Wandering Off Course, Or How The Good Times Soured

Up until the news broke about the pay dispute I would suggest almost every member and fan of the Wanderers thought that our club was different. I know I was guilty of feeling that things were going to be far rosier for us than they have been at other A-League clubs, in part due to our success, in part due to the people I know personally or indirectly online as fellow supporters, and in part due to the gap in the way the club’s administration and playing stocks were nominally managed and what was seen elsewhere (particularly Sydney FC). There was obviously the warm inner glow of having achieved so much in our first two seasons as a functioning, successful, competitive club domestically and indeed internationally. A Premier’s title in our first season, longest streak for successive wins in the A-League also wrought back in 2012/13, two Grand Finals and of course the historic AFC Champions’ League title all created a remarkable record to build expectations and support upon. The growth in membership, starting from zero back in 2013, to over 18,000, and by association the continued acknowledgment of the RBB as being one of the best supporter groups in the country, has fueled that belief. It’s hard not to get pumped when you read comments like this from the CEO of the FFA:

“(David) Gallop says the Wanderers have changed the landscape of Australian sport, partly due to their fan group the Red and Black Bloc.

” “Australian sport has never seen the level of engagement inside stadiums like they create,” Gallop said.

” “I love the story of the grandmother that hands out throat lozenges in the RBB. They’ve definitely been a shot in the arm for the entire A-League and I think they’ve been a critical part in football’s booming popularity because people have sat up and taken notice of the A-League in some way because of the Wanderers, and that’s only going to get bigger and bigger in the decades to come. (source)”

Additionally, there had been the a wonderful relationship built between the club and its supporters best exemplified by the words and deeds of two people, Lyall Gorman and Jerrad Tyson. Gorman, our former club CEO, made a point of again and again drawing a distinct connection between the values of the club and the community it represents, as seen in words such as these:

“…that is, to contribute to the greater good of Western Sydney. If it was ever about me, we’d be in trouble as a club – and you know, I’d have no value so it’s never about me trying to put my profile out there. It’s about making sure our club is visible, but in a positive way so that it’s seen to be a community asset. It’s about making a difference and adding value….to be involved in supporting activities that are put on by other people in the community that are working hard. I think we have, you know, a corporate responsibility to be out there critically involved in our community.” (source)

And these

“We really empowered the community to have a sense of ownership of the club. We stand on their shoulders here today and I’m privileged in the role of group CEO to have 47 years of people working and sowing and making the fertile ground for this football club.

“There’s a rich history there which we can’t afford to do anything but embrace and stand on their shoulders. They’re the true pioneers of the game and … we need to engage and embrace (them), and if they’re not in the tent, bring them back into the tent. That was the call we learned at the Wanderers.’’ (source)

Obviously some of this may have been seen as marketing spin, however I know from a personal conversation with Lyall he believed in this mantra.

Then there is our ex-reserve goalkeeper Jerrad Tyson. Even as recently as the home leg final for the AFC Champion’s League Jerrad was there to support the club and the players, amid the heart and soul of the club, the RBB:

The awarding of the ME Bank Fairer Player Award for 2013/14 to Jerrad was also a signal of his engagement with the Wanderers community, and perhaps it was all the more remarkable that the prize was given to a man who stood more often than not in the shadows of regular goalie Ante Covic. It could be said that his efforts off the pitch were more appreciated by those of the Wanderers’ fan base and membership community because he was willing and able to be just like so many of us; working hard behind the scenes without that much recognition. I don’t believe it would be too bold to argue that Tyson was a wonderful example of the Western Sydney spirit (which was even more remarkable considering his Queenslander heritage).

Now at this point I need to stop waxing lyrical about the past and trying to fill in the gaps between my hypothesis of how the Wanderers were nominally different because of the behaviours of the club in, for and with the community, to focus on the here and now. To be blunt, those ideals of past values and of a sense of being better or different to our rivals are now badly fractured. There is a new cold reality that all Wanderers fans must deal with. We are no longer the fairy tale of Australian, or indeed international football, with a romantic or mythic narrative, where we win more often than not, we are able to shrug off adversity, and remain united across all groups, whether we talk about players, owners or fans. The Wanderers are now a football club that can in many ways be hardly distinguished from hundreds from around the world. The last week or so of pay disputes, of mainstream and social media battles, of members arguing vociferously for or against aspects of the owners’ or players’ behaviours, means we have now (for want of a better phrase) grown up and had a hard, bitter lesson in the reality of the business of football. To top it off the first match for the Wanderers of the Club World Cup match against Cruz Azul pointed out some limitations to what can be achieved by this club, no matter how much we believe in its core values and qualities.

