A-League 2013/14: Round Eighteen Review

Western Sydney Wanderers vs Brisbane Roar (1-1 Draw)

This meeting between the first and second placed clubs on the current A-League ladder was certainly one that lived up to all the hype, with the accompanying solid crowd numbers at Wanderland and plenty of television coverage reinforcing the importance of the match. Last season the Roar had been the Wanderers’ bunny, losing all four of their games, yet in 2013/14 the Brisbane team under Mike Mulvey has rarely looked troubled, and gave the sophomore WSW their first three goal defeat in Round Seven. The home team has also had some indifferent results in previous weeks, with only four points earned from twelve available from four rounds. So whilst there was plenty of positives to be drawn upon by the Wanderers in playing at home in front of the always passionate RBB they were certainly not all-consuming favourites.

The Wanderers opened brightly and with a starting line up that was close to their best XI it was surprising that they were unable to convert some excellent work from stalwarts Hersi and Ono before the first ten minutes of the match were up. The visitors were under no compunction to parallel the missed opportunities from the Wanderers, and when Broich made progress down the left flank of the home team and fed the ball to Besart Berisha, it seemed almost inevitable that Ante Covic would not be able to deflect or stop the Albanians shot. The resulting goal was quality, but also seemed to act as a catalyst for the visitors. They went into a deep defensive formation that found most of their energies focused on the likes of Stefanutto, Brown and Brattan launching some nasty hacking challenges on a rampant Youssouf Hersi. Whilst referee Kris Griffith-Jones could find a yellow card for Spiranovic’s clumsy studs up challenge that failed to connect, none of the trips or professional fouls committed by the Roar were similarly censured. Alongside the Dutch winger Ono, Mooy, Spiranovic and Santalab all went close to put the Wanderers back on equal terms in the first half yet none of their efforts could find the net.

The second half saw more of the same, with the Roar sitting back deep and the Wanderers pressing for an equaliser. Mooy, Hersi, Ono, Bridge, Santalab and Polenz all created opportunities yet either through bad luck, good defence or a slight misdirection the ball refused to go into the visitor’s net. In the 69th minute Polenz killed the best chance for the Roar to increase their lead when Henrique was on goal, then with time running out Aaron Mooy demonstrated his value yet again to the Wanderers faithful, and to his new paymasters at Melbourne Heart for next season, putting in a cross to Labinot Haliti on the 84th minute, which was smartly tucked into the Roar’s goal. Even with the draw a favoured result with so little time to go the Roar came back to life, yet neither side could find a winner. It had been a classic match and some (well, those who are more foolhardy than me) would predict this may have been a portend of the upcoming 2013/14 Grand Final.

Central Coast Mariners vs Melbourne Victory (1-3 Melbourne Victory win)

Some maxims in the A-League’s brief history deserve plenty of respect. For example, Brisbane will struggle against the Jets, or the Victory and the Reds will always have an added edge of barely suppressed anger. However one that is losing its lustre this season is that the Mariners are always able to churn out good players and defend well at home, and for primie facie evidence for this argument one needs to look no further than this match against the Victory. In a result that demonstrated how inconsistent almost all teams are in 2013/14, the Mariners started with a frenetic energy that seemed to end up with the appropriate result thanks to Bernie Ibini scoring in the 10th minute. Nathan Coe’s fumble/parry fell nicely at the returning Mariner’s feet and he took the shot with the requisite ease. However in what were ominous portents for the home team Tom Rogic was showing plenty of class both before and after the first goal, and he almost helped set up Archie Thompson for an equaliser before the first 30 minutes were up. Yellow cards were coming thick and fast and whilst none was awarded due to a Mariner’s foul just before half time, Gui Finkler’s excellent distance shot from the dead ball position created the opportunity for James Troisi to score off the rebound, leveling both teams up at one goal apiece.

The second half was barely underway when the Victory struck again, thanks to some excellent work from Traore (who has been rather quiet of late) who centred his pass into the Mariners’ box, where Thompson met it and elegantly angled the ball into Reddy’s net. There may have been just cause for an off-side call however the goal stood. Not long thereafter Eddy Bosnar backed up his first half free kick rocket that almost scored with another attempt on Coe’s goal, however it failed to penetrate the goalie’s defences. The same couldn’t be said in the 61st minute of Reddy’s handling of a Troisi shot, and when the Victory midfielder took his chance to bring up his brace of goals the visitors were up 1-3 and looking far better than shown in recent weeks. Ex-Mariner wunderkind Rogic was arguably most indicative of the differences between the two teams, as he has become part of a formidable and relatively stable Victory team, whereas the Mariners have had so many changes in staff and players it must be almost impossible for Phil Moss to create a cohesive structure. This win for Kevin Muscat’s team has certainly dulled some of the blades that were poised to go into his back if the Victory had lost again, and returned them to definite top 2 contention. For the home team perhaps we are seeing an end to the great results wrought by a club that continually has been able to reinvent itself.

Sydney FC vs Adelaide United (0-3 Adelaide win)

It is desperately unfair on the visiting Reds that after this match almost every single focus placed on the game was diverted away from their excellent form and dominant performance. Instead this was the game where the ever-fragmented, madly inconsistent Frank Farina coached Sydney FC imploded under the stress of piss-poor playing on the pitch and revolting fans in the stands. There is no doubt that the combination of seasons where the results of Sydney FC have not meant their most ardent fans’ expectations contributed, plus there is a serious disconnect between the fans and the club management. However what must seriously undermine so much of the passion and drive for the fans of the Sky Blues is that contrasted with teams like Adelaide, and of course their cross-town rivals the Wanderers, there is such a gap between football cultures it has become embarrassing. The Cyrillic Tifo calling for club owner David Traktovenko and the resultant brouhaha over Cove members being expelled from the game was symptomatic of a failure in club systems and beliefs that the players on the field could only but replicate.

When it came to the on-field action the only remotely promising moment for the home team came in the 8th minute when promising young SFC player Hagi Gligor massacred the chance to put the Sky Blues up one goal to the good, after some neat work from the left flank and Serbian striker Despotovic. Less than 8 minutes later Reds import Isaias switched the ball deep out of the visitors’ own half to the feet of Ferreira, who in taking the ball into the SFC box got it away to Bruce Djite. The home teams’ backs were utterly embarrassed by Djite who was able to avoid the tackles of three defenders and softly prod the ball past Janjetovic. The lead could have been tripled by Michael Zullo and Marcelo Carrusca however Jurman cleared the ball off the line in the former instance and the woodwork saved Sydney FC in the second. Ferreira however made no mistake in the 25th minute with his opportunity after yet another long aerial pass found him outpacing the defence, and with Sydney FC down by two goals and looking utterly hapless and hopeless it was literally game over. ADP briefly showed his own class with a well took free kick before the first half ended, but with the local fans protesting or booing no one but the few traveling Reds fans, staff and players were enjoying the game at Allianz.

The second half was an unedifying affair as off-field controversy was drawing more attention than the players on the field. The evening was summed up for the home supporters by Jeronimo’s goal in the 79th minute, which put into glaring focus the inadequacy of Sydney FC’s defence and attack, as well as Frank Farina’s structures. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the home team, and whilst Adelaide had every reason to celebrate a clinical, professional performance their task was made easier by Sydney FC letting the visitors run rampant. Frank Farina and Sydney FC have become the joke of the A-League this season, and sadly for them no one knows when the final punchline will be delivered.

