The identity crisis destroying an Australian sporting success story
The Western Sydney Wanderers burst onto the Australian football scene with a bang. Three Grand Final appearances, a Premier's Plate, and an Asian Champions League title, the only Australian club to ever achieve this feat, all in their first four years of existence. With a passionate and vibrant fan base to match, the club quickly set a standard for doing things on and off the field.
However, the years following have seen those times become nothing more than a distant memory.
The Wanderers fell to sixth place in the season following their last Grand Final appearance. They failed to make the finals series in the five seasons since inaugural manager Tony Popovic left.
The Wanderers won the Asian Champions League within three seasons of their existence, a fitting culmination of their rise in that period. (The Advertiser)
Player turnover has been high, and more recent seasons have seen crowds dwindle compared to their peak.
The downfall of a once-mighty club is sad to see for any football fan in Australia. A club everyone loved to hate due to their quick success and noisy fans, fixtures with the Wanderers now offer little excitement to clubs outside of Sydney. At least those teams still have city bragging rights on the line.
Constant “club rebuilds” and new training facilities to rival any sports clubs in Australia papered over the cracks. But those cracks are starting to turn into significant rifts, and the damage could be irreversible if not treated adequately soon.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where everything went wrong for the Wanderers. It may well be the culmination of poor decisions both on and off the field that see them in their rut.
Following Tony Popovic’s departure, Josep Gombau was brought in to keep the good times coming. He was a fan-favourite across the league during his time at Adelaide United. And he was relatively successful, so it was a move that made sense at the time. Goals were easy to come by for his side. However, a lack of defensive solidity and a struggle to get players to adapt to his system saw him leave come season's end.
It was a squad built for Tony Popovic. Considering the vast difference in playing style to Gombau, it's easy to understand why this appointment didn’t work out.
All coaches brought in following the departure of Popovic have had varying styles of play. It has made it hard for fans to know what to expect from the team as each new manager comes in.
The Wanderers have failed to make the finals in each of the five seasons since Tony Popovic's departure. (Fox Sports)
Fans can also bring the values and priorities of the club to question. In a recent interview, German manager Markus Babbel talked about his time at the club. Under his stewardship, they wanted to focus on bringing young players into the squad, which he was okay with following. But the club lacked the patience needed to achieve success with this method.
His second season saw several young players brought into the first team, including Jarrod Carluccio, Noah Pagden, Daniel Wilmering and Mohamed Adam. However, many weren’t given a chance until Babbel was let go.
But for the fans that saw success come so often once upon a time now seeing consecutive seasons with no finals football, the mounting impatience from them is understandable. They were always in and around the pointy end of the table throughout their early history. So to see the side slip further down each season, as the club’s hierarchy and coaches try to decide which direction it should move forward, is bound to make any fan base restless.
The pressure to succeed certainly isn’t lost on the club. They’ve headed back to the drawing board each off-season to clean out the current squad and bring in one capable of turning their fortunes around. The club has brought in 35 new first-team players to replace the 45 departing in the last three seasons alone. The revolving door approach leads to a lack of time for a squad to settle and gel together, and this factor has undoubtedly been the biggest in their recent struggles.
And in a way, this season has been a summary of the last five years for the club.
More big names soon replaced a cleanout of underperforming players, undoubtedly influenced by the club's success almost half a decade prior. A promotional video to celebrate their 10th anniversary would follow to get fans excited and thinking this time might be different.
It wasn’t. It’s now the worst it has ever been. It was the third-lowest number of points they’ve accrued in a season. Rumours of discontent and a poor working culture saw CEO John Tsatsimas announce his intention to step down come season's end.
High-profile signings proved to be underwhelming, with Adama Traore and Jack Rodwell the only ones gaining positive reviews from fans.
High-profile signing Jack Rodwell was one of few positives for the Wanderers this season, shining despite his injury troubles. (The Guardian)
Results were poor, and crowds hit record lows as fans again lost patience with manager Carl Robinson. He was let go on January 30 this year, just seven games into the season. Results improved ever so slightly following this chaotic period, but ultimately it was a disappointment-filled season in Western Sydney.
And on Friday last week, a loss to the Brisbane Roar in their Australia Cup playoff set a new low for the Wanderers. The match also took place at their state-of-the-art training facilities to rub more salt into the wounds.
Western Sydney's Australia Cup Playoff loss to Brisbane was a new low for the club. (Australia Cup)
There's no doubting the stature the Western Sydney Wanderers possess. Upon hearing the name, any Australian football fan’s first thoughts will be the famous Red and Black Bloc, the ACL triumph in Saudi Arabia, or even Shinji Ono strutting his stuff during two glorious A-League seasons.
So to see the club in this position is disheartening. Another rebuild beckons for the club, but as the saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
A reputation in disarray will also make it difficult for Mark Rudan to hold onto players or attract quality replacements for those who depart.
Mark Rudan is the new man trusted to bring the good times back to Wanderland. (Western Sydney Wanderers)
The club needs a drastic culture change that ensures its values match fan expectations. It’s a mammoth task ahead for the Wanderers and one they need to get right if they want to be amongst the league's elite once again.
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