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?

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!

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!’

The Wanderers and the Evolution Revolution (Or From Windy Wellington to Protesting Parra in Four Seasons)

On last Saturday night the Western Sydney Wanderers secured their sixth win on the trot during the current 2015/16 A-League season, thanks in no small part to a wonder goal scored by the latest example of a Tony Popovic rescue mission, Mitch Nichols. His floating, curling, smart bomb of a strike flashed past the Brisbane Roar goal keeper Jamie Young, hitting the top left of the goal’s netting with all the elliptical power of a Supermarine Spitfire. That superlative effort sealed a 2-1 win at home for the Wanderers, thus placing them at the top of the current A-League table for the first time since the halcyon days of that season, the season when the Wanderers came into the competition as debutantes, newbies, new kids on the block.

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Considering the tumultuous changes and experiences since the securing of the A-League premier’s plate back in March 2013, including the narrow loss to Brisbane Roar in the 2013/14 Grand Final and the sensational victory in the 2014 ACL campaign, to the debacle of last season’s domestic season and the mass turn over in staff before the beginning of the current competition, it seems appropriate to review where the Wanderers were back in December 2012, and compare and contrast that situation with the current iteration of the team and staff.

The first and most obvious comparative element is the continuance of Tony Popovic in the coaching role. He was there at Westpac Stadium in windy Wellington for the Round 9 2012/13 loss against the Phoenix, and he was still wielding the black note book three years later at home against Brisbane. However the Popa of Season One is not the Popa of Season Four when it comes to tactical systems. The Wanderers version 1.0 was a team that held to three precepts, undoubtedly stipulated by the coach and his staff. Firstly there was a dogged and solid defensive back four. Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Michael Beauchamp would serve as the core of this wall, whilst on either side Jerome Polenz, Adam D’Apuzzo, Tarek Elrich or maybe Shannon Cole would be vigorous in both protecting the flanks, or transitioning with the appropriate flanking midfielder to create a counter attack. This was all aimed at giving the heroic Ante Covic as much cover as possible, and when he was challenged he almost always came up with quality saves.

The second tactical structure employed by Popa in that first season was the use of the midfield in two separate phases or areas of the pitch. In defence La Rocca, Poljak and Mooy were charged with adding an extra level of shielding to the Wanderers back four, whilst in the offensive Ono prowled in a fairly central position for either passes from his team mates, or spills from tackles effected on the opposition, to prime a forward attack. The right and left backs and their similarly sided forwards (Hersi and Bridge) would often interpose into this phase of midfield play, either by (as previously mention) by linking up with said backs or moving centrally closer to the midfielders. It was very much a system of swamping and pressing the opposition whilst keeping the back and central thirds compact for either absorbing the other team’s attack or readying the counter.

The final Popa ploy when it came to tactical systems was the use of the second man attack, or as I like to think of it, ‘Kick it to or around Dino and see if Bridge, Hersi or Shinji can score off the big Croat”. It wasn’t crude route one football, however with Kresinger hardly banging in the goals it made perfectly acceptable sense for Popovic to look to those beside or immediately behind him to feed off his work. With Kresinger imposing his impressive bulk in the box or near by, the more fleet-footed attacking trio combined to either collect the ball from or within the melee around Dino, or to profit from the crosses and passes put through by (most particularly) Jerome Polenz. Goals came from these counter punches and from the opportunistic chances created by this system, with an additional slab of Shinji Ono brilliance every now and again.

The bottom line? Tony Popovic in season one was a coach who did the absolute best with is hastily recruited player stocks to match them to a playing system that would deny the opposition goals, create pressures both defensively and offensively in the midfield and on the flanks, whilst up front goals were scored by second men. It was a remarkably successful system, considering (aside from the ladder position) it was the most miserly for conceding goals (21) for the 2012/13 season and the equal second most productive in scoring (41).

Coming forward to Wanderers Version 4.0, we have seen in the first nine rounds of this season a far more possession back transitional system of play that has put paid to almost all the specific elements identified above in Popa’s first tactical systems. The Leopold Method analysis of what has become the modus operandi of Popovic’s direction for the players succinctly describes it as:

Shifting to a new possession-based game has been a long-term project for Popovic, one delayed by the demanding schedule that saw them lift the Asian Champions League trophy twelve months ago. This season with a new and fresher squad he has managed to progress this evolution.

The Wanderers are completing more passes than they ever have before. They’ve gone from completing the fewest or second fewest in their first three seasons to the fourth most this season, but importantly they have also increased their passes and open play touches in the final third – they aren’t simply rotating the ball around in defence for the sake of it. In the final third they are completing passes at the highest rate in their short history – indicative of how they are trying to build attacks in the final third rather than attack quickly and more directly.

