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.

The 2013/14 A-League Season Half-Time Report

The beginning of Round Fourteen sees the current A-League season effectively reach the midway point of normal competition, and for all the positives spruiked in the early rounds, there are some points of concern both on and off the pitch. Whilst no one would say that the A-League administrators, clubs, players and crowds are in the worst of times, there are several symptoms of a malaise that wasn’t so concerning last season. I’ll be writing more on some of these issues in future posts, but for now here are what I consider the highs and lows of 2013/14.

Refereeing/Officiating

If there is one single part of the A-League that has done the most damage to football as a sport this season it has to be the officiating. From bad calls on offsides, disallowed goals, bad penalties that shouldn’t have been given or spot kicks that were missed, the use of yellow and red cards, almost every game in every round has had something to make the fans flesh crawl and the coaches to yank their hair out. In recent games we’ve had multiple handballs missed (Victory vs Wanderers, Round 12), players sent off before they even get on the pitch (Glory vs Mariners), players protected whilst they arguably dive or at least manipulate the officials (del Piero winning a free against Brisbane), and this is but the tip of an iceberg. At the beginning of the season the referees lobbied for an were awarded a pay rise of 20%. Yet if there was to be a commensurate increase in the proficiency of the officials or a similar quantitative decrease in blunders then the refs should be charged by the ACCC for theft.

I’m unsure of how the FFA or anyone else associated with the A-League can help redress this problem with the A-League’s officiating. Unfortunately the referees and linesmen who are given their role in each round are coming from a relatively small group of people who may not necessarily number in sufficient quantity to allow for promotion of better officials and relegation of those who make errors. About seven or so referees seem to be cycled through repeatedly over each round with hardly any reward for excellence nor deterrent for stuffing up. Many are relatively young and inexperienced, with only someone like Strebre Delovski standing out as someone who could officiate not just in the A-League but also in other more prestigious domestic or international competitions. The plight of linesmen and lineswomen a.k.a. assistant referees is even worse. I certainly don’t agree with the thoughts of referees’ boss Ben Wilson about extra eyes helping the men and women officiating A-League games, and like many fans I understand that the human element in each game’s officiating will mean mistakes are made. I would suggest more needs to be done to get our match officials drawn from a wider base of participants (including ex-professional players where possible), plus have those currently in the A-League given more support to train and engage with more prestigious leagues. Whether these suggestions solve the problems hurting the A-League right now is anyone’s guess. However right now no one from inside the halls of FFA’s HQ seem to be saying anything public about recognising the problem and saying it will be dealt with.

The Coaching Roundabout

Even before the beginning of Round Thirteen the A-League had seen four clubs change their coaches, either unwillingly or as a result of a boot up the bum of the previous seat holder. As it stands Ange Postecoglou left Melbourne Victory to become the Socceroos coach, Graham Arnold departed the Mariners to join J-League club Vegalta Sendai, Alistair Edwards lost a in-house power struggle at Perth Glory, and finally the management of Melbourne Heart eventually woke up to the disaster that was John Aloisi’s tenure. In each case assistant or interim coaches have been brought in or back, however with  casualty rate of 40% it seems as if job security as a coach in the A-League is not that easy to establish. Throw in public and rumoured rumblings over Frank Farina (Sydney FC), Gary Van Egmond (Newcastle United) and Josep Gombau (Adelaide United) only Tony Popovic and Mike Mulvey seem to have a grasp on their roles at their respective clubs.

Now has such instability hurt the development of the A-League this season, especially contrasted to last season? I believe it has. Of all fourteen coaches who have had a role in guiding the ten clubs this season I would argue only Postecoglou, Popovic, Gombau and Mulvey have demonstrated any growth in their players’ systems, style and (hopefully) success. Kevin Muscat has definitely lost some of the developmental traction his previous boss had with the Victory, whilst Popovic has been the one to implement the most serious change to his club’s system and roster and get good results. Mulvey has possibly done little more than embellish the old ‘Roarcalona’ motif of playing under their 2010/11 and 2011/12 guru Postecoglou, whereas Gombau has taken the Spanish possession leitmotif to another level (without a decent return on investment in terms of points and wins). Having said that the Adelaide experiment is focused on longer term results beyond the current season, so with that context in mind it is a little unfair to judge Gombau’s work on the results so far.