I don’t want to cast aspersions or throw mindless accusations out there, and if my narrative of the issues  at hand are a bit skew-whiff I apologise. It must be said however that the intransigence of management (either directly or indirectly influenced by the club owners) when negotiating with the players has been a brewing issue for some time now, and has arguably been around since at least the beginning of this year. The manner in which gifted and crucial overseas players from our first season Shinji Ono, Jerome Polenz and Youssouf Hersi were rumoured to have been dealt with when it came to extending and/or improving their contracts back in the middle of last season were not dissimilar to what was experienced by the current player group. If this story that circulated around the time of Shinji Ono’s contract not being extended is true there already was a worrying refusal or neglect of negotiations with the players from the administration, prior to the sale of the Wanderers to the Paul Lederer led group. The combination of management waiting until the last minute to resolve contract issues and the players waiting for a response sounds eerily familiar to those problems raised in the recent troubles.

When the news broke on December 6th that the players were considering a boycott of the Club World Cup in Morocco there was without doubt some serious debate and consternation among the members and fans. As seen below, the opinions ranged from pissed off over the owners’ attitudes, worry about either the squad actually playing at the CWC, and if they did what impact the dispute would have,  concerns about the finances of the club, the role of the PFA and mistakes they may have made, and even talk about greedy players and writing off the current a-League season:

unnamed

unnamed (2)

unnamed (1)

These posts from the core Wanderers fan forum were indicative of what became a very divisive issue for those in the stands, whilst at Wanderland, at the club’s HQ and even throughout the broader football community battle lines were drawn over the rights of the players to expect the bonuses they received after their AFC Champions’ League triumph to be replicated at the CWC. Shannon Cole, a player who has formed part of the bank of rotated reserves usually used by Tony Popovic when a first choice right or left back is unavailable or needs a rest, took up the cudgels for the players with management in his role as PFA delegate, and there was plenty of support for him and the players expressed across the entire A-League:

unnamed (3)

At this point I have to state that I personally was in favour of the demands of the players to get more than the 10% originally offered. However there were some caveats that needed to apply, particularly in terms of the PFA and the players using the Adelaide 2008 experience as a paradigm for payments, plus the belief that a better bonus structure was assumed to be in place based on the players’ CBA, when in all honesty the CWC bonus arrangement should’ve been stipulated from the get-go.

Where things really did go off the rails for most fans and members of the Wanderers is that for the first time they saw their beloved club’s owners behave in what might be considered in some quarters a capricious and rude way, and in other people’s opinions, they acted like fiscally prudent businessmen protecting the club’s future. The latter motive was self-consciously integrated into the Wanderers’ management’s reply to the brouhaha as it developed, as seen in their statement issued on Monday 8th December. By talking about the difference between player’s appearance money and bonuses, and the desire to invest 90% of the CWC ‘residual amounts’ into “the purposes of enhancing and improving current training and player facilities, as well as junior academy, community, indigenous and women’s programs“, the owners and managers of the Wanderers were putting it out there that the players were effectively robbing the club of long term future investments, even though they had been the agents of achieving the success in the first place.

All this talk was to some extent acceptable as part of the argy-bargy of any wage negotiation, as seen both inside and outside the world of football. As Craig Foster said both on TV and in his weekly Sun Herald column the issue was not necessarily about the here and now, but instead a fight that players of his generation and even older had had to deal with back in 1997, or earlier immediately before the 1974 World Cup Finals. That aspect tapped into other streams of discontent or dispute, but straight away any long term football fan in this country who was now associated with the Wanderers could see an end to the ‘unique difference’ our club had. The likes of Lederer and his associates as owners of the Wanderers were following the spirit, if not the exact same practices, of the preceding suits and backroom staff at other clubs or indeed nationally in Australia’s football history.

To be honest, it has come as a rude shock to many who have sworn to always stay faithful to the red and black, that these behaviours have now tainted what was supposed to be the best new phenomenon to hit our sport in this country. It could be said that what was worse about the dispute, before its resolution on December 12th was that the owners and managers of the Wanderers put themselves into the same basket from a public perception as the likes of Nathan Tinkler, Tony Sage, Tony Pignata and the unlamented ex-Gold Coast United owner Clive Palmer. At a time when the club should’ve been celebrating the achievement of making the Club World Cup it was embroiled in a sticky situation made nasty by the simple irritant of the club’s authorities being uncommunicative. For those of us who have relied on the mantra first propagated by the likes of Lyall Gorman, as featured above, or indeed by Paul Lederer himself, it was a bit of a kick in the guts:

“I have been a director of the club for the past two years and I’ve had the privilege to play a part and see first-hand what makes this club so special,” he said.

