Wandering Off Course, Or How The Good Times Soured

Up until the news broke about the pay dispute I would suggest almost every member and fan of the Wanderers thought that our club was different. I know I was guilty of feeling that things were going to be far rosier for us than they have been at other A-League clubs, in part due to our success, in part due to the people I know personally or indirectly online as fellow supporters, and in part due to the gap in the way the club’s administration and playing stocks were nominally managed and what was seen elsewhere (particularly Sydney FC). There was obviously the warm inner glow of having achieved so much in our first two seasons as a functioning, successful, competitive club domestically and indeed internationally. A Premier’s title in our first season, longest streak for successive wins in the A-League also wrought back in 2012/13, two Grand Finals and of course the historic AFC Champions’ League title all created a remarkable record to build expectations and support upon. The growth in membership, starting from zero back in 2013, to over 18,000, and by association the continued acknowledgment of the RBB as being one of the best supporter groups in the country, has fueled that belief. It’s hard not to get pumped when you read comments like this from the CEO of the FFA:

“(David) Gallop says the Wanderers have changed the landscape of Australian sport, partly due to their fan group the Red and Black Bloc.

” “Australian sport has never seen the level of engagement inside stadiums like they create,” Gallop said.

” “I love the story of the grandmother that hands out throat lozenges in the RBB. They’ve definitely been a shot in the arm for the entire A-League and I think they’ve been a critical part in football’s booming popularity because people have sat up and taken notice of the A-League in some way because of the Wanderers, and that’s only going to get bigger and bigger in the decades to come. (source)”

Additionally, there had been the a wonderful relationship built between the club and its supporters best exemplified by the words and deeds of two people, Lyall Gorman and Jerrad Tyson. Gorman, our former club CEO, made a point of again and again drawing a distinct connection between the values of the club and the community it represents, as seen in words such as these:

“…that is, to contribute to the greater good of Western Sydney. If it was ever about me, we’d be in trouble as a club – and you know, I’d have no value so it’s never about me trying to put my profile out there. It’s about making sure our club is visible, but in a positive way so that it’s seen to be a community asset. It’s about making a difference and adding value….to be involved in supporting activities that are put on by other people in the community that are working hard. I think we have, you know, a corporate responsibility to be out there critically involved in our community.” (source)

And these

“We really empowered the community to have a sense of ownership of the club. We stand on their shoulders here today and I’m privileged in the role of group CEO to have 47 years of people working and sowing and making the fertile ground for this football club.

“There’s a rich history there which we can’t afford to do anything but embrace and stand on their shoulders. They’re the true pioneers of the game and … we need to engage and embrace (them), and if they’re not in the tent, bring them back into the tent. That was the call we learned at the Wanderers.’’ (source)

Obviously some of this may have been seen as marketing spin, however I know from a personal conversation with Lyall he believed in this mantra.

Then there is our ex-reserve goalkeeper Jerrad Tyson. Even as recently as the home leg final for the AFC Champion’s League Jerrad was there to support the club and the players, amid the heart and soul of the club, the RBB:

The awarding of the ME Bank Fairer Player Award for 2013/14 to Jerrad was also a signal of his engagement with the Wanderers community, and perhaps it was all the more remarkable that the prize was given to a man who stood more often than not in the shadows of regular goalie Ante Covic. It could be said that his efforts off the pitch were more appreciated by those of the Wanderers’ fan base and membership community because he was willing and able to be just like so many of us; working hard behind the scenes without that much recognition. I don’t believe it would be too bold to argue that Tyson was a wonderful example of the Western Sydney spirit (which was even more remarkable considering his Queenslander heritage).

Now at this point I need to stop waxing lyrical about the past and trying to fill in the gaps between my hypothesis of how the Wanderers were nominally different because of the behaviours of the club in, for and with the community, to focus on the here and now. To be blunt, those ideals of past values and of a sense of being better or different to our rivals are now badly fractured. There is a new cold reality that all Wanderers fans must deal with. We are no longer the fairy tale of Australian, or indeed international football, with a romantic or mythic narrative, where we win more often than not, we are able to shrug off adversity, and remain united across all groups, whether we talk about players, owners or fans. The Wanderers are now a football club that can in many ways be hardly distinguished from hundreds from around the world. The last week or so of pay disputes, of mainstream and social media battles, of members arguing vociferously for or against aspects of the owners’ or players’ behaviours, means we have now (for want of a better phrase) grown up and had a hard, bitter lesson in the reality of the business of football. To top it off the first match for the Wanderers of the Club World Cup match against Cruz Azul pointed out some limitations to what can be achieved by this club, no matter how much we believe in its core values and qualities.

I don’t want to cast aspersions or throw mindless accusations out there, and if my narrative of the issues  at hand are a bit skew-whiff I apologise. It must be said however that the intransigence of management (either directly or indirectly influenced by the club owners) when negotiating with the players has been a brewing issue for some time now, and has arguably been around since at least the beginning of this year. The manner in which gifted and crucial overseas players from our first season Shinji Ono, Jerome Polenz and Youssouf Hersi were rumoured to have been dealt with when it came to extending and/or improving their contracts back in the middle of last season were not dissimilar to what was experienced by the current player group. If this story that circulated around the time of Shinji Ono’s contract not being extended is true there already was a worrying refusal or neglect of negotiations with the players from the administration, prior to the sale of the Wanderers to the Paul Lederer led group. The combination of management waiting until the last minute to resolve contract issues and the players waiting for a response sounds eerily familiar to those problems raised in the recent troubles.

