Nice to see that you’ve decided to come along with me and nearly 16,000 other members of the Western Sydney Wanderers and see them play in their second A-league season. I’m sure there’s a great reason for your newly-found interest in the team and the game. Maybe you saw the footage of the RBB on the news. Perhaps one of the guys like Jerrad or maybe Aaron came to your kid’s school and showed your child a little something about the game, perhaps kicked the ball around a bit. There was lots of coverage of the Wanderers on Foxtel, so if you had that maybe you saw them playing in last season’s grand final, and they’ve even featured on free-to-air channels who don’t talk about the game much, like Seven and Nine. Whether you saw them at Westfield Parramatta or just had a friend tell you how great going to the Wanderers games is, it’s all good. Welcome to the our Wanderland.
Now before we get started a few things you might like to consider or know. First off I know in lots of places and among a lot of people what we are going to see in coming days, weeks and months is called soccer. In certain circles you might find a few not-so-nice reactions to that word. For now if you’re thinking you are watching soccer and want to talk about it with fellow Wanderers fans, call the game football. We’re smart enough to understand that we ain’t watching one of the rugby games, or Aussie Rules. Old farts like me grew up with the idea of soccer as the name of the game and in a way it’s not bad. Especially when you think about the long and deep history of the Socceroos. Even the guys who run the game overseas in places like America and South Africa and Switzerland (well, they make money from it…but that’s another story) sometimes call football soccer. But honestly, it’ll save you a bit of grief, help with your credibility and make sure you fit in with the majority of fans by talking football, football, football.
Right, I understand your ticket says you are sitting in an eastern stand bay at Wanderland. Why Wanderland? Well that’s the name that was given to Parramatta stadium for the first season of the Wanderers and we like what it represents. We understand that this is a ground used in the past mostly by the Parramatta Eels. and they will continue to do so. It also has a great history of being where old National Soccer League teams played, including one of the clubs that indirectly lead to the Wanderers, Parramatta Power. Some time in the future someone might talk to you about the best grand final ever played in the NSL era, between Wollongong Wolves and South Melbourne, here in 2001. Anyway, that’s history. Right now Wanderland is our home, the place we have claimed as our ground. Plus, and I might be waxing a little lyrical here, there’s something magical, ineffable, mysteriously exciting about Wanderland. My first game in the stands, watching the team on the pitch and the RBB in full cry; it was a wonder, honestly. So the name of our home stadium has plenty of meaning, and I hope you understand and appreciate all this through your own experiences as well.
I know one of the reasons, if not the central cause to why there is so much excitement and attention given to the Wanderers is due to the RBB. The Red and Black Bloc are active fans and they are located in the northern bays of Wanderland. With us being in the eastern stand we have a great views of the men and women, boys and girls over in the RBB and it is true about what you have heard, or maybe seen on TV. They are the most passionate, vocal, proud and entertaining supporters for any sport and any club in the entire country.
By the way, being in the RBB is not about just jumping up and down, clapping and chanting, giving the Wanderers’ players support. And no, unlike some of the more biased stories you might read in the Daily Telegraph or hear on 2GB, the RBB is not a gang of soccer hooligans. The RBB is in some ways no different to any large group of people put together; there maybe an idiot here or there but 99.9% of everyone in the RBB are normal, law abiding folk like you and me. This is a game, a club and a group of supporters who appreciate that passion is not a crime, and that we are a broad church of supporters.
On the other hand the RBB is very different to any other group of people. There are the chants and songs of course, but they don’t just happen, like some spontaneous session of clapping. There is lots of talk, lots of debate over what gets presented by the RBB and how its done. It’s also pretty hard yakka; being an active RBB member means you are expected to be always on your feet unless the capo tells you not to be, and you need bloody strong vocal chords. Oh, before I forget the capo is the bloke up front with the megaphone, helping and directing the RBB with what to do. People like the capos and the marshals are very important for other active support things, like the march to the game before kick-off. The music, the drums and horns that help set the rhythm for the RBB is called La Banda, and they are also important like the capos. After all how can anyone sing club chants like ‘Glorious’ or ‘Euphoria’ without someone providing the beat.