“The consortium has responsibility to ensure the Wanderers have a sound financial base and a strong administration so the club can continue to grow and be successful on and off the field.” (Paul Leder, ABC Grandstand, 14/5/14)

What made the Wanderers special up until the pay dispute was not the minutiae of fiscal responsibility or indeed the players’ personalities and achievements (though these aspects did help). What was different for old hands or new bandwagoners who threw in their lot with the Western Sydney Wanderers was over the last few years the perception was we were not like Sydney FC with its bumbling troika of Traktavenko, Barlow and Pignata. Nor were we like the cheapskate, forever poor Mike Charlesworth owned Central Coast Mariners, the fractured, in-fighting, Tony Sage owned Perth Glory, or if one was to look overseas, like a Vincent Tan owned Cardiff City.

This disillusionment meant that coming into the Club World Cup some serious joy was taken out of the club;s achievements leading into the match, and has arguably soured the efforts of all for the remainder of the current A-League season. The impact on the medium and long-term future of the club is hard to assess, though it must be said that some existing players may be more keen to leave at the first appropriate opportunity than they may have been in the past, and it may mean potential recruits will look askance at the owners and managers and ponder if they will be treated as negligently. However most importantly those of us who have been on this fantastic ride over the last thirty odd months or part thereof have been sobered up, with some degree of our innocence gone. The Wanderers experience has soured somewhat, however its hopefully also a sign of our maturation, and a period of conflict to build from, not to pull apart.

How To Beat Al Hilal (Or a Keyboard Warrior’s Manifesto for Popa)

Tomorrow morning in the wee small hours thousands of devoted Western Sydney Wanderers will aggregate together in Parramatta, or perhaps at Club Marconi in Bossley Park, or at Blacktown Workers, or even just stumble out of bed and put the TV onto FoxSports, and every one will have that one hope; bring home the Champions’ League trophy. No doubt many of them, plus non-Wanderer viewers, will have ideas as to how Popovic’s squad can achieve what so many thought was impossible and create a new glorious page in football’s history down under. So, to fulfill that obligation of being a rabid armchair expert, here are my thoughts on how to beat Al Hilal.

1. Self-Belief

If there is one match winning quality that had been demonstrated time and time again by the Wanderers, not just in the 2014 AFC Champions’ League, it has been a well adjusted sense of self-belief. I’m not talking the mind games and braggart behaviour coming through from the likes of Al Hilal’s coach Laurentiu Reghecampf who, when at a pre-match press conference said “No, I promise you we won’t lose tomorrow. I’m going to see to that and I hope that [Western] Sydney will stay a small team.” (source). It’s the kind of confidence and self-belief that club leaders such as captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley (“It’s a massive, massive game, we’re under no illusions about that but we’re really excited to be 90 minutes away from being champions.”) and coach Tony Popovic have kept talking about:

“They’re here because they deserve to be here,” he said of his men.”They’re motivated enough, they’re not here for a holiday, they’re here to win the final.” (source)

Tony Popovic: mastermind of the ascent of the Western Sydney Wanderers

Perhaps the mentality that is most indicative of where the Wanderers are and hopefully need to be at when it comes to beating Al Hilal is that spoken of by heroic goalkeeper Ante Covic:

“There’s going to be 65-odd thousand Hilal supporters and they’re going to make it as intimidating as possible and try and wear us down in that aspect,” said Covic, who was impressive in the 1-0 first leg win in Sydney. “But we’re not going to fall under that kind of pressure. We know that they’re going to be confident, they’re playing at home and they’re rubbing it in our faces how daunting it’s going to be in front of their fans and how we’ve seen nothing yet. We’re not going to fall for those traps. We just know that we’re going to be in for a good, hard, solid game against a quality opposition.” (source)

Make no mistake; the players, coaching staff and administrators have known for sometime that this entire AFC Champions’ League campaign has been one of extraordinary challenge, but also one that they deserve to be part of and where their victories have been well won. There has been none of the arrogance and dare I say sense of entitlement that has oozed from clubs that have boasted about their chances before being beaten by the Wanderers (hello Guangzhou Evergrande), nor as there been a self-pity or contemplation of the imbalance between club resources. Instead Popovic and the rest of the squad have turned up to every match with the innate self-belief that comes not from ego, but from achievement on the pitch and solidarity within all involved in the mission to hand.

2. Acknowledge but don’t fear the Al Hilal’s Home Turf

There has been talk again and again and again from the fans of Al Hilal, the media, the coach, the owners…everyone involved with the Saudi powerhouse, about the imposing quantity and quality of support that last week’s losers will bring on board when at home in Riyadh this week. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that these kinds of statements are just nervous dog whistles; Al Hilal will have a packed King Fahd Stadium awaiting the Wanderers and almost 99.9% of the 65,000 spectators will be backing the home team. Then there is the much talked about heat, the potential for any shenanigans from the locals, and the distance involved in traveling to Riyadh for the Wanderers.

