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.

2014/2015 Round Nine Preview: December 5th-7th

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Central Coast Mariners vs Melbourne Victory (Friday, 5th November 2014, North Sydney Oval)

This match has been overshadowed by the issues facing the Mariners future as well as the controversy of taking another game away from Gosford to North Sydney Oval. Whilst there are intriguing and arguably positive reasons for Mike Charlesworth to take the Mariners into broader markets that are not that far away from their central coast base, there has already been a negative reaction from many of the more rusted on fans. Then there is the hostility shown to the venue from Melbourne Victory’s coach Kevin Muscat, who has already voiced his concern over the potential for injuries to his players on the hard surface.

All this controversy and media huffing and puffing means that assessing the actual possible result is almost a secondary concern. Melbourne will be undoubted favourites even if they do not play their full and best team. The absence of Finkler may cause some problems for Berisha, but in Ben Khalfallah Muscat has a great alternate. Again there may be defensive concerns with the continuing absence of Delpierre however this iteration of the Mariners do not look good enough to take advantage of that issue. Whilst they may be able to maintain a high possession rate against the visitors, going forward and convincingly attacking their opponents with the resulting goals doesn’t seem to be happening for Moss’s team.

Final Verdict: Victory may be discomforted by the venue and the Mariners will want to maintain the same stolid work that has seen them only lose one of their last four games this season. However the visitors should be able to win well. My Prediction: 0-2 Melbourne Victory win

Newcastle Jets vs Wellington Phoenix (Saturday 6th December 2014, Hunter Stadium)

Two of the least fashionable clubs of the A-League meet in this match and it will be most interesting to see what kind of crowd come along to see the home team who are struggling this season, or the visitors who are playing well but are poor purveyors of traveling fans. The Jets have been finding it hard this season, and whilst they have found some degree of stability in the last two rounds with draws against the Wanderers and Mariners there is still no definitive expectation that they can run rampant against any opposition. Flores and Carney are playing well and the switch of Birighitti with Ben Kennedy in goal seems to have corrected some of the defensive woes Phil Stubbins’ team has had.

As for the visitors, even with the departure of goal scoring ace Jeremy Brockie to South Africa there is lots to like up front. McGlinchey, Burns, Bonevacia and Krishna have helped give the Phoenix their best ever start to an A-League season. It would be a foolish person to consider them less than an even chance for reaching the top six in April next year, and Ernie Merrick is getting the best out of a team that is hardly filled with stars.

Final Verdict: Wellington Phoenix may not be the best team away from home in the past, however this season they are looking much better. This should be a win for the visitors, even though the Jets won’t die wondering. My Prediction: 0-1 Wellington Pheonix win

Adelaide United vs Western Sydney Wanderers (Saturday 6th December 2014, Coopers Stadium)

The Reds are at home and have plenty of reason to shine against the last placed Wanderers after their defeat away to their nemesis the Victory last round. Plus, like every club who will be playing the Wanderers this season the added incentive of knocking off the AFC Champions’ League winners must give Gombau’s players another motivation. Adelaide are looking very good this season thanks to the growing depth and cohesion of their team on the field. Up front Djite and Cirio have been scoring goals, Carrusca has been arguably the best playmaker in any club and at the back Elrich and Mabil have been able to switch defence into attack regularly, The Reds will be missing the multi-talented Osama Malik however that shouldn’t be fatal for their chances.

As for the Wanderers, well almost everything that can go wrong with their 2014/15 A-League campaign has indeed gone wrong. They had been improving in their performances against the Mariners, Jets and Sydney FC at home, and whilst the goals weren’t coming in great floods the combination of Rukavytsya, Bridge, Juric and Castelen looked very potent. However on Wednesday night their effort against a Broich-less Brisbane Roar was simply not good enough. There are issues all over the park, particularly in relation to the sub-par returns from two key imports (Saba and Adeleke), and if it wasn’t for the likes of Covic, Topor-Stanley and Hamill the RBB and other fans would be starting to doubt the wisdom of Tony Popovic. Throw in the impending trip to Morocco for the Club World Cup and it is almost as if their success has laid the foundations for their current faults.

