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Western Sydney Wanderers
The Western Sydney Wanderers are the newest team in the Australian Hyundai A-league. They were formed in April 2012 after Gold Coast United, another A-league franchise club, had its license taken away. This left the league one club short of the ten needed to fulfil its TV contractual obligations. I was quickly decided that a new club should be set up in Western Sydney, a natural homeland for soccer in Australia. After no backer came forward, Football Federation Australia (FFA) announced it would initially back the club with the help of a $4 million government grant. The community were encouraged to get involved in the club from the start and a public survey decided the teams playing colours and name. They were offered a range of choices, but Wanderers was the overwhelming favourite.
Former Australian International player, Tony Popovic, was appointed manager and tasked with assembling a squad to play in the upcoming season. The A-league's limit on foreign players was relaxed slightly for the Wanderers in the short term to allow them a better opportunity of putting together a competitive team in the short time available.
There were some early signs of the potential the club may have to succeed when the Wanderers played their first trial game at Cook Park in St Mary's. A crowd of well over 3,000 attended this midweek game. This included some very vocal support from a newly formed active support group who would go on to play a big part in the clubs early success.
A squad was put together from a number of young relative unknown players, combined with some more experienced players. These included former Japanese international and Asian footballer of the year Shinji Ono.
Wanderers On The March
A Fairy Tale First Season
The club faced a challenging start to the season, playing the previous season's league winners the Central Coast Mariners'. They put on a well organised defensive performance and came away from the game with a creditable 0-0 draw. This was followed by two defeats, including a 1-0 loss to cross city rivals Sydney FC. This left them with no points and no goals after three games. There fourth game was a challenging trip to the previous season's grand final winners Brisbane Roar. Many experts gave them little chance, but the Wanderers proved them all wrong, coming away with a 1-0 win, with the first ever competitive Wanderers goal scored by local boy Mark Bridge.
From then on, the Wanderers went from strength to strength. The team was built on a solid defensive foundation and the attacking elements of the team began to gel. They went on a record breaking undefeated streak, including ten consecutive wins. By season's end they had completed the unimaginable, topping the table and winning the Premiership in their first season.
This took them into the finals series and also qualified them for the following season's Asian Champions League. After defeating Brisbane Roar in the semi-final, the Wanderers had made it to the Grand final in their first year. Unfortunately the fairy tale ended here with a 2-0 defeat to Central Coast Mariners.
Coach Tony Popovic was deservedly named coach of the year and Ante Covic was named Goalkeeper of the year. Crowds had been high all season and the Wanderers stadium at Parramatta had developed a reputation for being an intimidating place to play, with the ceaseless noise from the active supporters spurring the team on.
However, expectations had been set impossibly high. How could they top such an outstanding first year?
The Second Season
The start of the 2013/14 season was highly anticipated. Demand for memberships exceeded supply. The team mostly stayed together, although notably striker Dino Kresinger departed, to be replaced by youngster Tomi Juric and Brendan Santalab. Socceroo Matthew Spiranovic also arrived to bolster the defensive ranks.
The Wanderers performances lacked some of the consistency of the previous year, mainly due to the regular rotation of the squad to allow rest for the Champions league. However they remained close to the top of the league throughout the season, eventually finishing second to a strong Brisbane Roar side. Again they qualified for the grand final and took an early lead. However a second half injury to defender Topor-Stanley led to a reshuffle of the team and the game swung towards the Roar, who equalised with four minutes remaining. The game went to extra time but unfortunately for the Wanderers, Brisbane scored again, leaving the Wanderers as runners up again. 10,00 Wanderers fans had travelled north for the game.
The season also saw the early stages of the Asian Champions League take place. After a slow start, the Wanderers secured their place in the knock out stages of the competition. The competition resumed in the early part of the 2014/15 season and despite being underdogs against teams with much more resources than them, the Wanderers reached the final which was to be held over two legs, against Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia. The Wanderers secured a 1-0 home win thanks to a goal from Tomi Juric.
The return leg in Saudi was a daunting task. Very few Wanderers fans were allowed to travel to the game and the home Al-Hilal manager was so confident of victory, he promised the fans a win. However the Wanderers were able to hold on for a 0-0 draw, which saw them secure a historic Asian Champions League title at the first attempt. They became the first Australian side to win the competition.
Greatest Sporting Fairy Tale?
Is the story of Western Sydney Wanderers first two seasons the greatest sporting fairy tale ever?
The historic Champions league win had caused a huge amount of disruption to the beginning of the season for the Wanderers, leading to a build up of fixtures and undoubtedly some physically and emotionally tired players. Many of the players that had made up the squad for the previous two seasons had moved on. Ono had returned to Japan, and a number of other players had been released or tempted away by big money offers from other clubs.
As I write this, the season is halfway through and the Wanderers have only just achieved their first win of the season. They still do not have a settled team and some of the new signings are still to gel. As a Wanderers fan I still have faith they will turn their season around, but only time will tell if that will happen.
Final League Position
A big part of the Wanderers success has been the support. The active supporter group - the Red and Black Bloc (RBB) have provided arguably the best atmosphere in Australian sport. They sing and jump around for the entire 90 minutes of the game, organised and led by Capos with megaphones and drums. The RBB quickly developed songs and distributed them amongst fans so that everyone knew them when the season began. Traditions have quickly been developed such as the Poznan, which is performed in the 80th minute of every match to recognise the first competitive game in Australia in 1880. The call of 'Who do we sing for?" from the RBB is met with a response of 'We sing for Wanderers!' from the rest of the crowd at home games. The majority of the fans are wearing team colours and home game tickets can be difficult to come by.
One of the most significant achievements of the Wanderers is that they bring together all aspects of the multicultural community in Sydney's west. This is important as in the past football had led to troubles between different areas of the community in this area.
Who Do We Sing For?
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The Impact On The A-League
The impact of the Western Sydney Wanderers joining the league has been huge. Attendances have been up across the entire A-League and the buzz created by the Wanderers has certainly contributed to this. TV audiences are also up and the atmosphere created by the RBB has made the viewing experience a lot more enjoyable. Other teams have developed their active support in an attempt to replicate what the RBB have achieved.
The profile of the A-League has also increased. The Wanderers story has received global coverage and the quality of marque signings has increased. Sydney FC signed Italian legend Alessandro del Piero the season the Wanderers formed and it seemed this was a move to protect some of their fan base in the west of Sydeny who they feared may switch to the more local Wanderers. Shinji Ono and Emile Heskey joined the league in the same season. Since we have seen the likes of William Gallas, Damien Duff and most notably David Villa play in the A-League.
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