Newcastle United vs Wellington Phoenix (2-3 Wellington Phoenix win)

The Jets’ run of bad luck and bad results continued at the hands of one of the most improved teams in the A-League, with Clayton Zane unable to get the result he needed against the visiting Wellington Phoenix at Hunter Stadium. After a bright start from the home team with Taggart and Goodwin giving the Nix cause for concern and Hernandez and Huysegems doing the same back, it took a classy moment of Phoenix creativity in the 20th minute to break the deadlock. Costa Rican Carlos Hernandez threw the Jets defenders into confusion with some great ball control and his shot that flew into Newcastle’s net utterly flummoxed Birighitti. However the lead was short lived thanks to some equally good work from Caravella and Goodwin, with the young Jet slotting home his shot with aplomb. Both teams’ defensive efforts were finding it hard to keep up with the fluidity of attack, and whilst Hoole almost added to the Jets’ tally it was Belgian key player Stein Huysegems who delivered for the visitors before the end of the half.

The second half got off to a wonderful start for the Jets with Craig Goodwin adding to his first half goal, and his scoring effort was one of the best seen at Hunter Stadium this season. The inability of the Jets to get maximum value out of their younger players such as Goodwin, Hoole, Taggart and Brillante has been a consistent problem this season, and made even more obvious when their quality does come out on display. The next twenty odd minutes were rather fraught for both teams, with discipline issues to the fore. Ernie Merrick made a couple of substitutions and it was one of the changes, Jason Hicks who was able to get through Goodwin, Hoole and Jaliens and score a pearler in the 69th minute. Up 2-3 the visitors quelled some last minute attacks from the Jets plus mounted a couple of their own which failed to increase the lead, leaving them at the end of the match victorious. For the Jets it was a cruel result which sadly reflected the problems with their defensive structures, and for the Phoenix Ernie Merrick and particularly Hernandez and Huysegems did everything right.

Melbourne Heart vs Perth Glory (Melbourne Heart 2-1 win)

A controversial ‘home’ game for the Heart, this match was played as a community game in the Murray River region city of Albury under far from positive conditions. The amount of travel required for the visitors was arguably too much and then to make things worse a heatwave hit the area to such an extent that the game was put back two hours. Even this change failed to address the concerns of those playing and those coaching. The 38 degrees C temperature certainly impacted on the first half with scoring opportunities matched by the frequency of drinks breaks. Dugandzic, Ramsay and Behich all caused the Glory some worries and with 6 attempts on goal versus none from the visitors Melbourne Heart were the better team before the break.

The second half saw the match come alive thanks to a Kisnorbo goal scored from a corner. The Glory were struggling to match their opponents and this was borne out by the substitution of Sidnei for Sernas. More drinks breaks and more substitutions were taken, with Kewell leaving the field for the Heart and Rostyn Griffiths being swapped by Kenny Lowe with Nebjosa Marinkovic. The visitors then took advantage of a corner that was clumsily cleared by Andrew Redmayne after Shane Smeltz took his shot, and in the following seconds Perth’s Steve McGarry slammed the ball home. Scores could have ended all tied up however second half sub for the Heart and iconic goal scorer David Williams took advantage of a bad turn over from the Glory’s Chris Harrold, and in a welter of feet and legs in the visitors’ box Williams eventually headed the ball into the net. Having scored with only minutes to go yet again Williams had repeated the Heart’s efforts from the previous round. A commendable win under extreme circumstances, the possibility of the current season’s cellar dwellers to maybe make the finals is now being talked about seriously. Meanwhile for Perth they are staring down the barrel of dropping further down the ladder, with not much hope to see the trend being reversed.

Best Game: Whilst the Jets versus Phoenix game had plenty of good goals and was a close run affair, the quality of football in the Friday night match between the Wanderers and Roar was just that little bit better. It also had all the hallmarks of two champion teams battling out as an entree for further clashes later in the season.

Best Goal: Berisha’s goal for the Roar was class, and the manner in which Djite capitalised on a wonderful pass to get past Sydney’s defences  and score for the Reds was impressive. However the most attractive and well taken goal this round was Goodwin’s second for the Jets against the Phoenix. A brilliant one man effort that was polished off with a swerve that added a poetic flourish to his work.

Best Team: The Roar and Wanderers were both very good, and deserve to share this distinction insofar as they were so evenly matched and playing such an intense match. However the manner in which Adelaide dismantled Sydney FC and the win by Wellington over the Jets also deserve kudos.

Worst Team: Yet again Sydney FC deserve this dishonour and if anything they were even worse than last week’s loss against the Heart. Simply incompetent on almost every level.

Unwarranted Advice for Those Suffering From The Sydney FC Blues

I’ll admit I take much malicious glee from the internecine warfare being waged right now over in the Moore Park precinct, between the forces of fan-based revolution at Sydney FC and the repressive fumblers that have brought their so-called ‘great’ A-League club so low. The whole sorry saga of the Sky Blues coming apart quicker than a three dollar suit sown together with fairy floss has been the funniest episode of A-League incompetence since Clive Palmer decided he could use his Gold Coast United players as pawns in a noble defence of free speech. From two derby day defeats this season, with the Wanderers racking up all the points and all the supporter honours whilst our cross-town rivals have floundered in a sea of self-loathing, through the false dawn of their pummeling of Melbourne Victory, through to last Saturday night’s chaotic scenes at Allianz Stadium, there have been laughs-a-plenty to be found from the rich comedy well-spring that is the home of Pignata, Barlow, Traktovenko and Farina. The sounds of wailing and gnashing of teeth coming from the Cove and fellow SFC acolytes has become the laugh track to a long running sitcom that keeps trying to be a serious effort at being a football club. Like a comedic cornucopia Sydney FC’s failures just keep on giving for all of us who find the club unlikable ( at best) or hated (at worst).

Now I won’t go into all the causes for this situation, partly because others have tracked its course far better than I, or because I have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to re-phrase the farrago here. Whether it be the failures of Sydney FC’s owners and administrators to secure the best staff, and the contrasting vision between them and the Wanderers (as indicated in this solid piece from Fox Football’s Simon Hill), the toxicity of the fan culture (viz this article from the Guardian), the supposedly egregious treatment of the Cove’s capo (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald) or the simple inability of the team to win enough matches under Frank Farina, there are plenty of paths that have lead to this unedifying chasm. It could be argued that the modus vivendi of the club’s owner and his perception of Sydney FC’s mission is the root cause of all it’s evils: trying to push into Asia with a club run by his son-in-law is not exactly the way to achieve domestic success in the A-League, and if reports of the cut-backs in staff are true then trying to accomplish either goal seems to be a wild goose chase. In an Australian sport where ‘all-knowing’ rich potentates have generally either sunk without a trace, created more problems for their club than solving them, or simply failed to deliver a profitable and successful football venture (e.g. Clive Palmer, Con Constantine, Tony Sage, Nathan Tinkler), it seems as if Sydney FC and their Russian billionaire owner is heading down a well-worn path strewn with errors. The bottom line may be almost profitable for Traktovenko, and no one can deny that there has been success in the NYL and W-League for the Sky Blues. Yet the dysfunctional elements of what was ‘Bling FC’ have coalesced into one seething, angry, flatulent and very nasty ball of hatred knotting up the club’s internal mechanisms worse than an all-egg diet does to a constipation sufferer.

So, from the outside looking in, and without wanting to proffer advice that might be used to actually improve the lot of the Wanderers’ local rivals, where do the hapless and hopeless out at Moore Park go? Is there reason to believe the runaway train to nowhere can be put back on track, and if so how long will it take? At what cost? Should those with financial or emotional investment in the club take the Vietnam War approach and ‘burn down the village to save it’? If I was honest I don’t really care if they do anything; yet like the man twisting the knife to find just that little bit more sadistic pleasure, perhaps I can be allowed to provide some observations on how Sydney FC can save itself.