Final Verdict: I would love to believe that the Wanderers can come back, confound teh critics and win this week. However I don’t believe they are going to be able to bring away all three points. They may well jag a draw though. My Prediction: 2-1 Adelaide United

Melbourne City vs Brisbane Roar (Sunday 7th December 2014, AAMI Park)

Brisbane played well enough to keep a stuttering Wanderers out of their goal on Wednesday night, however they hardly set the world on fire with their own offensive efforts. Therefore coming down to Melbourne and facing a Melbourne City that was thumped by the Phoenix last round gives them an intriguing challenge, especially as Thomas Broich will again be absent. Defensively City do have problems, and with a core of Heart players in the backs and midfield John Van t’Schip must be hoping the likes of Paartelu and Mooy replicate their efforts from the first match between these two teams this season. In fact the area where the game will be won or lost will be in the midfield; Matt McKay played very well against the Wanderers and Mooy has been possibly the best City player all season so far. If the Roar midfield can get service to Henrique then he will cause problems for the home team. Conversely Williams can punish the City opposition so it could be one of those games that swings on one magic moment from the centre of the pitch. It will be interesting to see if and how Adam Sarota plays for Brisbane; he could be a quality addition to a Brisbane squad that still has some big gaps.

Final Verdict: I don’t think either team is really of a sufficient quality to get a huge win, but of the two Roar look better in defence and have been arguably better across the board even though they have lost more matches than won. My prediction 0-1 Brisbane Roar win

(N.B. as I missed the chance to post before the Sydney FC vs Perth Glory match I will only give a review for that game)

Round Four Preview: Western Sydney Wanderers vs Brisbane Roar (Wednesday 3rd December, Pirtek Stadium)

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If, immediately after last years’ grand final, anyone had suggested that this match would be going ahead with both teams at the foot of the current A-League ladder, in a mid-week match after the Wanderers had won the AFC Champions’ League and were readying for the FIFA Club World Championship, and that the Roar would have sacked Mike Mulvey in the week or so beforehand, they would’ve been labelled as insane. Yet here we are and the Wanderers are last, the Roar eighth, Mulvey is indeed gone, the home team is readying for a possible match in Morocco against Real Madrid and Broich is undergoing surgery for an ankle injury. In other words it is a rather bizarre situation that both clubs are in, and whoever can best emerge out of the chaotic circumstances should climb back up into the top six.

For the visitors the one major bright spot in their situation is that Henriques is scoring goals. Aside from that their form, their internal issues post-Mulvey’s sacking, the gaps in their roster due to Berisha and Franjic moving on, the injuries to Broich and Theo all indicates they are on a downward path. Their effort against Perth last round was barely satisfactory, and was saved near the death by the Brazilian striker. There is potential for Adam Sarota to play however his match fitness will be almost zero. New Roar coach Frans Thijssen has also been a very subdued addition to the visitors, and it is hard to see him knowing exactly how to deal with all the problems Brisbane face on and off the park.

As for the Wanderers, they must be very confident of picking up all three points tonight. There is every chance that recently crowned AFC coach of the Year Tony Popovic will wave his rotation wand again, and whilst Saba didn;t start against Sydney FC last weekend he may well begin the game against the Roar. Labinot Haliti might figure instead of Rukavytsya, and it will be interesting to see if Adeleke starts. The away game to Adelaide this weekend and the Club World Championship will be on Popa’s mind, and he may give some of his usual starters a break. If so the challenge will be particularly in the midfield, where Poljak, possibly Bridge, Saba and La Rocca will need to own that space. Up front Tomi Juric will be the main man for goals, however he will need someone like Castelen or another team mate to help out more. Last match against Sydney FC there were issues with the Wanderers’ willingness to shoot, as well as their organisation in the box, and this needs to improve.No doubt the RBB will again be driving their club on with all the home support they can.

