Why I Wish I Was With The WSW Folk In Crow-Eater-Land

It is very fucking hard for me right now, very hard indeed.

A tick over six days ago I was bathing in the collective euphoria of that now legendary win by the Wanderers over the Roar, when after less than 25 minutes of the game it appeared that our season was coming to a shuddering, ego-destroying end. Those three goals scored by the visitors looked as if they were not just three reasons to bemoan the end of the Western Sydney Wanderers’ 2015-16 campaign, they also insinuated that our team were lapsing into comical errors that were more in tune with our cross-city rivals this season. Then, as if the men on the pitch had decided ‘Okay, that’s enough head start.’ it was the lads in red and black who were doing almost all the roaring. In what seemed like the blink of an eye Romeo had clawed one back, then in the opening stanza of the second half it was Santa delivering the second goal, Castelen the third and yes…quelle surprise…Romeo grabbing a third to put us one goal to the good:

Okay, so Brisbane Roar got one back, and that meant the semi was taken to extra time. However I don’t believe anyone of us who were there that night on the eve of Anzac Day 2016, or perhaps many who were at homes or elsewhere watching the game though that the Wanderers were destined to lose. The Roar had performed enough Houdini-like escapes from defeat in finals matches; now it was time to pay the piper and when Bridge and Vidosic combined to play the tune, well it was yet another magic moment of history for anyone associated with the Western Sydney Wanderers.

So, why am I feeling like three kinds of bad shit right now? What is causing my weltschmerz, my ennui, my depression right now?

To be blunt, I wish I was in Adelaide with my family.

With my red and black family.

With my brothers and sisters who have been there for me in ways that makes me both proud and humble.

Plus, to add salt to the wound of being absent from the ‘greatest trip we’ve ever been on’, my Wanderers family are in my home town, where my other family by blood mostly reside. Where I took my first breath, my first steps. Where I feel the sun shines on me in a different way than it does here where I live. Where the food tastes better, the beer sublime, the local lingo my mother tongue.

Now before I wax too lyrical about Adelaide and South Australia, I will gladly lay my cards on the table and say this is not the emotional state of a man who wants to go back to the land of the Crow Eaters to live. An extended holiday? Sure. A road trip akin to those taken by many of my fellow WSW supporters? Fuck yeah. However I am now (and have been for more years than I probably would admit) well ensconced in NSW, in western Sydney. Hell’s bells; the Wanderers have done more to make me feel attached to the west of Sydney than living in the area (on and off) for over 25 years. To leave here and return to the fatherland would cut that umbilical cord of community and football that is my Wander-love. Yet I cannot fail to feel envious, sad, a little jealous of all who are right now in SA’s capital city on the eve of the 2015/16 Grand Final.

The manner in which so many of my comrades have taken the run westwards, by train, by plane, by car and by bus stirs up plenty of feeling in me right now. I have had some of the best times of my life out in the back blocks of western NSW taking the run towards South Australia. Driving on the Hay plain, with its great wide brown expansive landscape is one of those quintessential life experiences that I think should be mandatory for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to be Australian. The flat and empty earth as you drive west of Hay, heading towards Balranald and further points west is one of those things that can’t be described, it has to be lived.

Then there is the strange delight of hitting South Australia and being asked to undergo a fruit fly inspection. I am unsure if this is a purely SA/Australian experience (I think it is), however it must be such a bemusing and puzzling experience for foreign tourists and even citified folk like my WSW kin to have to pull up at a building near Pinneroo or maybe Renmark if coming in further north and be asked ‘Got any fresh fruit sir/madam?’. I grew up with that, and as a kid would beg my father to be the one who would jump out of the Kingswood to show the man from the fruit fly inspection station that no, we weren’t trying to smuggle tangelos and apricots into South Australia.

I’ve also mentioned above the food and drink culture in SA, and I can’t let the ties that bind me there loose. When last in South Australia I made sure to take in all the goodies I could, even if it may have shortened my lifespan and increased my waist line. Mettwurst, bung fritz sambos with tomato sauce, Yo Yo biscuits, Kitchener Buns, King George Whiting, pints of pale, bottles of green death or woodies lemonade. Pie floaters and real pasties that make anything issued from an eastern state bakery look and taste like a hat-full of scraps and gristle; ye gods, when it comes to the tucker you can get in my home state it’s a friggin’ cornucopia!

As you may surmise, the boy may have been dragged out of South Australia, but he still has a huge chunk of it (wrapped in Balfours pastry) stuck inside him. It is of itself something I can deal with. However what does break the Crow Eater heart within a little is that I know so many of my Wanderers kin are going into this world and they will be looking at this through fresh eyes, with possibly no idea about how good, how enjoyable this scenario in front of them is.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that primarily this is about the RBB and other supporters making their way over to Adelaide to watch the boys play at the SACA (that’s the name I knew it by, none of this Adelaide Oval shit) and hopefully bring back the toilet seat. There is however I part of me that is like the father wanting to take his offspring back to meet the great uncles and aunts, to see the same hospital, the same school, the same church where pivotal life moments directed the parent’s early life. It would make me so happy to sit in a pub with some of my WSW compadres and watch them try their first Southwark. To see their eyes cast perhaps dubious looks over a meat pie turned upside down in a big bowl of pea soup, then  when the first mouthful hits my Wanderers’ friend’s gob those same eyes would glaze over with happiness.

So yes, I am partly jealous, partly sad to think that on the eve of the A-League Grand Final so many of my besties are heading into my old stomping grounds without my tutelage and/or my companionship as they possibly find out about South Australian goodness for the first time. However there is another, more significant reason for my slightly blue mood tonight.

In the last three months my life has been going through the most turbulent, most troubling time I have experience for at least the last couple of decades. I’ve had so many kicks in the teeth from life I’ve had serious doubts as to what actually gives one cause to continue getting up in the morning. There has been some ill-health which thankfully has improved somewhat. In late January I got the word that I was going to be made redundant from a job that I was very happy in. Thankfully that shitty scenario has changed, insofar as I have a new job. There was also the death of a much beloved (feline) member of the family, who had been ‘my’ boy for many a year. Finally, the most important relationship in my life, one that was the focus of my being for 16 years ended, throwing all my expectations and all my emotions into the shitter. It has been a very farken dark time believe me.

Yet through all this period where loss, infidelity and ego-crushing changes have battered my happiness into a pulp, there has been one constant. That is my band of brothers and sisters in red and black. I can’t name them because (a) they’re are so many and (b) I don’t want to embarrass them, however it needs to be said; without my friends from the Wanderers community I don’t know how I would’ve coped with the depressive influences on my life.

There have been instances where people who I had no knowledge of a scant year or more or so ago have become my boon friends, always willing to ask me how I am, what is happening, do I need an ear to bash or a beer to cry into. There is one WSW fan I know who has had a helluva rough time, probably worse than mine. Yet he has been there for me in ways that some of my non-Wanderers friends from university and beyond have not. There have been texts and tweets, visits and chats, shared meals and sessions at the Bavarian where I’ve poured my sick and sorry soul out to my circle of WSW mates, and men and women alike they’ve given me their support without question. It’s the kind of camaraderie that I’ve never experienced with my blood family, with long term work mates or even my past lovers. To find that kind of acceptance, that unique bond of never needing to apologise for who I am and how I feel…well, it’s pretty fucking amazing.

I guess what I want to say as I draw a close on this blog post is that sitting her at my PC, writing up this impromptu column, my thoughts and my heart wing westward over the Great Dividing Range, the Hay Plain, the SA border and down into the city on the Torrens. I am so very proud and happy to know that my team is playing for its (hopefully) first A-League champions trophy, after so much success in its short life. Yet I am also feeling huge needy pangs of desire; to be ‘back home’ with the best family football could ever create.

COME ON YOU WANDERERS!

I Got Those Where’s The New Wanderer’s Home Gonna Be Blues (or Where To Post-Pirtek)

Back on September 4th 2015 the premier of NSW issued a press release indicating that, after years of speculation and lobbying, there would be an overhaul of sporting stadia in Sydney focused on suburban venues. The overall plan included:

  • A new rectangular stadium at Moore Park with 50,000 to 55,000 seats;
  • The completion of the SCG masterplan
  • A new rectangular stadium at Parramatta with 30,000 seats;
  • The redevelopment of Stadium Australia, which may include a retractable roof;
  • A new indoor arena near the CBD; and
  • A new outer western Sydney sporting venue.