  1. Stop the ‘Sydney is Sky Blue’ bull shit: Yes, everyone who has followed football in Sydney in any way, shape or form is aware of this slogan that gets pumped out like piss-poor muzak in an elevator only going one storey up or down. Not only has it fed the o’erweening arrogance of the club’s fan base, it has become an easily used way for particularly the Wanderers’ fans to beat the Cove and their associates over the head with their own failures. In an environment where Wanderers membership outnumbers Sydney FC numbers in a ratio of roughly 3:2, for the older yet less supported club to try and preen like they were the cock of the walk in Sydney when they are more like a feather duster on and off the pitch, well it all comes across as ridiculous arrogance. The days of dominating the Sydney football market are long dead, and the sooner the administrators, owner and marketers of Sydney FC get this through their thick skulls the better.
  2. End the ADP love affair. Yes, Alessandro del Piero is a great player who has contributed far more to the growth in the A-League’s profile on and off the pitch than any one marquee has in its short history. There is no doubt that del Piero has become an iconic part of Sydney FC and without him it could well be argued that both on and off the pitch the arse might have fallen out of the Sky Blue’s both far quicker and at a far more debilitating cost. However there comes a time when a simple cost-benefit analysis has to be undertaken to see if ADP has in fact given the club a full return on their investment. Yes, merchandise sales and crowds have been solid, but when all is said and done he was brought to the club to help Sydney FC win titles and transition to the Asian Champions’ League. It didn’t happen last season and there is every expectation it won’t happen in 2013/14. Throw in the manner in which his arrival possibly destabilised the plans of former coach Ian Crook, the endless focus on his role as the creative element within an ageing squad, and now the potential for him to become the SFC player/coach in 2014/15 at a cost of approximately $4 million, it is very hard to see how the continued fixation with del Piero will solve the club’s problems. There is also the questionable manner in which del Piero’s influence has taken the club into operational activities which have left them vulnerable, such as the 2013 benefit tour of Italy for ADP, or the mass marketing of del Piero merchandise which has possibly only engaged with his fans and not those wanting to connect with Sydney FC. When the Juventus legend finally leaves will those who climbed aboard his bandwagon at Sydney FC want to stay? I honestly don’t expect this to happen, as the hundreds if not thousands who have associated with Sydney FC via ADP will not be satisfied with either the club’s overall form during his time here or incidents such as these:

  3. Stop the band aid solutions. As soon as a problem emerges at Sydney FC the reaction is almost always one that would serve as the dictionary definition for ‘knee jerk’. This season alone there have been three Serbian players added to the roster individually, and whilst they have had their moments no one can definitely say how they expect the playing structures to develop or change. Was Petkovic recruited as a stop gap to plug the problems experienced with team mates like Tiago and Warren? Despotovic obviously had a role to play with Gamiero’s injury delaying his impact as a striker, but now the young Australian is back to match fitness where does the Serb striker fit? Is Nicky Carle supposed to be a creative attacking midfielder, playing off and alongside del Piero, or is he supposed to be a deeper defensive midfielder in the mould of Victory’s Mark Milligan? What is the story behind Sasa Ognenovski’s recruitment, and is it yet another ‘Oh he’s available let’s grab him’ band aid solution? Is it a repeat of last season’s doomed effort in bringing in Lucas Neill? Overall, is the squad playing this season structured around a possession game? A second man long ball game? Fast counter attacks? Defense in depth with del Piero having a free remit to do whatever it takes? It seems as if no matter what the preferred style no one has any long term concept of how to play or what the most effective structures are. What about the coaching staff; is Farina really calling all the shots with every player, recruiting to a long term plan and giving highly detailed instructions and monitoring all work done by his charges? Or is Rado Vidosic, Ange Postecoglou’s assistant and failed successor at the Roar the (evil) mastermind? If any of the players under pressure for lack of results or indeed the staff get the flick will someone higher up the food chain try and take a long term view? These are all questions I cannot answer, nor probably care to even if I had more than just anecdotal or second-hand evidence for. However every indication is that whatever decisions are made in the Sydney FC camp will be ones that quell the immediate problems, with no vision beyond (at their most long term) the end of the season. Even earlier today the statement regarding the discipline issues surrounding Nicky Carle, Matt Thompson and Frank Farina does little else but keep the pot boiling. The statement posted by Tony Pignata on the Sydney FC forum regarding the events of last Saturday night is a further example of PR spin that fails to really address core concerns for interested parties. If a so-called ‘pissant club’ like Adelaide United can install a coach who talks about developing a playing style that goes beyond the concerns of winning titles this season, why can’t the supposed biggest club in the A-League take a similarly long term approach?
  4. Club ethos…find one and stick to it. This ties in somewhat to the ‘Sydney is Sky Blue’ BS but has wider ramifications and themes. Perhaps the best focal point for consideration by the Sydney FC gurus is the whole ‘to be Bling or not Bling’ question. I hate to say it as the idea of a rich, big spending club that promotes itself accordingly is hardly attractive in any sport let alone football in Australia, yet why doesn’t SFC actually bite the bullet and return to the cashed up bling days of ‘All Night Dwight’? In itself there is nothing shameful in possessing access to considerable owner funds (if indeed is the case, and this merits further discussion) or for that matter a big name line up. In other sports in Australia there have been clubs that have had an abundance of riches both in terms of financial resources and player stocks, or in fact came from higher end social areas. The classic example is Rugby League’s Manly. For all their (deserved) antipathy among the wider league fan base because of their supposed wealth, their long-standing ability to poach players from clubs like the now merged Wests, and their reputation as a ‘Silvertails’ club, Manly have been perennially successful and their fans incredibly loyal. For Sydney FC the ethos and associated reputation that was cultivated during the first season or so of their existence did much to define them. By attempting to have it both ways, insofar as still having an incredibly well-funded squad and a club owned by a Russian billionaire, and yet supposedly appeal to the masses, results in a blurring of their raison d’etre. Australians find it very easy to hate someone wealthy who puts on the dog, but they find it easier to hate or dismiss someone who is hypocritical.
  5. Clean out all administrative/staff except for the very top. Yes, responsibility for the clusterfuck that is Sydney FC must ultimately be shafted home to Traktovenko, Barlow and Pignata, and unless the Russian owner has a desire to exit only he is really safe. Yet realism dictates that Barlow (Traktovenko’s son-in-law) and probably Pignata are safe. However everyone else should be given their notice (where contracts allow) that by season’s end they are gone. Sometimes clubs need to slash and burn to get results, and when you see the failures that have dominated the continuing fiasco that has been Sydney FC over at least the last season and a half then no one can be protected. Obviously Frank Farina must go, but he has to be accompanied by his assistants, his medical staff etc. There needs to be a clearing out as well of the club’s backroom staff in areas like media management and community engagement. I have it on good authority that Sydney FC have failed to cooperate with the media when it was in their best interests to do so. Hell, even the latest schemozzle over the expulsion of Cove members at the Adelaide game needs to see heads roll.
  6. Appoint a major domo/club dictator who will build a new and holistic structure. A big ask, and part of point two, implementing point fix needs such an act. No one can create a vacuum in their organisation through a culling of dead wood without assembling a replacement structure. If, as is entirely possible Frank Farina gets the chop before season’s end and he perhaps takes the likes of Kalac with him, and then someone like Mark Rudan replaces him, then give Rudan the power to create a new regime that goes beyond picking the occasional new recruit. If it means going higher up the food chain and dumping Tony Pignata, then do it and replace him with someone who has the authority to reshape Sydney FC across the entire breadth of its operations. Things are that desperate, so dysfunctional at Sydney FC that it needs one or maybe two key personalities to stamp their authority across the entire franchise and rebuild it arguably in their own image or at least in a unified vision.
  7. Do better with your existing members and improve new membership acquisition. It’s patently obvious that Sydney FC’s current crisis came to a boil when their existing core membership (specifically the Cove) felt they were being ignored, abused and through management stuff-ups pushed away from staying engaged with their club. Whatever my personal feelings about their membership (as a Wanderers fan it is beholden of me to despise and ridicule them), I can readily acknowledge that they have a series of  legitimate grievances that need to be addressed by their club, instead of being ignored or indeed inflamed by the current regime. If Traktovenko, Barlow, Pignata, Farina and anyone else associated with Sydney FC want their club to not just survive but flourish, they need to get their core members on board tout suite. Concomitant with this is the club needs to do more to increase actual member numbers. Considering that right now the club has approximately 60% of the numbers of Wanderers members on their books, with over nine years of history (during which for 8 of those years it was the sole A-League club in Sydney) to only have a tick over 10,000 members is pretty ordinary. Even the Central Coast Mariners, with an approximate population of 250,000 or so in its catchment area can claim 5,000 members, as opposed to the Sydney FC demographic or at least 2-3 million. Sydney FC has screwed the pooch with existing and unfulfilled memberships and they should actively do whatever it takes to implement remedial action in this area. Changing the cost structures, taking games to the people more often in their core catchment areas (such as Sydney’s southern districts and northern suburbs), even countenancing more effort in getting supporters and potential members from the Illawarra would all help. Sydney FC can’t sit back and tell their existing members they have a long and proud history of success and because ‘Sydney is sky blue’ they should support through thick and thin. They need to keep reinventing their appeal, refining their message and expanding their vision and means to acquire new members.
  8. Cull the dead wood in their playing ranks. Alongside the drive to put a broom through the back room staff whoever takes the reins at Sydney FC for 2014/15 and beyond needs to get rid of most of the players at Sydney FC and find younger talent that will demonstrate hunger, drive and passion to succeed. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that almost all the men on the pitch in the senior SFC team this season have disappointed, and some have been downright shite. There has already been some clearance of ill-performing or injured stock, such as Yairu Yau and Tiago. Abbas, Janjetovic, McFlynn, Petkovic and Despotovic have been fair to middling. The rest, including ADP have hardly set the A-League on fire in this season and in the case of Thompson and Warren they’ve actually been comically bad. Yes, I will grant that in their demolition of Melbourne Victory the players performed admirably, but as the cliche says one swallow doth not a summer make. There are a few players who have struggled with injury who could be of value in the future (e.g. Gamiero, Grant, Antonis) and there is plenty of potential in their NYL team. If a new coach had access to a mixture of some of the better performers from this season, fit squad members who can do a job and actively promote NYL players that can be developed further, instead of being thrown in at the deep end willy-nilly, then perhaps the piss-weak results wrought by a creaky, old and faulty squad like that currently going around can be put in the past.