However recent Wanderers’ experiences have shown that they are capable of dealing with similar circumstances and coming through with flying colours. The away leg to Guangzhou Evergrande was without doubt the hardest faced by any Australian football team since the away leg  of the World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay played by the Socceroos in Montevideo in 2001. In fact, whilst there was some nastiness involving the Socceroos when they arrived in Montevideo in 2001 the level of bastardry and the difficulty of the task at hand for the Wanderers when they went to Guangzhou was many times worse. From phone calls in the middle of the night through to staged bus accidents, and of course the huge disparity in terms of resources and fans available for the home side against the Wanderers, that Guangzhou Evergrande semi was exactly what was needed to give the Australian hope for Champions’ League glory an insight into away intimidation. And the players themselves know this:

“I always go back to that game against Guangzhou Evergrande and about how that was fantastic preparation for this,” he said. “We went through tough times on that trip. Mentally that’s not easy to take. We came through strong… and we can take that experience into this game.” (Brendon Santalab)

So having been through an arguably less pleasant experience than the one they are currently enduring, plus with a solid pre-season 10 day training camp run in Dubai, it can be confidently said that there are no fears within the squad when it comes to running out against the vociferous and fierce opposition of Al Hilal’s home support in a very warm Riyadh, thousands of kilometres away from Wanderland. This group of players, staff and even the fourteen Wanderers fans traveling to watch the final leg are not going to buckle easily where others wouldn’t even be willing or able to go.

3. Don’t Chase The Game Unless Necessary

The Wanderers have got results away from home in the AFC Champions’ League through replicating the same dogged and highly structured defence that has won them games at home not just in this tournament, but also in the A-League. Last week’s first leg was a typical example of what the Wanderers do so well, insofar as they usually deny the opposition clear chances on goal from open play and dead ball situations alike and thus keeping a clean sheet, Whilst they are known to concede they usually can score to balance the result. For example, with their 3-1 loss to Hiroshima Sanfrecce, their 2-1 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande and their 0-0 draw to FC Seoul the Wanderers have either built upon or set the stage for the needed result from back home (such as the respective 2-0, 1-0 and 2-0 wins in order against the same teams at Wanderland), and it is this ability to deter the opposition’s attack from overwhelming the Wanderers with goals that will be needed again for this final match against Al Hilal.

Wanderers V Hilal 2 Preview

The impregnanble defence of Ante Covic in front of the Wanderers goal against Al Hilal

Defensively the Wanderers are extremely good, and of course so much of this is built upon the two key players Nikolai Topor Stanley and Ante Covic. Having said that Mullen, Golec and Hamill have each made their presence felt, and in front of them Iaccopo La Rocca and recently Matteo Poljak have also helped keep down the oppositions’ chances for goals through the midfield. There is the possibility that Matthew Spiranovic may return for some game time however if last week’s match is any guide it won’t be too early and it may well be in a central midfielder’s role. However it will be Topor Stanley and Covic who will need to be at their best, and I would suggest they would do well to adjust slightly the emphasis on ball clearances from the back third of the field. The ‘if in doubt hoof it out’ system did the job at Wanderland however I would like to think that in Riyadh there will be more controlled disposal of dangerous balls.

As for the contrary aspect of attack, there is no need (unless they go down 2 early goals) for the Wanderers to chase the game. If they can stay compact and ride out the inevitable pressure from Al Hial they can hopefully do again what was achieved last week via Tomi Juric’s goal. Counter-punches are a frequent route for Wanderers success and with hopefully Labinot Haliti, Brendan Santalab and Tomi Juric all possible goal raiders there is every reason to believe that at least one goal can come to the red and black. If that happens then the task for Al Hilal becomes even more onerous.

4. Harness Vitor’s Frustration and Use It Intelligently

He has been portrayed as a genius and as a villain and yet he only has two full starst with the Wanderers in any competitive match so far. Vitor Saba has had a sizable impact off the bench thanks to his work during the 1-0 win over Guangzhou, and whilst he had only a few minutes on the pitch at Wanderland against Al Hilal last Saturday his class was obvious. Now there are stories like this coming out of the Wanderers’ camp:

Vitor Saba is unhappy starting games from the bench but is prepared to sacrifice minutes on the field if it means Western Sydney Wanderers return to Australia with the Asian Champions League trophy.

