Wanderers' minstrels raise the bar

Such has been the atmosphere created by the Western Sydney Wanderers' fans, usually dispassionate critics have left Parramatta Stadium raving the experience makes the Camp Nou seem like a winter night at the Wentworth Park dogs. But perhaps the most significant measure of the imprint made by the rookie club during its heady first season was the contribution of their fans to a momentous Saturday night at Melbourne's AAMI Park.

In a vast nation, travelling to watch a team in a national league can be as much an indication of wealth, obsession or the willingness to fake a sickie as it is of loyalty. However, that Wanderers fans occupied all 800 seats reserved for visiting fans - another 150 were scattered elsewhere - underlined the club's instant status as a premier franchise. It was the first time the Victory's allocation for visiting supporters has been oversubscribed.

New clubs are expected to bring something to the table. The Wanderers bring a sumptuous moveable feast. That Western Sydney returned from the Victory's heavily guarded fortress with the three points, after a rollicking battle, is even more astonishing than the frequent-flyer miles accumulated by devotees. Rapunzel postpones her trip to the hairdresser again. Sleeping Beauty takes another bite of the apple. Cinderella books a 12 o'clock pumpkin. The Wanderers' fairytale moves closer to its happily ever after.

And it gets even better for a league in which the primary intra-city and inter-club rivalries are percolating nicely. Western Sydney's first season heroics continue to run in wonderful juxtaposition to the fortunes of their crosstown rivals.

You can hardly say Western Sydney have been built on the smell of an oily rag. Not when high-profile Japanese signing Shinji Ono bags the game-clinching goal in the 2-1 win at Victory. But, having been thrown together with unusual haste, the Wanderers are proving a model of shrewd recruiting, wisely allocated resources and - most obviously - cunning leadership.

Tony Popovic is supposed to be serving his apprenticeship. Yet, a coach with L-plates has spent the entire season in the overtaking lane. Inspiring for those who insist Australian clubs too often suffer a cultural cringe when appointing managers.

Meanwhile, Frank Farina's success at Sydney FC demonstrates how failure can enlighten, rather than damage, the wise coach. Which is to make the presumptuous assumption the lessons learnt by Farina with the Socceroos and Brisbane Roar have made him a more formidable figure with the Sky Blues.

It is a contention Farina might find insulting because it ignores the varying circumstances of his previous positions, and underplays what success he had. But the confident manner in which he dealt with the apparent insurrection of the disgruntled Jason Culina suggests the Sydney FC boss is very much in charge of his new club. Athletes can sniff insecurity and uncertainty, just as they feed off confidence and self-assurance. Another vital victory over Adelaide United was vindication of Farina's firm hand.

The signing of Socceroos captain Lucas Neill revives the media image of Bling FC. Del Piero, Emerton, Neill. Sydney FC have more marquees than Flemington on Melbourne Cup day. The Wanderers have a two-man tent.

Of course, in reality, the Wanderers are a wonderfully talented, cohesive team and boast, in their supporters, one of the competition's premier 12th men. That was never more obvious than on Saturday night.

The financial realities of the global football market mean that, on occasions, the A-League will rely on ''game-day experience'', as much as the game itself, to entertain fans. But the Wanderers-Victory match proved that the league can also satisfy the most demanding purist.

It was a match that did not require dusting to reveal the fingerprints of the coaches, Popovic and Ange Postecoglou. It pitted teams whose attacking thrusts are strategic, but not unnecessarily meticulous or fussy. Teams whose sudden acceleration excites the crowd's rising pulse, rather than feeding off it.

Those who visit the Victory and Wanderers must feel the players are spoiled by their vociferous supporters. But, through Victory's eight seasons, and in the Wanderers' first, the heavy emotional investment of the fans has been well rewarded.

In the standard, the atmosphere and the modern venue, Saturday night's match gave as much as football in Australia has to ask of itself, or others have to demand. That the Wanderers are second on the table is beyond the FFA's wildest dreams. Westies v Bling in the finals anyone?

Wanderers fans cheering on their team.

Wanderers fans cheering on their team.


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