When the news broke on December 6th that the players were considering a boycott of the Club World Cup in Morocco there was without doubt some serious debate and consternation among the members and fans. As seen below, the opinions ranged from pissed off over the owners’ attitudes, worry about either the squad actually playing at the CWC, and if they did what impact the dispute would have,  concerns about the finances of the club, the role of the PFA and mistakes they may have made, and even talk about greedy players and writing off the current a-League season:

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These posts from the core Wanderers fan forum were indicative of what became a very divisive issue for those in the stands, whilst at Wanderland, at the club’s HQ and even throughout the broader football community battle lines were drawn over the rights of the players to expect the bonuses they received after their AFC Champions’ League triumph to be replicated at the CWC. Shannon Cole, a player who has formed part of the bank of rotated reserves usually used by Tony Popovic when a first choice right or left back is unavailable or needs a rest, took up the cudgels for the players with management in his role as PFA delegate, and there was plenty of support for him and the players expressed across the entire A-League:

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At this point I have to state that I personally was in favour of the demands of the players to get more than the 10% originally offered. However there were some caveats that needed to apply, particularly in terms of the PFA and the players using the Adelaide 2008 experience as a paradigm for payments, plus the belief that a better bonus structure was assumed to be in place based on the players’ CBA, when in all honesty the CWC bonus arrangement should’ve been stipulated from the get-go.

Where things really did go off the rails for most fans and members of the Wanderers is that for the first time they saw their beloved club’s owners behave in what might be considered in some quarters a capricious and rude way, and in other people’s opinions, they acted like fiscally prudent businessmen protecting the club’s future. The latter motive was self-consciously integrated into the Wanderers’ management’s reply to the brouhaha as it developed, as seen in their statement issued on Monday 8th December. By talking about the difference between player’s appearance money and bonuses, and the desire to invest 90% of the CWC ‘residual amounts’ into “the purposes of enhancing and improving current training and player facilities, as well as junior academy, community, indigenous and women’s programs“, the owners and managers of the Wanderers were putting it out there that the players were effectively robbing the club of long term future investments, even though they had been the agents of achieving the success in the first place.

All this talk was to some extent acceptable as part of the argy-bargy of any wage negotiation, as seen both inside and outside the world of football. As Craig Foster said both on TV and in his weekly Sun Herald column the issue was not necessarily about the here and now, but instead a fight that players of his generation and even older had had to deal with back in 1997, or earlier immediately before the 1974 World Cup Finals. That aspect tapped into other streams of discontent or dispute, but straight away any long term football fan in this country who was now associated with the Wanderers could see an end to the ‘unique difference’ our club had. The likes of Lederer and his associates as owners of the Wanderers were following the spirit, if not the exact same practices, of the preceding suits and backroom staff at other clubs or indeed nationally in Australia’s football history.

To be honest, it has come as a rude shock to many who have sworn to always stay faithful to the red and black, that these behaviours have now tainted what was supposed to be the best new phenomenon to hit our sport in this country. It could be said that what was worse about the dispute, before its resolution on December 12th was that the owners and managers of the Wanderers put themselves into the same basket from a public perception as the likes of Nathan Tinkler, Tony Sage, Tony Pignata and the unlamented ex-Gold Coast United owner Clive Palmer. At a time when the club should’ve been celebrating the achievement of making the Club World Cup it was embroiled in a sticky situation made nasty by the simple irritant of the club’s authorities being uncommunicative. For those of us who have relied on the mantra first propagated by the likes of Lyall Gorman, as featured above, or indeed by Paul Lederer himself, it was a bit of a kick in the guts:

“I have been a director of the club for the past two years and I’ve had the privilege to play a part and see first-hand what makes this club so special,” he said.

“The consortium has responsibility to ensure the Wanderers have a sound financial base and a strong administration so the club can continue to grow and be successful on and off the field.” (Paul Leder, ABC Grandstand, 14/5/14)

What made the Wanderers special up until the pay dispute was not the minutiae of fiscal responsibility or indeed the players’ personalities and achievements (though these aspects did help). What was different for old hands or new bandwagoners who threw in their lot with the Western Sydney Wanderers was over the last few years the perception was we were not like Sydney FC with its bumbling troika of Traktavenko, Barlow and Pignata. Nor were we like the cheapskate, forever poor Mike Charlesworth owned Central Coast Mariners, the fractured, in-fighting, Tony Sage owned Perth Glory, or if one was to look overseas, like a Vincent Tan owned Cardiff City.

This disillusionment meant that coming into the Club World Cup some serious joy was taken out of the club;s achievements leading into the match, and has arguably soured the efforts of all for the remainder of the current A-League season. The impact on the medium and long-term future of the club is hard to assess, though it must be said that some existing players may be more keen to leave at the first appropriate opportunity than they may have been in the past, and it may mean potential recruits will look askance at the owners and managers and ponder if they will be treated as negligently. However most importantly those of us who have been on this fantastic ride over the last thirty odd months or part thereof have been sobered up, with some degree of our innocence gone. The Wanderers experience has soured somewhat, however its hopefully also a sign of our maturation, and a period of conflict to build from, not to pull apart.

The del Piero Dilemma (Or How An Azzurri Legend Hijacked A Club…But Not The A-League)

Okay, the title of this blog post may be a bit provocative, and of course I’m biased in my view due to my club allegiances. However, in the immediate and indeed long term wash-up over the ending of Alessandro del Piero’s playing career at Sydney FC there are some serious questions to be asked about the true value of his involvement in the sport in Australia, as well as his worth to the club he played for. Was ADP the greatest thing since sliced focaccia to hit Sydney FC, the A-League or indeed the entire sport of football in Australia in recent years? Was he value for money when it came to the expenditure made by Sydney FC’s owner, particularly in light of the definitive lack of success the club had on the pitch during his tenure as their marquee? Has del Piero been as noble in his crusade for football in Australia as some would have us believe, or has his stint down under been a clever marketing ploy by a professional footballer who wanted to maximise his income and brand? What will be his legacy at Sydney FC or indeed for the sport as a whole in this country? Bottom line; was del Piero worth all the dosh, hype and attention?

