the NSW Police made it abundantly clear that they considered the incursion of the Wanderers fans into that area a worse threat to public order than we deserved, and again highlighted the immense cultural gap between the fans and the security elements when football is played in this country.