Neil Sherwin recently hit the road Down Under, and was kind enough to document it for us.
Australia is a bloody big country. That’s stating the obvious I know but really the sheer enormity of it cannot be grasped until you’ve actually travelled around. As I write this I’m currently sat on a flight back to Perth following an 11 day journey around the east coast taking in five different games in five different cities to mark the beginning of the seventh Hyundai A-League season.
‘Fans in Vans’ was the brainchild of Footy Fans Down Under pioneer Lee Sutherland, a scouser and an Everton supporter for his sins, who since moving to Sydney six years ago has been heavily involved in promoting the game through various events including awards ceremonies and supporters club nights. He is on first name terms with the likes of Tim Cahill and can approach the big wigs at Fox Sports and FourFourTwo magazine amongst others with cheeky favour requests if needs be. Basically he’s a man who gets things done and is passionate about his football.
When Lee was looking for a few brave souls to drive (yes, drive!) from city to city I had no hesitation in putting my hand up for what would be a challenging adventure in more ways than one. With my flight booked I left Perth on Thursday, October 6, bound for New South Wales. A day later the trip really began in Sydney as a group of five set off in two vans for Brisbane, a drive that is just shy of 1000kms (that’s not too far off driving from London to Manchester and back...twice). It took a full 14 hours to complete including stops ahead of the first match – a repeat of last year’s never to be forgotten Grand Final between Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners at Suncorp Stadium. The Roar came away from that contest 1-0 winners but there was little time to digest the game as the following morning the group was back on the road again to head for the Gold Coast, a short one hour hop away.
Gold Coast United are a club with a problem, and it’s a big one for a franchise trying to establish itself – they have very few fans. Last season owner Clive Palmer only opened half of the magnificent Skilled Park to try cut costs as attendances hovered around the 2000 mark. Many outside observers believe that Gold Coast is doomed to fail, unsustainable in a league where clubs simply don’t make money. Luckily, there is a core group of diehard supporters whose passion and commitment to the cause cannot be doubted and having stood shoulder to shoulder with them in ‘The Beach’, their section behind one of the goals at the stadium; I really hope football stays on the Gold Coast. A stunning last minute equaliser from James Brown (insert “I feel good” joke here) salvaged a point and sent the crowd of just over 4000 home satisfied.
With Queensland done and dusted, it was back down south for a trip to the Newcastle Jets’ Ausgrid Stadium and a Sydney FC training session ahead of the World Cup qualifier between Australia and Oman on Tuesday, October 11 at ANZ Stadium. There were a lot of disapproving voices when this game was scheduled as many believed it would take the focus off the buzz around the A-League’s commencement while also taking away some of the star names. As it transpired, neither Brett Emerton or Harry Kewell took part in the international which the Socceroos won comfortably by three goals to nil, leaving them a comfortable five points clear at the top of their qualifying group.
The Australia game came nicely for us as the next A-League fixture on the list was not until Friday so it broke up the week nicely. After a quick stop in Melbourne to pick up some more recruits for the drive, we headed for South Australia, ready to take in a blockbuster game between heated rivals Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory. The Victory supporters travelled well, numbering in excess of 500 in what was a sold out Hindmarsh Stadium, and the atmosphere was electric as Sergio Van Dijk bagged the only goal of the game for the hosts in a 1-0 win. His strike sparked a host of flares close to where we were sat, possibly giving the South Australian police some justification for their, in my opinion, over the top presence outside the stadium beforehand. The aforementioned Harry Kewell was, ridiculously, deployed as a lone striker for Victory and never get into the game, much to the delight of the United fans who were very clear in their thoughts about the makeup of the former Leeds and Liverpool man’s salary.
With four games down it was time to make the 850kms overnight drive back to Melbourne, something which I recommend everyone avoids if at all possible. Saturday was a quiet night, and we rose early enough on Sunday to mix it with the Melbourne Heart fans ahead of their clash with my club, Perth Glory. Having never been to AAMI Park, a football stadium located in the same complex as the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Rod Laver Arena amongst others, I was excited to see if the venue matched up to its look on television and it delivered easily. Thankfully, a brace from Kiwi striker Shane Smeltz meant my trip ended on a high with a 2-1 Glory win, only their second on the road in 12 months. After a few post match drinks and a catch up with a few friends there was nothing left to do except sleep then head to the airport for a flight back west, tired but delighted to have seen so much of the country and something involving all ten of the league’s clubs.
The idea of Fans in Vans, which got plenty of exposure through the Football Federation of Australia (FFA), was to let Australian football supporters see that away days can be done with a little effort, a few days off work and plenty of alcohol. Sure, you’re unlikely to see Gold Coast United fans drive to Adelaide for the weekend, but a trip to Melbourne to watch the Central Coast Mariners take on Victory at Etihad Stadium for example is well achievable.
This weekend I’ll be back at NIB Stadium in Western Australia where the two clubs that are furthest removed from each other, Perth Glory and Wellington Phoenix, will go head to head. In all likelihood, there will be more away players than supporters, but if something like Fans in Vans can convince even a handful to get travelling for A-League games then it can only be seen as a good thing for the league.