David Morris tells the tale of a club who are 90 minutes - and some boardroom negotiations - away from a clash with the European champions...
Imagine this. In 2012 you decide to follow a new side. The team that catches your eye are a newly-founded outfit claiming they will be a community club that will allow fans to have a large say in its running. You want to feel part of a project, albeit one that you accept may take some time to come to fruition.
Only it doesn’t, and within two years your new team have experienced unprecedented levels of success. They almost immediately become one of the league’s ‘Big Teams’ and become the first side from the country to experience major international success. You now know that your side are one win away from meeting Real Madrid in the FIFA Club World Cup semi-finals – Real Madrid: European champions and arguably the biggest, most successful side of all time. You wake up, rub your eyes and think of the wonderful (if slightly lengthy) dream you have just had. Only it is not a dream. This is real, and you are a fan of Western Sydney Wanderers.
WHO ARE YA?
- Name Western Sydney Wanderers
- Founded 4 Apr 2012
- Ground Paramatta Stadium
- Capacity 21,500
- Head coach Tony Popovic
But that is skipping way too far ahead. A tale of such an unbelievable nature needs to be recounted fully, right from the beginning, two years ago.
The creation of Western Sydney Wanderers had initially proved very difficult for a number of reasons. To begin with, there was the deal signed by Sydney FC for five-year city exclusivity, preventing the creation of another A-League side in the city. It would also be fair to say that the club had problems in trying to find an owner.
Once creation became a viable option, the Football Federation Australia (FFA) set a deadline for prospective owners to make their pitch for the club. But with no suitable option available, and with the deadline rapidly approaching, the FFA decided to step in, taking ownership of the club themselves.
From this point onwards, much of the running of the club became open to fans. The federation launched online surveys to determine various matters including the team’s name and colours, and even the club’s values and playing style. These surveys received great backing from the local community, while high-profile Australian internationals like Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill and Scott Chipperfield also lent their support to the project.
By the end of spring 2012 the wheels were really in motion, the club announcing its chairman Lyall Gorman and manager Tony Popovic before revealing the club name, logo and colours. Overwhelmingly popular with the voters, the name "Wanderers" paid homage to a team by the same name who were the first registered ‘soccer’ club in Australia.
- A-League Premiers 2012-13
- A-League runners-up 2013-14
- A-League Finals runners-up 2013, 2014
- AFC Champions League winners 2014
With matters decided, Crystal Palace legend Popovic was able to start recruiting players, and while the majority were considered to be cast-offs from other A-League clubs, Wanderers were able to attract a well-known figure in the form of Japanese international Shinji Ono. With the playing squad put together, WSW were ready for the start of the season, their first as a team in the A-League.
Given the immediate success tasted by the club, it is perhaps a surprise that they initially struggled. Experiencing teething problems and getting to grips with their new surroundings, not to mention 22 new team-mates getting to know each other’s styles, it took the team four matches to score their first goal. Mark Bridge’s strike was enough to secure WSW their first win too, against reigning champions Brisbane Roar.
The shock nature of their first win was a sign of things to come as Wanderers continued to prove the league's surprise package. Indeed, bar a few slip-ups, it was from this point that the team exploded into life, and after a 10-game record-breaking streak, Wanderers finished the regular season top of the league.
A fine debut
The season wasn't to end in the ultimate triumph, with the team beaten in the Grand Final by Central Coast Mariners, but that debut campaign was an immense success. Popovic and his players gained many plaudits and their story was praised by many as inspiring a growth in popularity for the A-League.
Some wondered if WSW had set the bar too high for themselves: could they sustain the success in their second campaign? It turned out that they could. Domestically they proved once again one of the sides to beat, ending the regular season in second place. In the Finals they exacted their revenge on Central Coast Mariners with a semi-final win, although they were beaten in the Grand Final by Brisbane Roar.
Despite this though, there were encouraging signs for the club in the Asian Champions League, as they progressed through the group stages and early knockout rounds, albeit only just: they reached the quarter-finals on away goals after an 85th-minute strike in the second leg against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
In the three-month gap between the second round and quarter-final stage, Wanderers further came of age as a club when their ownership was transferred from Football Federation Australia to a consortium headed by new club chairman Paul Lederer.
Back in the AFC Champions League, Wanderers again squeaked through via the away-goals rule, this time against Guangzhou Evergrande. Reaching the semi-finals in their debut campaign was already a remarkable performance but WSW pressed on with a 2-0 aggregate victory over FC Seoul.
As they had been for most of the knockout phase, Western Sydney Wanderers went into the final with Al-Hilal as underdogs, but hopes were raised with a 1-0 victory in the home leg thanks to a Tomi Juric strike. And in front of 65,000 fans in Riyadh, goalkeeper Ante Covic played the game of his life, keeping the scoreline blank and enabling Western Sydney Wanderers to become the first ever Australian side to win the Asian Champions League, in what was their first ever appearance in the tournament, just two years after they were founded.
- May 2012 Gorman and Popovic appointed
- Jun 2012 Colours and name announced
- Oct 2012 A-League debut
- Mar 2013 Finish 1st in league
- Apr 2013 Runners-up in Finals
- Feb 2014 AFC Champions League debut
- Apr 2014 Finish 2nd in league
- May 2014 Runners-up in Finals
- Jun 2014 Bought by consortium
- Nov 2014 AFC Champions League winners
- Dec 2014 Club World Cup debut
As with most of the Wanderers' history to date, the second leg carried a fantastic story behind their travelling fans. With flights costly and visas hard to secure, few supporters could actually attend the match; meanwhile female supporters faced the prospect of being unable to travel due to Saudi Arabian law. In the end just 14 fans were able to see the historic moment in the flesh, including a solitary female supporter who was allowed to make the journey as she went with her father.
Speaking after the record-breaking game, former Australia international Mark Bosnich was left to reflect on a truly monumental event. Bosnich paid homage to the team, which he admitted, had largely been made up of "discards".
Yet the fantastic achievement has come at a cost for the Wanderers domestically. With a lot of attention focused on the Champions League, WSW have perhaps taken their eye off the ball in the A-League: after eight games, they sit rock bottom and winless. Despair at domestic form will arguably be cushioned though by their participation in the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup, which kicks off this week.
Playing on the global stage
Once more WSW will be underdogs when they play their quarter-final match against CONCACAF Champions Cup winners Cruz Azul of Mexico. But if ever there was a prize in sight for the Aussies, then this is it. Should they beat the Mexicans, a game against Real Madrid awaits. There may also be the obstacle of a potential player boycott to fend off too, with the squad currently in a dispute with the club over their appearance fees for playing in the tournament.
Should they overcome internal issues, and Cruz Azul, the prospect of playing Madrid will leave the growing fan base of Western Sydney Wanderers licking their lips. Success has obviously played a large part in attracting more fans to the club, but the growth has certainly been larger than could have been foreseen. Indeed Western Sydney Wanderers are now one of the best supported clubs in the country, with over 18,000 members and an increasing average attendance.
Last season the attendance averaged 14,860, a figure not to be trifled with given the developing nature of ‘soccer’ in Australia. But even though the popularity of the sport is only really just picking up, the number of Wanderers fans is impressive when compared with western Sydney’s other teams across football (AFL and NRL).
While the poor start to the domestic season will trouble some, few would swap the Wanderers' current situation for that of any other side. They are about to appear in the FIFA Club World Cup, with a match against perhaps football’s biggest side in history in sight. Speaking after the Champions League win over Al-Hilal, manager Tony Popovic declared that "Dreams do come true".