Those clubs that are in the lower half of the ladder as it stands right now are not just reflective of average performances on the park; they are also demonstrating the failings of their coaches to achieve consistency and create winning systems. There also have to be questions in some instances over how those coaches recruited and had their players prepared physically. Frank Farina has had many of his issues stemming from the combination of an ageing squad prone to injuries, thus curtailing any consistent performance from the players. Ally Edwards was undone by a combination of injury and perhaps most heinously the introduction of his sons into the Glory squad. John Aloisi had the misfortune of recruiting players who have under-delivered most egregiously (i.e. Michael Mifsud) or had any value in the first half of the season curtailed through injuries (Engelaar and Kewell). These three coaches have arguably been the most bankrupt in terms of creating success through quality coaching, and in the specific case of John Aloisi the disarray his management of the Heart engendered leaves them effectively already out of the 2013/14 race.

Crowds and Game Attendance

Generally speaking the first half of this season has been very productive in terms of numbers going to A-League games, thanks to almost every club lifting their average attendance above last season’s figures. Round One started the season with a bang, thanks to a 100,000+ total across all five games driven by the Melbourne derby between Victory and Heart. Then there was the great success from the first Sydney derby of the season, when over 40,000 fans went to Allianz Stadium to see the Wanderers beat Sydney FC in Round Three. As it stands eight of the ten A-League clubs (the Jets and Mariners being the exceptions) have exceeded their 2012/13 crowd averages, and in the case of the bigger clubs these numbers are up by around 24% (Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers), and around 9% (Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC). There have been some flat rounds and the FFA must have some concerns over the decline in raw attendance numbers for the Mariners. Having said that there should be every reasonable expectation that by the end of 2013/14 we will see the largest numbers of attendees at A-League games across a single season in the competition’s short history.

Media

The introduction of new free-to-air options in TV and radio has undoubtedly helped the A-League’s profile rise through 2013/14, with SBS now showing the Friday night games on their second and HD channels. Additionally ABC radio now broadcasts all games live on their digital network plus depending upon circumstances local and regional AM/FM channels. Having said that the main engine for the A-League’s coverage in the audio/visual media has been Foxtel, who have claimed a rise of about 6% in viewer numbers over last season. However in relative terms the major difficulty faced by the A-League this season in getting eyes and ears glued to games is that the competition from a resurgent Australian cricket team and that sports coverage has blossomed exponentially. TV and radio coverage of the A-League this season has also been damaged somewhat by the lack of last season’s excitement created through the debut of the Wanderers plus the arrival of major marquees like del Piero, Heskey and Ono. Generally speaking until the A-League finds mass free-to-air coverage through commercial broadcasters such as Nine, Seven or Ten, who are then hopefully willing to devote as much production and promotional effort to the A-League as per their respective current broadcast sports such as Rugby League, AFL, Cricket and Tennis, it will continue to be a marginal sport when it comes to broadcast media coverage.

In the mainstream print media the story is far more complex, with reportage often at variance with the more general ‘op.ed.’ work of the newspaper commentators. Unfortunately with the decline  in quantity and quality of specialist sports journalists who write only on their specific sports, most of the articles that have been written that have done damage to the A-League this season have come from biased, unscrupulous News Limited writers. The dominance of News Limited papers in several major Australian cities has arguably helped contribute to a less than flattering image of the A-League and/or the clubs, particularly in Adelaide and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent in Sydney. I would argue that whilst there are some good journalists in both Fairfax and News Limited print organs, they are not of a standard seen in past years (for example I don;t believe even the best of Mike Cockerill or David Davutovic matches the work done by Tom Anderson in the 70s and 80s).

