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).

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.

Youssouf Hersi: The Half a Million Man?

Youssouf Hersi: Western Sydney Wanderers’ Dutch Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A-League 2013/14: Round Four Review

Western Sydney Wanderers Vs Adelaide United (2-1 Wanderers win)

In what was an energetic and entertaining battle between the solid transition and pressing style of the Wanderers versus the tiki-taka possession based system of Adelaide, it took two sublime shots from new Wanderers striker Tom Juric (ironically an ex-Reds player from last season) to snatch back a win for the home team after the visitors took a shock 1-0 lead early in the second half. From the get-go Adelaide were pressured with Galekovic having to make several saves after great efforts from Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Brendon Santalab and Tomi Juric. Whilst there was no similar surrender like hat shown by the last Adelaide team to visit Wanderland, the Wanderers were the better team for the first half hour of the game, building on their momentum from last round’s defeat of Sydney FC. However for the next 30 minutes Adelaide became more dangerous, and whilst they struggled to break down the compact defence of Polenz, Beachamp, Topor-Stanley and D’Apuzzo, there was so much possession in the end a goal seemed inevitable. Scored in an almost lackadaisical manner by Manuelo Carrusco after a cross by Jeronimo, the visitors going one up seemed to touch a nerve in the Wanderers who replied in blistering fashion. Accompanied by a vociferous RBB and supporting non-active stands in Wanderland Tomi Juric scored a simply brilliant goal in the 60th minute, shooting from outside the box across Galekovic’s ineffectual efforts, to put the ball into the net and bring the game back in the Wanderers favour. The switch in fortunes mirrored a tactical change in the Wanderers with Santalab replaced by Tahj Minniecon, who was far more at home in the role of proxy-Hersi for the team, and his combination with Polenz was far more effective. The German right back provided the much needed assist for Tomi Juric as the Poznan began its build-up among the home supporters, and with the ex-Wanderer Tarek Elrich failing to contain the young striker Juric nodded in Polenz’s spot-perfect cross to take the score to 2-1. The Reds had plenty of possession and in all honesty could feel hard done by due to some refereeing issues, however the better team won in a display that was machine-like in its efficiency.

Perth Glory Vs Sydney FC (1-0 Glory win)

Refereeing mistakes have already been an issue in this season’s games, but if ever one game crystallized the failings and blunders of the A-League officials it was this one. The visitors were put behind very early in the piece through some simply atrocious decision making; firstly from a linesman failing to call an offside on Nagai who was then thumped with a red-card deserving elbow by SFC goalie Janjetovic, leading to a spot kick which was neatly converted by Perth’s Steve McGarry. From there the game seemed to be a comedy of errors, with neither side demonstrating anywhere near the competence to deserve a win, nor the fatal flaws to let in more goals. The visitors had numerous chances on goal through the likes of Abbas, Warren and Emerton, and the return of del Piero off the bench did help their go forward, but thanks to some shoddy strikes and some very good work by Glory goalie Danny Vukovic no SFC player could find the net. Shane Smeltz returned for the Glory after his recent injury woes and he showed flashes of quality, however by the end of the game it was readily apparent neither side currently have the quality to consistently threaten the likes of the Mariners, Wanderers, Victory and Roar.

Newcastle Jets vs Central Coast Mariners (2-2 draw)

For the second game of the season Graham Arnold’s charges had to come back from a depressing 2-0 deficit midway through the second half and escape with a draw, which in this intriguing F3/M1 derby was exactly what happened. The Jets were under the most pressure coming into the game and they actually manned up to the challenge, with the likes of Zadkovich, Hoole, Brillante and Neville contributing mightily during the scoreless first half. The Mariners weren’t in great distress before the bgreak but within 15 minutes of the break they were down 2-0, thanks to a nice goal from Neville and an absolute total cock-up from goalie Justin Pasfield. His nonsensical dribbling of a back pass from Sainsbury over his own goal line was laughable, and contrasted with some of his efforts at stopping shots in earlier rounds this season it was as if he was possessed by a fail demon. However like a pendulum on the back swing, this was when the Jets peaked and the game then dramatically swung back in favour of the visitors, thanks to a handball penalty incurred by Connor Chapman and converted by Marcos Flores. Then after a woodwork rebound off a shot from Mitchell Duke stalwart ex-Socceroo Mike Sterjovski levelled things up with his shot getting past Birighitti. Arnold’s substitutions and the Mariner’s composure when behind defied an unlikely Jets win, thus giving Van Egmond at least one more week in his job and more food for thought regarding the return of Emile Heskey.