Perhaps most importantly the RBB are the people who carry the spirit and pride for our club perhaps more in their hearts and lives than anyone else associated with the Wanderers. They eat, sleep and drink the club, the team, the chants, the home games, the away games, the players, the shirts…everything. Of course there are less active, non-RBB members who are just as keen but usually they don’t go into the RBB because they know how hard it is to stay active for so long. Or maybe they just want to watch the game and enjoy it passively. No worries either way; the game and the club is big enough for all types of fans. However you will never find anything in any other sports context as passionate, unique or as exciting as the RBB.
Perhaps the most basic and most enjoyable thing about the crowd environment at Wanderland is the ‘Who do we sing for?” call and response. Again this is a pretty special moment in Australian sport, surpassing the simple-as-dirt ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ chant. I’ve never seen anything as electrifying nor as blood-pumping as that moment when the RBB starts off with a chorus of ‘Who do we sing for?’ and me and all of us come back with ‘We sing for Wanderers.’ If you ever have one memory, one deed to boast about after the game it’ll be that moment.
Having said that don’t forget there is also the amazing sight of the RBB doing the Poznan. On the 80th minute the northern stand bays and RBB fans there will unite in a seething, jumping, linked-arms wall with their collective backs to the ground. Some folk might take the mickey out of it but again, it’s a demonstration of an almost tribal feeling of community, plus a symbol of the fans’ respect for football’s history. With football first having been played out west in 1880 the RBB’s Poznan reminds us all that this great sport is not some ethnic blow-in like other sports and their advocates might have you believe. Our sport is as Australian as it can be and then some.
Okay, that’s the crowd and the RBB sorted. Next, let’s have a chat about what happens on the field and who is playing for us. The bottom line is every man who runs out onto the pitch in red and black (or if away from home in white and black) is a dead-set bona fide legend who will fight hard for the club, his mates, the coach, the supporters and the community of western Sydney. Yes, they are professional, but you’d be surprised how much they believe in what they are doing for everyone involved in football out this way.
The coach is named Tony Popovic, and he’s a great ex-Socceroo who has already shown in last season how intelligent and creative he is with the tactics used by the team. He and his offsider Ante Milicic (another ex-Socceroo) grabbed a team that only had 3 signings less than 18 months ago and turned them into a premier team that topped the A-League in their first season. You’ll often hear about ‘Popa’ and ‘in Popa we trust’, or might even see a sign up on the western stand saying ‘Habemus Popa’. Unlike other clubs (especially Sydney FC, or as we call them, the smurfs) we love and respect our coach.
Because our team was put together at short notice before last season you might see some guys who have played for other clubs in the A-League, or for overseas clubs. Take as a case in point our most proficient goal scorer form last season, Mark Bridge. Bridgey spent time with the Jets a few years ago, and even helped them win the A-League champion’s trophy (known as the toilet seat for reasons that are obvious when you see it). Then he played for the smurfs…oops, I mean SFC, and didn;t do that well. However like a lot of our guys when he came to the Wanderers it was like Popa gave him an entirely new career, and since then he has been always a threat in front of goal.
Our regular goalie Ante Covic is a similar story, and the big fella has a great record form last season in keeping clean sheets and stopping penalties. The captain, Michael Beauchamp is a defender, and he brings a lot of experience to the squad (like Covic he was a Socceroo). Beauchamp is also a westie born and bred, like our exciting young midfielder Aaron Mooy. Mooy has already played for the Socceroos and might be a name you’ll hear more of in future World Cups (he has a wicked boot when it comes to free kicks). Before I forget the other Aussie defenders there’s Nikolai Topor-Stanley who is a cult figure because of his booming clearances, Adam D’Apuzzo who is on the left (and basically resurrected his career through the Wanderers after semi-retiring), and Matthew Spiranovic who is looking to reignite his prospects as a Socceroo via the Wanderers. And keep an eye out for Jerrad Tyson, Shannon Cole and Dean Heffernan; they’ll be there in case we have some injury problems.
