The A-League’s “newest, oldest club” at the crossroads

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The performance of the Western Sydney Wanderers FC has been dropping of late (Screenshot via YouTube)

Michael Thorn examines club politics and other factors that have lead to the Western Sydney Wanderers' poor performance of late.

LAST MONTH has marked the end of the twelfth season of the A-League (association) football competition and the seventh season for the A-League team the Western Sydney Wanderers. This season reflected the worst performance for the Wanderers in its fledgling history, with a dismal finish of eighth spot out of ten teams. As a passionate Wanderers fan and club member, while a comprehensive sports analysis over what went wrong for the club is available from me, I feel that more politically oriented factors have influenced the team’s poor performance this season.

In fact, the small history of the Wanderers is mired in politics. The club was established by football governing body the Football Federation Australia (FFA) in the 2012-13 A-League season, done in a quick scramble by the FFA to replace the outgoing team, Gold Coast United.

The identity of the incoming new club as Western Sydney Wanderers FC came about after a whirlwind and concentrated effort by the FFA to canvas Western Sydney residents to gain community input on aspects of the club such as club colours, home ground, club values, the way the club should play tactically and how the club is to represent the Western Sydney region. This gave the fledgling club an immediate sense of tradition and identity, giving rise to the Wanderers’ tagline of being Australia’s ‘newest, oldest club’ upon the club’s launch. 

The FFA committed to this intensive process largely to avoid a repeat of the failure of Gold Coast United, a club largely supported and reared through the commercial machinations of Clive Palmer, who has since moved on from flawed football ownership and into parliamentary politics as a way of complementing his ongoing capitalist schemes.

Upon its establishment, there was a sense of ownership of the club by people living west of Sydney. From the outset, the FFA positioned the club as accessible to both followers of the defunct Australian Soccer League and newer football followers brought to the game through the later formation of the A-League, which was no mean feat. The effort of the FFA to include input from Western Sydney people in the formation of the club was such that upon club foundation, fans found reason to show frustration over matters so trivial as the lack of consultation that FFA provided on contracting the Nike sports company to produce the inaugural playing kit for the club, an issue that did not escape fans at the time.

Running parallel to FFA efforts towards establishing the Wanderers were efforts by residents of Western Sydney to form an active support base for the club. Primarily co-ordinated and organised through social media and online football forums, the Red and Black Bloc (RBB) was formed and over time cultivated a reputation amongst general Wanderers fans for making a significant contribution to match day atmosphere and overall club partisanship.

The RBB has also has a clear political edge, especially demonstrated through a 2015 co-ordinated walkout of matches in protest of a negative media portrayal of the Wanderers and the greater A-League competition by media conglomerate News Corp.

The presence of the RBB gave the club an instant community-based credibility within Sydney’s west. The formation of the Western Sydney Wanderers through such intense community consultation by the FFA, coupled with the grassroots efforts of the RBB, led to the club reaching immediate success in the A-League.

As a club member, I would also happily claim the club is also a genuine expression of the socioeconomic class and the social values held within Western Sydney, these values largely centring on a working-class sensibility and pride in multiculturalism. This is a dynamic that other prominent institutions in Western Sydney began to mimic shortly thereafter. Western Sydney was no longer an ugly term, nor one to hide from.

The last piece to the puzzle of this initial success to the club was the presence of coach Tony Popovic, who coached the Wanderers for the club’s first five seasons and then departed for better opportunities in Europe, a coach who likely will be later recognised as one of the greats of Australian football coaching.

Success for the Wanderers peaked with an inaugural 2014 victory in the Asian Champions League, a first for an Australian team and a milestone not just for the Wanderers but for Australian football overall. This victory and the characterisation of the club as a representative entity of Sydney’s West has been well-documented in books, documentaries, social media, casually-made YouTube videos that I also shot and even a theatre show.

In 2014, the FFA ceded administration of the club to private owners, as was always intended. Assuming ownership was a private consortium led by prominent Western Sydney business Primo Smallgoods. More precisely, the owner of Primo Smallgoods, Paul Lederer, became Wanderers Chairman. As history would now show, the move of the club into private administration marked the start of a period of relative decline for the club from 2014 and onwards to this day.

In recent seasons, the Wanderers have failed to make the traditional A-League final series, a series in which the top six teams of the regular A-League premiership compete, culminating in a Grand Final where a championship trophy is awarded to the eventual victor. In many ways, this decline over the past few seasons has culminated with a poor 2018-19 season, personified by a lack of overall confidence by Wanderers membership towards the club administration, especially demonstrated through RBB’s sporadic boycotting of the club’s games throughout the season.

The club administration has handled this latest A-League season poorly, which is reflective of how the management has performed since it took over from the FFA. The chairman, Paul Lederer, has made a limited number of written public statements throughout the season, hence there is a fundamental absence of Lederer from public speaking appearances and other forms of personable communication between him and the community of supporters. This may reflect a fundamental lack of public relation skills on Lederer’s part, which raises a further issue of whether the Wanderers club should seek a greater professionalisation of its administration as the next step in club development. This has been especially frustrating and even embarrassing to witness as a club member.

The sentiment of the current club administration is that club fortunes will inevitably improve with the opening of a rebuilt Parramatta Stadium next season, a sports ground that has been the Wanderers’ traditional home. With this hope, however, it is still difficult to ignore the fundamental disconnect that is present between club administration and club membership. This will need to be corrected, particularly in view of the establishment of a new club based in south-western Sydney, which will pose fresh new competition for the Wanderers in winning hearts and minds of football fans in Sydney suburbia. 

While it is important to document the good times of a football club, it is also important to note the down times, such as it is now with Western Sydney Wanderers FC, an ongoing community project of great import to the people of Sydney’s west.

Michael Thorn is a union delegate, long-time worker within the community services sector and aspiring activist writer.

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