One promising aspect of the A-League’s media coverage this season has been the growing depth and quality of podcasts, both commercial and independent. Personally speaking my two favourites are the ABC’s Top of the League and Fox Sports Football Australia podcasts. However these are not the only options for audio media coverage of the A-League, and it could be argued that it is through these formats, as well as other new media (including blogs such as this one), the future of the A-League’s non-TV coverage will be directed.

Playing Standards

Generally speaking it would be hard to prove the hypothesis that the overall majority of games this season have been played at a similar standard of those in 2012/13, and this must be a concern for all parties with an investment in football in Australia. The A-League has been improving gradually over the last few years, most noticeably due to the influence of coaches like Postecoglou and players like del Piero and Ono. However stagnation has set in with only Mulvey’s Roar and arguably Popovic’s Wanderers showing glimpses of how the game could be played. The strikers in almost every team have been less than satisfactory with their finishing, and in the case of two gun performers from last season (the Mariners’ Daniel McBreen and Phoenix’s Jeremy Brockie) the decline in standards has been awful. I’ve already referenced the disappointing efforts of Michael Mifsud, but you can add to this list Emile Heskey, Archie Thompson, Shane Smeltz , Mitchell Duke and Jeronimo Neumann who have been battling injury concerns. Aside from the Brisbane pair of Berisha and Yeboah the only A-League strikers who have looked the goods in more than a couple of games have been Tomi Juric for the Wanderers, Adam Taggart for the Jets, and of late Stein Huysegems for the Phoenix.

In terms of midfielders and their quality across the board things look a little better, thanks in no small part to the work of Broich, del Piero, Ono, Troisi, Miller, Hersi, Carrusca, Flores, Hernandez and Nichols. However I would argue that aside from Broich and arguably Nichols none of these leading midfielders have demonstrated week-in, week-out consistency. The elephant in the room regarding A-League midfielders is that we are not seeing enough young creative Australian midfielders who could be the next Harry Kewell or Tom Rogic. An example of this problem is Aaron Mooy, who has only shown a modicum of his promised talent this season. Players like him, the Jets’ Josh Brillante or Glory’s Daniel de Silva need to be progressing further not just for the good of their clubs and the A-League, but for the football in Australia overall.

In the back of the pitch A-League defenders and goalkeepers have been like a curate’s egg, with some stand out performers and squads, and some absolute shockers. The Roar again have the best record and the performers in this context, though I don’t rate Theo as highly as other goalkeepers in other clubs. The work of Ivan Franjic has been generally excellent, and has outpointed his nearest rival Adam Traore. In the right back position Jerome Polenz has been consistently the best performer in the A-League, whilst the return of Matthew Spiranovic to the domestic game also through the Wanderers has been a great success. Unfortunately most other clubs have had their defenders perform in fits and starts, and in some cases (most noticeably the Melbourne Heart and to a lesser extent Sydney FC) the standards have been woeful. Ante Covic, Mark Birighitti, Danny Vukovic, Vedran Janjetovic and Eugene Galekovic have all had pretty decent seasons in front of goal so far, and demonstrated that our best footballers are usually those doing glove work in front of the net.

The Fans

Overall the A-League has achieved a hell of a lot of success with their fan base this season, thanks in no small part to the ripple effect of last season’s fairytale of the Wanderers and the RBB. Memberships are up at many clubs (and in the remarkable case of the Wanderers went from just over 7,000 to 16,000, thus selling out), and targets have been met or exceeded. Having said that the two most well supported clubs in terms of members (i.e. Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers) have had recurrent issues with their active supporters. Whilst not all these problems originate from the fans, there has been incidents and breakdowns in relations between fans and their clubs that have without doubt damaged the reputation of the A-League. The extent and nature of that credibility problem depends on who you listen to or your position within or without the supporter base, and it hasn’t been helped by some hysterically vicious opinions emanating from anti-Football writers in the mainstream press. The bottom line is that no matter how well behaved part or all of the A-League’s fan base is, there will continue to be scrutiny placed on them that borders on unethical, unreasonable and xenophobic.

