Sydney derby brings football together
Alessandro Del Piero is chased down by Shinji Ono in the first Sydney derby. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Western Sydney Wanderers like to call themselves Australia’s newest, oldest club, so it was perhaps fitting that Australia’s newest derby was played out at one of the game’s most iconic venues and decided by Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero.
This was a historic and special night for the A-League and the round ball game downunder. The first Sydney Derby of the new era, played out at a venue, in Parramatta Stadium, which hosted a couple of mega Sydney derbies in the NSL era more than two decades ago.
Back then, we had two consecutive grand finals in 1989 and 1990 between the Greek-backed Sydney Olympic and the Italian-backed Marconi.
They were both bumper occasions, played out in front of crowds of well over 20,000, and, as a youngster building a love for the round ball game, I can only remember great things about being at both games.
But those occasions were very much a celebration for the respective ethnic communities. As much as those great clubs tried, and let me tell you they did, they struggled to broaden their support base beyond their ethnic roots.
For many, the dream was that the game could produce those types of occasions on a consistent basis, free of the ethnic connections, making everyone perceive they were safe and welcome, even if they invariably were in the NSL days.
Fast forward to last night and Sydney finally had a derby to match the one in Melbourne, and what an atmosphere was produced by the respective set of supporters, the home Red & Black Bloc and the traveling Cove.
It was a crowd of just over 19,000, perhaps a couple of thousand short of the current Parramatta Stadium capacity, but it was a vibrant and diverse crowd, Australia at its best.
Rather than dividing, as derbies tend to do, this one brought football together.
Among the crowd was a Greek friend who took me to my first NSL game and has hitherto been reserved about the A-League and a Croatian friend who took me to my first Sydney United (then Croatia) game and has been a member of the Brisbane Roar since day one.
Another friend there was a north western suburbs based father of two, who loves football, plays and coaches, but had never been to an NSL or A-League game prior to the Wanderers first.
He’s now one of the Wanderers foundation members, as enthusiastic and engaged as any long term A-League fan.
Then there’s Mark, who has been to a few Sydney FC games every season, but being from the west finds Moore Park a difficult place to get to. The Wanderers makes more sense to him.
Others, like Simon and Brad, are also western suburbs boys, but have been Sky Blue since the start and say they won’t switch.
Everyone, new or old, has their own football story, and as the A-League marketers and Del Piero would say, all have football blood running through their veins.
What the competition has done in the early part of the season is help these people find that blood, and there’s no doubt the arrival of the Wanderers and Del Piero have been the main reasons for this.
It was fitting then that he was central to its most decisive moment. While the Wanderers did a good job of nullifying him in the first half, as the match went on his quality and desire to win came to the fore.
After Labinot Haliti had picked his pocket on a couple of occasions in the first half, Del Piero got his revenge early in the second when he dispossessed him on the edge of the box and set off, goal-bound.
Dribbling in a tight space in the box, between three defenders, the ball moving seamlessly from left to right foot and back, he eventually attracted a stray foot from Aaron Mooy and went over.
After Strebre Delovski found some encroachment on his first effort, Covic denied him at the second attempt, only for the ball to rebound to this left foot, where he showed wonderful composure. Drama.
While the match itself didn’t reach the dizziest of heights, it proved to be a competitive and gripping affair, illuminated by some wonderful touches from the likes of Del Piero, Shinji Ono and Aaron Mooy.
The other feature was the delivery from set pieces, from either Mooy, Ono or Del Piero, whether it was a strike at goal or a whipped in corner or free kick. High quality, in the main.
While the visitors started better, using the flanks to stretch the Wanderers, the first half ended with Ono and Mooy on top, controlling the midfield.
Del Piero helped wrestle this momentum away in the second period, and while Tony Popovic will be pleased with much of the control and the build up, he still has plenty of work to do in the front third.
Winless and without a goal so far, there was good shape and movement of the ball from the hosts, but they couldn’t quite find the solution inside the Sydney box.
While much if this was down to some excellent defending from Ian Crook’s men, for whom Trent McClenahan, Sebastain Ryall and Rhyan Grant were heroic, there was also a lack of cutting edge from the Wanderers attackers.
Often the ball was at the feet of Mark Bridge who had a busy night against his former club but couldn’t quite find a finish, while Dino Kresigner had an excellent opportunity after a great cross from Jerome Polenz, but headed wide.
But the Wanderers and the fans shouldn’t be despondent. In their first derby they were more than competitive. But for a lack of polish inside the Sydney box, the result may have gone the other way.
There’s no doubt Del Piero’s ability to conjure some magic inside the box was the major difference here, but Crook will also be delighted with his side’s defensive effort.
After an insipid opening couple of games, the win takes a bit of the pressure off and gives Sydney something to build on as they look forward to a date with Perth Glory at ANZ Stadium in Homebush in a week.
If the spirit of this inaugural Sydney derby can be bottled, there should be many more big nights for the domestic game in Sydney in the years and decades to come.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA
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