Taking the playing for his club view first, I don’t think that anyone could find fault with the argument that del Piero added plenty of quality to Sydney FC, particularly in his first season in 2012/13. However his individual achievements and ability to do very well as a mature overseas marquee for the Sky Blues could not counterbalance certain salient problems with his club. As I and many others have argued before Sydney FC’s dysfunctional structures in terms of recruitment policies, coaching attitudes, club culture and a player group that has far too many passengers for the money spent on them meant that for much of his time at the club del Piero was a bit like the boy of legend with his finger in the dyke. Whilst his set piece work was of the highest quality, and his ability to encourage and arguably serve as a leader for his fellow players at SFC will be well thought of by many, there have to be doubts as to whether he was more than just a band aid solution; a tiring fulcrum that a faulty machine tried to lever off. Whether it was his coaches or himself, or perhaps a combination of both as well as the influence of his team mates, with ADP in the Sydney FC line up they became far too focused on his role and work. There were times when it brought major dividends (as recently as the Round 25 game of the current season between Sydney and Wellington). However these matches and the synchronicity of a magisterial ADP combining with effective football from his team mates were far too infrequent. For every match where he bamboozled defenders such as the opening match of the 2013/14 season against the Jets whilst the likes of Abbas, Carle, Garcia and Petkovic backed him up, there were games like the second SFC versus Wanderers derby of 2013/14. In that match he was kept far too quiet for his club’s needs by a much younger opposition player (the Wanderers’ Daniel Alessi) and then when subbed not only did his departure indicate a degree of disharmony within the squad and coaching staff, things went off the boil on the pitch quickly as well, ending in yet another derby loss for the Sky Blues. Admittedly there were times when del Piero’s absence had his fellow Sydney FC players rise to the occasion (as they did in the third derby of 2013/14 against the Wanderers), but on the balance he could neither carry the burden of a stuttering squad for as long as or as well as needed, nor could his team mates match his mercurial brilliance with enough frequency. To put it bluntly, Sydney FC could never escape the problems of effectively being a one man team in the ADP years.

Another issue for Sydney FC in terms of its playing structures and achievements during del Piero’s tenure was the diversion of philosophical and tactical energy away from establishing an attractive and successful system into keeping del Piero on the pitch in some role, whilst at the same time coaching problems festered and leeched away support. If one was to look at opposition clubs that achieved more success over the last two seasons it would be fair to say that not allowed their style of play nor their squad’s playing philosophy to become a servant to one man. Coaches such as Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat, Mike Mulvey, Graham Arnold, Ange Postecoglou, Phil Moss and Josep Gombau were not afraid of putting their best and/or most iconic players into a tactical and/or cultural framework that served long term visions. Shinji Ono and Thomas Broich are two examples of international players with far less cachet as imported ‘stars’ than del Piero who were coached as part of a team, instead of being allowed to form an identity or a diversion apart from the team’s energies, its focus. Both Arnold and Moss never had anyone approaching del Piero’s skill or fame in their Central Coast line ups these last two seasons, and I would argue they achieved more than del Piero’s Sydney FC not in spite of such a disparity of talent but because of it. Even lower placed clubs with less success than Sydney FC, such as Melbourne Heart or Wellington Phoenix seemed to do better with their major players (i.e. Orlando Engelaar and Carlos Hernandez respectively) integrating into club’s playing culture. No one saw stories about Ono, Heskey or Broich being touted as a potential replacement for their respective coaches as del Piero was for Frank Farina.

From my perspective (and of course I am only a layman with an affirmed prejudice against Sydney FC) del Piero’s most significant role for his club seems to have been less about adding to his club’s achievements on the field, and more about serving as a brand or marketing tool for Traktavenko’s investment. It could also be argued he has been far more important for the FFA in the same context than his technical ability on the pitch encouraging or leading domestic A-League players to improve their standards accordingly. Whether we’re talking the amount of ADP related merchandise sold on behalf of Sydney FC, the links back to Italy for the club and the FFA through broadcast deals or tours of del Piero’s homeland, or the FFA’s use of the Italian legend in their advertising, del Piero the footballer seemed to take a back seat to del Piero the sales tool.

Alessandro del Piero and Shinji Ono launching FFA’s Summer of Football 2013/14

Now far be it from me to criticise either Sydney FC nor the FFA for wanting to make as much out of such an iconic and important player to promote their respective business interests in football in Australia. However assuming the $8 million value of his contract is correct how much was del Piero’s value worth in terms of media exposure compared to such expenditure? Also how much value was wrought from the success of the Western Sydney Wanderers as a club in 2012/13, compared to del Piero’s impact when it came to promoting the A-League and football? After all, whilst del Piero sold plenty of shirts and was featured in heaps of ads, Sydney FC were unable to get more than 60% of the same membership numbers that the Wanderers achieved for 2013/14. The Wanderers have had a real presence in Asian football due to their success in the ACL and their signing of the far cheaper Shinji Ono, whilst del Piero and Sydney FC have barely scratched the surface of engaging with the most important regional market for football and for the A-League.

At this point I must say that I don’t believe the more cynical perspectives of del Piero’s presence in the A-League; that he has been more an advertising cypher, a constant diver who made Sydney FC’s obvious deficiencies even more stark through his performances on the pitch. There has been a remarkable growth in the focus on football and the A-League in this country since 2012/13 which he has in no small part contributed to. There will be thousands of people who have gone to games with del Piero playing, or to off-pitch events that he has attended and they will hopefully feel more attachment to the game and the A-League than if del Piero had not come to Australia. Yet I am not going to adopt a Pollyanna vision that some media pundits may take when they look back on the ADP experience.

Perhaps my ambivalence towards del Piero can be best discussed in the context of the Round 24 match between Adelaide United and Sydney FC at Coopers Stadium on March 21st 2014. At this game the local fans came out in their thousands to see del Piero and show their appreciation for his playing in front of a sizable expat Italian community. Whilst all this affection for the visiting marquee was visually and possible emotionally exciting, the actual game saw Sydney FC utterly outclassed by Gombau’s Reds, with a far less famous or expensive player for the home team (Carrusca) bossing the visitors. As for the hero of the local Juventus fans, he was subbed at the 65th minute. In my opinion it is hardly the best result for all concerned that del Piero engaged far more effectively with people who may be more fixated with a European icon and his club than their local team, and that team played some of the most attractive and efficient football in 2013/14 (especially in contrast to Sydney FC).