Premier Baird went on to say:

“Our first priority is building a new 30,000 seat stadium at Parramatta on the site of the existing facility, with work to begin as soon as possible and construction expected to be completed by 2019.” (source)

With these words the hopes and concerns of thousands of Western Sydney Wanderers members and fans were brought into focus as to where the club’s playing home should be both in the short and in the long term futures. As of today Wanderland, alias Pirtek Stadium is still our home, and for all its problems (which are not few in number) it is the locus of our club culture, our short-lived history and the hub of a wider game-day experience that leaves almost nothing to be desired. After all, it is Parramatta Stadium where the Western Sydney Wanderers played their very first competitive A-League game, saw their greatest wins in the ACL campaign of 2014, and served as the emotional centre for ever member who has been to a Wanderers’ match:

However it would appear that our days at Wanderland are coming to an end, at least in terms of the current venue’s structures and set up. Club CEO John Tsatsimas spoke with the hosts of the Daily Football Show on their Tuesday 16/12/15 podcast and stated that next season the Wanderers would in most likelihood not be playing out of Pirtek due to the construction work needed for the previously cited new stadium for Parramatta:

This of course opens Pandora’s Box of worms both in the short term, with reference to alternate venues to host the Western Sydney Wanderers’ home games until (perhaps) 2019, as well as long term issues regarding the structure, layout and fit out of a new Wanderland back at Parramatta. Where will we be going to see our home games in the 2016/17 A-League season? Will there be, as hinted at by Tsatsimas a scenario where “…one model (for Wanderers home games) would be to use a multitude of venues, dictated by their availability.” (source). Will the Wanderers be wandering between ANZ Stadium at Sydney Olympic Park, Pepper Stadium in Penrith and perhaps Belmore Sports Ground?

Before I put forward my analysis of the pros and cons of each potential ground I must say that in my opinion it would be preferable for an interim home for the Wanderers to remain at one stadium, and one alone. Assuming we have maybe three seasons of A-League football to be played before we return to a new Parramatta Wanderland, it would be most helpful for the purposes of retaining members and simplifying the logistics of the interim move if we are placed at a stadium that has some degree of permanence. In my opinion circulating between 2-3 venues during an A-League season would do more to disenfranchise or impede a larger cross section of supporters, plus add more costs to the club’s ongoing game day expenses, rather than settling on one venue. If, for example games were taken to both Penrith’s and Campbelltown’s stadia there will be a nominally increased liability in terms of expenditure at the venues for matches, as well as creating more logistical problems for a wider cross- section for members and fans.

So, who are the candidates for an interim ‘Wanderland 2.0′, and what are the pros and cons of each. For your consideration, these are the five potential stadia the Wanderers’ faithful may have to call home until we have a rebuilt Parramatta Stadium hopefully ready for us to return to in 2019:

  • Pepper Stadium, Penrith
  • Spotless Stadium Sydney, Olympic Park
  • Belmore Sports Ground, Belmore
  • ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park
  • Campbelltown Sports Stadium, Leumeah

What follows is just one Wanderers’ (semi-informed) analysis of the pros and cons of each venue, taking into account not just the pros and cons that are quantifiable (e.g. capacity, design, accessibility) but also an attempt at making some judgments vis-a-vis the ability for said stadium and its wider setting to live up to the original Wanderland experience. Obviously these are my views, and I suspect what I write below can and will be rigorously questioned by those with a preference for one or more stadia, or who use a different set of values to judge the suitability of the venue(s).

Pepper Stadium, Penrith

  • Capacity: approximately 22.500 (approximately 8000 each in the western and eastern grand stands)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 1.4km (17 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: No (parking available across Mulgoa Road in Panthers League’s Club precinct)
  • Other tenants: Penrith Panthers (NRL)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: Yes (including pre-season, A-League and FFA Cup matches)

dium is the most westerly of all the potential stadia for Western Sydney Wanderers’ home games for coming seasons, and has, as pointed out above, seen service for previous Wanderers’ matches. I have been to all three games (a pre-season match against Adelaide prior to the 2013/14 season, a ‘community round’ match against Wellington last season, and a FFA Cup game against Brisbane immediately prior to this season), and to be blunt two of those experiences were god-awful and only one satisfactory. However before I get into personal comments, there are these pros and cons to take into account.

Pros:

  • Pepper has an appropriate capacity to take an average Wanderers home game, excluding most likely a derby and possibly any semi-finals. A proper rectangular stadium, it has two grandstands that compare adequately with those in place at Pirtek. Like Parramatta the two grandstands face west and east, with the western stand nominally more suitable for corporate and higher value ticket holders. Whilst there are two grassed areas (at the north and south ends) the overall size of Pepper Stadium will probably meet the club’s and the member’s expectations.
  • Penrith is a bulwark of Wanderers support in the west of Sydney, with (according to John Tsatsimas prior to last season’s match against Wellington) ‘having the second highest number of Foundation Members‘. As a region the Nepean area is of major importance to not just the club but football in general, and there has been a long history of players and clubs from the Penrith region contributing to football (such as Mark Schwarzer and the old Penrith City NSL club). Were the Wanderers desirous of moving most if not all home games to Pepper Stadium this would be ample recognition of the popularity of the sport and the club in the west of Sydney.
  • The Panthers Club directly across Mulgoa Round is a major entertainment precinct available for the use of the Wanderers’ fans and members on game day. There are reasonably capacious car parks within its boundaries, and plenty of food and drink options are available for the visitor.
  • With Penrith being on the main western train line, serviced by both urban and inter-urban trains, the ability of most fans to use public transport along the main western Sydney corridor (i.e from Strathfield to the Blue Mountains) is reasonably good. The M4 motorway provides good access to Penrith and the stadium, with the Great Western Highway an alternate route. Travel times from other major suburbs of western Sydney would range from about 20-30 minutes (Blacktown, Richmond, Parramatta) to 45-60 minutes (Hills District, Liverpool, Campbelltown, Bankstown, Katoomba).
  • The relationship between Pepper Stadium and the Wanderers sponsor Pepper Finance is an obvious one.
  • Local state MP and minister for sport is Stuart Ayres, and it would undoubtedly assist the Wanderers’ political cause (such as in the recent stoush with the Parramatta LAC) to be seen to be part of the local MP’s ‘clients’. Considering football clubs in Australia have struggled to find patronage among the various tiers of government this could be a fruitful by-product of moving to Penrith.

Cons:

  • The previously mentioned grassed areas at the northern and southern ends are not suitable for active use, which means that (as seen in those games previously played at Penrith) the RBB would be positioned within the eastern stand seating area. To be blunt this hinders anyone’s view from behind them, who are not in an active bay. Also in summer that area can get exceedingly hot, which is not conducive to active support. As Pirtek is an all seated stadium to move to Pepper would be a downgrade in facilities.
  • The Penrith Panthers group has a vested economic and political interest in Pepper Stadium, with certain benefits allowed to their members (e.g. discounted drinks and food) not passed on to Wanderers members. Considering that the Panthers group once expressed an interest in buying the Western Sydney Wanderers (after going through serious economic problems caused by over-aggressive expansion and the associated debt), and when its offer was rejected by the FFA the same Panthers group compared buying the A-League club to buying an ice cream shop, there is a definite disconnect between the values and agenda of the Wanderers and Panthers. There is also the issue of Pepper Stadium being the home ground of the Panthers NRL team, and with their competition starting in early March of each year and the A-League not concluding it’s season until late April, there will be an issue relating to conflicting schedules, where the Panthers may well have first use rights. Whilst this scenario may not be much different to that in place at Wanderland vis-a-vis the Parramatta Eels, there is arguably not the same vested interest in that stadium contrasted with Pepper. Whilst the entertainment and food and drink precinct of Panthers is very close to Pepper Stadium, it provides nowhere near the quality, range and eclecticism of offerings seen in Parramatta. Plus money spent at those facilities integrated into the Panthers Club area will help fund a sporting club that has a history of being disconnected with the Wanderers and with football. I personally raised issues regarding food and drink prices at Pepper Stadium last season after the Phoenix match and the disparity between what was charged there versus Pirtek Stadium, and as the local media spun the story it was more a case of Panthers wanting to do right by their members first and foremost. Frankly I don’t believe Wanderers should be spending money at a venue that then partially contributes to the income of a rival club and sport in western Sydney.
  • Security, policing and other entry issues at Pepper do raise concerns, particularly as I have experienced first hand the difference in capabilities and expectations of those managing these areas at past Penrith based games. I wrote about the scenario that played out when the friendly against Adelaide was hosted at Pepper Stadium before Season Two, and last season’s Wellington Phoenix match also demonstrated shortcomings with the manner in which access to the ground was controlled. Admittedly Parramatta is no utopia where everything goes right, and with more experience perhaps Pepper Stadium staff and the Penrith LAC could learn with more practice. However I don’t believe anyone can guarantee a better experience at Penrith in this area.
  • From a local resident’s perspective Penrith City Council has hardly been pro-active in seeking to engage with the Wanderers and its fans, unlike (for example) Liverpool City Council. PCC have a demonstrable and obvious link to the Panthers NRL club and it’s promotional and civic relationship with that entity would arguably run contrary to the need to invest heavily in supporting and promoting links with the Western Sydney Wanderers.
  • A further disconnect between the Penrith area and the Wanderers when it comes to home game experiences is the lack of engagement between local businesses and the fans when game days have been held at Pepper Stadium. I know of one pub in the area that promised to do much to support the Wanderers fans after the Adelaide friendly, however within a short time those promises were not met. It has to be said that as almost every major non-Panthers entertainment facility or pub is at a considerable distance from Pepper Stadium the ability for said businesses to engage with the fans is extremely limited.
  • The location of Penrith as a home venue for Wanderers games, whilst more advantageous for those fans and members in the Nepean, Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains area, does put a sizable portion of the Wanderers fan base at a disadvantage (especially those in the Bankstown, Lidcombe, Campbelltown and Hills District). This of course is an issue of variable impacts for every venue being considered. However Penrith is certainly at the most extreme end of traveling distance for many fans. It must also be cited that Penrith train station is a considerable distance from Pepper Stadium (unlike other potential venues) and parking near the stadium can be limited if Panthers car park is being used by that club’s patrons.