The wholesale personnel changes wrought by Popa and the club at the beginning of season four have undoubtedly played a role in this change, and perhaps one of the most telling examples of this development has been the departure of Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca, replaced by the two Spaniards Dimas and Andreu. Unlike in season one where La Rocca and Poljak served as that additional defensive screen, now we see Andreu and Dimas tracking back, transitioning, moving the ball around far more creatively so they can link with Mitch Nichols.

Dimas, Nichols & Andreu: The Current Key Wanderers Midfielders

 As coach Tony Popovic has also directed the evolution of another key element of the first season team, current captain and central defender Nikolai Topor Stanley. It was not uncommon to see NTS rely on some physical challenges and booming long drop kicks as the leitmotifs of his play in 2012/13. Come forward to 2015/16 and he is far more willing to take the ball up either in company with Andreu and/or Dimas, or even…quelle surprise…run up to and over the half way, interposing himself into an extra attacking role. Whereas in the Wanderers first season Nikolai worked with Beauchamp like a Siamese twin, and in seasons two and three he let Spiranovic or another central partner be the transitional player at the back, NTS in 2015/16 looks to becoming a much taller, swarthier version of Philip Lahm.

So when one considers what changes have been wrought by Popovic tactically between now and the Round 9 match against Wellington Phoenix back in December 2012, the Western Sydney Wanderers have become less dependent upon the back and middle thirds holding strong defensively, whilst using some counter-punches thrown somewhat opportunistically in the final offensive third to score goals. In the first nine matches of this season Popovic has given every indication he has the goal of using a more technical, passing-based transitional system both defensively and when attacking, and so far it would be hard to deny that his aims are being met.

 One thing that does not appear to have changed since the debut season of the Wanderers in the A-League is the intensity of training and fitness requirements under Popovic. The same training regime that was recognised by the football media when reviewing the lead up to the 2014 ACL championship win, focused on an authoritarian, highly physically demanding system has not undergone revision (if these comments from current left back Scott Jamieson are to be believed):

The Wanderers are the hottest team in the competition right now. And the club’s left-back Scott Jamieson feels the success is due to the “brutal” approach of coach Tony Popovic and his staff.

“We’re in a good frame of mind but we’re also realistic, we can’t just turn up and not work hard at training,” Jamieson told reporters on Tuesday.

“Just because we’ve won six doesn’t mean we just turn up and have a joke and a laugh.

“This coaching staff is pretty brutal, and if you do that you will be sitting out training and have a few days in the gym by yourself.”

There is also some similarities between the supporting coaching staff from 2012/13 and 2015/16. Original assistant coach Ante Milicic and goal keeping coach Ron Corry were instrumental in working with Popovic, in the former’s case often being responsible reinforcing the overall philosophy of the head coach with training drills etc, whilst the latter engaged with his charges (Covic and Tyson) to try and maintain excellence whilst looking for developing skill sets. Come forward to their replacements, Andres Carrasco and Zeljko Kalac and we are seeing similar responsibilities, similar aims. Carrasco’s influence and role has been articulated this:

It’s a philosophy Carrasco held when recommended by his then-university lecturer to Barcelona and refined through the jobs as a scout and coach from their juniors up to their under-16s. 

But ideology alone doesn’t translate to the final product, that much relies on the players. 

“The smart coach knows how to take the best from the players he has. If you have players with one profile, more defensive for example with a capacity to work, maybe you have to play matches different. If you have more talented players you can work more with the ball,” Carrasco said.

A key component to the squad renovations during the off-season was bringing in those who were up to the tasks of carrying out such specific orders. Carrasco calls them “Peloteros,” the typically Spanish style of ball player who controls play almost effortlessly. 

“I think it is maybe easier if you have the players and all of them are with a similar style,” Carrasco said. (Source: Wanderers coach Andres Carrasco turned down Paris Saint Germain for Parramatta, SMH 20/11/15)

As for Kalac, there is undoubtedly a marked effect on his charges, with current no.1 goalie Andrew Redmayne returning more clean sheets for the Wanderers so far this season than his form at Melbourne City/Heart indicated possible. Plus, as ‘Redders’ himself says:

“[Before the season] he said I had a good base level but there were a lot of technical things that needed to be tweaked, and completely changed in some forms, so we worked really hard in pre-season and I’m continuing to learn and really enjoying the path that I’m on,” (‘Wanderers’ Redmayne benefitting from Spider’s touch’ HAL News 4/12/15)

Whilst tactical systems have evolved, ideologies refined, personnel moved on or brought in, one part of the Wanderers’ make up this season which does not look to have changed is their mental strength and motivation to succeed. Obviously all clubs and all players have the drive to win, however there is (in my opinion) unique circumstances around the Wanderers this season that mirror their psychology from 2012/13.