ADP at Coopers Stadium for the match against Adelaide, Round 24, 21/3/14

Regarding del Piero’s legacy, I am of the view that his will be far more fleeting and less substantive than others may believe. His tenure as Sydney FC’s marquee would no doubt have resonated far more if his celebrity and individual quality has been accompanied by wider club achievements in the A-League. I also am of the opinion that because his presence in the Sky Blues seemed to affirm the ‘bling’ aspect of their culture whilst reinforcing popular attitudes regarding their cargo cult attitude when it comes to recruiting stars, del Piero’s legacy is going to be less than his boosters would hope. How much money and goodwill has been pissed away by Traktavenko, Barlow, Pignata and Farina through the conduit of del Piero’s celebrity and marquee status contrasted with the grassroots community achievements secured by the Wanderers? Or the small budget, highly motivated squads at the Mariners? Or the Roar and Victory’s approach to creating squads with more uniform standards of achievement and skill?

In light of this I fear that unless something is recruited by Sydney FC along similarly expensive and individually illustrious lines there will be a significant falling off in appeal for the club, and perhaps by association the sport in Australia. Thankfully the continued success of the Wanderers, the major investment by Manchester City’s consortium in the Heart, and major international tournaments for the Socceroos such as Brazil 2014 and the AFC Cup in early 2015 will keep people focused on our sport. However for me the bottom line is that del Piero has been a missed opportunity, reminiscent of those days when a huge European club would come to Australia and play the national team for a few exhibition matches, then return home with as much money as they could gather from their excursion in their bank account. Surely the way forward for the A-League and for our sport to grow is not through enlisting temporary excitement through legends of the game such as ADP, but building successful clubs and domestic cultures built around Australian players who both learn from more accomplished foreign team mates whilst teaching their junior squad members.

Youssouf Hersi: The Half a Million Man?

Youssouf Hersi: Western Sydney Wanderers’ Dutch Star

In recent news there has been much speculation as to the ongoing contract negotiations between the Wanderers’ key Dutch player, Youssouf Hersi and the club over the potential renewal of his contract for at least the next A-League season. The Daily Telegraph has noted as a byline for a recent article “Western Sydney Wanderers won’t be bounced into re-signing Youssouf Hersi as the Dutch winger seeks a deal of more than $500,000 to stay with the Premiers next season”, and combined with previously touted stories from the Sydney Morning Herald and other media outlets regarding Hersi being sought by Sydney FC and the Newcastle Jets plenty of Wanderers faithful (including myself) are wondering what is going on. Will Hersi stay and if so will he get the half a million contract? Is he worth that much? Is it more in the club’s interest to keep him no matter the cost, or return the potential dollars to club juniors or perhaps another overseas player. How realistic or truthful are the stories being spread in both traditional and new media? I’d like to use this post to ponder some potential answers to these questions, and give an opinion on the conundrum presented by the basic premise of these stories. Should Hersi be re-signed, and if so for how much?

First off let’s consider the actual value of Youssouf Hersi as a player. There is no denying that in the 2012/13 season and for those games he has played fully fit in the current season that Hersi is one the Wanderers’ most prolific and exceptional talents. For a relatively small and lithe man he has a remarkable ability to combine ball control, tactical vision, determination and both defensive and offensive aggression. I would argue he is in the same category of player as Mesut Özil, though obviously not as talented or as well positioned in terms of national team or European league status. In almost every game he has played for the Wanderers he has been a key outlet for attacking movements on the right flank, and his combination with German back Jerome Polenz is simply sublime. More often than not you will see Polenz and Hersi pass between themselves in their own half at the end of some defensive phase, then Hersi will drive foward with Polenz outside him in support. Then depending upon the situation Hersi will either drive into the centre himself and take on the opposition defenders or feed Polenz for a cross or perhaps even more central passing. Again and again since they were first paired the Dutchman and the German have taken the Wanderers out of defence and back into attack.

Then there is Hersi’s speed and individual positional awareness. Whether it’s floating out on the extreme right flank waiting for that cross channel lobbed pass from the left, or darting into the midfield all elbows and knees, a whirlwind of activity trying to stem the other team’s forward progress, he keeps the attention of everyone at the game. This in turn has led to some of his less than happiest moments, both in terms of injury and discipline issues. Small and wiry, Youssouf has been prone to being targeted either fairly or unfairly by the opposite team and he has picked up both season-troubling knocks and suspensions as a result. In an away game against Perth Glory in 2012/13 he was marched after being niggled and fouled by Scott Jamieson. There was also his two yellow card performance in the semi against Brisbane which led to him missing the 2012/13 grand final due to suspension (and arguably costing the Wanderers a chance of a championship win in their debut A-League season). His travails in the current season have been no less troubled, though this time it has been due to injury (losing four weeks after a nasty foot injury in the derby against Sydney FC). Right now he is only into his third round of playing since receiving that blow, and having been sorely missed particularly in the loss against the Roar in Brisbane three rounds ago his work on the field against the Jets tonight will be crucial for the Wanderers.

So there is very little to be said against Hersi as a valued player for the Western Sydney Wanderers. His history of five goal in 2012/13, his impact on the field plus (and this hasn’t been mentioned as yet) his popularity among the Wanderers’ faithful is almost without equal in the club. Yet with rumours of a $500,000 fee to re-sign it’s only fair to ask questions over his continued presence in the red and black.

I would argue that he has demonstrated considerable value as a player and in light of that his potential asking price has to be given long and serious consideration. Of course I have some serious reservations first off over the actual dollar values being touted as well as the dynamics of the contract negotiations. The Daily Telegraph is hardly the most credible organ for journalism in general, and for whatever reason (whether it be editorial bias, general journalism weaknesses, the usual flaws in non-dedicated football coverage, etc) I would usually be very sceptical of such a story as that cited above. In fact generally stories about contract negotiations in any sport (or indeed any commercial activity) need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. I do however find the reporter for this story, i.e. Tom Smithies, one of the better journalists in football in Australia, so I think we can safely say he is not pushing some editorial barrow.