The Brazilian playmaker is not satisfied with a role as a substitute, having moved to Australia with the hope of playing regular football. Saba has started just one game in the Asian Champions League campaign and watched the bulk of the first leg of the final against Al-Hilal from the bench before entering as an 83rd-minute substitute.

He is eager to establish himself as a first-team player but admits it is difficult to argue against the selection policy due to the team’s performance and results in Asia. In the best interests of the team, Saba is prepared to bide his time and take his chances when they arrive.

“Of course I am not satisfied, but I respect his [coach Tony Popovic’s] decision because we are winning. I think every time that I am coming from the bench, I am coming for a purpose and my purpose is to help the team, and I think I am doing a good job. But, if you ask me if I want to sit on the bench? No, I do not want to. But now I have to think about what is most important and that’s the trophy … If I have to come five minutes, or 10 or 45, I have to be humble, stay on the bench and then come and do my best.”  (source)

Arguably somewhat volatile, I would suggest that Popa can and should keep Saba on the bench and then bring him into the match sometime in the second half to either give a tired Al Hilal more concerns in the midfield, plus relieve pressure on the Wanderers players in a similar role or out the back. Additionally, as a true no.10 he can act as a distributor for the likes of Juric, Santalab, Haliti or maybe even Mark Bridge. His eagerness to do well and his freshness, combined with the obvious talent his possesses will give Al Hilal some major food for thought.

Vitor Saba; the Wanderers midfielder who makes everyone pay attention

5. Keep The Ball Longer

One of the less impressive aspects of the Wanderers’ play in recent weeks has been their inability to retain the ball for long stretches and retain possession. In the match against Al Hilal last Saturday that issue reared its ugly head again and whilst possession for its own sake is not a match winner, denying the opposition a chance to use the ball to score goals is. In what could be very warm conditions having to chase turnovers could quickly erode the Wanderers’ fitness, vaunted as it is, and so making sure that al Hilal are not given any chance to intercept or steal loose balls particularly in the Wanderers’ half is of paramount concern.

6. When does Tomi Come On?

With injury worries over both Brendon Santalab (shoulder dislocation) and Tomi Juric (groin) the question is not will one be subbed off for the other, but when. Assuming that Santalab is able to start (and he himself has very confidence he can at least play) then I would think he would be the better option at the beginning, with Tomi to come on after him. I know that there have been several media pundits and experts who have said that Tomi needs to start, however I don’t believe he will be most effective from the get go right now. If he remains benched until at least the first half ends, or in a worse case scenario the Wanderers ship two goals without answer, then Popovic has the luxury of bringing him on with fresh legs and the ability to hopefully repeat his intimidating runs from last week. It may well be in fact that Juric will not be able to or need to score, and I would not be surprised if someone like Bridge or Haliti earns that distinctive honour. Popovic has a gun striker he can use when he believes he will have the most impact, and those who are probably going to line up won’t be that much less dangerous.

Tomi Juric: Wanderers striker and the man who gives Al Hilal nightmares

7. Shannon Cole: Mr Ubiquitous

An unsung hero of the Wanderers, Shannon Cole has been one of the best performers for the Wanderers in the Champions’ League tournament, and I expect him to start yet again as a right attacking midfielder. He was not embarrassed by his opposition last week, and in previous games has scored goals when needed. Whilst he may find himself at some stage of the game is either subbed for Spiranovic or Saba, I am certain he will be the Wanderers own ‘mini Phillip Lahm’. If defensive support is needed he should also be able to shore up his flank as well.

Shannon Cole: unsung hero for the Wanderers in ACL 2014

8. Watch for a change in style and new players from Al Hilal

Last week Al Hilal were nominally playing a style of match they were arguably unsuited to, looking to maximise speed, width and attack instead of their more traditional possession based game. Additionally their usual skipper, striker Yasser Al Qahtani is back after a suspension which meant he missed the first leg of the final in Wanderland. Thus Tony Popovic and the Wanderers on the pitch will need to be aware of actual and potential changes to the line up and style they will confront in the upcoming away leg. It will be interesting to see if Reghecampf tries to vary things a bit, as what was put on the field last Saturday night wasn’t bad. Either way there are some unknowns yet to be verified to come out of Al Hilal.

There are lots of other aspects of the match that bear some degree of examination when trying to work out how the Wanderers can win tonight. Discipline, interaction with the referee and other officials, the potential influence of one of the Wanderers’ squaddies (e.g. Jason Trifiro) or a younger player (Daniel Alessi perhaps, or Kwabena Appiah). The burden of two losses in A-League grand finals must be acknowledged and the mental or psychological ability of the players to get past those results will also go some way in determining if they can snatch the trophy in Riyadh. Finally, you are only as good as your opposition allows you to be, and in the case of al Hilal they have shown both a susceptibility of not being able to finish against the Wanderers, and letting the A-League team get one over them. The result is too hard to pick, but my heart is where it should be;

Come on you Wanderers!