My Overall Rating

If I was a teacher looking to give a report on this season, I’d think a B+ grade would be appropriate, which in some respects is a bit of a let down from last season. I would not say that the likes of David Gallop and Damien de Bohun have got cause for major concern, however it would be hard to put a positive spin on everything accomplished this season. I suspect that overall the competition has hit a plateau that needs new stimuli to help it take the next step. What they are could be anything from the impact of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 AFC Cup, through to better refereeing, the return of an iconic Australian player like Tim Cahill to the A-League, or another foreign marquee legend being recruited. The forthcoming FFA Cup will also be a potential positive influence, and who is to say how the ACL may impact upon the A-League in the near future. These are interesting and challenging times for the A-League and its players, coaches and fans.

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.

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

70 memories from 2012/13 down, only 30 to go. I plan to have the last post in this series just before kick off on Saturday arvo

30. The march to Blue Tongue stadium before the away game against Central Coast Mariners

If ever there was a moment when the Wanderers’ fans (including the RBB) took over another club’s venue and indeed town and showed the power of their passion, it was in the march from the Settlers Tavern, Gosford, to Blue Tongue stadium. With thousands of men, women, boys and girls all in the colours of the team, they made established their domination of the local fans before this pivotal round 23 game, and kept it until well after the referee blew time.

29. Nine wins on the trot, and the Wanderers break the record

In Round 24 a tough win at Wanderland against the Wellington Phoenix, the final score line of 2-1 ensured that the previous A-League record of eight consecutive wins, as recorded by Melbourne Victory  was surpassed.

28. Labinot Haliti bags a brace in the rain against Melbourne Heart

For the final away game down in Melbourne on a rain-sodden AAMI stadium pitch impact forward Labinot Haliti chimed in with two goals, with one in each half of the game. After a stop-start early season Labinot impressed in the final few Wanderers games with some classy and pivotal strikes.

27. The ‘Who Do We Sing For’ chants between the RBB, the east and west standards at Wanderland

Being part of the call and response for ‘Who Do We Sing For?’ at a Wanderers home game is one of if not the best experience for a football fan in the A-League. Unfortunately it’s impossible to recapture the spirit and passion in a blog, so this video will have to serve as a pale imitation. To really appreciate it you have to get to a game.

26. Jerome Polenz and Youssouf Hersi; a combination par excellence

The ex-Bundesliga right back Polenz and ex-Eredivisie right forward Hersi were possibly the best combination not just in the Wanderers, but across the entire A-League (with perhaps only Rojas and Thompson competing). Every game the two played together saw them  play in amazing harmony. When Polenz was pressured in defence Hersi would know exactly how and when to interpose himself into the back line, then on the attack Polenz was always aware of Hersi’s positioning.

25. Mark Bridge scores a solo goal in the community round game against the Newcastle Jets

In a textbook example of how to use control and strength to score a goal, Mark Bridge out-muscled Newcastle Jets defender Josh Mitchell in the second half of the Round 20 game, then sent the ball into Birghitti’s net taking the Wanderers to a 2-0 lead, and ended up with a 2-1 win.

24. Shannon Cole’s equaliser in Derby III

With a team that was understrength due to injuries and discipline issues the Wanderers were looking down the barrel of a bad loss against Sydney FC at Wanderland in the third derby of the season in Round 26. However ex-SFC player and replacement back Shannon Cole put the game to rights with a stunningly good free kick that zoomed into the away team’s net. The final score of 1-1 left the home fans slightly disappointed and honours even after the three derbies in 2012/13.

23. Ante Covic keeps a clean sheet with a stunning save against the Heart in Round 18.

 With Jerome Polenz sent off for a careless challenge in the Australia Day game at Wanderland it was up to Ante Covic to keep the Victorian team from taking a 1-0 lead. With a falling dive to the left he made sure that the shot from the penalty spot was kept out, setting the platform for what ended up being a solid 1-0 win. Covic backed up his 56th save of the season with a brilliant scrambling save in the dying minutes of the game.