The next question is whether the $500,000 figure has come from Hersi and/or his agent, or if it’s from Lyall Gorman and the Wanderers’ managerial group. If the former it could been as an ambit claim, a statement of intent not just to the Wanderers but also for other clubs (in the A-League or indeed internationally), or a bargaining position aimed to express his sense of self-worth. Alternatively it could’ve been a dollar value has been leaked by Gorman etc as a means to either brace the supporters for the expense of Hersi’s re-signing or perhaps start to prepare the popular opinion about potentially discharging him at season’s end. The Wanderers’ main demographic are not the kind of people who would love a player who is worth huge sums of money (unlike say the Sydney FC supporters who do revel even if they deny it on the ‘Bling Factor’ of players like Alessandro del Piero, Dwight Yorke etc). The Wanderers’ fans and members would most likely see such a huge investment the clubs’ players’ salaries as perhaps problematic if it meant Hersi’s contract gobbled up too much of the other players’ wages. There is also the potential impact on investment in youth, or indeed the burden of such a big re-signing fee for any prospective buyer of the Wanderers.

In all honesty I am leaning towards the ambit claim side when considering this contract issue, with much of it being driven by Hersi’s agent perhaps looking at a future move for Youssouf away from the A-League to richer fields in Asia (specifically China’s CSL, possibly the J-League in Japan or one of the petro-dollar rich Middle Eastern leagues such as the UAE, Qatari or Saudi competitions). Personally I don;t think Youssouf wants to leave the Wanderers nor do I think the club wants him to go. However this is a professional sport where a man who relies on football to drive his income has possibly reached an optimum position later in his career when it comes to the ability to earn big dollars. At 31 years old and with a legacy of injury (particularly during his Eredivise and pre-Wanderers’ career) it makes fiscal sense to strike hard for the best bucks.

Now does that mean the Wanderers should contemplate forking out half a million without too much thought? Or do they just say ‘Piss off’ and spend a fraction of the $500,000 on either a new overseas player or perhaps invest in someone like Kwabena Appiah-Kubi? Of course for Gorman to splash out almost 10% of the club’s salary cap on on player is almost impossible to contemplate, so either the asking price will need  come down or it will be ‘Bye Bye Youssef’. Obtaining a cheaper alternative player to Hersi is arguably a real crap shoot; whilst Popovic and Gorman have done exceedingly well in signing up players who have been excellent value on and off the pitch, there are no guarantees lightning will strike twice. For every Shinji Ono and Youssouf Hersi in the world of A-League overseas recruits there are plenty of players like Pablo Contreras and Michael Mifsud (i.e. over-expensive international duds). I am reasonably optimistic that looking to either reinvest in youth or perhaps bulking up the financial state of a domestic or pre-existing Wanderers’ player would be very helpful as an alternative. Kwabena should flashes of Hersi-esque brilliance last season and in some ways is like a mini-Youssouf. Perhaps NYL player Martin Lo may also be an option down the road. Of course this again is a policy fraught with concern and with no guarantees of success. Yet the reassuring aspect of such a path is that it keeps the development and costs in-house.

Kwabena Appiah-Kubi: A Potential Replacement for Youssouf Hersi?

There are so many variables in play right now so it is impossible to do more than speculate and hypothesize as to how Youssouf Hersi’s negotiations will progress. I think I may be speaking for the bulk of Western Sydney Wanderers members and fans when I say we do not want to see Hersi lost to the club. We also do not want his cost to retain be so egregiously expensive that it detracts from the overall health, wealth and harmony of the club. No player no matter how good is either indispensable nor affordable at all costs. The Wanderers are not Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern or indeed even Sydney FC when it comes to chequebook player acquisition. However we all respect and understand that professionalism dictates Hersi’s contract is negotiated with all variables on the table, and each one up for discussion. If in 2014/15 Youssouf is back in the red and black and playing to the limit of his talent in a team that consistently wins, without any financial disaster waiting in the wings, well I will be exceedingly happy. Having said that if Hersi departs at the close of this season I can and will respect that decision from all parties. Bottom line, Youssouf was and is and forever will be a part of the Wanderers, and that in itself is inestimable of value for player, club and fan alike.

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

Today’s The Day, and it’s time for the Western Sydney Wanderers to kick-off 2013/14 by wreaking revenge on the Mariners. So just before the ball starts rolling up at Blue Tongue here are the final Top 20 moments from the 2012/13 season.

20. Ante Covic keeps out Mat Ryan at Blue Tongue

With a crucial game to define whether or not the Wanderers would win the Premier’s Plate for 2012/13 being played in the wet up at Gosford, it was no surprise that the man who probably did more than anyone else to make sure the Wanderers did the deed was Ante Covic. Facing the danger of a penalty goal, awarded after a clumsy moment from Dino in the box, the best goalkeeper of the 2012/13 season stared down his hesitant opposite, with Mat Ryan shooting straight into the welcoming arms of the tall ex-Socceroo. Covic added lustre to his efforts late in the game with a scrambling save that ensured the thousands of Wanderers fans drove back to Sydney that Saturday night ecstatic with the resultant win.

19. Mark Bridge is named as the Western Sydney Wanderers best player of 2012/13

In a well-deserved award recognising his importance to the Wanderers first A-League season success, left wing forward and club golden boot winner Mark Bridge was named as the Western Sydney Wanderers best player of 2012/13.

18. Wanderers captain Michael Beauchamp scores his first goal against Sydney FC in Derby II at Allianz

Shaping up against his ex-team and in front of a huge contingent of RBB fans occupying the southern end of SFC’s home ground, Michaewl Beauchamp sealed a fantastic win against the Sky Blues in the 77th minute of the second Sydney derby. Whilst the goal was not the most stylish or technically proficient it was a stake through the heart of SFC and a sign of the pride and leadership inherent in Beauchamp’s leadership of the Wanderers.

17. Shinji Ono signs for the Western Sydney Wanderers

If ever there was a crucial signing among the playing members of the Wanderers it was Shinji Ono’s on September 28th, 2012. The first and obvious impact was that the Wanderers had a legend of Japanese football as their marquee player, and a man who would both elevate the technical skill of the squad plus add a potentially large new market for the club in Asia. However what was equally important if not more so was that by signing Shinji Tony Popovic and Lyall Gorman indicated they were willing to make hard choices in terms of the squad (in light of all the talk about Michael Ballack) and they were not going to be swayed by anyone else’s agenda. As shown in this countdown and throughout every account of almost every game involving Shinji this recruitment is demonstrated as probably one of the top 2 or 3 during 2012/13.