Wandering Into Asia: The AFC Champions’ League Saga Out West

This evening the Wanderers play Saudi and AFC powerhouse Al-Hilal FC in the first league of the finals of the 2014 AFC Champions’ League, and I don’t consider it to be an exaggeration for me to call it the biggest club football match played in football in this country since at least the beginning of the A-League, if not since the sport actually kicked off here. Please understand I mean this as no disrespect to other clubs who have made forays either in continental or international tournaments, such as Adealide’s run to the same stage of the 2008 championship and their subsequent travel to the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup. Nor is this a sleight on the South Melbourne Hellas team that went to the 2000 edition of the CWC. Both those efforts deserve respect and the trailblazing effort through such clubs need to be remembered.

However the reason that I consider tonight’s match to be so significant is for the first time in this country we are seeing an unfolding story of international club football create a dialogue and a public consciousness about the sport and the Wanderers that has never been matched before. For all the wonder and excellence that led to the experiences of the Reds and Hellas and preceding years they were dare I say under the shadow of either a stumbling and fumbling football administration, connected with all the old prejudices and problems of ‘old Soccer’, whilst the latter was at a time when the A-League and football in general was still emerging from the periphery. Hellas did very well to get to the 2000 CWC however this was in the days of Soccer Australia and the NSL, where a significant but still small band of welded on fans and participants had to battle for every achievement, every dollar, every skerrick of public recognition. Unfortunately as the old world of football not long thereafter came crumbling down, as revealed and hastened through the Crawford Report, the basic structures of the sport in those days meant that any club (let alone Hellas) could never really propagate football’s identity, extending the lustre of the CWC participation beyond the club’s own record books. As for Adelaide, as much as they did achieve wonders in 2008 they were doing so in a smaller, less football conscious market domestically (both in terms of their home city and Australia as a whole), during a period when the A-League was still in its infancy (and soon lost much of its starting impetus thanks to the elusive hunt by the FFA for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting rights), and when truth be told the public in general and the local clubs specifically failed to really recognise or understand the AFC Champions League’s importance.

What has been truly exciting and ground-breaking is that the Wanderers have made it to this stage of the AFC Champions’ League in conjunction with the outstanding growth of popularity for the club and the sport in Australia, joined with a wider and more nuanced appreciation of what this means for the club, the west of Sydney, the sport and even the country as reflected in both mainstream and peripheral media. Only last week a derby was played between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers in front of over 41,000 fans which was the largest crowd for any regular season game for any football code at Allianz Stadium since it opened. The Wanderers have over 18,000 members who each in one way or another, to differing degrees of appreciation, been engaged with a competition that has struggled for a hold on the Australian sports-loving populace. There have been stories such as this from the local media (Seb Hassett SMH article) and mainstream TV news media have been focusing on the Wanderers in ways not usually seen before:

Then there has been the attention focused on this match from outside the Wanderers’ supporter base or mainstream media. Ranging from an explosion of Saudi-based social media followers (where Al Hilal’s rival supporters have attached themselves to the Wanderers), through the events of previous qualifiers (such as the controversial events surrounding the games played between the Wanderers and Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande), and even with the arguments over where the first leg match should have been played (with many latecomers and neutrals upset that the club and core fan base have preferred to play at Wanderland). These kinds of events, of stories are more often the framework or issues which feature in non-football codes in this country, or are the norm when people look at the UEFA Champions League or the Copa Libertadores. There has been disquiet over the schedule clash between the Wanderers versus Al Hilal fxiture against the Melbourne derby in the A-League. There has even been pseudo-sociological assessments of the Wanderers and their achievements from fans of opposition clubs .

Now I’m coming at this with some degree of bias, and I’ve not got the academic credentials to back all these assertions up with nuanced research. However as someone who has been following the sport of football in Australia for well nigh on forty years, I can remember no other moment in the history of club football that has placed the sport on such a huge pedestal. I know there have been exhibition matches such as those played between Victory and Liverpool, and I have already referred to Adelaide FC and South Melbourne Hellas. However there is a fundamental groundswell shift in this saga of the Wanderers in their hunt for AFC Champions’ League glory that has a broader appeal, a more significant potential impact. It’s partly as a result of the matches themselves and the manner in which they were won or lost (e.g. the first match against Ulsan Hyundai with flares and a 1-3 drubbing, the 2-0 win over Hiroshima Sanfrecce with its attendant farewell to several key foundation Wanderers players after their loss to Brisbane in the 2013/14 A-League Grand Final, the 1-2 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande that saw the Wanderers progress to the semis on away goals). There is also the manner in which several of the club’s “squaddies” have performed, like Shannon Cole, Labinot Haliti and Jason Trifiro. Dare I say it the blue-collar determination to win against bigger, more famous, wealthier Asian clubs ties in with the Australian mythos of the battler, the underdog, the working man hero. Taking on the best of the overseas world and beating them is very much part of the Australian ego, and the Wanderers tilt at AFC Champions League glory is very much in harmony with this.

