One heel click of the red-and-black shoes and the Western Sydney Wanderers were back where they belong.
Not in Kansas, but Parramatta, to the stadium that would not have been built without their existence.
Saturday 26 October had been circled on the calendar of almost every Sydney football fan. Derby day was back. Pillaged and disrupted by stadium rebuilds over the last three seasons, the Wanderers and Sydney FC played out the first derby at Bankwest Stadium in front of a raucous, heaving, magnificent full house.
It was a game that matched the occasion and the incredible early tightness of the current A-League season.
In the first three rounds, none of the 15 games have seen a winner by more than a single-goal margin.
Amid the extraordinary atmosphere last Saturday night, the Wanderers’ win was built on a defensive resilience that simply did not exist last season. Indeed, after a heavy defeat in the last campaign, Wanderers coach Markus Babbel was asked what went wrong. He shrugged his shoulders and said: “Pfft, we cannot defend”.
It was as blunt an assessment as you’ll get from any coach, and so far this campaign, it is a problem he has gone about addressing with considerable success.
Saturday’s five defensive principles are all new signings, apart from former ball boy Daniel Wilmering, a wonderful story in itself. Matt Jurman and Dylan McGowan have added stability to the middle of defence, while Daniel Georgievski has reveled at right fullback, attacking and defending with equal measure and cementing himself pretty early as a favourite among the Wanderers faithful.
His cross led to Mitchell Duke’s diving header in the 19th minute of the derby, which was enough for the Wanderers to take the points for the first time since February 2017.
But perhaps the best of the lot so far has been Daniel Lopar, a goalkeeping beast in the best possible sense, who looked unbeatable on Saturday, despite relentless pressure from Sydney FC that a season ago would almost certainly have led to a comfortable win.
Not this time. Signed on a free transfer from FC St Gallen in his native Switzerland, Lopar could represent the smartest piece of business this A-League season if his form continues. He was the player of the match in the derby and in addition to a string of saves, had the kind of presence that eased the stress of an overworked back four.
As for the Sky Blues, coach Steve Corica may lament the two pivotal VAR moments that didn’t fall in the champions’ favour. The goal that wasn’t was not nearly as clear as Keanu Baccus’ hand ball late in the second half, but given Lopar’s form there’s no saying he wouldn’t have saved the ensuing penalty.
However, technology wasn’t the main problem for Sydney FC as much as the still-evolving understanding between their two main attacking weapons Adam Le Fondre and Kosta Barbarouses. There were times on Saturday night when they didn’t seem to have the chemistry down pat.
Indeed, Barbarouses could have equalised late after a sublime through-ball from Milos Ninkovic, but for a tremendous save by Lopar. What was not spotted was the incisive late run from Le Fondre where he cut inside Wilmering and was free in the middle, possibly a little too late for Barbarouses to square it rather than shoot, but possibly not.
Corica seems to be attempting to pick his best players and fit them into the best system, rather than picking the players for a system. This led to Barbarouses playing more centrally than he would be used to in his Victory days.
It’ll work eventually and the 4-2-2-2 system does encourage Rhyan Grant and Paulo Retre to get forward at every opportunity. On this occasion, it was the Wanderers’ new players who had settled into their desired system better.
In the early rounds of the A-League’s 15th season, the Wanderers are putting right the wreckage of the last campaign of their nomadic existence.
Babbel now has the squad he wants. And the new home certainly isn’t hurting. They are wandering no more and the fans last Saturday were loving it.