Truth be told all of these suggestions may be considered as less valuable than the paper they weren’t printed on. I honestly couldn’t care if any of these ideas were considered reputable or worth implementing by even the laziest of armchair fans from Sydney FC. Right now the Sky Blues are in a world of pain and as a passionate fan and member of their cross-town rivals nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing them flail around in a sea of their own incompetence. However, as academic exercises go, or indeed for a more altruistic aim of seeing the A-League prosper in this city and across the nation, I’m more than happy to throw a few hypotheses out there for consideration, whilst dwelling on the ways in which this clusterfuck came into being in the first place. My gut feeling is that by season’s end Farina and a few of his cronies will be booted out, with core problems still to be addressed as they would challenge much of the validity of Traktoveno’s regime. Sydney FC is a veritable sinking battleship that can’t be saved or turned from its downward course without some superhuman effort, serious thought and a bit of luck. I think all bar the most passionate (or biased) fans of Sydney FC would admit that those three elements are barely present within the club’s current structures and can’t be simply imported or developed by the close of the 2013/14 season.

2013/14 – The Season So Far (Melbourne Heart/Sydney FC/Adelaide United)

My second part of a half-season review of the current progress of each A-League club.

Melbourne Heart (0 wins/5 draws/9 losses/-16 goal difference/5 points)

The current cellar-dwellers of the 2013/14 season and deservedly so, the Heart have demonstrated that you can’t just enlist a coach on name alone, throw together a badly recruited squad, formulate no real club style or sense of purpose and then expect to get results on and off the pitch. Of course those who may be more forgiving would point to the major injury problems experienced by the Heart, with their two most significant signings in Orlando Engelaar and Harry Kewell having major injuries that led to the former still to play a single competition match in the A-League, and the other missing all bar a handful of games. However other teams have also had injuries to major players this season (e.g. the Roar with Berisha and Wanderers with Hersi) and they have had more success than may have been supposed with these issues effecting their respective squads than Heart has.

So, where has it all gone wrong. Obviously John Aloisi’s coaching was a contributing factor, and his sacking after the Round 12 loss to Wellington was the obvious reaction to a clear cut problem. Whilst a legend of the Socceroos and a genuinely good guy, he seemed to flounder at how to organise and direct his team. Questionable substitutions, ill-informed recruiting, arguably too much chumminess with his players, an incessant public facade that things weren’t that bad; it was as if JA had been asked by someone to demonstrate the paradigm of how to be a bad coach. However for all his faults the real blame must be sheeted home to the players, and there have been some very flat performances indeed.

The most startling example of how the Heart have got things wrong is their Maltese international striker Michael Mifsud. An energetic forward whose boundless running attempts to compensate for his lack of stature, Mifsud has been a failure no doubt about it. With only one goal this season his return on the club’s investment is already pretty low. What makes things worse is he seems to have no positional awareness. There have been strikers at other clubs in other seasons who have not scored many goals (e.g. Dino Kresinger at the Wanderers in 2012/13), however if they play a specific or additional role that leads to the squad scoring through other channels, then that can be accepted. Mifsud is perennially off-side, shooting off-target, too small to assist in either defensive pressing or serve as a target for crosses, and simply taking up a shirt that someone better should be in.

The woes don’t end there for the Heart this season so far. Not only have they experienced some almost comical attempts on scoring goals, their defence has been at best adequate and at worst farcical. Patrick Kisnorbo should be a major professional influence on his team thanks to his international experience. Instead he has found himself being sent off thanks to stupid hacks, or let the opposition through his line with surprising eases. Aziz Behich has been passable going forward but when it comes to his defensive work, he can be rather shambolic. The way he has let a few of his opponents skin him in one-on-one situations is alarming not just for him and his coaches, but also for neutrals who want to see a supposed talent blossom for future national duties.

There have been flashes of quality from one or two players every now and again, with the work of Migliorini in the game against Adelaide in Round Eight the best of the Heart’s entire season. His two goals in that game were stunners. David Williams has also struggled manfully. It might be argued that if the Heart had won their second round match against the Mariners at home with Williams’ brace of goals their season may not have gone to shit so fast, so badly. However it is hard to see how the occasional lift in quality would have led to a revival of their fortune at any time this season.

Overall the bulk of Heart’s squad is not good enough, were brought into the club with no clear concept of how to play or the club’s identity, and in John Aloisi had a neophyte coach who seemed unable to do more than form a friendship society with those on the pitch. He facilitated the recruitment of players who simply have not delivered (such as the aforementioned Mifsud, as well as Murdocca, Wielaert and Ramsay), and now interim coach John van t’Schip has to try and cobble together results. For a club that is supposedly up for sale with an approximate $12 million asking price, in Australia’s second biggest city, it’s simply not been good enough.

Prospects and Predictions: The return of Engelaar may help van t’Schip to tighten his defence and bring some much needed depth and creativity to play off the still-relevant skills of Harry Kewell, however the core of the club is shot for 2013/14. Their most recent game against Perth away from home reinforced the hopeless pessimism fans of the Heart must feel, and the derision felt for them by neutrals. With 2013/14 effectively over the sole consolation must be that van t’Schip can start looking at how to put in place new foundations to rectify this season’s fuck ups and build for a better squad for 2014/15. Administratively, the likes of Scott Munn must clear the way for a sale of the club that benefits as many people as possible, then get out of the way so someone else can do better. Until the end of their last game this season the Heart will be at best nuisance value, and at worst a farce.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Tenth/Wooden Spoon

Sydney FC (6 wins/1 draws/7 losses/-4 goal difference/19 points)

Just as the Heart have been in the shadow of the more successful cross-town rivals, so to has Sydney FC been finding it almost impossible to keep up with the Wanderers in 2013/14. An ageing squad that has had problems with injuries, a coach who is very rarely in the favour of fans or members of the club, and battling to extract the optimum value out of their tiring superstar marquee Alessandro del Piero, Sydney FC have an exceedingly hard row to hoe in the second half of the season.