16. The virtual sell-out of Derbies I & III

Wanderland a.k.a. Parramatta Stadium has a nominal seating capacity of 20,741 spectators. In its debut season the Wanderers were able to attract 19,126 people to their Round 3 clash with SFC, and 19,585 people to their Round 26 game. Tickets were well nigh impossible to buy for casual fans and these two games saw the best football crowd numbers since the 1989-90 NSL grand final (when Parramatta Stadium was not a wholly seated venue).

15. The post-season celebration in Parramatta

Whilst the Wanderers failed to win the Grand Final the overall magnificent effort from the club over 2012/13, including of course the winning of the premier’s plate gave impetus to a massive celebration of the Wanderers in Parramatta on 23rd April 2013. With thousands of fans marching with the team down Church Street to a civic reception and party at Prince Alfred Park, this was another example of how the Wanderers had won over the community they represented. Particularly powerful was Lyall Gorman’s pledge to the club’s supporters, reflecting western Sydney pride and passion.

14. Shinji Ono buries the Roar at Wanderland

With this amazing goal Shinji Ono ensured that the Western Sydney Wanderers were destined for a grand final appearance in their debut season. With a sublime arrogance of style Ono’s floating ball hit the back of a dumbfounded Theo’s net, completing a 2-0 win.

13. Tony Popovic named the A-League coach of the season.

Given the task of melding a squad together in less than 3 months before the start of the 2012/13 season, without having been the main coach/manager of any club before, and then taking that disparate band of Australian and foreign players all the way not just to a premiership but also to a grand final was simply brilliant. The A-League recognised this achievement by Popa naming him as its coach of the 2012/13 season, beating out more fancied or experienced rivals Graham Arnold and Ange Postecoglu.

12. Dino’s left boot goal of God, versus Brisbane

Perhaps not as stylish or as elegant as other goals from the likes of Ono, Visconte or Bridge, Dino’s left back heel into Brisbane’s net during the semi-final at Wanderland was still a glorious moment of Wanderers magic. Bereft of luck for much of the season the lumbering Croat displayed an instinctive skill for scoring goals his much touted bald head couldn’t. The reaction from the home supporters was commensurate with the achievement (i.e. out of this world with joy). Whilst Dino never really delivered all we hoped his efforts like this one will always be remembered by the Wanderers faithful.

11. 25th July 2012 – The first ever Western Sydney Wanderers football game

The Wanderers debuted against NSWPL side Nepean FC at St Mary’s Cook Park on this chilly winter’s evening. With Joey Gibbs netting four times and Labinot Haliti once, the 5-0 win was a propitious event for the fledgling club. Among other future stars for the coming A-League seaosn were Aaron Mooy and Mark Bridge.

10. The Round 12 Wanderland Bloodbath of the Reds

Coming into this game the Wanderers were looking to demonstrate that they could hold their own against top six clubs. The Adelaide Reds with a long and proud history in the A-League, possessing some major talent and sitting in the top four at the time were daunting prospects for the home team. Instead of being a dour and hard fought game it turned out to be a goal-fest, with the Wanderers slipping 6 past a hapless Eugene Galekovic and his defensive screen. With Mark Bridge snaring a hat-trick and Dino, Shinji and Joey Gibbs each getting a goal it was easily the biggest win for the Wanderers all season. The only minor blemish was a late goal to the Reds, however that mattered not a jot. From this game on the Western Sydney Wanderers juggernaut took flight.

9. The birth of the RBB

Just as the Wanderers made their debut at Cook Park against Nepean FC on July 25th 2012, so did the Red & Black Bloc. From a small but fervent group of committed fans grew the most exciting and passionate active fan group in A-League history.

8. Tony Popovic named the inaugural coach for the Western Sydney Wanderers

May 17th 2012 was the date when the wanderers began the journey that took them to the premier’s plate in 2012/13 and a Grand Final in front of over 40,000 fans (mostly wearing red and black). In appointing Tony Popovic the club made the first of many very correct decisions, and this bore fruit over and over again in the following months.

7. The very first A-League game played by the Western Sydney Wanderers

Wanderland, 6th October 2012. The opposition, Central Coast Mariners. The result, 0-0. The crowd, 10,458. History was made.

6. Shinji Ono scores the best goal of entire Wanderers season

Sublime, spectacular, stylish, brilliant, the apogee of control, skill and class. Watch and marvel at Shinji Ono against Melbourne Victory at Wanderland, Round 8. The final result, Western Sydney Wanders (and Shinji Ono) 2-0 winners

5. Western Sydney Wanderers first ever A-League victory

Coming into this Round 4 game against the A-League champions for the past two season, the Wanderers were underdogs away from home in Brisbane with no goals in their preceding games. However in what was a remarkably gritty win Mark Bridge made history with the first goal for the Wanderers, and with no answer from the Roar the final victorious score was 1-0.

4. The Second Derby and the Destruction of Sydney FC

There is nothing sweeter than beating your cross-town rivals. However it is even better yet again to crush both a cross-town club on the field and their supporters at their own home grown after both elements of the opposition demonstrated little respect for the new boys on the block. When the Western Sydney Wanderers and the RBB with other supporters ventured to Allianz Stadium for the Round 11 Derby game against Sydney FC the team nailed a historic victory with 2 goals (one each to Hersi and Beauchamp) and the RBB out-sung the Cave. It was a great time to be a Wanderer!

3. The 2012/13 Grand Final (with over 30,000 Wanderers Fans in attendance and performing a stadium wide Poznan)

No one had a sane expectation that the Wanderers would finish the 2012/13 season in the top six at the start. However by season’s end the newest club in the A-League would not only win more games than any other team, defeat the champion team from the last two seasons four times, beat their cross-town rivals 2-0, slaughter a past Grand Final runner-up and Asian Champion’s League finalist team 6-1, and then after winning the premier’s plate for topping the Western Sydney Wanderers went to a sold out Grand Final against the Central Coast Mariners. Whilst the game was eventually lost 2-0 over 30,000 Wanderers fans went to see their club achieve something truly historic, and when the 80th minute of the game came the whole stadium rocked to an arena-wide Poznan.