Further up the field there’s some more Aussies who will be playing for the Wanderers this season. Be on the look-out for Tomi Juric. he started off with a flyer with Adelaide last season but he has come to the Wanderers as our new key striker and has picked up a few pre-season goals plus selection for the national team. He’s going to be very important to our chances this season. Helping him out or keeping forward with him will be Labinot Haliti, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi, Tahj Minniecon, Brendon Santalab and Jason Trifiro. Tahj was bloody unlucky last season thanks to a bad injury so he didn’t get much time playing with the team. He’s looking to make amends this season and in the trails before today he has looked good. Also he is an indigenous Australian, which is very important for the growth of our game. Labinot’s another player you should see good things from. He sealed the win for us last season against the Mariners with a goal during the Poznan up at Gosford, and just watch to see if he pulls off his shirt after scoring…he’s been known to get a card for that simple act of celebration.
Now even though the A-league is all about domestic football in Australia because this is a global sport we have international players here in our competition. The foreign players that don our club’s colours are all great players, coming from top-flight European or Asian competitions. My personal favourite is the German right back Jerome Polenz. he has played in the Bundesliga for a few clubs, and he has a wicked sense of humour (look for ‘Jerome Polenz Pikachu Julia Gillard’ on Google or Facebook). His best mate and a guy all Wanderers fans love is Dutchman Youssouf Hersi. These two players form a great combination on the right hand side, and Hersi never gives up, always tackles or keeps the ball away from the opposition. Okay, maybe once in a while he might get a little too fired up and cop a card from the referee. However when all is said and done this Dutch maestro is a huge plus for the team, and if you hear or see fans talking about ‘Hersi for PM’ you might understand why after seeing him play.
We have a young Croatian midfielder named Mateo Poljak alongside Aaron Mooy, and he and Iacopo La Rocca (an Italian) are never shy of putting in a big effort both in defence and in going forward. By the way, if you hear anyone ranting on and on about the Wanderers being a Croatian club ignore it. Okay, we have had a lot of Croats play for us and there is a history of the old Sydney United team behind some of the players and staff. However the culture and spirit of the team and the club is pure western Sydney; passionate, proud, willing to have a scrap and never give up.
So, this brings us to the man they call Tensai. Before last season Tony Popovic had the chance to possibly bring a German great into the Wanderers by the name of Michael Ballack. However he made sure that when the club secured its first overseas marquee player it was Japanese legend Shinji Ono who joined the squad. And seriously, for all the talk about del Piero or Heskey last season, it was Shinji who was the best foreign player in the A-League. He has amazing skills and a great vision for where to pass, shoot, defend, run, and if you ever want to see a goal that should only happen in a video game or a movie, search online for ‘Shinji Ono first goal versus Melbourne Victory’. When you see all the fans in their Wanderers shirts at the game don’t be surprised to see a helluva lot with Shinji printed on the back.
Well, I could go into a lot more but it’s almost kick off. Get ready for a mad, fun, passionate, exciting, challenging season of football, and don’t be surprised when the season is over you’ll be counting down the days to when you can sign up again for 2014/15. Yoru bank balance might empty a bit with having to buy several Wanderers kits, balls, flags, gifts etc, and you might find yourself humming ‘We’re from the streets of Western Sydney’ to yourself at the strangest of times. You will be living on the internet with Twitter, Facebook and the fan forum all bookmarked for repeated visits to get the latest news, and you’ll be telling more and more friends and family about why football beats the living bejesus out of aerial ping pong or league or union.
Again…WELCOME TO OUR WANDERLAND!