How the Wanderers could win the West
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The Western Sydney Wanderers FC's Shinji Ono and Michael Beauchamp. AAP Image/Paul Miller
Gold Coast who? It is amazing to think that just under 12 months ago A-League officials were vexed by what to do about Clive Palmer, when all the talk now is of a brand new club potentially becoming a powerhouse of the competition.
It’s safe to say at this point that Western Sydney Wanderers’ entry into the competition has been an unqualified success.
Built from nothing after Gold Coast United were unceremoniously but necessarily dumped last year, the Wanderers are winning games on the field and winning over fans and corporate support off it.
And if the issue of A-League expansion is to return to the agenda any time soon, it’s worth trying to pinpoint what the Wanderers have done right.
Firstly they appointed an astute tactician, and Sydney FC must be kicking themselves at having let Tony Popovic slip away.
The widely respected former Socceroo has breathed new life into a core of established A-League players, with the likes of Ante Covic, Michael Beauchamp and Mark Bridge showing several former employers that they’ve got a point to prove.
Popovic has also highlighted the benefit of overseas experience, gunning for Japanese ace Shinji Ono as the club’s marquee import with unprecedented results.
Had Popovic not spent time in the J. League at current champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the opportunity may never have arisen to sign a player who is now one of the A-League’s most influential.
But as much as the Wanderers are deservedly attracting headlines for their on-field success, it’s off the field – where corporate support is growing along with the fanbase – that suggests basing a team in western Sydney was long overdue.
And surely one organisation has more to fear from the rise of the Wanderers than most – the National Rugby League.
The AFL might be keen to make inroads but the fact is that western Sydney is rugby league heartland.
The Wanderers’ growing crowds have brought into sharp relief the fact that NRL clubs Parramatta Eels, Wests Tigers, Canterbury Bulldogs and to a lesser extent Penrith Panthers are all fighting for fans from the same catchment area.
What the Wanderers have done is essentially unite those areas under one banner, and they’re seeing success as a result.
That could be a problem for Parramatta in particular this season, with the Eels possessing a paper-thin squad as disgruntled members turn their back after years of off-field turmoil.
The club which could benefit from that, far more than AFL club Greater Western Sydney ever could, is the Wanderers.
It has been interesting to note the reaction – or lack thereof – from new NRL chief executive Dave Smith over the rumour up to 14 Cronulla players could be stood down in relation to ASADA’s investigation of the club.
Fresh from getting troubled Bulldogs star and reigning Dally M medal-winner Ben Barba’s name wrong during the NRL’s season launch, Smith has been conspicuously silent over the brewing Sharks saga.
Where once a steady and articulate David Gallop would have calmly fronted the press to announce the NRL’s course of action, suddenly rugby league’s administration is floundering.
Their loss is clearly football’s gain, and it’s a similar scenario when it comes to the Wanderers.
With any luck and with no disrespect intended to the Wellington Phoenix, hopefully the Wanderers continue their fairytale winning run and pack the stands at Parramatta Stadium on Sunday.
Because if the general sports lovers of the region get a sniff of a potentially championship-winning side, they may just jump off the rugby league bandwagon and put their hard-earned into football instead.
It’s hardly a romantic notion but that’s the brutal economic reality of big-business sport.
The opportunity exists for the Wanderers to become western Sydney’s premier sporting team. They should do everything within their power to try and seize it with both hands.
Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he has settled in Brisbane and has been a Roar columnist since December 2008. Follow Mike on twitter @Mike_Tuckerman