Now I am about to leave for the game and I know that this will not be an easy task for the Wanderers. In fcat this will be the stiffest challenge ever faced by the club, beyond those previous matches played both in the A-League or against other Asian clubs. Expectations are high as are the demands. However the significance of what has transpired so far and the possibilities of what lies ahead make tonight’s match one of those defining moments not just in the club’s history, but I would argue for the sport of of football in Australia as a whole, and perhaps even for the folk of this area, this city, this country.

100 Moments, 100 Memories: The Wanderers in 2012/13 (Part Eight)

70 memories from 2012/13 down, only 30 to go. I plan to have the last post in this series just before kick off on Saturday arvo

30. The march to Blue Tongue stadium before the away game against Central Coast Mariners

If ever there was a moment when the Wanderers’ fans (including the RBB) took over another club’s venue and indeed town and showed the power of their passion, it was in the march from the Settlers Tavern, Gosford, to Blue Tongue stadium. With thousands of men, women, boys and girls all in the colours of the team, they made established their domination of the local fans before this pivotal round 23 game, and kept it until well after the referee blew time.

29. Nine wins on the trot, and the Wanderers break the record

In Round 24 a tough win at Wanderland against the Wellington Phoenix, the final score line of 2-1 ensured that the previous A-League record of eight consecutive wins, as recorded by Melbourne Victory  was surpassed.

28. Labinot Haliti bags a brace in the rain against Melbourne Heart

For the final away game down in Melbourne on a rain-sodden AAMI stadium pitch impact forward Labinot Haliti chimed in with two goals, with one in each half of the game. After a stop-start early season Labinot impressed in the final few Wanderers games with some classy and pivotal strikes.

27. The ‘Who Do We Sing For’ chants between the RBB, the east and west standards at Wanderland

Being part of the call and response for ‘Who Do We Sing For?’ at a Wanderers home game is one of if not the best experience for a football fan in the A-League. Unfortunately it’s impossible to recapture the spirit and passion in a blog, so this video will have to serve as a pale imitation. To really appreciate it you have to get to a game.

26. Jerome Polenz and Youssouf Hersi; a combination par excellence

The ex-Bundesliga right back Polenz and ex-Eredivisie right forward Hersi were possibly the best combination not just in the Wanderers, but across the entire A-League (with perhaps only Rojas and Thompson competing). Every game the two played together saw them  play in amazing harmony. When Polenz was pressured in defence Hersi would know exactly how and when to interpose himself into the back line, then on the attack Polenz was always aware of Hersi’s positioning.

25. Mark Bridge scores a solo goal in the community round game against the Newcastle Jets

In a textbook example of how to use control and strength to score a goal, Mark Bridge out-muscled Newcastle Jets defender Josh Mitchell in the second half of the Round 20 game, then sent the ball into Birghitti’s net taking the Wanderers to a 2-0 lead, and ended up with a 2-1 win.

24. Shannon Cole’s equaliser in Derby III

With a team that was understrength due to injuries and discipline issues the Wanderers were looking down the barrel of a bad loss against Sydney FC at Wanderland in the third derby of the season in Round 26. However ex-SFC player and replacement back Shannon Cole put the game to rights with a stunningly good free kick that zoomed into the away team’s net. The final score of 1-1 left the home fans slightly disappointed and honours even after the three derbies in 2012/13.

23. Ante Covic keeps a clean sheet with a stunning save against the Heart in Round 18.

 With Jerome Polenz sent off for a careless challenge in the Australia Day game at Wanderland it was up to Ante Covic to keep the Victorian team from taking a 1-0 lead. With a falling dive to the left he made sure that the shot from the penalty spot was kept out, setting the platform for what ended up being a solid 1-0 win. Covic backed up his 56th save of the season with a brilliant scrambling save in the dying minutes of the game.

22. Rocky Visconte seals the Preimer’s Plate with a brilliant goal against Newcastle

Brought in from the Roar as a replacement for the injured Tahj Minniecon, Rocky Visconte had to cool his heels for almost the entire season. His moment in the sun for the Wanderers was in the very last game of the regular season up at Hunter Stadium in Round 27. With the Wanderers leading 2-0 and looking very comfortable Visconte chimed in with a wonderfully controlled and aimed left boot missile to put the ball into the Jets net a third time that evening.

