Western United, a story of resilience and belonging
Despite creating an independent A-Leagues and a change in the broadcast deal, Football Australia and Fox’s legacy remains in the league through its controversial decisions regarding expansion. Western United have been questioned, ridiculed, and cast aside. But their critics could not ignore them anymore on the 28th of May 2022.
John Aloisi and Western United fans celebrating the club's inaugural championship. (Image: Western United)
We have previously discussed how teams mirror their coach. When Western United hired John Aloisi, they hired a man that mirrored their current situation, being an outcast.
Despite being one of the most iconic players in Australian football history, Aloisi had become almost untouchable by A-Leagues clubs looking for a new coach.
Honest as ever, Aloisi recognised his predicament and even thought about leaving the country for an opportunity at redemption. He stated, “Did I think I was going to get another job in Australia? I’ll be honest with you; I didn’t.”
Despite all the moaning about introducing another “Melbourne team” to the competition, Western United looked like a solid choice on paper.
With Melbourne Victory being the city’s traditional team and Melbourne City planning to move east in the future, uniting the Western suburbs of Melbourne and regional Victoria was a logical choice.
A boutique stadium in the construction hotbed of Tarneit, owned and operated by the club, would be an asset that many would view with envy in any code around Australia.
Unfortunately, that was not how it played out for Western. Delays in even turning soil resulted in the club indefinitely playing games out of Geelong, Ballarat, Whitten Oval, and even Launceston. Season 2021/22 saw them play out of AAMI Park, a long way from its promised heartland.
Fans of the league were frustrated, questioning Western's viability in the competition. A solid first season helped, but as Mark Rudan’s side unravelled in its second season, the chatter re-emerged with no off-field progress. The hiring of John Aloisi, who was viewed as something of a black sheep in coaching terms, did nothing to silence doubters.
An artistic concept of a completed Wyndham City Stadium. (Image: Western United)
Many pundits did not even include Western in their top six calculations. But Aloisi and his players ignored the outside noise, just as they had done for a long time.
Aloisi’s first task was reuniting the fragmented Western locker room that had lost its identity as a tough, gritty side that is hard to break down. This mentality went deeper than on the field, as it had become Western's identity early in its existence under Rudan.
Despite an opening round loss to Melbourne Victory, it was soon apparent that Western was on song as a defensive unit, winning its next five games 1-0. Aloisi's men looked to be on their way to the most unlikely Premiership, but a dip in form saw them drop down to third and again dismissed by outsiders.
In the first week of the finals, the Green and Blacks faced familiar opposition in the Wellington Phoenix, which caused them problems in the past. But Western deployed a usual tactic that once again worked wonders with some luck. After an early Aleksandar Prijović goal, they surrendered possession. They invited the Phoenix forward, but the Nix could not break down the home side's resistance. Western was through and about to face local opposition following some Jamie Young heroics.
The two leg semi-final system was about to get a real test. With two games at AAMI Park in a week, Melbourne Victory fans were rubbing their hands together at the prospect of facing Western United. They had not lost to Aloisi's side in 2021/22 and played twice a week in front of a partisan crowd favouring their side, essentially playing two home games.
In their heart of hearts, even the APL would admit that they would have hoped for a traditional Melbourne Derby Grand Final. It looked like it would go that way when Victory took a one-goal lead into the second leg. Once again, when the world thought they were down and out, John Aloisi's Western United showed that they belonged and hit Victory hard.
For the first time, Western United did significant damage to Melbourne Victory. This side was chasing a redemption story after finishing last the previous season. But Aloisi's men snapped Victory's unbeaten run with an astonishing 4-1 second leg victory to set up a date with destiny against champions and fellow Victorian rivals Melbourne City.
Entering a Grand Final against a side discussing creating a dynasty can be a daunting task. Still, for Western United, the focus was internal. It came down to ensuring they executed their game style, staying strong defensively and picking their moments to attack.
Just two minutes into the encounter, a well-taken Ben Garuccio corner was turned in by City defender Nuno Reis. The uproar and ecstasy followed the goal, with shock in the stands. Everyone knew what was coming, but City could do little to counter it.
Just as they have done off the pitch for a while, Western United absorbed the rising pressure and rose to the occasion when it was time. Prijović doubled his side's advantage half an hour into his club's night of nights.
Western United was no longer the third team in Melbourne; they were THE team in Melbourne. AAMI Park was where John Aloisi struggled to legitimise himself as a young manager while coaching the Melbourne Heart. It was a venue that became Western United's temporary home. The place that reminded fans of the absence of their stadium had suddenly become the venue where dreams became a reality.
Just three seasons into its existence, Western United claimed a Championship, but most importantly, they got redemption. It is still not the perfect club; not many are. But it is an achievement no one can take away from its rejuvenated coach, the players, supporters, or the board.
Not all criticism was uncalled for of Western. Now, the new champions face the challenging task of maximising their success while still being based away from their heartland.
Regardless of the results, Western United will eventually be home; the earlier, the better. John Aloisi and the club have proven that they belong in the A-League Men, not just as mere footnotes but as its champions.
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