Final Verdict: The Wanderers should win, but the Roar will be very keen to stop them. My Prediction: 2-0 Western Sydney Wanderers

2014/2015 Round Eight Preview: November 28th-30th

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Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide United (Friday 28th November 2014, AAMI Park)

This should be a great match with both teams undefeated this season, both with full squads and lots of history weighing on each club’s shoulders. Last time they met at Adelaide Oval the Reds looked to be slightly better for most of the match and arguably should’ve won, however a blemish in their defence at the death meant that both home and away teams went away with a point each. Muscat has possibly the better attacking options, due in no small part to Berisha, Thompson, Finkler and Khalfallah. However this is not any sleight on the opposition, who with Sanchez, Cirio and Djite also have plenty to offer in front of goal. Admittedly Djite is coming back from injury and may not start, however Gombau can also look to Carrusca and maybe Mabil for goals. Defensively both teams have a positive goal difference, and it will be intriguing to see if the continuing absence of Delpierre from Victory will be a problem for them.

Final Verdict: This is a match that is too close to call. Both teams could win and win well with their offensive capabilities, hence I think they will cancel each other out. Unless there is some major error or brain snap from someone I think honours will be shared. My Prediction: 1-1 Draw

Brisbane Roar Vs Perth Glory (Saturday 29th November 2014, Suncorp Stadium)

With Mike Mulvey deposed and various other members of the home club looking askance at their position, their team mates and the overall position of the Roar on the ladder it looks as if this could be another bad result for last season’s champions. In terms of playing personnel no one is under any illusions that they are as well structured, balanced or talented as previous iterations, and the ongoing absence of goalkeeper Mike Theo will be a headache for interim coach Frans Thijssen. In the past at other clubs there have been teams that have pulled together when a coach is jettisoned, and if anyone understands that it will be Kenny Lowe, brought in last season when his predecessor Allie Edwards was given the arse. Like Lowe in 2013/14 Thijssen has a rather shakey hold on some dubious reins at the Roar, so it will be unlikely for him to get all three points.

Glory on the other hand are motoring along nicely, if not too spectacularly. Their squad has plenty of quality across all parts of the park and for the first time arguably in their entire A-League history they’ve discovered how to win away from Perth. Whilst no one is really emerging as a true matchwinner, the likes of Keogh, Hersi, Marinkovic and Maclaren up front and Vukovic at the back means that they will be hard to keep out of goal and hard to get through for shots on goal.

Final Verdict: Brisbane are in a world of pain and I honestly cannot see them winning, or indeed drawing. Perth should win in what be an intense tussle, but one they have have every reason to believe can be won. My Prediction: 0-2 Perth Glory

Western Sydney Wanderers vs Sydney FC (Saturday 29th November 2014, Pirtek Stadium)

There’s no doubt that the Wanderers are coming into this match as underdogs following a very ordinary beginning to their A-League season. However in the last two games at home against the Mariners and Jets they have begun to exert some quality pressure on their opponents, thanks in no small part to the growing cohesion and increasing match fitness of key players like Juric, Castelen, Rukavytsya, Spiranovic, Saba and Topor-Stanley. Whilst Ante Covic has been a rock in goal there have been some chinks in Popovic’s back four, as the likes of Mullen, Adeleke, Golec and Cole have all struggled to fill their roles as well as last season’s players or as demonstrated in the ACL. Perhaps the key player will be Adeleke; if he can bolt down a hold on the left back position then that gives someone like Cole or maybe even Hamill a chance to play right back, thus setting the Wanderers with a firm base.