2. The Wanderers beat the Central Coast Mariners 1-0 at Blue Tongue

Without doubt the best game for the Wanderers all season, with a gritty against the odds win for the team, securing their leadership on the table. On a soaking wet Gosford evening there was high drama on the pitch and in teh stands the RBB and other Wanderers fans simply owned their rivals. A defining moment in our club’s history.

1. The Western Sydney Wanderers win the 2012/13 A-League Premiers Plate

After 27 regular home and away games and less than a year after they were first founded the Western Sydney Wanderers made history by winning the Premier’s Plate in their inaugural season. Nothing was better than this moment, this achievement, this time.

A Letter To A New Wanderers Fan

G’day

Nice to see that you’ve decided to come along with me and nearly 16,000 other members of the Western Sydney Wanderers and see them play in their second A-league season. I’m sure there’s a great reason for your newly-found interest in the team and the game. Maybe you saw the footage of the RBB on the news. Perhaps one of the guys like Jerrad or maybe Aaron came to your kid’s school and showed your child a little something about the game, perhaps kicked the ball around a bit. There was lots of coverage of the Wanderers on Foxtel, so if you had that maybe you saw them playing in last season’s grand final, and they’ve even featured on free-to-air channels who don’t talk about the game much, like Seven and Nine. Whether you saw them at Westfield Parramatta or just had a friend tell you how great going to the Wanderers games is, it’s all good. Welcome to the our Wanderland.

Now before we get started a few things you might like to consider or know. First off I know in lots of places and among a lot of people what we are going to see in coming days, weeks and months is called soccer. In certain circles you might find a few not-so-nice reactions to that word. For now if you’re thinking you are watching soccer and want to talk about it with fellow Wanderers fans, call the game football. We’re smart enough to understand that we ain’t watching one of the rugby games, or Aussie Rules. Old farts like me grew up with the idea of soccer as the name of the game and in a way it’s not bad. Especially when you think about the long and deep history of the Socceroos. Even the guys who run the game overseas in places like America and South Africa and Switzerland (well, they make money from it…but that’s another story) sometimes call football soccer. But honestly, it’ll save you a bit of grief, help with your credibility and make sure you fit in with the majority of fans by talking football, football, football.

Right, I understand your ticket says you are sitting in an eastern stand bay at Wanderland. Why Wanderland? Well that’s the name that was given to Parramatta stadium for the first season of the Wanderers and we like what it represents. We understand that this is a ground used in the past mostly by the Parramatta Eels. and they will continue to do so. It also has a great history of being where old National Soccer League teams played, including one of the clubs that indirectly lead to the Wanderers, Parramatta Power. Some time in the future someone might talk to you about the best grand final ever played in the NSL era, between Wollongong Wolves and South Melbourne, here in 2001. Anyway, that’s history. Right now Wanderland is our home, the place we have claimed as our ground. Plus, and I might be waxing a little lyrical here, there’s something magical, ineffable, mysteriously exciting about Wanderland. My first game in the stands, watching the team on the pitch and the RBB in full cry; it was a wonder, honestly. So the name of our home stadium has plenty of meaning, and I hope you understand and appreciate all this through your own experiences as well.

I know one of the reasons, if not the central cause to why there is so much excitement and attention given to the Wanderers is due to the RBB. The Red and Black Bloc are active fans and they are located in the northern bays of Wanderland.  With us being in the eastern stand we have a great views of the men and women, boys and girls over in the RBB and it is true about what you have heard, or maybe seen on TV. They are the most passionate, vocal, proud and entertaining supporters for any sport and any club in the entire country.

By the way, being in the RBB is not about just jumping up and down, clapping and chanting, giving the Wanderers’ players support. And no, unlike some of the more biased stories you might read in the Daily Telegraph or hear on 2GB, the RBB is not a gang of soccer hooligans. The RBB is in some ways no different to any large group of people put together; there maybe an idiot here or there  but 99.9% of everyone in the RBB are normal, law abiding folk like you and me. This is a game, a club and a group of supporters who appreciate that passion is not a crime, and that we are a broad church of supporters.

On the other hand the RBB is very different to any other group of people. There are the chants and songs of course, but they don’t just happen, like some spontaneous session of clapping. There is lots of talk, lots of debate over what gets presented by the RBB and how its done. It’s also pretty hard yakka; being an active RBB member means you are expected to be always on your feet unless the capo tells you not to be, and you need bloody strong vocal chords. Oh, before I forget the capo is the bloke up front with the megaphone, helping and directing the RBB with what to do. People like the capos and the marshals are very important for other active support things, like the march to the game before kick-off. The music, the drums and horns that help set the rhythm for the RBB is called La Banda, and they are also important like the capos. After all how can anyone sing club chants like ‘Glorious’ or ‘Euphoria’ without someone providing the beat.

Perhaps most importantly the RBB are the people who carry the spirit and pride for our club perhaps more in their hearts and lives than anyone else associated with the Wanderers. They eat, sleep and drink the club, the team, the chants, the home games, the away games, the players, the shirts…everything. Of course there are less active, non-RBB members who are just as keen but usually they don’t go into the RBB because they know how hard it is to stay active for so long. Or maybe they just want to watch the game and enjoy it passively. No worries either way; the game  and the club is big enough for all types of fans. However you will never find anything in any other sports context as passionate, unique or as exciting as the RBB.

Perhaps the most basic and most enjoyable thing about the crowd environment at Wanderland is the ‘Who do we sing for?” call and response. Again this is a pretty special moment in Australian sport, surpassing the simple-as-dirt ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ chant. I’ve never seen anything as electrifying nor as blood-pumping as that moment when the RBB starts off with a chorus of ‘Who do we sing for?’ and me and all of us come back with ‘We sing for Wanderers.’ If you ever have one memory, one deed to boast about after the game it’ll be that moment.

Having said that don’t forget there is also the amazing sight of the RBB doing the Poznan. On the 80th minute the northern stand bays and RBB fans there will unite in a seething, jumping, linked-arms wall with their collective backs to the ground. Some folk might take the mickey out of it but again, it’s a demonstration of an almost tribal feeling of community, plus a symbol of the fans’ respect for football’s history. With football first having been played out west in 1880 the RBB’s Poznan reminds us all that this great sport is not some ethnic blow-in like other sports and their advocates might have you believe. Our sport is as Australian as it can be and then some.

