The two benchmark clubs of the 2012/13 A-League season, who face off in the grand final, Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners, are polar opposites in the A-League spectrum.
On the one hand you have the Wanderers, the first season sensations that a year ago was hurriedly created in the desperate attempt to replace the basket case Gold Coast United.
With a premiership won and a grand final appearance on debut, the word fairytale is apt. With funding from the federal government and backing from the governing body, Football Federation Australia (FFA), Western Sydney Wanderers was built on a solid foundation.
Having messed up its expansion plans, the FFA nailed it with the Wanderers – right area playing out of the most suitable stadium, strong brand identity from the area’s footballing heritage, and the best leadership and coach, who built a side that has defied all expectations.
There was always a massive untapped market in Sydney’s west that Sydney FC failed to attract to the A-League, and the rise of the Red and Black Bloc (RBB) and Wanderers fan base, made up of such a variety of multicultural backgrounds, highlights the naivety of not placing a club in the region from the league’s foundation.
Remarkably, Western Sydney has stolen the limelight from cross-town rivals Sydney FC at a time when the more established club has had Alessandro del Piero to market. Yet despite Sydney’s head start and name marquee, Western Sydney’s crowd average is just 6000 off Sydney FC’s. And in terms of crowd participation and active support, Western Sydney is already ahead.
Yet the potential to grow the club’s already healthy supporter base is limitless, with the Wanderers’ catchment area extending from anywhere west of Sydney’s CBD to Orange and everything in between, including the huge population bases of Parramatta, Penrith, Blacktown and more.
Then there’s the Central Coast, a club who continues to exceed expectations from the smallest base in the league. Despite another season of ownership and financial concerns (players and staff not being paid only weeks ago), Central Coast will play off in its fourth grand final.
Unfairly labeled with the tag of poor crowd pullers, Central Coast’s crowd average was just under 3000 shy of Western Sydney’s, from a population of around 300,000. And yet it still outranked Adelaide United, Perth Glory, Melbourne Heart and Wellington Phoenix…
However, the potential for growth is clearly limited from such a small base, at a time when Western Sydney has upped the stakes and rival clubs have far greater potential for growth, hence why initiatives such as Central Coast’s Youth Academy are so vital. Many believe this community club is already being left behind.
As commentator Mike Cockerill recently pointed out, “In an era when supporters groups are flexing their muscles in all sorts of ways (my personal view is that some are behaving beyond their remit), the Mariners fans seem to be heading in the opposite direction.
“When everyone else is getting louder, they’re getting quieter. It is one of the few disappointments of the Hyundai A-League that Bluetongue Stadium has lost its atmosphere.”
An elusive grand final victory could help bring the spark back to the Central Coast, at a time when its ownership dilemmas appear to be solved.
On the park, Western Sydney’s suspension and injury list could prove decisive in the showdown. Injury clouds hang over Mark Bridge, Jerome Polenz and Aaron Mooy heading into the match, while Iacopo La Rocca and, crucially, Youssouf Hersi are suspended.
Hersi, together with marquee Shinji Ono, has been vital to Western Sydney’s attacking transformation, having struggled so badly in the front-third early in the season.
In fact, Western Sydney has not won a match when Hersi has been absent, including the 2-0 home defeat to the Central Coast in Round 15.
While Western Sydney has defied expectations with a 13-match undefeated run that includes 12 victories, one has to wonder if the injury toll will prove decisive when it matters most, in contrast to a close to full strength Central Coast.
Central Coast, for its part, has a grand final hoodoo to shake after three defeats from three finals. Remarkably, a club that last season lost Mustafa Amini, Tom Rogić, Alex Wilkinson, Matt Simon and more remains an A-League threat.
In the coaching department, its two local coaches and former NSL teammates, Tony Popovic and Graham Arnold, doing battle. At a time when question marks are raised over the current Socceroos coach and given the push for an Australian replacement, two possible suitors will be out for bragging rights in this showdown.
So, it’s the fairytale Wanderers or the overdue Mariners? Tough choice for the neutrals.
Either way, it promises to be a great grand final at a sold out (45,000-capacity) Allianz Stadium to end the A-League strongest ever season – record crowds, television ratings, improved product, the three best ever marquees to grace the league and a new television deal with a free-to-air component to look forward to next season.
Onward and upward!