Brisbane Roar vs Melbourne Heart (3-0 Roar win)

What can anyone say or do about the Heart when they are on the road that hasn’t been said already? John Aloisi had every reason to be happy with his charges at the half-time break, when his team had given the much more fancied Roar a few scares. Ramsay, Mifsud and Gerhardt were all in with decent chances on goal and aside from a good effort from McKay the visitors defence was generally on the ball. However after the break things went to hell in a handcart oh-so-quickly for the Heart, and Henrique was able to escape his non-existant central back marker to put the home team up 1-0. Ramsay almost pulled it back to 1-1 however the woodwork knocked him back, thereafter it was Berisha’s replacement Henrique who added to Heart’s woes, scoring his second from a Petratos rebound. This was followed by a very neat third goal scored by Brisbane’s Matt Smith who prospered off the back of some very nice control and passing from Matt McKay. Whilst Mulvey would give his team a serve post-whistle the Heart were never really in the hunt due to profligate shooting, inadequate defence and bad luck. It will be very intriguing to see how Harry Kewell’s return may help the Heart, and if Aloisi can continue to stay in his position. For the Roar they are firming up as definite Top Four prospects for the season and currently sit at the head of the A-League.

Melbourne Victory vs Wellington Phoenix (3-2 Victory win)

Nominally this should’ve been a lay down misere for the Victory, coming in to a home game under new head coach Kevin Muscat against cellar dwelling Phoenix, who have had a lamentable record in Melbourne, and after 3 goals in the first half hour or so (one to Archie Thompson and two to James Troisi) everything was going to script. Instead Ernie Merrick’s team lifted and whilst Brockie’s goal was a start the second from Paul Ifill late in the game gave the Victory a few very uncomfortable minutes to survive for the win. The Kiwis were a little unfortunate to not get a share of the points however their defensive intensity specifically in the first half (including an Andrew Durante fuck-up which gifted Troisi his first goal) was too big a barrier to get over. It is already apparent that of the returning Socceroos who have come back to the A-League after some wilderness years in Europe etc Troisi is the pick of this season’s bunch, and in Manny Muscat the Phoenix have a new hacker to parallel the past efforts of his Melbourne Victory namesake.

Best Game: Cannot split Wanderers versus Adelaide and Victory versus Wellington…both games had some classy goals, fierce competition and great atmosphere from the home supporters.

Best Goal: Tomi Juric’s first for the Wanderers with James Troisi’s second for the Victory and Paul Ifill’s slalom ride for Wellington…a three -way tie

Best Team: Brisbane Roar (just shading Western Sydney and Melbourne Victory)

Worst Team:  Tied between the Melbourne Heart and Sydney FC (one team cannot win away from home, the other couldn’t hit the side of a barn).

A-League 2013/14: Round Two Review

Adelaide United versus Melbourne Victory (2-2 Draw)

In one of the most passionate and longstanding rivalries between two A-League clubs last Friday night was another major moment in the history of Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory, with a pulsating draw (no, that is not a contradiction of terms) being the final result after some great football, shocking refereeing and impressive crowd numbers. The Reds were very good for much of the first half, surprisingly stemming from a change forced upon them with the injury to Daniel Bowles. Gombau was forced to alter the his formation and the injection of Awer Mabil was a game changer, however the Victory had their moments too with Connor Pain murdering a chance in front of goal. A contentious penalty awarded against Victory goalie Nathan Coe gave Adelaide the lead, and this was added to by Jeronimo shortly thereafter. However the Victory responded well, and had a goal refused on the most idiotic decision from an incompetent linesman and ref, when Pain was adjudged offside when he clearly wasn’t. In the second half a tiring Adelaide had to repel numerous attacks from the Victory, with Tarek Elrich and Eugene Galekovic in fine form, however a beautifully controlled double touch and shot from Guilherme Finkler got the Melbourne team back in the game, pegging one goal back. Then, at the death and well into injury time James Troisi converted a great chance to snatch the draw for the Victory, with his shot bobbling into the goal with a ricochet of the cross bar crossing the line. With 16,504 at Coopers Stadium this was a fantastic game which was also an excellent ad for the A-League thanks to SBS’s free to air coverage.