Summary:

Pepper Stadium would be a very reasonable option for hosting future Western Sydney Wanderers’ home games, with its record of hosting matches, layout and local supporter base being advantageous. However there are some serious questions over the game day experience that could be had there, and politically, economically and culturally there is nowhere near the proven engagement with the Wanderers that the clubs fans and members deserve.

Spotless Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park

  • Capacity: approximately 24,000 (all seated)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (6 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: Yes (P1 car park station has numerous levels of paid car parks all within walking distance of the stadium)
  • Other tenants: GWS Giants (AFL), Sydney Thunder (BBL), Royal Easter Show
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: No

Pros:

  • An all seated stadium, with a sizable quantity of those seats under cover, there is a plenty of modern comfort and good accessibility at Spotless Stadium. The concourses and layout ensure that crowds can move freely and easily in, around and out of the venue, and as this is venue was refurbished in 2011/12, it is the most modern of the potential venues. The capacity of 24,000 is certainly within the desired parameters of the Wanderers for all home games, and offers an increased capacity for Sydney derbies.
  • The proximity of major transport facilities and routes will mean that Spotless can facilitate access for a large number of Wanderers fans and members, with the Sydney Olympic park train station specifically designed for the flow of large numbers of people attending sporting events in the area. The M4 motorway is very close to the venue, which allows for relatively easy access for those driving to Spotless along the east-west axis of the motorway’s corridor, and parking is available in sizable quantities. Nominally the worst added travel time on weekends for matches would be approximately 15-20 minutes for those traveling to the Sydney Olympic Park from those Wanderers’ fans and members living in the Nepean, Macarthur, Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains areas, with similar savings in time for those in the Bankstown, Lidcombe and similar areas.
  • Corporate and catering facilities at Spotless Stadium are more varied and configured to be more appropriate to the Wanderers’ needs than suburban grounds such as Pepper and Campbelltown.
  • The Sydney Olympic Park location for Spotless Stadium is good for large crowd movement and control, and with the close proximity of other facilities (e.g. Sydney Aquatic Centre) there could be an increase in casual attendees coming to watch a game plus make a day of the trip to the ground.

Cons:

  • Spotless Stadium is configured as an oval, with the focus for current and past tenants being on using that space instead of a more football friendly rectangular configuration. There has been a lack of engagement with other oval or circular grounds used for A-League matches (e.g. Westpac Stadium Wellington, the Adelaide Oval) and anecdotal evidence indicates that Spotless is viewed with much disfavour because of this factor.
  • The multiple existing tenants (GWS, Sydney Thunder, RAS Easter Show) means that Spotless Stadium may offer only limited access during the football season. The Royal Easter Show uses Spotless for many different events during their running in March, which would definitely cut across access for the Wanderers at that time. In December this year the Sydney Thunder Big Bash League cricket team play four games at this venue as well, which means that for possibly 8-10 weeks in the same time frame as an A-League season conflicting requirements for other tenants will impact on the Wanderers’ home game schedule. Whilst the GWS Australian Rules club may only have 1-2 games max being played at Spotless during the A-League season, there is the unpalatable idea for many Wanderers members and fans that a rival code and club could either share in and/or profit from our club’s presence at their Sydney base.
  • The price of car parking at Sydney Olympic Park can be prohibitive, so unless there is some kind of quid pro quo offering for members which may reduce this cost, then moving to Spotless does offer a challenge to those who would drive to the ground. Additionally any home games played on a Friday night may present a challenge to the fans driving to the Spotless and Sydney Olympic Park, as the M4 is notoriously stressed in that area during peak hour traffic.
  • Rail transport to Spotless may well mean changing at Lidcombe for anyone traveling from the west, south-west or Hawkesbury regions, and this will undoubtedly add time and stress that other, more direct venues such as Penrith and Parramatta may or do offer. This is arguably a minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience just the same.
  • Unlike our current home in Parramatta, or indeed other suburban venues we may opt for, the Sydney Olympic Park area is effectively a sterile environment. Yes, there are some more varied options for catering and there are plenty of complementary and supplementary facilities near Spotless Stadium. However unless there is a sizable crowd in place there is a certain lack of atmosphere to the area. It could be that with a paucity of pubs nearby, generic takeaway joints and a short walk from the railway station, the iconic aspects of supporting the Wanderers in Parramatta (e.g. the RBB march) would be dissipated.

Summary:

Spotless Stadium does have some string selling points, most notably those that relate to its modernity and to a lesser extent its location. Having said that there are several big challenges, most specifically relating to the other tenants and their interruptions to the Wanderers’ home season schedule. The oval shape of the ground is also a concern. It may be that Spotless could only figure as a venue for the period between the start of an A-League season through to early December, and thus increase the complexity of the problem (previously cited) with multiple home grounds.

Belmore Sports Ground

  • Capacity: approximately 19,000 (approximately 9,000 seats)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (6 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: No
  • Other tenants: Canterbury Bulldogs (NRL), Sydney Olympic FC (NPL)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: No

Pros:

  • Belmore Sports Ground is a rectangular football field with a capacity of 19,000, which certainly puts it in the same kind of preferred profile for size and shape for a temporary home for the Wanderers. The western stand (which holds the bulk of the 9,000 seats) is part of the recent redevelopment of the ground, and this specific installation of Belmore puts it ahead of less recently modified suburban football grounds such as Parramatta’s Pirtek and Penrith’s Pepper Stadia.
  • Belmore and the surrounding suburbs are prime Wanderers’ community territory, with a long tradition of a football culture. The multicultural demographic of the area has seen clubs from the NSL and earlier play based in the Canterbury district, including Sydney Olympic and Johnny Warren’s Canterbury-Marrickville Olympic (who have since become Bankstown Berries FC). This is a part of (western) Sydney that ‘gets’ football.
  • The major tenants and lease holders are not necessarily going to impose too heavily on the Wanderers’ home games during the summer season. The Bulldogs NRL team would be highly unlikely to play more than one game at Belmore (with their main stadium being ANZ) during the A-League season, which is less than the impact the Parramatta Eels have on Pirtek Stadium. It may be that the Bulldogs will use Belmore as their training facility in the NRL’s off-season, however as this would most likely not clash with the needs of the Wanderers (who are already using alternate facilities out at Blacktown) then this too should not be a problem. it may even be that the facilities provided under the auspices of the Bulldogs would be advantageous to the Wanderers. As for Sydney Olympic FC, whilst they may have some match clashes with a potential Wanderers home game in the last few weeks of the A-League season, the impact could be less than that experienced at Pepper Stadium in Penrith or Campbelltown Sports Stadium.
  • With Belmore train station under a kilometre away there is good access to a major public transport hub. The M5 toll way is about 7 minutes drive away, which will be advantageous for those fans who are traveling to the ground from areas such as Liverpool and Campbelltown.
  • The main business areas of Belmore and Campsie offer some unique and cosmopolitan dining options for visiting Wanderers fans, and with the Canterbury Leagues Club about 12 minutes walk from the ground there are more entertainment options there as well.

Cons:

  • Belmore Sports Ground may have 9,000 or so seats and a modern grand stand, but it it demonstrably deficient when it comes to matching any other current or potential home ground for the Wanderers for total seating and covered areas. It would also be a significant downgrade contrasted to other A-League stadia. It may be possible that temporary stands could be added to the venue, however with three sides of the rectangle provided with only a grass cover, this would be a major problem for the management and fans of the Wanderers. It would also present a challenge (arguably an insoluble one) for locating the RBB and any associated security and policing measures.
  • Whilst the Bulldogs Leagues Club and Sydney Oympic FC are both tenants, and arguably more passive than seen at (for example) Spotless Stadium, there would again be the issue of Wanderers members and fans contributing to the ongoing revenue streams of rival clubs if Belmore was selected as a new home ground. Whilst there are some synergies with the two other clubs, both the Bulldogs and Olympic would see the Wanderers presence at Belmore as a potential cash cow.
  • Canterbury City Council has not, as far as I am aware, not made a political or financial investment in the Wanderers, and thus there would be little benefit in these two key areas for the A-League club to venture to Belmore.
  • The lack of on-site car parking is a significant problem, and unlike Penrith or Campbelltown, the distance between the local league’s club car park and the ground is most considerable. Additionally, those fans and members travelling from the Blue Mountains, Nepean, Hawkesbury and Hills districts would be severely disadvantaged both in terms of rail and car access. With Belmore the most easterly of the potential venues travel time via the M4 etc from Penrith balloons out to almost an hour, whilst public transport would require about 100 or more minutes from Penrith, including both train and bus. This is obviously the reverse of the scenario for those people who live near Belmore if they were to travel out to Penrith. However even those who would be most likely to benefit with access to the M5 from Campbelltown or Liverpool have a cheaper option traveling to Penrith by car (using in some part Northern Road which is toll free). Interestingly enough, the issues relating to parking and the previous point re Canterbury Council are brought together in this article, where local council rangers have fined numerous people who’ve parked in residential areas close to Belmore Sports Ground.