21. Labinot Haliti’s clinical finish against the Mariners at Blue Tongue

With the game almost entirely played in the Mariner’s favour and barely ten minutes to go substitute forward Labinot Haliti made sure that the Wanderers came away as 1-0 winners from their third game against Central Coast. This video tells the story…

2013/14 Western Sydney Wanderers Preview: The Defenders

First Squad Players: Ante Covic (GK),  Jerome Polenz (RB), Michael Beauchamp (CB), Nikolai Topor-Stanley (CB), Adam D’Apuzzo (LB),

Substitutes/Reserves: Matthew Spiranovic (Def), Shannon Cole (Def), Iacopo La Rocca (Def), Dean Heffernan (Def)

Defence was the backbone of the successful 2012/13 campaign for the Western Sydney Wanderers and again Tony Popovic has built what should be a very solid defensive structure to the team. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this line-up is the very recent addition of Matthew Spiranovic who has both unrealized potential not just at the domestic but also national level as well as some quality experience with overseas clubs (specifically Nuremburg in the German Bundesliga).

Ante Covic was without doubt the best goal keeper of 2012/13 and whilst his performance in the trial match against Melbourne Victory was less than adequate he is not the type of player who will let a mistake dictate either his motivation nor future work. His experience is crucial and alongside Beauchamp his guidance of the back four is vital to the team on the field. Last season he also effectively implemented Popovic’s second man tactics, targeting the likes of Dino Kresinger with long clearances to great effect. Even before the 2013/14 season commences Covic is being given new directions by the coach, and it will be interesting to see how he responds.

Jerome Polenz was the star right back in 2012/13 across the A-League, with his defensive efforts continually helping to keep rivals out of the box. The goal saving tackles he put in against Melbourne Victory away were the stuff of legend, and there was no doubt the Wanderers suffered at the end of the season and in the finals without him due to injury. However the most important aspect of Polenz’s game is his combination with Youssouf Hersi. These two are the best defence/attack combo in the A-League and when either one of them is missing the Wanderers lose a sizable percentage of their on-field capabilities. If Polenz can stay fit and maintain that relationship with Hersi (plus avoid the red cards) he should again be a monster at right back.

Nikolai Topor-Stanley was possibly the not-so-secret weapon of the Wanderers in 2012/13, with his booming clearances both a source of wonder and sometimes humour. However this was not the sole dimension to his game. High pressing and willing to get his considerable height up in the opposition’s box he was a double threat at all times. There were some moments where he didn’t get it right (most notably the horrendous back-pass in Derby III that led to a goal from Allesandro del Piero), and it will be intriguing to see how he copes with a potential change in tactics from Popovic. He and Spiranovic could be dueling for the same position.

Michael Beauchamp was both an admirable captain and more than adequate central back for the Wanderers last season and it would be hoped he can do the same again this season. Unfortunately he has had injury problems and there is a possibility he may go through similar rigours this season. Not as forward in positioning as Topor-Stanley and arguably more skilled at ground ball work, he too may be supplemented by Spiranovic during 2013/14. A fierce competitor and excellent captain.

Adam D’Apuzzo is possibly the weakest link in the back four however he is still going to be a logical first choice for the Wanderers come next Saturday. A more dogged and unfashionable defender than his right back counterpart Polenz, D’Apuzzo will put his body on the line time and time again. Also unlike Polenz he is not as adventurous in coming forward with his flanking forward, who is usually Mark Bridge. In fact whilst Polenz and Hersi will patrol higher up the right flank Bridge will often find himself dropping back more on the left to assist D’Apuzzo.

Of the utility and substitute backs it would be reasonable to expect all bar Jerrad Tyson to get at least 2-3 games this coming season. Shannon Cole can fit into either flank and whilst arguably not as good as either D’Appuzo nor Polenz he has demonstrated in the past the flexibility and motivation to work hard in either slot. Heffernan might be the third choice back behind D’Apuzzo and maybe Cole on the left flank and for now appears to be designated as a squad reserve rather than a potential first team player. La Rocca is a flexible player who may figure in either defence or midfield and again would be considered a reserve squad player first, however he may have opportunities further up the field depending upon Aaron Mooy or Matteo Poljak’s contribution to the defensive midfield. Jerrad Tyson undoubtedly deserves more game time if one considers his work ethic, passion and motivation, however Covic is a lock for goalkeeping duties. Finally, as previously stated Matthew Spiranovic is a major and exciting acquisition for the western Sydney Wanderers who should press repeatedly for inclusion in the first team defensive line-up. Tony Popovic is to be congratulated for assembling such a solid back five