All fine in the West, but let’s not get carried away with Wanderers

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Western Sydney Wanderers vs Central Coast Mariners. AAP Image/Quentin Jones

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Less than a year has passed since former national coach Ralé Rašić labelled the FFA “suicidal” for attempting to establish a new A-League club up in just five months.

Indeed it was a case of crash or crash through, and the initial success of the Western Sydney Wanderers has got football fans punch-drunk with joy.

As the team proved they weren’t just making up the numbers, the naysayers turned into cautious optimists. After the Wanderers twice defeated the reigning champions Brisbane Roar, and then beat their cross-town rivals Sydney FC in round 11, the caution was thrown out the window, replaced by uncontrolled adulation.

Indeed, it’s been a dream start for the fledgling Wanderers. On field and off – to borrow a line from Alec Baldwin – their existence has been one unbroken boulevard of green lights. They have, amazingly, won over the most sceptical of opinion makers as they continue their climb up the competition ladder.

But every boom is followed by a bust. Eventually, the Wanderers will be forced to slow down for a red light.

There has been plenty to like about the way the Wanderers have packaged themselves. They are perhaps the first club in the A-League to truly push the multicultural angle, and they seem genuinely interested in engaging their constituents in Western Sydney.

Even the name is fitting. Filled with journeymen footballers who had been cast-offs from other A-League sides, they are Wanderers by name and Wanderers by nature. Between them, captain Michael Beauchamp and his defensive partner Nikolai Topor-Stanley have played for no less than six A-League sides in just eight seasons.

Particularly impressive has been the realisation that a franchise can only become a football club if the fans feel like they belong. On game day, big banners surround Parramatta Stadium, each with the faces of all the locally-born Wanderers players and the suburbs they come from. It’s a nice touch, and a real statement of intent.

But there is a tendency for we football fans to get carried away with any signs of success. It’s the flip-side of our persecution complex.

As John Huxley wrote back in 2003, “no other sport in Australia has seen more false dawns, no game slaughtered so many last chances, no sleeping giant slept through so many wake-up calls than Australian soccer.”

It should make us a little more wary about predicting such big things for the game in this country. But we never learn.

Already, we’ve got Mark Bosnich talking about the Wanderers becoming a powerhouse in Asia, and Lyall Gorman likening the side to AFL giants Collingwood or the Brisbane Broncos in rugby league.

A few weeks ago, Gorman even suggested the club might look at capping memberships in coming seasons to ensure members don’t outnumber seats at Parramatta Stadium.

Someone should remind Gorman that when you’ve got just over 6500 members and 22,000 seats to fill, you’re getting a little ahead of yourself.

Yes, they have attracted thousands of fans in season one, but these numbers tend to plateau as the novelty wears off.

And please, let’s just give the other sports a rest. No self-respecting football fan wants the Wanderers compared to the Broncos or the ‘Pies. It’s unnecessary and reeks of desperation. We don’t need validation from other codes of football.

Similarly, talking about any A-League side becoming a powerhouse in Asia is just plain silly. Until the salary cap is lifted there will be no Australian football powerhouse, period.

It’s understandable to plan ahead and commendable to aim high, but it’s still very early days for the Wanderers. Indeed, some of their biggest challenges lie ahead.

So much of the Wanderers success has hinged upon the FFA’s strategic vision for the club, which has revolved around grassroots engagement and creating a visible and attractive identity.

But, to state the obvious, the FFA can’t fund the club forever. Prime Minister Gillard’s $8 million gift to football in Western Sydney was a one-time offer. Sooner rather than later, a buyer will have to be found.

And while we all hope that whoever purchases the franchise from the governing body will be keen to keep the existing structures in place, it’s by no means guaranteed they will.

Similarly, rookie manager Tony Popovic has impressed us all with his astute tactical awareness, clever recruitment and brave squad management, but it seems only a matter of time now before he is poached by a bigger overseas club.

Which is also true of the players. Popovic – like Graham Arnold at the Central Coast and Ange Postecoglu at Melbourne – has gotten the very best out of his squad. It’s a mark of a special coach. But in the A-League, the better the players, the more likely they are to be put in the shop window.

How will the Wanderers respond to new owners, a change in manager and the inevitable turnover of players? They’ll all come eventually.

Setting up an attractive team, in fact, is the easy part. But properly managing the transitions is the key to ensuring stability and long-term success in the A-League.

What happens when they have a bad season? Or an extended run of injuries? The Red and Black Bloc have already shown themselves to be a volatile bunch, and every supporter group goes through periods of division and faces crises of identity when the team is not performing.

The Western Sydney Wanderers deserve this year’s A-League title. It would be folly for football fans to wish any ill will on the club. Their success, at least for the next few years, will be intertwined with the overall success of the competition.

But it’s far too early to judge the success of the club as a whole. Football fans are desperate for success stories, but the true identity and resilience of a club is often best seen in hard times, not good times.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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