Summary:

Belmore is a very unlikely option due to its location, lack of internal infrastructure and the potential for financial and political issues possibly relating to the Canterbury Rugby League club and Canterbury Council. The benefits of playing at what is effectively a semi-refurbished suburban football/league ground are minimal contrasted to the other candidates.

ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park

  • Capacity: approximately 83,500
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (6 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: Yes (P1 multi-level paid car parking station)
  • Other tenants: Sydney Swans (AFL), Canterbury Bulldogs (NRL), West Tigers (NRL), South Sydney Rabbitohs (NRL), Other Miscellaneous clubs and teams such as the Socceroos and NSW Blues (cricket)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: No

Pros:

  • There is no larger capacity stadium in Sydney, and with a fully seated capacity of 83,500 for rectangular sports there would be absolutely no issue with the Wanderers members and fans being able to find covered seats for any match played there (including the Sydney derby). Whilst ANZ Stadium has not undergone the same modernisation processes seen by its fellow Sydney Olympic Park venue, Spotless Stadium, it still easily surpasses smaller suburban grounds in terms of its recent build, internal infrastructure and ease of access for spectators entering and leaving the stadium.
  • Alongside the improved quantity and quality of spectator seating, corporate and media facilities at ANZ are second to none in Sydney, if not in Australia. With the background of being the main stadium for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and since its opening in 1999 a continuous history of major sporting events (including NRL State of Origin matches, Socceroos World Cup qualifiers, Rugby World Cup 2015 matches and AFC Cup games), there is arguably no other stadium in Australia (aside from the MCG) that has a recent track record of hosting world class events. So as to maximise the revenue from this continuous flow of major sporting events the ANZ Stadium consortium have established themselves as a leader for corporate customers (charging for example up to $1495 for a box at the NRL grand final). There are also the considerable resources available to the media, such as the stadium’s studio spaces for TV and radio, built to Olympic broadcasting standards. Contrasted with the other candidate venues ANZ presents a far more impressive and comprehensive ability to showcase the Wanderers via media coverage, a significantly superior standard of corporate facilities (which would come in most handy for any potential ACL commitments in future seasons)
  • As per Spotless Stadium, due to its location in Sydney Olympic Park ANZ Stadium has significant transportation benefits for any attending Wanderers members or fans (as well as visiting spectators from other clubs). The same ease of access to the M4 and quantity of parking sites makes life much easier for the Wanderers fan or member who drives to Sydney Olympic Park. The same public transport benefits regarding rail also exist for ANZ as they do for Spotless. It might even be considered that bus and River Cat ferry services could also add to the mix for public transport users heading to ANZ.
  • Catering, bar and other franchises within ANZ are in plentiful supply and offer a wide variety. This would again replicate some of the better aspects of Spotless Stadium’s advantages in this area, though where this stadium surpasses its neighbour would be sheer quantity and capacity of food stalls, merchandise stands, bars etc.
  • Free Wi-Fi internet support at ANZ is a plus for those in the Wanderers community looking for that specific point of difference for their home game venue.
  • Whilst ANZ Stadium does have multiple tenants, particularly NRL teams, the calendar for the bulk of the A-League season (as indicated by their 2016 schedule) is relatively light, aside from the period of March-May. The period between the end of the NRL season and Christmas does appear bereft of sporting events.
  • As per Spotless Stadium, the Sydney Olympic Park location of ANZ Stadium means there are additional benefits for those who may wish to use a Wanderers’ home match as the focal event of a day’s visit to the precinct. Plus there is plenty of scope for comfortable and safe crowd management in the precinct.
  • With its size and location ANZ Stadium would be a most capable venue for the Sydney derbies, and whilst the 83,500 capacity may not sell out there is every probability that those who are unable to attend either Pirtek or Allianz hosted matches would be able to come to ANZ. It may be possible that an ANZ Stadium hosted derby could host over 60,000 spectators and become the absolute flag ship event of the domestic football season.

Cons:

  • The sheer size and nature of ANZ Stadium may well mitigate against the most appropriate game day experiences for Wanderers fans and members. As it is a huge space that is imperfectly configured for football matches, there are significant problems with how spectators can see the pitch, and how they can produce a game day environment that would match those at Pirtek Stadium in Parramatta. Whilst seats closer to ground level are not too badly sited for watching a game, the slope of higher seating, the bowl shape of the stands and the height at which the higher stands reach mean that many feel they cannot see the game when there, and the atmosphere (a key part of Wanderland) is ‘sucked’ out of the venue. With a full crowd ANZ Stadium can be a very exciting and engaging venue. However there will be almost no chance that home games for the Wanderers against (for example) Perth Glory, Wellington Phoenix or Adelaide United could draw more than one quarter of the Stadium’s capacity. This means there is every likelihood that ANZ hosted matches will appear to be in a near void of spectators and atmosphere. These issues of capacity and lay out of ANZ will also impinge upon the RBB’s ability to interact with the match, possibly deadening their ability to create that unique Western Sydney Wanderers culture on match days. Plus there is every possibility that with the over-supply of seating those who currently hold club memberships may decide they don’t need to continue to maintain them, in light of being able to buy tickets on a match by match basis, knowing they will have no trouble getting a seat.
  • As per Spotless Stadium, there are issues and challenges faced by ANZ due to its Olympic Park location, that will impinge upon those traveling to the venue by car. Peak hour traffic on a Friday night when a match may be played there could be a nightmare for fans trying to get to the venue via the M4 (or for that matter Homebush Bay Drive, Silverwater Road and other nearby major arterial roads). The price of car parking at Sydney Olympic Park may also be too expensive to sustain.
  • Again, like Spotless Stadium, train travel to ANZ Stadium may not be easy as suspected on first inspection. Having to change trains for the Olympic Park loop service at Lidcombe would be an added complication for many traveling to Wanderers’ games at ANZ.
  • The same problems with Spotless Stadium vis-a-vis the relatively ‘sterile’ nature of Sydney Olympic Park, and how the area doesn’t replicate the same suburban energy felt in Parramatta on match day, exist for ANZ. Large open spaces, the inability to match Church Street’s entertainment and dining options; these aspects deaden game day experience, which is vitally important to Wanderers fans and members.
  • Whilst for the most part the other (mostly NRL) tenants don’t have an effect on the bulk of the potential Wanderers’ home season, they still have a major impact in the last few months of the A-League season. There is also the possibility that large outdoor concerts and similar non-sporting events held at ANZ could impact on the Wanderers home games, and not just on the match day. For example Taylor Swift held an open air concert at ANZ on November 28th 2015, and the pitch was used for seating and the stage. It may be that if a similar event happened during a Wanderers’ season the playing surface at ANZ could be damaged or unusable for a period of time both before and after the concert. As for the other tenants of ANZ Stadium, the multiple clubs from the NRL and AFL can create a congested schedule. In March 2016 there will be a four day period where two NRL games and one AFL match will be played, and such heavy use of the ANZ pitch must result in damage to the pitch unacceptable for football use. Finally, whilst the Royal Easter Show does not use ANZ Stadium as a venue, as the venue does lie within the Olympic precinct it will have an impact on the ability of Wanderers fans and members getting to games.
  • Politically there may be a conflict of interest, or at least some degree of concern for the ANZ Stadium ownership group with the Wanderers playing at ANZ, then returning to Parramatta to a newer, rival stadium. They may consider offering financial and other incentives to the Wanderers as being not in their long term interests. It’s hard to assess the implications, however unlike Campbelltown or Penrith, where the relevant councils may see a transitory Wanderers residence at their local grounds being a reason to encourage longer term investment in their facilities, ANZ Stadium’s owners and shareholders have more reason to cater for existing and/or non-competing customers. It may be that (unlike existing and alternate potential tenants) ANZ Stadium may not offer the same support and inducements to the Wanderers, knowing they will be playing their home game either for maybe 3 seasons at most.
  • There is also the potential impact of the possible redevelopment of ANZ Stadium, as suggested by Mike Baird in the original proposal to upgrade Sydney’s venues. Whilst it is probably not going to happen, what may be the impact of construction work happening at ANZ before the Wanderers return to their new digs in Parramatta. There could even be a scenario where Sydney FC are put into the position of having to move from Allianz Stadium if its redevelopment/replacement occurs, and thus they too may be looking at playing some games out of ANZ.

Summary:

ANZ Stadium is the most capacious option for the Wanderers’ temporary move away from Parramatta, and it’s facilities and location are most attractive. However there are some serious problems relating to the layout, excess capacity and atmosphere there. Also the political imperative to go there is not as advantageous as perhaps at other venues in Sydney’s west. Finally the manner in which ANZ hosts multiple tenants and events could be too disadvantageous for both the Wanderers and their fans and members to deal with, particularly in the period from March onwards.