Perhaps before indulging in some deeper criticisms of the Sky Blues it is only fair to point out some positives. Their two Serb transfers who came into the club after the beginning of the season, in Nikola Petkovic and Ranko Despotovic have been the best to play for Sydney FC all season. The former has strengthened a fragile and very inconsistent defence whilst the latter has scored goals with promising regularity. When they have been at their best and there has been sufficient support from others in the squad SFC can and do win. Some plaudits must also be guided to Vedran Janjetovic as a solid goalie (except when faced with Brisbane Roar), and of course even at his tired, unfit worst ADP stands head and shoulders over many of his comrades. Corey Gamiero could also be given some praise though through injury he has hardly had an impact in the first half of this season.

However as much as the above citations indicate some quality in the Sydney FC 2013/14 season so far, there has been far too much to regret or to criticise for simply being inadequate, and there are no problems in finding faults. Garcia, Carle, Abbas and Yau have been as inconsistent as some of their less successful opponents in (for example) Melbourne Heart. Carle and Garcia are particularly significant as ineffective players, in that both of these ex-Socceroos should be demonstrating far more of their worth, like (for example) Michael Beauchamp and Matt Spiranovic do for the Wanderers, or Bruce Djite for Adelaide. Brett Emerton (who has just announced his retirement) was more or less a passenger all season, and if there is a worse player in the Sydney FC squad than Marc Warren he must be hidden well. Yairu Yau has also not lived up to expectations and due to injury is now gone from the club.

Yet as much as there have been problems with the cattle, it goes without saying that the core problem at Sydney FC is Farina’s regime. From the manner in which he has helped shape the club’s conditioning, through to their tactical structures, and even in the relationship he has with the fans and members. there are very few outside his own coterie of friends and players who would believe he has done a good job. There must also be some criticism aimed at his assistant Ranko Vidosic, who for all the talk about how well he assisted Postecoglou at Brisbane, has failed to really make a difference since then.

Prospects and Predictions: Sydney FC are in an extremely dense tussle to make their way into the top six, and with such an immense reliance on Alessandro del Piero they will most likely progress or decline depending on how he performs. His motivation and fitness seems to be less resilient at this stage of the season contrasted with 2012/13, and the last few weeks have seen him pull the pin early and sub himself off, help facilitate goals for the opposition, and most memorably in the round thirteen derby react most unhappily at being called off the park by Farina. If del Piero’s work rate and quality degrades and reflects a wider malaise with Sydney FC, then they could fall much further down the table. On the other hand, the Serbian influence on the squad may help improve results, and if someone like Gamiero, Garcia or McFlynn rallies the troops on the pitch, well a top four position may not be utterly impossible.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Eighth

Adelaide United (4 wins/5 draws/5 losses/-1 goal difference/17 points)

The Reds have been the most egregious offenders when it comes to having the potential to do something special this season and yet come away from most of their games either without the three points. With coach Josep Gombau creating a new stylistic vision for his club that wasn’t necessarily predicated on grinding out wins, and whilst his players have generally followed that prescription to a tee, the quantity of negative results were causing some heat for coach, squad and club. It could be argued that the Round Eight draw against Melbourne Heart would’ve been the catalyst for a changing of personnel if the Reds had lost, and even though they managed three goals in that match it wasn’t until the Round Ten demolition of the Mariners where the Gombau plan for Adelaide finally won over the disbelievers.

Yet for their very good run of form over the last five rounds, with no losses and a goal differential of  plus 5, there must still be some doubts over how the club can ascend to a higher position than maybe fifth in this season’s league table. The players that have been at their best and driven the results for Adelaide, such as Djite, Carrusca, Jeronimo and Cirio have all had injury problems that have limited their availability for the team. Djite has been the most influential absentee, in that his return to the Red’s line up stiffened a hesitant playing group. The pre-season transfer of Dario Vidosic also hurt Adelaide’s playing stocks, and I am yet to be fully convinced of the value of loaned Socceroo Michael Zullo.

The injury concerns that have affected Adelaide have not killed their season (if anything their Round Fourteen win away from home over Brisbane undermines any argument for such a preposition), but overall fitness levels and the ability of the club to play out a full 90 minutes in a unified, controlled manner is. The early signs as to their fragility were there to see in Round Two, versus Melbourne Victory. The high passing rate, dominate possession style of football needs every player to be on song as long as possible, and particularly in defence there have been times when the likes of Boogard, McKain and Elrich have failed to keep up. Boogard has also had some discipline issues, and whilst Elrich has been solid some silly errors have led to games being draw or lost.

One area where I don’t believe the Reds are as strong as they were last season is in goal. Galekovic was without doubt one of the two form goalkeepers in the A-League last season. In 2013/14 I don’t believe he has maintained the high standards and has arguably been surpassed by Birighitti and maybe Theo and/or Janjetovic from the younger batch of keepers. Having said that he is still a strong possibility of future Socceroo appearances.

Prospects and Predictions: Adelaide have turned the corner after their earlier problems this season, and I do think they will scrape into the finals. I don’t believe however that they can progress to high up the ladder as there is such a gap between the top three clubs and the balance of the league. Where the Reds do have some advantage is that they are playing for a longer term goal than just this season, and with the adaptation of the ‘Barcelaide’ vision by Gombau melded to some astute Latin recruitment, Adelaide won’t fail to entertain. The fulcrum of their movement up or down the ladder is team and individual fitness; if that can be optimised look for plenty more wins. Also, in Awer Mabil they have a very promising young player, and the recent signing of Ryan Griffiths goes some way to strengthening the squad.

Final Ladder Position Prediction: Sixth

A Derby Day Diary, Or How Manfred Watched The Smurfs Succumb to the Wanderers at Wanderland

Saturday 11th January 1.18 pm: On the train to Parramatta, with no one checking tickets at the station when I get on. It’s early for the trip to the game but I have important matters to deal with when I get to my destination. The trip is quiet and unlike most others  I take on game day, as I see no other Wanderers fans in my carriage. I guess six and a half hours before kick off is a bit premature for waves of RBB supporters to make the trip. When I finally arrive at Parramatta station there are a few brothers in the home strip. So, it’s off to the Roxy.

2.10 pm: Sitting in a shaded area of the forecourt of the Roxy with about ten other people (almost all Wanderers fans) spread out under cover. It’s fucking hot and whilst I would love a beer I decide to pace myself and not go in too hard. The set up is good, and whilst not as flash as the Woolie there is certainly far more room to maneuver in. Sipping on water and checking out the usual online haunts on my smart phone. Get some text messages from friends in WSW who will be meeting me shortly. Did I say it was fucking hot?

2.45 pm: First of my Western Sydney Wanderers friends rocks up…WhoDoWeSingFor (his nom de plume online). WSWSF and I met in person at the friendly versus Adelaide at Penrith pre-season and had a great road trip to the Mariners away game in round one. He’s feeling the heat and agrees to rehydrate through a beer and some cold water. Once suitably supplied with drinks we chat about life, the game, the Wanderers, basically anything that can somehow be related to the game.

3.00 pm: Lloydy from Coona arrives and we say hello to one of the Wanderers most traveled supporters. Another middle-aged Anglo (thus defying the media stereotypes of A-League/WSW supporters) I have a lot of respect for a man who comes from a country town approximately 6 hours drive away from Parramatta to come see the Wanderers play. We talk a bit about his experiences as a football fan in a town that is typical of many bush places in NSW (i.e. union and league are more appreciated and supported than our preferred code).

