Horace Greeley once said, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country”. This now famous American saying can be directly applied to top flight football in Australia.
In its eighth addition, the Hyundai A-League has had its fair share of teething problems since it replaced the now defunct NSL (National Soccer League) as the premier football league in Australia. However, this season, it’s fair to say, the A-League has hit a jackpot by going west. Enter stage right the Western Sydney Wanderers.
Since the very beginning of the A-League, a team in western Sydney – Australia’s most populous capital city – has been mooted, but never came to fruition. One wealthy businessman after another has been linked to the creation of such a team. But Football Federation Australia (FFA) had had enough of all of the talk and decided to start a second team in Sydney themselves. With the ever-growing success of Melbourne’s second team, Melbourne Heart, and the derby it has created with Melbourne Victory, it was clear Sydney needed its own derby and to add another set of marquee fixtures to the A-League calendar.
Of course the creation of this second Sydney team was met with the obvious critics, mainly because it did not have its own financial backer. But it was evidently clear that the A-League needed to join the battle in one of Australia’s biggest markets – Western Sydney. With other football codes such as Rugby League, who have three well established clubs in this region, and the AFL (Australian Football League) recently establishing their newest club in the region, the A-League needed to fight back in one of its strongest breeding grounds for future national team players. With stars such as Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and Lucas Neill coming from this very region, the A-League needed to give the juniors of the area a target to reach and a team to support. Sydney always needed a second team from the very outset; Sydney FC could not sustain support across a whole city that is used to having its fair share of options when it comes to sporting clubs.
Sydney FC right from its inception has been known as the glamour club of the A-League, much like Bayern Munich is to the Bundesliga. With its recruitment of Dwight Yorke – or ‘all night Dwight’ as he was dubbed in the local media – and Pierre Litbarski as coach in the A-League’s inaugural season, it already was in the process of disconnecting itself from the western suburbs of Sydney. The people of Western Sydney are of, mainly, a working class or blue-collar background and Sydney FC with their big spending and flashing lights no doubt put many of them off supporting the club. Throw in the discontent of many of the ethnic groups who also make up a large percentage of the population in this area, whose clubs were not in the A-League after the collapse of the previous regime, and there was a lot of upheaval and hatred shown not only to Sydney FC, but to the A-League itself. So in hindsight it was actually an astute move by the FFA not to introduce an A-League team in Western Sydney in the opening seasons.
As time has passed and some wounds have started to heal in the region, along with said competition, the A-League made its move to introduce a team to Western Sydney. It all started earlier this year when rumours once again surfaced that the FFA were looking to introduce a club in Western Sydney. It gained further traction as now defunct club Gold Coast United owner Clive Palmer continued his war against the A-League and FFA that reached its boiling point in February when he sent his team out with ‘Freedom of Speech’ replacing the major sponsor of the club on the front of their jersey. Long story short, Ben Buckley - then CEO of the A-League - revoked Palmer’s ownership licence of the club and they played out the season finishing dead last and without an owner and were eventually killed off. During this turbulent period, however, the club in western Sydney was announced – it was on the 4th April to be exact. The FFA held numerous forums in the region to gather ideas and shape the club’s name, culture, logo and colours.
After that the clubs progress was quite rapid, as its official name was unveiled, the club coach was announced (Tony Popovic – former Socceroos and more interestingly ex Sydney FC player), his assistant Ante Millicic, and the first three signings. Popovic and his coaching staff built a team around the philosophy and playing style they wanted. As the club’s debut season crept around the corner, the marquee spot (the big signing whose wages are allowed to be outside of the salary cap) was yet to be filled. With big brother Sydney FC doing what they do best and splashing the cash on Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero and Newcastle Jets snaring former English international Emile Heskey, according to the media the Wanderers were about to follow suit. The Wanderers were in negotiations with none other than former German captain Michael Ballack. The A-League, for once, was starting to steal the headlines from the rival football codes and there was a genuine buzz from the public towards the build up to the new A-League season. It seemed a masterstroke by the FFA. Negotiations broke down between Ballack and the Wanderers, and they decided to go with former Japanese international Shinji Ono instead. The Wanderers also decided to plunder three players from rivals Sydney FC.
Life began with a nil all draw at home to Plate winners Central Coast Mariners. This was followed by an away defeat to surprise packets Adelaide 1-0. In the third game of the season awaited the match A-League fans had been hanging out for, the inaugural Sydney derby. It was played at the Wanderers home ground, Paramatta Stadium, and was a tense affair. A sell out crowd were treated to a hard fought, but hardly glamorous match. It was Del Piero who stole the headlines, using his big match experience to guide home the 54th minute winner. The forth game of the season saw the new boys take on the champions of the last two seasons, Brisbane Roar on their home turf. The Wanderers, having nothing to lose, took down the favourites to record their first ever win and score their first ever goal through ex Sydney FC striker Mark Bridge. It was a turning point in the new clubs season and gave them the confidence to win their next match, before going on a rollercoaster ride of form.
In round 11 the second Sydney derby was held at Sydney FC’s home and big brother was knocked off his perch by a wonderful perfomance from the Wanderers. Goals to Youssouf Hersi and ex Sydney FC player Michael Beauchamp gave Western Sydney their first ever derby victory and the fans celebrated appropriately as wild scenes ensued. Flares were set off during and after the victory and caused a media storm. Action was promised from the board of the Wanderers, Sydney FC and the A-League. However fans have dismissed the media taking to social media outlets to return serve, as well as singing ‘passion is not a crime’ during the next round of fixtures. The Wanderers clearly took confidence from their derby victory as they hammered then ladder leaders Adelaide 6-1 at home. Bridge popped up for the first ever hat trick for the club in a striking master class. They followed this up with a well fought out one all draw with Perth Glory on the difficult away trip and a 2-1 win over Melbourne Victory. This leaves the new club in third spot on the ladder (at the time of writing), seven points off the lead at the halfway point of the season, an outstanding effort from the Wanderers in their inaugural season.
Horace Greeley’s now famous saying, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country”, resonates well with the Wanderers. But it seems the ‘young man’ is not content with just ‘growing up with the country’, he wants to own it.