Campbelltown Sports Stadium

  • Capacity: 20,000 (13,000 seated)
  • Distance from nearest train station: 0.5 km (7 minutes walk)
  • On site car par: Yes (with additional parking available at Wests Leagues Club)
  • Other tenants: Wests Tigers (NRL)
  • Hosted previous Wanderer’s games: Yes (including pre-season and A-League)

Pros:

  • Campbelltown Stadium is a traditional rectangular ground with a layout that is favourable to watching football. It’s capacity of 20,000 certainly puts it into the same category as Pepper Stadium at Penrith, and whilst smaller than Spotless and ANZ Stadiums it has the advantage of actually presenting as a ‘football friendly’ stadium. The two stands and seating capacity are better than Belmore and not that much smaller than Pepper Stadium. There are also all the requisite facilities within the venue for media, corporate and sporting needs.
  • With Leumeah train station only half a kilometre away from the stadium there is a strong advantage for those attending Wanderers games at Campbelltown Stadium to use rail to get to the venue. This is certainly a better option than the scenario at Penrith.
  • There is also an on-site car park which does allow for some usage (in the same range I believe as what is seen currently at Parramatta with the car park next to the council pool). Additional parking is available at the neighbouring Wests League Club Leumeah. Accessing the area by road is obviously most advantageous for those living in the Macarthur area. There are some additional time penalties for those traveling to the venue from Penrith, however they are not that different to expected travel time to Sydney Olympic Park in this instance, and with the M4/M7/M31 route to and from Campbelltown the roads are all multi-lane express ways.
  • Wests Tigers are the only other tenant of Campbelltown Stadium, and they do not play all their home games there (also using Leichhardt Oval for NRL matches). with perhaps only 2-3 games an A-League season max being played at this venue there is less exposure to potential pitch damage of scheduling clashes for the Wanderers than (say) Pepper Stadium or ANZ Stadium.
  • Campbelltown and the Macarthur area is both a good source of support for the Wanderers, as well as being where football has a strong footprint. It would be most beneficial for an area that has at times been spoken of as a place for a third Sydney A-League franchise, as well as for the Wanderers if they were to take their home games to Campbelltown.
  • As a council owned facility there is the distinct possibility that there would be political benefits flowing through to the Wanderers and to the local council be forming a partnership over the use of the ground. Conflicting interests, as possibly relevant at ANZ Stadium or Pepper Stadium, may not be as so prevalent or damaging to the Wanderers if they went to Campbelltown. It may even be feasible that additional (temporary) seating would be facilitated at Campbelltown Stadium, with the council’s assistance.
  • Wests Leagues Club is a considerable entertainment and dining facility within a very short distance of the stadium. There are also some reasonably close dining and pub options which expand the prospects of the Wanderers’ fans and members having a positive game day experience.
  • There have been a few games played by the Wanderers at Campbelltown, including a 2012/13 match against Newcastle and a 2014/15 pre-season match against the Macarthur Rams. These experiences will have helped everyone understand what may be expected if the Wanderers were to play more (home) games at Campbelltown Stadium in future, including security, catering and ticketing.

Cons:

  • The grassed hills at the northern and southern ends account for about 35% of Campbelltown Stadium’s capacity, and for the Sydney derby matches (plus perhaps games against Melbourne Victory) a fully seated venue would be preferable. Even if this were to be done the venue may not meet the requirements of these high demand matches.
  • The facilities and internal infrastructure for Campbelltown Stadium are not as modern and as well developed as seen at the two Sydney Olympic Park stadia. This includes catering options available within the ground’s precinct, as well as corporate facilities.
  • Leumeah train station is located on the South West and Cumberland train lines, which means anyone west of Blacktown would need to change trains. Of course this replicates the scenario for those traveling in the opposite direction from the Campbelltown/Macarthur/Liverpool area to Pepper Stadium in Penrith.
  • With Wests Leagues Club right next door to the venue, the Wanderers fans would be injecting serious money into a rival sport’s franchise in a key growth area for football and for the club. It could be argued that this is not entirely dissimilar to what happens now in Parramatta, or would happen in Penrith. However this doesn’t lessen the potential for a move to Campbelltown hurting the Wanderers future engagement and expansion in the area, by providing a new revenue stream for an NRL club.
  • Whilst there are some off-site, non-Leagues Club dining and entertainment facilities available near Campbelltown Stadium, they are not the equal in terms of quantity as seen in Penrith or possibly at Belmore. Campbelltown Stadium is located within Leumeah’s mix of semi-industrial, semi-residential environment, with no major CBD near by.
  • Ticketing for Campbelltown is run by ProTicket, which would put it nominally at odds with the current arrangement the Western Sydney Wanderers has with TicketMaster. This will need to be resolved as part of any resolution of ticketing rights for Wanderers fans who are members.

Summary:

Campbelltown Stadium does have some major benefits in terms of its capacity, lay out, accessibility for sizable portions of the Wanderers community and its location in the Macarthur area. However it is not fully seated in its current configuration, and there may be issues relating to how it may host major games such as the Sydney derbies. The presence of Wests Leagues Club nearby is a benefit in some respects but a problem in others.

Conclusions:

There is no doubt that every single one of these stadia have benefits and problems when it comes to hosting the Western Sydney Wanderers when it comes to home games after this season. None are 100% in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of being just right. ANZ is arguably too big, Belmore too small. Campbelltown is the right shape but doesn’t have enough seats, Spotless has enough seats but is the wrong shape. Pepper is positioned in a strong hold of Wanderers support but has a rival code’s club dictating the space within and around the venue.

As I said beforehand I believe that if possible only one venue should be chosen to host all Wanderers matches if possible, and if that was the guiding principle my preference would be for ANZ Stadium. However upon consideration of each venues’ strengths and weaknesses I can’t see the Wanderers’ owners and management agreeing to this hosting model. It may well be that ANZ does get utilised for Wanderers’ home games, but only or derby matches, and perhaps against Melbourne Victory. Other than that I think that the suburban rectangular ground are more likely. Spotless may have its advantages, but its configuration and crowded schedule are too problematic.

Within that scenario Belmore is out of the running because frankly it is not of a standard facility-wise and offers far too many challenges for the club and spectators alike. That leaves Pepper Stadium in Penrith and Campbelltown Sports Stadium in Leumeah. It may be that Pepper Stadium is the more prudent choice in terms of capacity, proximity to large numbers of Wanderers members, has a sponsorship alliance with the club and is reasonably well sited in terms of transport options. However, personally I don’t believe the Wanderers should be investing money and the members’ good will into a venue which has some past issues regarding security and price gouging, and is too closely tied to a monolithic NRL club which has no interest whatsoever in seeing the Wanderers prosper. Campbelltown on the other hand replicates the benefits seen at Penrith, without the significant problem of a major NRL club monopolising the venue and the area.

Therefore, I would think that once the Wanderers leave Pirtek at the close of this season, so that Wanderland 2.0 can arise from the debris and construction site, it would be of most benefit if we play most of our home games out of Campbelltown, with perhaps derbies and maybe one or two other games played at ANZ, where we can expect a 20K plus attendance. I would not be surprised if we end up playing out of Pepper Stadium, or indeed we do indeed ‘Wander the west’ until we have a new home stadium back in Parramatta. However for the interests of club and members/fans alike Campbelltown  and ANZ seem better bets for the interim.

 

Why I Am Glad The Boycott Ended Before Saturday Night (or a Paean to a Wanderers versus Victory Classic)

I have seen some wonderful games at Wanderland since climbing about the Red and Black experience before the kick off to the 2012/13 A-League season. The first derby against the smurfs. The 6-1 demolition of Adelaide where I saw first hand a Bridgey hat-trick as well as Dino’s very first goal in a competitive match. The semi against the Roar where Dino again wrought a miraculous goal with his left heel; a goal that’d make Berisha weep in envy. The 1-0 wins over Guangzhau Evergrande and Al Hilal in the 2014 ACL campaign, the 2014-15 Round 19 derby where Bulut almost single-handedly beat our eastern suburb rivals, and in the same disastrous domestic campaign a nearly flooded midweek Wanderland come-from-behind conquering of Melbourne City.

Yet when it comes to quality opponents and quality games hosted at Pirtek Stadium, it takes a lot of effort to match the Melbourne Victory and most particularly Saturday night’s amazing game.

To put this into some kind of perspective, let me state from the get-go that of all the clubs in the A-League that rival the Wanderers the one that I have a more than passing respect for is MVFC. I have a soft spot for Newcastle due to a few factors such as the nature of their bumpy ride in recent years, they have a proud, parochial football culture in the Hunter not too distant from here in the west of Sydney, and one of their most loyal supporters (indeed most loyal of any club’s supporters) is a great mate of mine. Adelaide also gets a nodding smile as it is the pissant town I was born in a long, long time ago. Wellington I find I can take with plenty of equanimity; they are neither a club to encourage great loathing or great liking. As for the other clubs, well it ranges from pure unadulterated hate to dismissal as mostly irrelevant.

I expect those attitudes are not entirely isolated among other fans across the entire A-League spectrum.