During the balance of the afternoon at the Roxy the courtyard, bar, bistro and other areas slowly fill up. There is a good mix of people, young and old, rabid RBB and passionate regulars, and the mood is positive. Everyone is obviously gearing up for what will be one of the biggest matches of the season. WDWSF and I grab a feed and join Lloydy is keeping our thirst quenched, though we all stick to lights. At one point I feel the need to attend to a call of nature and upon entering the appropriate facilities I can’t but smile at how someone has put a Sydney FC shirt to (good) use. That and the smurf toys do get a well-deserved drenching.

Between drinks and our conversation every now and again a rather attractive female member of the Roxy’s staff passes by again and again, sometimes disturbing my train of thought. We also meet quite casually another Wanderers fan who takes the chance to sit in the shade and like old friends well met we continue our convivial talk about core subjects (i.e. how good are the Wanderers, the smurfs are shit, fuck it’s hot, loving the RBB and Wanderers support, etc).

5.15 pm: The capos and La Banda start up the chants and the Roxy becomes a cauldron of sound and music. Lloydy, WDWSF and I join in however in our shaded nook we find it too difficult to get closer to the action. Whilst the melee of chanting, singing RBB and Wanderers fans isn’t as densely packed as captives in a Borneo death cell moving freely is a big ask. The new diss chant against the smurfs of ESFC gets a good run and sounds like a winner. More and more people are entering the venue, and as we three are not that committed to being in the march we decide to decamp. Also, as both WDWSF and Lloydy having never been to one of my favourite Parramatta haunts, the Bavarian Bier Cafe, I suggest we head there for some German libations.

5.30 pm: Leaving the Roxy and walking to the Bavarian we see a ratio of about 50 Wanderers supporters to 2 policemen to 1 Sydney FC fan. The streets of Parramatta are suffused in a mass of people in red and black, with gaggles of lazying coppers keeping a languid eye on the behaviour of one and all. As we three walk to our next drinking hole another friend unexpectedly joins us. Beerslayer tags along plus provides some valuable information about our next venue (i.e. his sister is a waitress there). I know it’ll be booked out for table seating in the restaurant however I hope that we four can at least find somewhere to stand and have a few drinks.

The Bavarian Bier Cafe is pretty chockers, but that doesn’t stop us from heading into the sweet air conditioned comfort of the main bar and dining room to buy some drinks. As the resident German beer expert (and all round piss-head) I get questioned as to what to order. In the end WDWSF goes for a small Stiegl, Beerslayer for a Spaten and Lloydy for a small Hofbrauhaus Dunkel. Partly because I love the heft of such a beer as well as the taste, I also indulge in a Dunkel, though mine is a full one litre stein.

Back out in the biergarten of the Bavarian it is still warm, and there are a few seccos, coppers, one or two smurf fans and a vast number of Wanderers faithful present. Miraculously we get a table to sit at and enjoy our drinks and chat some more. Beerslayer works at SBS so we have quite a long conversation about Thursday FC. The general consensus is that it’s a decent premise ruined by Matt Okine. The beers are all enjoyed though in my case it takes a little longer to go down (in my defence it was more than three times bigger than those steins tackled by my friends). We all agree that we need to come back here again, which gives me no pain as the Bavarian has been almost my second home when it comes to pre-Wanderland games. Plus as much as I enjoyed my meal at the Roxy I know that the Bavarian does a very tasty huge schnitzel.

6.30 pm: We four start the final part of our pre-game build-up and take a walk from the Bavarian to Wanderland. More and more people are arriving and the attendant police numbers are also on the rise. However the atmosphere is nowhere near as oppressive nor as frantic as I saw at (for example) the pre-season game at Penrith. I know that this might be surprising or a little controversial, however the cops and the fans at a Wanderers home game give no call for alarm whatsoever. With Beerslayer and WDWSF in different stands at the ground they leave me and Lloydy to head to our eastern stand bays.

6.40 pm: Lloydy has gone to sit in his seat in a bay close to the RBB, whilst I am on the tooth again and need to track down the mythical ‘Wanderdog’. Lo and behold, I find it:

In the process of securing a much fabled WanderDog I find myself accosted by a stranger. “Hey Manfred, I know you” comes the says the unfamiliar voice from someone behind me. I exchange greetings (hoping that this isn’t an undercover Hatamoto wanting me banned for crimes against A-League blogging). Instead it turns out to be one of my favourite posters from the West Sydney forum, dmixtaa. We share a Wanderers embrace of shared happiness and I compliment him on his posts in the forum. It’s always a bright moment to put a face to some of the denizens of our social media world. We part with him off to buy his WanderDog, and me to eat mine.

7.10 pm: My beloved has turned up to share the experience of the derby with me (plus provide chauffeur services post game), and as this is her first chance to see the Wanderers clash with ESFC she is a little hyped. Me; well now that I’ve had a few beers and some meat in tube form to settle the stomach I am tense yet assured.

7.15 pm: The news comes in that Tony Popovic isn’t using Jerome Polenz (ex-Alemannia Aachen legend and hero for me and many a Wanderer devotee). The shock is a little disconcerting, but has been written in both small and incredibly large print, in Popa we trust.

7.35 pm: The stands are well nigh full and I can see some movement below the fence line of the seething mass that is the RBB. It looks as if there will be a massive tifo shown by men, women and children that drive so much of the energy and passion at Wanderland:

7.45 pm: We have kick-off! The crowd goes berko with a combination of confetti throwing from everywhere, and the aforementioned tifo plus a sea of red and black flags in the RBB:

7th minute: The first really serious attack on the ESFC goal, and its that man Tomi Juric taking a shot that skids like a V-1 flying bomb at the right post of the opposition’s goal. It take a hell of a save from Janjetovic to deflect what was part-speculation, part-inspiration into the goal post, then over the line for a corner. The guys are looking very strong already.

16th minute: Well it had to happen…the one true genius in the dross that has been Sydney FC over the last two seasons gets a chance to shoot, however del Piero’s effort is swallowed up by the best goalkeeper of last season in the entire A-League (and pretty freaking good in 2013/14 so far), Ante Covic. Covic is assisted mightily by Nikolai-Topor-Stanley. Yes, it was a nervous moment however there’s plenty of game time to come.

18th minute: Tomi almost scores on a Ned Zelic-like angle. By christ he is good value

20th minute: The RBB raise what I believe is both the cheekiest and most enjoyable banner ever seen at Wanderland, if not any recent A-League game:

For me this is a riotous laugh-inducing joke at the expense of arguably the most craven, illiterate, self-serving know-nothing to have ever got a job in the media thanks to having relations with men of power in the industry. Hats off RBB…well done.

30th minute: Hell of a terrible hack on Iaccopo La Roca by a typical ESFC grub in Matt Jurman. After the last derby at Allianz Stadium there was all kind of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the likes of Richard Garcia and media mates of the sky blues such as Andy Harper over Jerome Polenz. Well that hit on La Rocca was worse than anything JP has done all season. Plus for all the tommy rot over how many fouls the Wanderers commit ESFC have already had two suspensions for reds this season, whilst the home team have had none.

34th minute: Bridge almost gets a goal thanks to a mighty through ball followed by an audacious step-in that opened up the ESFC goal mouth. The angle was just a little too acute and yet again the woodwork saves the visitors from embarrassment.

42nd minute: Holy shit…it’s all happening. First Youssouf Hersi sees Janjetovic in a lazy stupor and from a position closer to the half-way line than the box he takes a lob shot that yes, you guessed it, hits the woodwork (this time above the flailing ESFC’s grasping hands). There is a rebound that falls in Tomi’s way and he gathers gracefully, then drops his foot into the ball like an 88mm flak gun firing an anti-tank round. Unfortunately this too hits the cross bar. For fuck’s sake; four post strikes in 45 minutes of football! Talk about cruel.