Okay, that’s the crowd and the RBB sorted. Next, let’s have a chat about what happens on the field and who is playing for us. The bottom line is every man who runs out onto the pitch in red and black (or if away from home in white and black) is a dead-set bona fide legend who will fight hard for the club, his mates, the coach, the supporters and the community of western Sydney. Yes, they are professional, but you’d be surprised how much they believe in what they are doing for everyone involved in football out this way.

The coach is named Tony Popovic, and he’s a great ex-Socceroo who has already shown in last season how intelligent and creative he is with the tactics used by the team. He and his offsider Ante Milicic (another ex-Socceroo) grabbed a team that only had 3 signings less than 18 months ago and turned them into a premier team that topped the A-League in their first season. You’ll often hear about ‘Popa’ and ‘in Popa we trust’, or might even see a sign up on the western stand saying ‘Habemus Popa’. Unlike other clubs (especially Sydney FC, or as we call them, the smurfs) we love and respect our coach.

Because our team was put together at short notice before last season you might see some guys who have played for other clubs in the A-League, or for overseas clubs. Take as a case in point our most proficient goal scorer form last season, Mark Bridge. Bridgey spent time with the Jets a few years ago, and even helped them win the A-League champion’s trophy (known as the toilet seat for reasons that are obvious when you see it). Then he played for the smurfs…oops, I mean SFC, and didn;t do that well. However like a lot of our guys when he came to the Wanderers it was like Popa gave him an entirely new career, and since then he has been always a threat in front of goal.

Our regular goalie Ante Covic is a similar story, and the big fella has a great record form last season in keeping clean sheets and stopping penalties. The captain, Michael Beauchamp is a defender, and he brings a lot of experience to the squad (like Covic he was a Socceroo). Beauchamp is also a westie born and bred, like our exciting young midfielder Aaron Mooy. Mooy has already played for the Socceroos and might be a name you’ll hear more of in future World Cups (he has a wicked boot when it comes to free kicks). Before I forget the other Aussie defenders there’s Nikolai Topor-Stanley who is a cult figure because of his booming clearances, Adam D’Apuzzo who is on the left (and basically resurrected his career through the Wanderers after semi-retiring), and Matthew Spiranovic who is looking to reignite his prospects as a Socceroo via the Wanderers. And keep an eye out for Jerrad Tyson, Shannon Cole and Dean Heffernan; they’ll be there in case we have some injury problems.

Further up the field there’s some more Aussies who will be playing for the Wanderers this season. Be on the look-out for Tomi Juric. he started off with a flyer with Adelaide last season but he has come to the Wanderers as our new key striker and has picked up a few pre-season goals plus selection for the national team. He’s going to be very important to our chances this season. Helping him out or keeping forward with him will be Labinot Haliti, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi, Tahj Minniecon, Brendon Santalab and Jason Trifiro. Tahj was bloody unlucky last season thanks to a bad injury so he didn’t get much time playing with the team. He’s looking to make amends this season and in the trails before today he has looked good. Also he is an indigenous Australian, which is very important for the growth of our game. Labinot’s another player you should see good things from. He sealed the win for us last season against the Mariners with a goal during the Poznan up at Gosford, and just watch to see if he pulls off his shirt after scoring…he’s been known to get a card for that simple act of celebration.

Now even though the A-league is all about domestic football in Australia because this is a global sport we have international players here in our competition. The foreign players that don our club’s colours are all great players, coming from top-flight European or Asian competitions. My personal favourite is the German right back Jerome Polenz. he has played in the Bundesliga for a few clubs, and he has a wicked sense of humour (look for ‘Jerome Polenz Pikachu Julia Gillard’ on Google or Facebook). His best mate and a guy all Wanderers fans love is Dutchman Youssouf Hersi. These two players form a great combination on the right hand side, and Hersi never gives up, always tackles or keeps the ball away from the opposition. Okay, maybe once in a while he might get a little too fired up and cop a card from the referee. However when all is said and done this Dutch maestro is a huge plus for the team, and if you hear or see fans talking about ‘Hersi for PM’ you might understand why after seeing him play.

We have a young Croatian midfielder named Mateo Poljak alongside Aaron Mooy, and he and Iacopo La Rocca (an Italian) are never shy of putting in a big effort both in defence and in going forward. By the way, if you hear anyone ranting on and on about the Wanderers being a Croatian club ignore it. Okay, we have had a lot of Croats play for us and there is a history of the old Sydney United team behind some of the players and staff. However the culture and spirit of the team and the club is pure western Sydney; passionate, proud, willing to have a scrap and never give up.

So, this brings us to the man they call Tensai. Before last season Tony Popovic had the chance to possibly bring a German great into the Wanderers by the name of Michael Ballack. However he made sure that when the club secured its first overseas marquee player it was Japanese legend Shinji Ono who joined the squad. And seriously, for all the talk about del Piero or Heskey last season, it was Shinji who was the best foreign player in the A-League. He has amazing skills and a great vision for where to pass, shoot, defend, run, and if you ever want to see a goal that should only happen in a video game or a movie, search online for ‘Shinji Ono first goal versus Melbourne Victory’. When you see all the fans in their Wanderers shirts at the game don’t be surprised to see a helluva lot with Shinji printed on the back.

Well, I could go into a lot more but it’s almost kick off. Get ready for a mad, fun, passionate, exciting, challenging season of football, and don’t be surprised when the season is over you’ll be counting down the days to when you can sign up again for 2014/15.  Yoru bank balance might empty a bit with having to buy several Wanderers kits, balls, flags, gifts etc, and you might find yourself humming ‘We’re from the streets of Western Sydney’ to yourself at the strangest of times. You will be living on the internet with Twitter, Facebook and the fan forum all bookmarked for repeated visits to get the latest news, and you’ll be telling more and more friends and family about why football beats the living bejesus out of aerial ping pong or league or union.

Again…WELCOME TO OUR WANDERLAND!