by Tim Palmer
Last Saturday, the chairman of Sydney FC, Tony Pignata, having seen his side upset the second placed Central Coast Mariners, tweeted a short message to his followers. ‘Hope the fans at #Wanderland are happy with the @SydneyFC win tonight,’ he said. ‘Good luck tomorrow Wanderers.’
Pignata is a popular man with his club’s supporters, mainly because of the audacious swoop for Alessandro Del Piero, but he is also widely respected across the country for his work in promoting and raising the profile of the national league.
But even so, to see a chairman providing such support, however minuscule, for a team that is technically his side’s nearest geographical rivals was remarkable. It was also unsurprising. After all, it’s been difficult not to get caught up in the wave that has been the Western Sydney Wanderers.
Having only come into existence eleven months ago, they now sit at the top of the A-League ladder, five points clear of the Central Coast Mariners, and with three games to go, are in pole position to clinch the minor Premiership, from which they will compete in the finals series. No matter how the climax unfolds, this has been a wildly successful season for a club that didn’t even exist this time last year.
“Build something special”
On the 4th April 2012, the Football Federation Australia announced the culling of Gold Coast United, to make way for a new team based in Sydney’s western suburbs. “I know the sense of anticipation and expectation of this football community,” said Lyall Gorman, club chairman.
“They’ve been waiting a long, long time for their own united football team. It’s exciting to have their input on the core values of the club: passion, respectfulness, inclusiveness – all these words give me a lot of faith that we’re going to build something very special here,” he said. His words could not have been more prophetic.
The first course of action was to appoint a first team coach, someone to build a squad, and in the eyes of Gorman, ‘forge an identity.’ Tony Popovic’s name was immediately mentioned. He had already been touted with a move back home to Australia to coach Sydney FC, but home – he grew up in Fairfield, a suburb in Western Sydney – was clearly where the heart was for the former local.
He left Crystal Palace, where he worked as an assistant coach, and was unveiled as the inaugural coach of the new side.
Other affairs were also moving apace. It was clear from the outset that this would be a team tied intimately to its fans, and it was the supporters who were responsible for deciding the name and colours via an online poll, as well as participating in fan forums.
“We’re going out on social media and asking fans questions all the time” said the club’s head of social media, Brian Gibson. “We’re getting a whole heap of responses in, collating them, reporting them to management, and getting a feel for what the west of Sydney wants.”
The Wanderers moniker was the outstanding favourite for the Western Sydney franchise, as was a smart red and black colour scheme which formed the template for a hooped jersey design.
Meanwhile, Popovic was assembling the squad, and was particularly keen to source local talent. That homegrown focus, evident in the arrivals of, amongst others, Aaron Mooy and Tarek Elrich, was reinforced by a continental search for foreign players, but Popovic’s transfer targets were obscure, with the likes of Mateo Poljak and Dino Kresigner unknown quantities.
That led to early concerns over the competitiveness of the squad: many tipped them for an admirable but futile campaign that would end ultimately in disappointment.
But Popovic was undeterred, and he quietly set about instilling values of hard work, determination and discipline into the team. That much was obvious in their first ever game, a difficult match against the Central Coast Mariners, where they displayed hugely impressive defensive organisation and a clear philosophy of counter-attacking football.
It was ironic that they would start their season against the Mariners, as not only would the two become fierce rivals, but their opponents had already set the example for structured, reactive (and successful) football in the A-League.
Graham Arnold knew that his side, with a clear emphasis on defensive organisation, would contrast against a league focused on producing entertaining, possession-based football. So did Popovic, and defensive solidity has been the hallmark of their success.
Of course, the by-product of this can be a blunt attack, and indeed, it took the Wanderers three games to even score a single goal. Mark Bridge’s header against the defending champions was the clubs first ever goal, and resulted in their first ever win, one of the most unexpected in A-League history.
Now though, such a result would be expected, such is the reversal in roles. Western Sydney’s surge to the top of the table has been met with Brisbane’s downward spiral, a neat piece of symmetry considering how the Roar’s success stemmed from a Barcelona-lite system in which possession was key, with highly entertaining passages of short, intricate passing.
But to make such a broad description would not be doing justice to the attacking talent at the Wanderers, revolving around the class and creativity of Japanese marquee, Shinji Ono. His awareness of space, tactical intelligence and first touch is extraordinary, and after a solid if unspectacular introduction to the league, he’s become one of Australia’s star players.
A brace against Melbourne Victory was particularly thrilling, the perfect microcosm of his marquee qualities. The first goal came from an impeccable first touch from a long aerial ball, followed by a splendid first time strike into the far corner.
The second, a late match winner, came as Ono weaved his way into space on the edge of the penalty area, and, surrounded by a mass of navy shirts, calmly finished on his right foot.
Understandably, the supporters love Ono, but it is possible he loves them more, constantly reinforcing through his broken English the importance of their support and what it means to the players.
The Red and Black Bloc (RBB) is the official fans group, forming the heart of a passionate support that has brought a new level of energy and atmosphere to Australian sport. Their rhythmic war cry calls upon all of those in the crowd to reply when they ask ‘who do they sing for,’ a chant that has quickly become the symbol of their incredible support.
Over 7500 members have joined in the debut season, along with the thousands of regular match day supporters to ride the momentum that is Australia’s ‘newest, oldest’ team.
It has been not just the locals but the neutrals too, and even a few rival chairmen, who have been blown away by the incredibility of this remarkable sporting story. Western Sydney now stand on the brink of greatness, having already surpassed even the wildest of expectations.