8.33 pm: Halftime. The beers have caught up with me so I have to attend to certain matters, and when I return the pristine field of Wanderland has plenty of young tackers running around in either our colours or those of the intruding team east of South Dowling Street. There is also a rapper and DJ on site performing, but I pay them no heed. Like me my partner in life and Wanderers membership is a little frustrated the score doesn’t reflect the dominance of our team over the visitors.

46th minute: Second half starts up and with the Wanderers running from our left to right usually this would be when I can really let my Jerome Polenz man-love out. However his replacement 16 year old Daniel Alessi is there in the right back’s role, and doing a mighty fine job of things.

52nd minute: Emerton gets subbed by Cranky Franky Farina. I used to love Emo’s work as a Socceroo but since he swapped wearing the green and gold with sky blue my estimation of him has dropped several magnitudes. Having said that my lack of support for him is probably still superior to the hatred his own club’s fans feel against him.

The next twenty minutes are incredibly frustrating as time and time again the Wanderers get themselves into forward positions yet lose the ball or play an ill-aimed pass or cross. Hersi particularly gets me grumpy, as he has moments of listlessness than is atypical of him from previous games and especially contrasted with last season. The visitors don’t cause too many heart palpitations however I confess to my partner that I am nervous that this may the kind of game where the Wanderers play all over the opposition yet they steal a goal on the counter or through some egregious fuck-up. Tomi is subbed for Santalab, joining Trifiro as a second half sub. There is plenty of run in the boys but it seems just a little aimless.

80th minute: Time for the Poznan. Like everyone else in red and black I join in and jump rather non-athletically in spot, arms linked with my neighbours. I don’t stay the course for the entire Poznan as things are afoot on the pitch. Shinji has a dead ball chance to send the ball into the ESFC box, then whilst it ends up as a fruitless endeavour del Piero is yanked by his boss from the game. As the ageing Italian marquee meanders grumpily off the field he gets a loud and rather effective ‘who are ya’ yell from all the home fans. Frankly his effort tonight ranged from somewhat threatening to slow and old, with a dive here and there to spice up his acting resume.

After this amusing moment the familiar feelings of frustration and exasperation boil up again. I may have used a few rude words in some loud pejorative comments aimed at officials, ESFC players and even Youssouf Hersi after yet another failed effort to keep the ball, then…

86th minute: The maligned player I had just been swearing at sends up a slightly shanked cross that Brendon Santalab takes control of in the box, and then before you can say ‘suffer ESFC dullards’ the ball is in the net. Just like about 17,000 fellow Wanderers fans I go into a crazed screaming moment of pure euphoria, exultant at a thrust into the very bowels of the opposition’s rapidly diminishing hopes of sharing the honours at the derby. As the happiness fades just a little up comes the nerves; will we get through the dying minutes of the match including injury time and win, or will there be some dastardly conspiracy from the fates or the referee to screw us over, as per the last minute draw against Victory two rounds ago.

Thankfully my concerns were unfounded, and aside from more thuggery from the likes of McFlynn, Gamiero and Janjetovic the Wanderers survive, scoreline intact. The ref blows the whistle on the fourth minute of injury time and that’s it; our fourth derby game in a row undefeated, and three wins out of five against the evil empire that is ESFC. Oh frabjous day, calooy callay!

The remainder of the night was a long dark journey home, illuminated by my smart phone and checking out all the bitterness and self-lacerating hate being spun by the Cove and other ESFC fans on their social media sites, and the mutual congratulation coming from Wanderers fans. Leaving Wanderland was marked by a bevy of handmaidens and servants of Rupert Murdoch, giving away free copies of one of his slimy tabloid publications which gives voice to red neck bigots like Rebecca Wilson. I made sure to reject any offering, though I didn’t accompany this action with a sincere diatribe at the dross being proffered to me.

Then there was a blockade of O’Connell Street mounted by the men and women of the NSW Police Force (Parramatta LAC) ensuring there was no revival of some half-remembered 1980s English soccer hooliganism. The ESFC fans were give untrammeled access to their avenues of return to all points east, north and south of Parramatta (with perhaps one or two deluded folk possibly heading west). Then, after about ten minutes a senior sergeant said “let the Wanderers fans go’ and we were free.

So there it was, done and dusted, another derby consigned to history. Each one has been special in their own way, however this one was especially convivial. Whilst humiliating the smurfs is now commonplace what took the day to greater heights was the way in which camaraderie, entertainment and sport collided in a melange of pleasure. It’s days like these that will stick in my football memory for years to come, alongside the Socceroos win over Uruguay in 2005 and Japan in 2006, or seeing both of Dino Kresinger’s goals last season (including the massacre of the Reds at Wanderland).

A Tale of Two Cities (Well, Half and Half of the Same One)

Saturday night saw Sydney’s first A-League derby game of the current season. For the fourth time the two clubs that represent the largest city in Australia in our premiere domestic football competition were going to face off, with every expectation of this most recent of fierce tribal rivalries in the A-League drawing a huge crowd to Allianz Stadium. The home team was at a disadvantage thanks to the non-appearance of their creative heart and soul, as Alessandro del Piero had been injured in last week’s submission to the Roar, however like any (supposedly) proud club they were expected to defend with honour and pride their own turf. The Western Sydney Wanderers, still barely out of their sophomore season build up had shown some tentative form in their first two games of 2013/14, and without defensive midfielder Aaron Mooy might have had some doubts cast on their ability to do the deed required. Instead…

Instead anyone who was there at the game, or watched from the comfort of their own home or a friendly pub, club or tavern would’ve seen two utterly divergent clubs, two teams and their associated fans who only have a postcode starting with 2 as a common factor. By game’s end it was like a football version of a bloodied and bedraggled mess of wounded, defeated soldiers after the battles of Stalingrad, Dien Bien Phu or El Alamein streaming away in utter disorder whilst the rampant invading forces time and time again showed their superiority, both in and out of the arena. Sydney FC capitulated in a way that underscores the cultural, tactical and morale crisis that is haunting that club, whilst everything associated with the Wanderers, whether it be the players, the supporters, the admin staff looked inviolate, unstoppable, all-encompassing.

It must be said that at the very beginning of the game the Sydney FC faithful (a diminishing band no doubt) made a vainglorious attempt at asserting some pride and passion on behalf of their club, but from thereon even this misguided and ill-informed attempt at asserting tribal prominence seemed overshadowed by anything and everything in red and black. On the main field of combat the Wanderers players assumed control very early and barely looked threatened. The first goal came from a magnificent dead ball cross from Shinji Ono, which was connected with by a sweet header from Italian midfielder Iacopo La Rocca and hence went arrow-like into the back of SFC’s net. Within a few moments of this 12th minute goal Youssouf Hersi had nominally taken the Wanderers up to 2-0 however the linesman correctly called an off side, however within a quarter of an hour the Japanese Tensai struck again with what must be considered one of his best in red and black. At this point I feel it important to state what should be obvious except to any one-eyed fan of ADP; Shinji Ono is the best overseas marquee player to have played in the A-League in the last couple of seasons and alongside Thomas Broich and perhaps Dwight Yorke has done more for the success of both their respective clubs and the domestic comp than any other import. I recognise and appreciate the importance and genius of ADP within an incredibly faulty and disconnected SFC structure, but being a sole hand of quality in a dysfunctional situation is more readily seen than being excellent within a better than competent squad. Shinji Ono is not necessarily vital for the Wanderers to be successful, however he has been able to both sit within a holistic or organic team vision that is more often successful than not, yet when necessary take the lead and stimulate the very best from his team mates. It’s the difference between being an ace among rookies and being a leading professor among learned scholars. Shinji inspires and is inspiring, and whilst he is a fulcrum for the Wanderers he is also not above his station as a cog in the red and black machine. He is a champion in a team of champions.