The visitors are obviously having a far better season and will come to Wanderland confident they can win for the first time there since the very first derby played against the Wanderers, all the way back in 2012/13. The absence of Gameiro and Dimitrijevic due to injury and suspension respectively does weaken Arnold’s squad somewhat, however there is depth across all parts of the park for him. Janko, Brosque, Ibini and Smeltz are certainly an equal to the forwards available to Popa, and in the middle it will be intriguing to see how Terry Antonis plays against what may be Poljak and La Rocca.

Final Verdict: The Wanderers are a work in progress still and who knows if they really have settled down to the normal hurley burley of league football with the combinations and structures needed to win. It must be said that the RBB and home fans will undoubtedly want to exert as much a positive influence on their beloved team, and Sydney FC will not have the comfort of a reasonably well-stocked Cove for their support. This should be when the Wanderers finally come good, otherwise they may as well forget the rest of the domestic season and build to the Club World Cup and defending their ACL title. Sydney will be a stiff challenge but as always I must back my Western Sydney Wanderers: My Prediction: 2-1 Western Sydney Wanderers win.

Wellington Phoenix vs Melbourne City (Sunday 30th November, Westpac Stadium)

Melbourne City are traveling to windy Wellington hoping to rediscover some of the form that saw them help contribute to the Roar’s woes only a few rounds back. They are still without Koren, their Slovenian marquee, and whilst Duff, Mooy and Williams can all threaten it’s not really going to be up front where the issues lie, especially against a Wellington who have shown at home (and occasionally away) a propensity to score and score well. Redmayne, Wielaart and Kisnorbo are still out the back at City after being part of Heart’s very ordinary 2013/14 campaign, and throw in midfielders like Mauk, Ramsay and Garuccio there is still a whiff of past mediocrities forming the core of van t’Schip’s squad. Throw in the very inconsistent form throughout the early stages of the current A-League season and it will be hard for the visitors to be ultra-confident going into this match.

Merrick’s Phoenix are playing fairly good football this season and whilst they have had their bumps on the road back at Westpac they are a higher quality opponent. The return of McGlinchey from All Whites duties will be a big fillip to the team, as he is arguably their best attacking player (even though Nathan Burns has been scoring more goals). Then there is the improving Roy Krishna and Dutchman Roly Bonevacia, who is quietly building up a rep as being one of the best value for money imports in the A-League this season (and arguably better than his compatriots in other teams such as Hersi, Castelen and Jaliens).

Final Verdict: Phoenix at home should be a moral for all three points, especially if Burns, Krishna, McGlinchey and perhaps Brockie are given too much time on the ball near the City box. Whilst aaron Mooy can and will create problems, especially in dead ball situations, the traveling City are not looking as well structured or performed around the park as Wellington. My Prediction: 2-0 Wellington Phoenix.

Newcastle Jets vs Central Coast Mariners (Sunday 30th November, Hunter Stadium)

If ever a stage was set for a player to exert an influence over one of the fiercest rivalries in the A-League, the old F3 derby between Newcastle and Central Coast is laid out for Marcos Flores to do his thing. The Jet midfielder has the creative capability to pull apart most defensive structures, and whilst his recovery from injury and lack of match fitness may still impede him as demonstrated against the Wanderers he only needs a moment and he can swing a match. Defensively the Jets have also improved on the back of last week’s performance, and David Carney is another Jet who is giving reasonably good service in a misfiring squad.

The Mariners on the other hand are looking flat after a less than happy result against Adelaide at home, and the ruckus over possible internal problems and even the ongoing drama around Mike Charlesworth’s plans for the club must be drawing away some of the energy and positive feeling in the squad. Duke is not scoring enough to warrant high expectations and whilst there is plenty of solid work coming from John Hutchinson the rest of the team seem uninspired. Kim and Bosnar need to be contributing more and Caceres needs to be more creative.

Final Verdict: Neither side looks like a top six club so far this season, and whilst they have each drawn with the Wanderers away from home neither team looked superior to their lower ranked NSW-based rival. If Flores sparks expect a Jets win, but… My Prediction: 0-0 Draw