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)
“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:
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:
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.