For most of the derby’s first half the Wanderers looked in control, with Hersi, Juric, Polenz, Poljak, Ono and La Rocca being at their best. From the shambolic ranks of Sydney FC only Petkovic could arguably hold his head above his Adam’s apple, with his shot on Covic’s goal rattling the woodwork. The same terrors of incompetent defending that haunted SFC last week returned and particularly in the battle on the right flank Hersi toyed with the underwhelming Warren. In what might be considered an inverse relationship almost everything attempted by the Wanderers was met with an equal amount of wastefulness from the home team. Nicky Carle who has a reputation for style and flair looked out of touch, whilst Adam D’Apuzzo (the most flawed player in the WSW ranks in the last couple of weeks) came back with a vengeance. No longer hirsuite Nikolai Topor Stanley and Mark Bridge demonstrated that clean shaven or not they were superior to their opposite numbers, whilst  Tomi Juric reminded everyone that he has so much potential; a semi-formed talent that needs a little more polish from Popovic. Jerome Polenz was aggressive in defence and insightful in attack, and by half time the myth that Sydney is supposedly sky blue was utterly debunked.

Now as this point I would like to raise an issue that may or may not be germane to the club culture at Sydney FC, or the structures and fan base. However I could not fail to notice the lack of any major numbers on the field at half time of small children playing short games for entertainment and the experience. There was to my count only one micro-contest between the littlies at Allianz at half time, which may be a one off situation. Perhaps the timings were wrong for junior teams to involve themselves in such a home game context, or perhaps Allianz, the SCG Trust and/or Sydney FC couldn’t find enough willing takers. Having seen plenty of wee tackers running around on the pitch at half time at Wanderland though I have to ask a question that may or may not be fair; where the fuck are the kids who are SFC’s future? When the little boys and girls come to Wanderland and play their small games for the enjoyment and the privilege of all involved they always have good numbers plus shout out their support for the Wanderers on leaving the pitch. It may be a moot question however there is a readily apparent pre-teen support basis for the Wanderers; Sydney FC seem to be at best hiding theirs.

The second half of the derby was unfortunately goal-less however there were plenty of opportunities for the Wanderers as Sydney FC’s squad continue to blunder along. I must say that Brendon Santalab looks to be settling in quite nicely with Popa’s squad. He had one major chance that was blown, however not only did he add some spice to the attacking options of the Wanderers he also didn’t look out of place combining with Jerome Polenz. Things did get a bit willing with the yellow cards flying thick and fast, and there was some egregious moments particularly from Warren and Carle. However amid all the disciplinary issues Ono, Bridge, Juric, Poljak and Polenz all had solid chances at scoring. On the other side of the coin aside from a shot direct to Ante Covic the Sky Blues failed to have any meaningful go-forward. Again and again they lost the ball in midfield, failed to cover their flanks or simply didn’t know where they were or what they were doing. When the final whistle came it was like euthanizing a terminally ill goldfish; Sydney FC flapped around out of their comfort zone then quietly passed into oblivion (for at least another round).

It’s only proper at this point to make a few points about the level of support shown in the stands for the two teams. It could be argued that it was for the first 10-20 minutes an even contest between the RBB and the Cove, which in itself is a Pyrrhic victory for the supposedly rusted on Sky Blues. In their ninth season and with premierships and championships behind them at their home ground the Cove should’ve been larger and louder from the start than their junior opponents. Instead by the middle of the first half there was a definite tailing off of the intensity of the active SFC support that was in direct correlation with both the on field impotence of their players and the growth in energy coming from the RBB. There was plenty of support for the Wanderers coming from non-active stands, and by the time came around for the Poznan not only were the RBB fully engaged there were plenty of bays and pockets of red and black supporters contributing from other parts of the stadium. The signal effect of the SFC’s supporters’ defeat was in the closing minutes of the game, where a consistent stream of departing fans from the sky blue bays exited Allianz. Contrasted with the spirit and passion shown by the Wanderers faithful after their most recent defeat at Allianz Stadium, where the vast majority remained behind post-whistle to commiserate with their team after the 2012/13 grand final, it was a pretty piss-poor demonstration from the self-proclaimed ‘best fans’ in the A-League.

So, whither the two clubs? For the Western Sydney Wanderers it would seem the immediate to mid-term future is theirs for the taking. The current squad is certainly better in terms of depth and achievement than that which was in place a year ago, and with such a solid support base that has translated into over 16,000 financial members and future sell-outs at their home ground even if they fail to win any titles this season they are streets ahead of arguably all other clubs in the A-League bar maybe Melbourne Victory. Tony Popovic has kept the team hungry and even with three good results there is still room to improve. It would need some kind of utterly unexpected disaster for the Wanderers to run off the rails. Culturally, professionally and from a spectator’s point of view they are building an empire in football’s heartland that would make every member of the FFA incredibly satisfied. Yes, the need to sell off the club is a process fraught with potential hazards but so far David Gallop and Lyall Gorman have shown astute leadership and good old common fucking sense. If the Western Sydney Wanderers realise their potential then we won’t be talking up the annual derbies between them and Sydney FC; the talk will be of Asian Champions’ League and maybe even greater.

Sydney FC on the other hand are in a hell of a bad pozzie. No one would deny that before the Wanderers came along they had every reason to be proud of what they achieved on the field for most of their short life. I’ve already pointed out their failings as a club that didn’t embrace all of Sydney as they have boasted, and those chickens have come home to roost most pointedly in the last 36 hours. What is more frightening for Sydney FC must be what does their club culture portend for the future? Alessandro del Piero’s absence in the derby was obviously an influence on the basic football brains of his co-players, and at his age with injury always more likely, or at least with his fitness needing careful safeguarding, there could be more non-ADP Sydney FC line ups as the season progresses. Then when he leaves at the end of this season will he take with him all the hype, revenue, on-park nous and appeal for a club that has essentially ridden on his back? Frank Farina and the rest of the coaching staff are patently failing in either their ability to guide their players, keep them fit or develop younger talents, and the fans of the Sky Blues are close to revolt over their continual incompetence (which in turn is damaging the reputation and management of Tony Pignata, Scott Barlow and David Traktavenko). The ‘Sydney is sky blue’ facade is as cracked as a dozen eggs placed under a hippo’s bum, and the continual questions over whether Sydney FC is a popular club or Bling FC eats at the heart of their raison d’etre (if in fact there is such a thing). If ever the FFA looks to expand the A-League with a reborn Wollongong club it is highly likely SFC would lose a significant reservoir of junior talent, and  the continual turn over in coaches will make them even less appealing to anyone foolhardy enough to take over if Farina gets dumped.  It would seem to me that Sydney FC has dug itself a hole through willful incompetence, delusion and overly-exaggerated expectations that has created a perfect shit-storm of misery. Joe Gorman’s article in The Guardian sum’s this up perfectly:

As much as he has boosted the profile of the A-League, off the pitch time is fast running out for Sydney FC to capitalise on his presence. He was rarely spotted in pre-season, and when he returns home at season’s end, the club is likely to be back at square one. How many of the new fans that came to see Del Piero play will hang around to watch Sydney FC in the long term, particularly considering the lacklustre football on display? Sadly, Sydney’s marquee player might be just another costly short term investment.
The lack of boardroom stability and vision has left the club in a perpetual state of flux, constantly agonising over whether to embrace or shelve the Bling FC tag they’ve been burdened with. They’ve flirted with stars and experimented with blue collar cred, but nothing has really ‘stuck.’ Perhaps the only consistent message has come from the home end in The Cove.
It is said that Sydney is a city that loves winners, but in a 10-team competition levelled out by the salary cap, no club can hope to hedge their future on success alone. There needs to be a more nuanced understanding and articulation of why Sydney FC exist, who they represent, and what they stand for. Otherwise, the Wanderers will win more than just the west.

In this A-League Tale of Two Cities everyone at Sydney FC is up for the guillotine and there is no nobility in their sacrifice; they have been a wastrel club whilst their new cross-town rivals have won all the plaudits, all the honour, all the recognition they have sought. The 2-0 win for the Wanderers was just a symbol of the clash of cultures that has coloured Sydney red and black.