Obviously back before season one the mission for Lyall Gorman, Tony Popovic and other staff and players was to establish the Wanderers after a fairly short build up period. For example, here is a quote from inaugural skipper Michael Beauchamp prior to the first round of the 2012/13 season:

”We’re putting pressure on ourselves to do well and, in saying that, we’ve left no stone unturned and the boss has done everything right. We’re not here to make up the numbers, we’re here to perform, we’re here to be competitive every week.” (Write off Wanderers at your peril, warns Beauchamp, SMH 6/10/12)

After the disastrous 2014/15 campaign and the resultant shedding of so many squad members, the Wanderers have the hallmarks of almost starting from scratch, as if it was stunde null again. Yet the players both old and new are maintaining their own internal motivations, striving to achieve results through performance standards they believe they can meet, as if it was first season again, as indicated by Scott Jamieson after the Wanderers win over Melbourne City:

“We didn’t get the results at the start of the season, but we always believed in what we were doing was important,” he said. “Three wins in a row is good, but we’re only early on in the season so we won’t get carried away.”
Jamieson added: “We feel we’re a very strong team and we’ll go deep into this competition regardless of whether we’d won three in a row,” he said. “We believe in what we’re doing.” (Jamieson Backs Piovaccari, FourFourTwo Australia, 16/11/15)

There will always be the desire to promote oneself and one’s club as having such self-belief, having such a rock solid motivation. However the manner in which the Wanderers have had to develop their team spirit, their elan, has come through most dramatically as a result of either having just been formed or having been almost utterly dismantled and then re-formed. It’s well and good to mouth platitudes about team spirit when the bulk of your squad is the same as what you had last season, or when your club has years of history to draw on. The Wanderers of 2015/16 are much like that squad that rolled up as the newest club in the A-League three years ago, in that they have a belief that comes organically from a need to prove themselves in the most challenging of circumstances. The squad demonstrate a definitive psychological continuity when it comes to how they approach playing under Tony Popovic.

Perhaps the other considerable element in the Western Sydney Wanderers environment that has not changed between 2012/13 and 2015/16 is that of the relationship between the players and the fans. Foundation captain Michael Beauchamp said on retiring, after his final match in the red and black:

“We’ve shown in two years the level that we can take football to here in ­Australia, not only on the park but off the park with the community work, with the fans, with the RBB,” (source 27/5/14)

Additonally here are the thoughts of Jerrad Tyson, when asked to talk about the RBB back in February 2013:

The Red and Black Bloc have taken active support to a new level. I’ve said it a number of times but without question the RBB have been directly responsible for a number of vital points claimed in our rise up the ladder. Whether it was inspiring us to go harder in the last 5 mins against Roar and get the winner, or dominate Melbourne Heart with 10 men for almost the whole game and win. They inspire us to do the things that no other club is doing. (From The Stands, 18/2/13)

Come forward to the recent RBB led walk out of the match against Central Coast Mariners and the boycott of the Brisbane Roar home match, and the Wanderers current players offer their support, as per Scott Jamieson’s comments:

“All the fans that did come (last week) made it as good as they can, but that RBB feel is like no other,” Jamieson said on Tuesday.

“We really do need them, but we also understand that they haven’t been treated right and they deserve to stand up and speak up.

“But hopefully, this meeting tomorrow can really try and mend a few things.” (SBS – The World Game: 8/12/15)

Then there was one of the very few survivors from the first season Wanderers’ squad, current Captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley, and his thoughts regarding the club’s fans:

“We want our fans there – they’re the best fans in the league by a country mile,” a diplomatic Topor-Stanley said ahead of Sunday’s away clash with the Mariners.

“But we understand the issues that they have and we’re all in this together,”  (SBS – The World Game: 27/11/15)

The RBB and less active fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers have formed such a strong bond with the players, and the players (both past and present) that it is most satisfying to see these bonds retained from 2012/13 to the current A-League season.

In closing, perhaps the best way to sum up how things have changed at Wanderland between that first, miraculously successful season and the current 2015/16 campaign is that the changes are almost all tactical, on the field, with personnel and names altered from our inaugural A-League adventure. However the soul of the club, the psychology, the motivation and the commitment is still very much the same. The Wanderers have experienced unbelievable highs and some savage lows, yet for all these variations in fate their answer has been to try and get better on the pitch whilst staying true to their principles and community off it.