However when it comes to Melbourne Victory I cannot find volatile emotions like despising, hating, pitying, loving. No; the most successful A-League club over the last calendar year in terms of trophies won on the pitch, as well as a business model off the pitch deserves the respect one gives to a great rival following a similar path in this world. The kind of attitude that might be fictionalised in a dogfight between Biggles and a German ace in World War One. Or that feeling engendered between two old political war horses such as Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser post-Dismissal. For all the pantomime villainy of Berisha or the aura of ‘being a prick’ that surrounds Kevin Muscat, Melbourne Victory give as good as they get from us, and undoubtedly share the burden of being the two most important clubs in the A-League in the two largest metropolitan markets. With combined MVFC/WSW membership in 2015/16 to date exceeding the combined memberships of Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne City, Perth, Wellington and Central Coast by a good margin, it is blatantly obvious where the majority of the hearts and minds of the A-League have found a home Throw in the 2014 ACL championship for the Wanderers and the three domestic trophies for the Victory in 2015, and the bulk of the available silverware for Australian A-League clubs in recent history has been heading to these clubs as well.

These kinds of numbers, these kinds of quantitative measures mean that when I (and I believe many of my fellow Wanderers fans as well) look at the Victory and put that into the context of a match, we know this isn’t going to be a friendly, a hit and giggle affair. The proof of this idea has been demonstrated again and again in the history of our meetings since 2012/13. For example, it could well be argued that the Wanderers’ best ever game in season one was that played in Round 14 at home against the Victory, with two magical goal from Shinji Ono:

In the 2013/14 season there was another cracker between the two biggest clubs in the A-League, when in Round 12 a last minute Gui Finkler stunner gave the home team a draw that stunned everyone who was fortunate enough to see it:

More recently, with the Wanderers weary and beaten down by injuries and travel in 2014/15 MVFC took all available 9 points and scored 9 goals to 2, demonstrating that in the battle between the most heavily subscribed A-League clubs the Victorian-based team was in the ascendancy. By the end of that season the overall record stood at three Wanderers wins, five Victory wins and one draw; a healthy rivalry that leaned a little to the Melbourne-based club. Hence the appreciation of what was going to be a very tasty encounter Saturday night at Wanderland, the tenth match between us and them, in the tenth round of the 2015/16 season.

Of course what made this match even more attractive and more significant was the relationship between the Wanderers fans (including the RBB) the Victory fans (notably the North Terrace actives) and the recent walk-outs and boycotts. As the two most high-profile supporter groups targeted by the likes of the News Limited gossip monger Rebecca Wilson, and with a reputation for unseemly behaviour among the the ‘non-football cognoscenti’, epitomised by an ugly incident involving some criminal acts away from AAMI stadium, both clubs’ fans may be regarded as having a deal of animosity and unruliness. However, putting aside the specifics of that situation which involved a smaller amount of arrests than have taken place at recent large musical festivals, in the last fortnight it was the Wanderers and Victory fan bases who led the popular revolt against the FFA’s policies vis-a-vis the banning process as it has been implemented. Whilst other clubs’ fans started their protests against the FFA by following a negotiation path (such as the Cove), the RBB and North Terrace were united in voicing their initial discontent with a walk out in their respective Round Eight matches:

Interestingly enough the administrative leadership of these two clubs echoed the attitudes of discontent as their fans, hence these statements from John Tsatsimas and Ian Robson (respective CEOs for the Wanderers and Victory):

“We will always advocate for the rights of our members (in both public and private forums) who are exceptional in both their behaviour and their passion for this club and who have been branded unfairly in a negative manner, This includes members who feel they are unjustly banned.” (John Tsatsimas Source: 25/11/15)

“We’re proud of what we do and the fans are at the heart and the core of that. That’s why we fight hard to protect those that do the right thing, which means by definition we have to be hard on those who do the wrong thing.” (Ian Robson Source 2/12/15)

So, coming into the Round Ten match between the Wanderers and Victory there was a shared history of playing some high quality football matches against each other, synergies in terms of politics and attitudes from the respective clubs’ leaderships, a parallel approach to protesting the FFA from the most active fans, and finally the vitally important aspect of this being a first versus second top of the table clash. With the fragile peace of the FFA and active fans in place, there was every expectation this would be a cracker of a game on almost every level.

For me the lead up to the game involved a riff off my usual processes before a Wanderers game. I headed into the local Bavarian Bier Cafe for some German pork goodness and a litre stein. There I met with some of my comrades, RBB and non-active alike, and we chewed the fat whilst I chewed the schnitzel. There was plenty of discussion about form, players, the FFA, the boycott’s cessation, and then came the RBB march, which I and many others watched with pride and happiness:

Then it was a quick Hofbrau Dunkel-soaked stroll over to Wanderland, the usual rigmarole of getting into the stadium, grabbing a seat, saying hello to my game day acquaintances nearby, and awaiting kick-off. The Wanderers had an almost totally fit squad for Popa to call on, with only Piovaccari being a nominal first team absentee. For the visitors (whose fans were in decent numbers down in the away fan seating) their biggest gap was their absent captain Carl Valeri. However these were two line ups brimming with quality; Andreu, Nichols, Bridge, Dimas, Vidosic, Castelen and Jamieson for the home team, Ben Khalfallah, Barbarouses, Berisha, Vukovic, Finkler, Bozanic for Victory. The opening twenty or so minutes were exciting, attractive, filled with fast paced and creative football, and to be honest there could’ve been several goals scored. Redmayne almost gifted a Victory goal, if it hadn’t been for an errant Berisha finish followed by a goal line clearance from Scott Jamieson. At the other end Mark ‘Fat Head’ Bridge had two golden chances that he missed with all the aplomb of a man who did this regularly during his golden run in 2012/13. From there the match settled into thrust and counter-thrust, the referee arguably being more interventionist than he needed to be. However there was one man who stood head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch; the Wanderers’ import Romeo Castelen.

If ever a player deserved to shine as part of the new attractive, aggressive, possession-based Wanderers’ system it is Romeo. Brought into the club before the 2014/15 season, he was in some eyes a natural replacement for Youssouf Hersi. Like his countryman, Castelen was given the role of playing in a right wing position, nominally both creating chances and finishing them off, whilst where necessary drifting into the centre or even over to the other flank for defensive requirements or counter-attacking thrusts. Sadly for Romeo the combination of a dysfunctional schedule for the entire club, resulting from the Wanderers’ ACL and CWC commitments, plus his own injury woes meant he had minimal impact through the annus horribilis of last season. Aside from a very good game against a depleted Brisbane Roar up at Suncorp he never went near matching the standard of his predecessor from the Eredivisie.

This season however Castelen has blossomed, undoubtedly due to having a better fitness regime and a more suitable tactical structure in place which is aided and abetted by the Spanish midfielders Andreu and Dimas. He caused all manner of worries for Adelaide when the Wanderers picked up their first point of the current season, and whilst he again missed some matches due to injury, his return to first team play in recent rounds has shown he is a very important, high quality element of the Wanderers. However he took this to a new level in Saturday’s match against the Victory. As outlined in this Sydney Morning Herald report Romeo was in shining form against the current A-League champions. It was the kind of effort that, in the context of past Wanderers versus Victory matches, was right up their with the aforementioned Ono double in season one.

The manner in which Castelen dominated his opposition whilst on the field was certainly eye-catching, not just for the partisans of either club in the match, but also for the neutrals. He was able to make Macedonian-Australian international Daniel Giorgievski look cod ordinary, and Victory’s Tunisian ace from last season Ben Khalfallah also seemed to cower under Romeo’s shadow. Vukovic was the one who felt the worst of the Dutchman’s work, starting with some incisive passes that almost set up a goal for Bridge, which was subsequently scuffed. Then just before half time Castelen put his foot through the ball in such a manner it took a wonder save via the Victory goal keeper’s left leg to keep the scores locked at 0-0.

In the second half he turned from major threat to shuddering terror for the visitors. There was a deserving call for a penalty denied and more florid movement with the ball on the right flank, before he finally had Fat Head do the right thing by one of his passes:

Then, to top things off Castelen finally put the ball into the back of the Victory net in the 78th minute after he hit a hard shot low and straight at Vukovic. Sadly for the Victory but happily for Romeo and the Wanderers family the shot was badly handled by the visitor’s goalie, hence:

 Not long thereafter Castelen was subbed, being replaced by Golgol Mebrahtu. I’ll be honest; when it comes to Golgol I have a soft spot for this Wanderer, insofar as he has had a helluva time battling injuries since he first joined the club. I can still recall with admiration and respect his goal scored against the red and black, when he represented Melbourne Heart, in the closing stages of the Wanderers remarkable run of wins in season one.

Mebrahtu has barely worn the Wanderers’ colours competitively since he first signed for the club, and it must be assumed that the coaching staff believe he can add a lot to the existing squad having kept him on the books for so long. He played an important hand in the FFA Cup Round of 32 match out at Penrith before the start of the 2015/16 WSW campaign, however again succumbed to an injury. Bottom line, with Castelen off the pitch it was rewarding to see Golgol given a chance to get a run and remind us all of his capabilities (within the last 10 minutes or so let in the match).

