“The Heartland.” That’s all we ever heard about football in the western suburbs of Sydney. Never mind that the NRL had been there for years and the AFL was in the midst of an incursion with its newest franchise, the Giants, Australian football insiders kept insisting that going West was the only way forward.
Admittedly home to some of Australia’s greatest modern day footballing talent – Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton, Lucas Neill – western Sydney was initially overlooked as the A-League established itself as a “one city, one team” league.
As time went on and it became clear that Australian football needed derbies – hello Melbourne Heart – the concept of a franchise based in Sydney’s west became more viable. Unfortunately, disputes over who would actually own the licence delayed the process ever further.
Finally, last year the decision was made to move forward with the Western Sydney Wanderers, a team that would essentially be owned by the FFA. The franchise was behind the eight ball from the start, with just 190 days to organise.
The team did have three big things in its favour: the clever Tony Popovic as manager, a groundswell of support that sceptics like myself didn’t see coming and a concession from the FFA to sign one extra “visa” player.
Although Popovic built his team from the back, with solid ex-Victory keeper Ante Covic, former Socceroo Michael Beauchamp and big man Nikolai Topor-Stanley in defence, there’s no doubt the extra foreigners have helped. Marquee midfielder Shinji Ono – who took awhile to find his feet – has been the standout, but Dutchman Youssouf Hersi, German Jerome Polenz and Italian Iacopo La Rocca have all been superb.
The Wanderers are now atop the table, having won eight consecutive matches. Last week’s 1-0 win over Central Coast in Gosford was played in front of a packed house, thanks to an army of travelling supporters from Western Sydney. The March 23d Sydney Derby – at home in Parramatta Stadium – is already a sellout, with more than 20,000 expected.
Whether or not Popovic and his charges finish first and/or win the Grand Final, it’s been a remarkable season for a club many didn’t even think would get off the ground.
Six Pack From Down Under
1 As older Socceroos continue to make their returns to the A-League, there’s one name missing: Harry Kewell. The ex-Leeds and Liverpool striker, who had a less-than-satisfactory stint with Melbourne Victory last season, is still without a team. Newcastle Jets have expressed interest in signing him on a short-term basis (a la Lucas Neill at Sydney) but apparently Kewell is not interested or more likely, he’s not match fit. The Jets say they want Kewell next season on a full-time basis.
2 There was plenty of talk about Newcastle’s lineup last week after a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Melbourne Victory. The Jets had played a midweek match against Wellington (a 2-1 win) and coach Gary van Egmond decided to rest two of his strikers, Emile Heskey and Michael Bridges. With Ryan Griffiths off to China, the Jets had virtually no attack. Combined with its youthful defence – only last-place Wellington has a worse goal difference – the Jets had no chance against a rampant Victory squad determined to end a three-match losing streak.
3 Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin is one of the Southern Hemisphere’s more interesting venues. Built for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, it is an indoor stadium with a clear roof, and has a natural grass field. When Wellington Phoenix hosted Melbourne Heart last week, however, the stadium had all the atmosphere of a B&Q Warehouse. Only 4,000 fans showed up at the 30,000-seat venue and with no seats installed at one end of the pitch, it looked and sounded empty. The only bonus for the home fans was the 1-0 win by the Phoenix, a result that kept Heart winless outside of Melbourne since December of 2011.
4 Lucas Neill continues to make some odd decisions. The Socceroos captain, who finally signed with Sydney FC after protracted negotiations, told a Sydney newspaper that he still harbours hopes of a move back to Europe. Neill was quoted by Daniel Lane of the Sydney Morning Herald saying that “If Europe was to come calling again, 100 percent you’d go.” Neill is in Sydney as a guest player and no one would begrudge him another shot at a European team, but the comments continue to portray him as someone who sees the A-League as a stepping stone rather than a viable destination to finish his career.
5 I mentioned this last week, but with six of 10 teams making the post-season, there is still hope for everyone, even last place Wellington. Brisbane currently holds the sixth and final playoff spot on 28 points, with Heart and Sydney FC on 27, Perth Glory on 25 and Wellington last on 24. With four weeks remaining in the home-and-away season, there’s still plenty to play for.
6 Melbourne Victory fans staged a silent protest at the start of last week’s match with Newcastle. Upset at treatment by the media in its reporting of fan behaviour at the Melbourne Derby, Victory fans turned their back on the game and refused to chant. The ongoing debate about media coverage of football continues to be an issue for the FFA and the A-League.
Round 24 Fixtures
Newcastle Jets v Perth Glory
Sydney FC v Central Coast Mariners
Brisbane Roar v Melbourne Victory
Western Sydney Wanderers v Wellington Phoenix
Melbourne Heart v Adelaide United