22. Rocky Visconte seals the Preimer’s Plate with a brilliant goal against Newcastle

Brought in from the Roar as a replacement for the injured Tahj Minniecon, Rocky Visconte had to cool his heels for almost the entire season. His moment in the sun for the Wanderers was in the very last game of the regular season up at Hunter Stadium in Round 27. With the Wanderers leading 2-0 and looking very comfortable Visconte chimed in with a wonderfully controlled and aimed left boot missile to put the ball into the Jets net a third time that evening.

21. Labinot Haliti’s clinical finish against the Mariners at Blue Tongue

With the game almost entirely played in the Mariner’s favour and barely ten minutes to go substitute forward Labinot Haliti made sure that the Wanderers came away as 1-0 winners from their third game against Central Coast. This video tells the story…

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

Another day closer to the 2013/14 season kick off, and another ten magic memories from last season.

40. Shinji Ono scores his first A-League game for the Wanderers

When Ono arrived at the Wanderers everyone expected him to be a vitally important part of the new club’s campaign in 2012/13. Unfortunately it took him a few games to find his match fitness, but when he did in front of goal for a penalty against the Roar at Wanderland in Round 10 it was exactly what the team needed. His goal gave the Wanderers their second win of the season over the 2011/12 champions.

39. Youssouf Hersi scores two goals against Adelaide at Hindmarsh

The club’s Dutch forward picked up two goals in the second away trip for the Wanderers to Homebush in Round 19. His biggest haul in one game, his second goal in this match was another example of his skillful ball control, a prominent feature of his game throughout the season.

38. Jerome Polenz and Youssouf Hersi show off the Harlem Shake

Words aren’t needed…just look at this:

37. Wanderers go top of the A-League table beating Perth 1-0

In Round 22 the Wanderers achieved something very few people would’ve expected before the beginning of the 2012/13 season. Defeating Perth Glory 1-0 at Wanderland in the wet put the Western Sydney Wanderers into the top position on the A-League table, where they stayed until the regular season’s end.

36. The RBB helping out a sick fan after the away game at Gosford

After the Round 23 away game at Blue Tongue Stadium, the celebrating fans and RBB were able to render invaluable assistance to a fellow fan who experienced a medical emergency. By marshaling and organising passers-by they helped facilitate the response of the medical personnel, and it is moments like that that underscore the true nature of how (active) Wanderers supporters help each other.

35. The RBB and other away fans descend on Melbourne and AAMI Stadium

In one of the largest showing of interstate away fan support in A-League history approximately 1000 RBB and regular Wanderers fans turned up at AAMI Stadium for the Round 21 game against Melbourne Victory. Challenged by the largest and most vocal active supporters in the A-League the RBB didn’t take one step back, acquiring a grudging respect from many MVFC and neutral observers

34. Being at the Woolpack Inn in Parramatta before a home game for the Wanderers

The energy and camaraderie at the ‘Woolie’ in 2012/13 was always good value, and in such a close and friendly  environment the RBB found their voice before every home game (and for most away games too)

33. Tony Popovic named PFA Coach of 2012/13

In an incredibly successful season for Popa he took out the PFA coach of the year award, beating out his arguably more well credentialed rivals Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold. This was not the only honour he would collect.

32. Dino Kresinger’s Passion and Drive

Whilst he may not have been the most fruitful provider of goals for the Wanderers, throughout every game he was involved in Dino was always a fan favourite thanks to his tireless running, his endeavours to get in the face of his opponents, his ability to draw some very useful fouls, and most importantly the legendary ‘fist pumps’. No one could fault his work ethic.

31. Nikolai Topor-Stanley and his clearances from centre back

Whilst his clearances could be seen as the source of great humour, Nikolai Topor-Stanley rarely kicked the ball away without some thought behind his booming hoofs up field. Whilst Covic had prime responsibility for forming the long ball basis for the second man counter-attack NTS would often play this role before the goalie grabbed the ball.