Another ex-Heart player who appeared for the Wanderers (getting another full match under his belt) was Andrew Redmayne. The goal keeper who arguably had the worst reputation among regular starters in the A-League before 2015/16 has become a far better stopper than he once was, undoubtedly due to the influence of Zeljko Kalac. Yes, there was a terrible fumble that could’ve led to a goal in the early stages of the first half. However, not long thereafter he turned what should’ve been a Barbarouses goal around the right goal post, Ante Covic ACL Final style, then in the second half made a crucial save to stop a solid shot from Connor Pain from drawing the Victory level.

In some respects it is unfair to single out the likes of Castelen and Redmayne for their heroics. This was a total team performance that was at a standard I have not seen before from the Wanderers. It wasn’t a dogged, driven, defensive effort like those that won the club trophies and plaudits in their first ACL campaign. Nor was it a counter-attacking, reactive style of play where Topor-Stanley would hoof the ball up towards a forward who might lay it off for a second man, as used with great effectiveness in the first Wanderers’ A-League season. When you see the high press, possession based style being implemented by Popa and his other training staff with his squad, including the crucial Spanish trio of Alberto, Andreu and Dimas, it is hardly surprising that words such as ‘breathless’, ‘relentlessness’ and ‘a joy to watch’ are bandied around.

However what was happening on the pitch was only part of the story. There was, returning to the off-the-field culture issues of active support, media disinformation and FFA administrative and PR fuck-ups, a need for this match to be a show case for all that was great not just about the Wanderers, but the entire experience of football in Australia. Thankfully, the supporters who attended the match, whether part of the overwhelming majority of red and black fans and members, or those who traveled as Victory partisans, were in big numbers and wonderful form. The crowd of 17,073 was the highest number to attend a regular A-League season game at Wanderland outside a WSW versus Smurfs derby, thus belying the ridiculous lies from the likes of Rebecca Wilson re people staying away from the A-League games due to active supporters. Fox Football commentator Simon Hill made pointed reference to her and others of her tawdry, ill-informed ilk whilst celebrating the atmosphere and passion that was on display in Parramatta:

From my own personal standpoint over in the Eastern Stand, it was a game day experience where the joie de vivre of just being there (particularly after the troubles of the boycott held during the previous round’s matches, or the walk-out undertaken up in Gosford the week before that) added a soupçon of happiness to the raucous, passionate, energetic, at times ribald atmosphere. Every chant had a bit of extra bite and bounce to it, every insult hurled at the ref and linesmen came with a hearty laugh, and even the Victory supporters seemed to share in the joyful excitement. I’ll admit there was a certain chant that may have raised eyebrows  (‘intercourse the Victory, intercourse the Victory, Melbourne boys are still number two’), and I guess wowsers and overly sensitive folk may find it offensive. Of course I could make a point about the hypocrisy of attacking people for using a swear word at the football versus finding no moral problems with watching convicted criminals at the AFL or NRL, but I shan’t. Instead I’ll just point out the most potent problem with that chant; at the end of the match ‘Melbourne boys’ were n fact number three (on the ladder). Oh, and to further undermine the haters’ paradigm of anti-social soccer hooligans  lighting flares, and mass arrests, not a single moment of pyro use arose at the ground, and as far as I am aware not a single arrest was made by the bored, inactive members of the NSW constabulary. The RBB were simply superb, acting as the touch paper to ignite an explosion of football passion.

Photo courtesy of FourFourTwo Australia & Eric Berry

Young RBB Members

When all was said and done post-match I made a point when seeing some Victory fans outside Pirtek Stadium to thank them, and congratulate them for traveling and helping us show how very, very, very good it is to experience Australian football at its best. It only seemed fair to recognise that without an opponent of such a high quality the Wanderers’ couldn’t respond accordingly. Nor for that matter would it be right to not, after the dust had settled, to shake hands with similarly passionate fans who have shared our recent fight against maladministration and misrepresentation.

Let me close by heading back to what I said right at the beginning of this post. I’ve seen some marvellous games and shared in some memorable moments of camaraderie in my three and a bit seasons of being a passionate Western Sydney Wanderers’ member. At the very summit is that Sunday morning last year when the Red and Black faithful congregated outside Parramatta Town Hall to witness the Wanderers’ claim the ACL crown in Riyadh. However, only a few virtual feet below that Everest like peak of satisfaction and happiness wrought through football and through WSW is the K2-like 2-0 win against Melbourne Victory on December 12th 2015. I was bloody ecstatic to be there, and the win was made all the more sweeter because I shared with my brothers and sisters the moment of standing up and saying to the haters and to the FFA, ‘Fuck you…WE ARE FOOTBALL!’

The Wanderers and the Evolution Revolution (Or From Windy Wellington to Protesting Parra in Four Seasons)

On last Saturday night the Western Sydney Wanderers secured their sixth win on the trot during the current 2015/16 A-League season, thanks in no small part to a wonder goal scored by the latest example of a Tony Popovic rescue mission, Mitch Nichols. His floating, curling, smart bomb of a strike flashed past the Brisbane Roar goal keeper Jamie Young, hitting the top left of the goal’s netting with all the elliptical power of a Supermarine Spitfire. That superlative effort sealed a 2-1 win at home for the Wanderers, thus placing them at the top of the current A-League table for the first time since the halcyon days of that season, the season when the Wanderers came into the competition as debutantes, newbies, new kids on the block.

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Considering the tumultuous changes and experiences since the securing of the A-League premier’s plate back in March 2013, including the narrow loss to Brisbane Roar in the 2013/14 Grand Final and the sensational victory in the 2014 ACL campaign, to the debacle of last season’s domestic season and the mass turn over in staff before the beginning of the current competition, it seems appropriate to review where the Wanderers were back in December 2012, and compare and contrast that situation with the current iteration of the team and staff.

The first and most obvious comparative element is the continuance of Tony Popovic in the coaching role. He was there at Westpac Stadium in windy Wellington for the Round 9 2012/13 loss against the Phoenix, and he was still wielding the black note book three years later at home against Brisbane. However the Popa of Season One is not the Popa of Season Four when it comes to tactical systems. The Wanderers version 1.0 was a team that held to three precepts, undoubtedly stipulated by the coach and his staff. Firstly there was a dogged and solid defensive back four. Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Michael Beauchamp would serve as the core of this wall, whilst on either side Jerome Polenz, Adam D’Apuzzo, Tarek Elrich or maybe Shannon Cole would be vigorous in both protecting the flanks, or transitioning with the appropriate flanking midfielder to create a counter attack. This was all aimed at giving the heroic Ante Covic as much cover as possible, and when he was challenged he almost always came up with quality saves.

The second tactical structure employed by Popa in that first season was the use of the midfield in two separate phases or areas of the pitch. In defence La Rocca, Poljak and Mooy were charged with adding an extra level of shielding to the Wanderers back four, whilst in the offensive Ono prowled in a fairly central position for either passes from his team mates, or spills from tackles effected on the opposition, to prime a forward attack. The right and left backs and their similarly sided forwards (Hersi and Bridge) would often interpose into this phase of midfield play, either by (as previously mention) by linking up with said backs or moving centrally closer to the midfielders. It was very much a system of swamping and pressing the opposition whilst keeping the back and central thirds compact for either absorbing the other team’s attack or readying the counter.

The final Popa ploy when it came to tactical systems was the use of the second man attack, or as I like to think of it, ‘Kick it to or around Dino and see if Bridge, Hersi or Shinji can score off the big Croat”. It wasn’t crude route one football, however with Kresinger hardly banging in the goals it made perfectly acceptable sense for Popovic to look to those beside or immediately behind him to feed off his work. With Kresinger imposing his impressive bulk in the box or near by, the more fleet-footed attacking trio combined to either collect the ball from or within the melee around Dino, or to profit from the crosses and passes put through by (most particularly) Jerome Polenz. Goals came from these counter punches and from the opportunistic chances created by this system, with an additional slab of Shinji Ono brilliance every now and again.

The bottom line? Tony Popovic in season one was a coach who did the absolute best with is hastily recruited player stocks to match them to a playing system that would deny the opposition goals, create pressures both defensively and offensively in the midfield and on the flanks, whilst up front goals were scored by second men. It was a remarkably successful system, considering (aside from the ladder position) it was the most miserly for conceding goals (21) for the 2012/13 season and the equal second most productive in scoring (41).

Coming forward to Wanderers Version 4.0, we have seen in the first nine rounds of this season a far more possession back transitional system of play that has put paid to almost all the specific elements identified above in Popa’s first tactical systems. The Leopold Method analysis of what has become the modus operandi of Popovic’s direction for the players succinctly describes it as:

Shifting to a new possession-based game has been a long-term project for Popovic, one delayed by the demanding schedule that saw them lift the Asian Champions League trophy twelve months ago. This season with a new and fresher squad he has managed to progress this evolution.

The Wanderers are completing more passes than they ever have before. They’ve gone from completing the fewest or second fewest in their first three seasons to the fourth most this season, but importantly they have also increased their passes and open play touches in the final third – they aren’t simply rotating the ball around in defence for the sake of it. In the final third they are completing passes at the highest rate in their short history – indicative of how they are trying to build attacks in the final third rather than attack quickly and more directly.