Melbourne Heart versus Central Coast Mariners (2-2 draw)

According to the script the Mariners should’ve bossed Heart around AAMI Park, considering the lacklustre effort of the Melbourne team last season and last week and the quality results from the defending 2012/13 champions. However like so often no one actually told Aloisi’s team how to follow said script, and whilst the first half was pretty dire within six minutes David Williams had grabbed a brace of goals giving the home team a deserved if surprising 2-0 lead. With no Kewell this was a great effort from the Heart and reflected their strong record at home, however with a familiar performance of determination the Mariners came back into the game thanks to some indiscretions in the Heart’s penalty box. Both penalties were properly awarded and Marcos Flores took the needed goals, to help his team equalise. A 2-2 result may be seen as cruel to the Heart however considering the quality of the Mariners and the average build up from the Heart before this game it should be looked upon as a promising start at home. A crowd of 8734 is a little disappointing considering big roll up in the previous week for the Melbourne derby, so here’s hoping the Heart can draw more people in later rounds this season.

Brisbane Roar versus Sydney FC (4-0 Brisbane)

For anyone who was looking at Sydney FC and either expecting a revival of their fortunes from last season or a moving away from the tactical and motivational lead of their marquee Alessandro del Piero Saturday’s night game must’ve felt like a knee to the groin, with the sky blues submitting most ineptly to a very good Brisbane Roar. Whilst ADP went off early in the first half his injury is not an excuse for the shambolic efforts of Farina’s squad, as Berisha also left the field early for the Roar, and teams can and do lose playmakers and will grind out a draw or maybe a win. Instead the Roar ran rampant, again and again piercing the SFC defence. The likes of McKay, Franjic, Hingert and Henrique all made mincemeat out of a hapless and confused SFC defence that simply looked incompetent. Frank Farina is struggling under a burden of injuries that is for sure however there seems to be nothing changed from last season, and his response to queries after the game seemed clueless. The Roar are looking fantastic at this early phase of the 2013/14 season and some are already talking about a revival in their fortunes along the lines of their 2010/11 and 2011/12 titles. McKay’s return certainly helps and even in a quiet performance Thomas Broich was still valuable. However for my 2 cents Ivan Franjic was the man of the match, and his cut back pass to help Broich score the fourth and final goal was a stunner. A very healthy 21,841 people went to Suncorp and the vast majority would have loved the game, whilst those who traveled are already demanding Farina’s sacking.

Newcastle Jets versus Perth Glory (0-0 draw)

In a fairly ordinary game between last week’s two losing teams the Jets improved markedly from their game against SFC but not enough to beat the Glory who were on the road for a second week in a row. Of the two teams the Jets were the ones who probably should’ve come away with the three points, especially thanks to a justified appeal for a penalty that was turned down by the referee in the 88th minute. Van Egmond’s team had some very decent shots on goal including a frame rattling effort from Sam Galloway, whilst the best chance for the Perth team came with a one-on-one between Jamie Mclaren and Mark Birighitti that was won by the Newcastle goalie. Zadkovich, Goodwin and Neville all did far better this round for the home team, whilst the Glory missed Nagai’s efforts from their game against the Reds, and are still without Smeltz and Dodd.

Western Sydney Wanderers versus Wellington Phoenix (1-1 draw)

The return to Wanderland should’ve seen Popovic’s squad emerge with a full three points however a combination of injuries, unsettled performances from some subs and key players and a better than expected effort from the Phoenix meant that honours were drawn by fall time. After an explosive start that saw several near misses, half chances and a great goal from German import Jerome Polenz the Wanderers were in the box seat, however the earlier hip and shoulder charge that saw Aaron Mooy leave the game concussed had unsettled Popa’s line up, and the resultant subbing of La Rocca in the midfield saw a fall off in organisation and passing accuracy. Ernie Merrick made a good change with taking of Huseygems and the likes of Bertos, Ifill and Brockie played better and better as the game went on. Youssouf Hersi was a constant threat on the right flank with Polenz, combining to similar effect as per last season. Tomi Juric was at times very good however he didn’t have the same run in him that Dino Kresinger showed last season in defence. for much of the second half the Phoenix looked threatening, and after a less than satisfactory D’Apuzzo was turned on the left flank the resultant pass put Brockie in on Covic’s goal which was duly slotted. The game turned again with Brendon Santalab denied two deserved goal scoring opportunites, the first by the framework the second by a challenge that deserved a penalty. However with over 16,000 mostly red and black fans in attendance the game ended even, with the Wanderers musing on untaken advantages and the Phoenix happy with a great away game effort.

Best Game: Adelaide United vs Melbourne Victory

Best Goal: Thomas Broich (Brisbane Roar vs Sydney FC)

Best Team Performance: Brisbane Roar

Worst Team Performance: Sydney FC