The wholesale personnel changes wrought by Popa and the club at the beginning of season four have undoubtedly played a role in this change, and perhaps one of the most telling examples of this development has been the departure of Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca, replaced by the two Spaniards Dimas and Andreu. Unlike in season one where La Rocca and Poljak served as that additional defensive screen, now we see Andreu and Dimas tracking back, transitioning, moving the ball around far more creatively so they can link with Mitch Nichols.

Dimas, Nichols & Andreu: The Current Key Wanderers Midfielders

 As coach Tony Popovic has also directed the evolution of another key element of the first season team, current captain and central defender Nikolai Topor Stanley. It was not uncommon to see NTS rely on some physical challenges and booming long drop kicks as the leitmotifs of his play in 2012/13. Come forward to 2015/16 and he is far more willing to take the ball up either in company with Andreu and/or Dimas, or even…quelle surprise…run up to and over the half way, interposing himself into an extra attacking role. Whereas in the Wanderers first season Nikolai worked with Beauchamp like a Siamese twin, and in seasons two and three he let Spiranovic or another central partner be the transitional player at the back, NTS in 2015/16 looks to becoming a much taller, swarthier version of Philip Lahm.

So when one considers what changes have been wrought by Popovic tactically between now and the Round 9 match against Wellington Phoenix back in December 2012, the Western Sydney Wanderers have become less dependent upon the back and middle thirds holding strong defensively, whilst using some counter-punches thrown somewhat opportunistically in the final offensive third to score goals. In the first nine matches of this season Popovic has given every indication he has the goal of using a more technical, passing-based transitional system both defensively and when attacking, and so far it would be hard to deny that his aims are being met.

 One thing that does not appear to have changed since the debut season of the Wanderers in the A-League is the intensity of training and fitness requirements under Popovic. The same training regime that was recognised by the football media when reviewing the lead up to the 2014 ACL championship win, focused on an authoritarian, highly physically demanding system has not undergone revision (if these comments from current left back Scott Jamieson are to be believed):

The Wanderers are the hottest team in the competition right now. And the club’s left-back Scott Jamieson feels the success is due to the “brutal” approach of coach Tony Popovic and his staff.

“We’re in a good frame of mind but we’re also realistic, we can’t just turn up and not work hard at training,” Jamieson told reporters on Tuesday.

“Just because we’ve won six doesn’t mean we just turn up and have a joke and a laugh.

“This coaching staff is pretty brutal, and if you do that you will be sitting out training and have a few days in the gym by yourself.”

There is also some similarities between the supporting coaching staff from 2012/13 and 2015/16. Original assistant coach Ante Milicic and goal keeping coach Ron Corry were instrumental in working with Popovic, in the former’s case often being responsible reinforcing the overall philosophy of the head coach with training drills etc, whilst the latter engaged with his charges (Covic and Tyson) to try and maintain excellence whilst looking for developing skill sets. Come forward to their replacements, Andres Carrasco and Zeljko Kalac and we are seeing similar responsibilities, similar aims. Carrasco’s influence and role has been articulated this:

It’s a philosophy Carrasco held when recommended by his then-university lecturer to Barcelona and refined through the jobs as a scout and coach from their juniors up to their under-16s. 

But ideology alone doesn’t translate to the final product, that much relies on the players. 

“The smart coach knows how to take the best from the players he has. If you have players with one profile, more defensive for example with a capacity to work, maybe you have to play matches different. If you have more talented players you can work more with the ball,” Carrasco said.

A key component to the squad renovations during the off-season was bringing in those who were up to the tasks of carrying out such specific orders. Carrasco calls them “Peloteros,” the typically Spanish style of ball player who controls play almost effortlessly. 

“I think it is maybe easier if you have the players and all of them are with a similar style,” Carrasco said. (Source: Wanderers coach Andres Carrasco turned down Paris Saint Germain for Parramatta, SMH 20/11/15)

As for Kalac, there is undoubtedly a marked effect on his charges, with current no.1 goalie Andrew Redmayne returning more clean sheets for the Wanderers so far this season than his form at Melbourne City/Heart indicated possible. Plus, as ‘Redders’ himself says:

“[Before the season] he said I had a good base level but there were a lot of technical things that needed to be tweaked, and completely changed in some forms, so we worked really hard in pre-season and I’m continuing to learn and really enjoying the path that I’m on,” (‘Wanderers’ Redmayne benefitting from Spider’s touch’ HAL News 4/12/15)

Whilst tactical systems have evolved, ideologies refined, personnel moved on or brought in, one part of the Wanderers’ make up this season which does not look to have changed is their mental strength and motivation to succeed. Obviously all clubs and all players have the drive to win, however there is (in my opinion) unique circumstances around the Wanderers this season that mirror their psychology from 2012/13.

Obviously back before season one the mission for Lyall Gorman, Tony Popovic and other staff and players was to establish the Wanderers after a fairly short build up period. For example, here is a quote from inaugural skipper Michael Beauchamp prior to the first round of the 2012/13 season:

”We’re putting pressure on ourselves to do well and, in saying that, we’ve left no stone unturned and the boss has done everything right. We’re not here to make up the numbers, we’re here to perform, we’re here to be competitive every week.” (Write off Wanderers at your peril, warns Beauchamp, SMH 6/10/12)

After the disastrous 2014/15 campaign and the resultant shedding of so many squad members, the Wanderers have the hallmarks of almost starting from scratch, as if it was stunde null again. Yet the players both old and new are maintaining their own internal motivations, striving to achieve results through performance standards they believe they can meet, as if it was first season again, as indicated by Scott Jamieson after the Wanderers win over Melbourne City:

“We didn’t get the results at the start of the season, but we always believed in what we were doing was important,” he said. “Three wins in a row is good, but we’re only early on in the season so we won’t get carried away.”
Jamieson added: “We feel we’re a very strong team and we’ll go deep into this competition regardless of whether we’d won three in a row,” he said. “We believe in what we’re doing.” (Jamieson Backs Piovaccari, FourFourTwo Australia, 16/11/15)

There will always be the desire to promote oneself and one’s club as having such self-belief, having such a rock solid motivation. However the manner in which the Wanderers have had to develop their team spirit, their elan, has come through most dramatically as a result of either having just been formed or having been almost utterly dismantled and then re-formed. It’s well and good to mouth platitudes about team spirit when the bulk of your squad is the same as what you had last season, or when your club has years of history to draw on. The Wanderers of 2015/16 are much like that squad that rolled up as the newest club in the A-League three years ago, in that they have a belief that comes organically from a need to prove themselves in the most challenging of circumstances. The squad demonstrate a definitive psychological continuity when it comes to how they approach playing under Tony Popovic.

Perhaps the other considerable element in the Western Sydney Wanderers environment that has not changed between 2012/13 and 2015/16 is that of the relationship between the players and the fans. Foundation captain Michael Beauchamp said on retiring, after his final match in the red and black:

“We’ve shown in two years the level that we can take football to here in ­Australia, not only on the park but off the park with the community work, with the fans, with the RBB,” (source 27/5/14)

Additonally here are the thoughts of Jerrad Tyson, when asked to talk about the RBB back in February 2013:

The Red and Black Bloc have taken active support to a new level. I’ve said it a number of times but without question the RBB have been directly responsible for a number of vital points claimed in our rise up the ladder. Whether it was inspiring us to go harder in the last 5 mins against Roar and get the winner, or dominate Melbourne Heart with 10 men for almost the whole game and win. They inspire us to do the things that no other club is doing. (From The Stands, 18/2/13)

Come forward to the recent RBB led walk out of the match against Central Coast Mariners and the boycott of the Brisbane Roar home match, and the Wanderers current players offer their support, as per Scott Jamieson’s comments:

“All the fans that did come (last week) made it as good as they can, but that RBB feel is like no other,” Jamieson said on Tuesday.

“We really do need them, but we also understand that they haven’t been treated right and they deserve to stand up and speak up.

“But hopefully, this meeting tomorrow can really try and mend a few things.” (SBS – The World Game: 8/12/15)

Then there was one of the very few survivors from the first season Wanderers’ squad, current Captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley, and his thoughts regarding the club’s fans:

“We want our fans there – they’re the best fans in the league by a country mile,” a diplomatic Topor-Stanley said ahead of Sunday’s away clash with the Mariners.

“But we understand the issues that they have and we’re all in this together,”  (SBS – The World Game: 27/11/15)

The RBB and less active fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers have formed such a strong bond with the players, and the players (both past and present) that it is most satisfying to see these bonds retained from 2012/13 to the current A-League season.

In closing, perhaps the best way to sum up how things have changed at Wanderland between that first, miraculously successful season and the current 2015/16 campaign is that the changes are almost all tactical, on the field, with personnel and names altered from our inaugural A-League adventure. However the soul of the club, the psychology, the motivation and the commitment is still very much the same. The Wanderers have experienced unbelievable highs and some savage lows, yet for all these variations in fate their answer has been to try and get better on the pitch whilst staying true to their principles and community off it.

Some Verbiage On the Wanderers versus Gunners in 2017 (Or how Manfred has gone audio)

In light of today’s announcement regarding the securing of a friendly match between the Western Sydney Wanderers and Arsenal in July 2017, to be played at ANZ stadium, I thought I’d take the opportunity to try some new tech (well new for me). Et voila…Manfred speaks: