Updated: Apr 9, 2020
The 2019-20 season for the Western Sydney Wanderers has been reminiscent of Groundhog Day; essentially, watching completely diabolical and disheartening displays of football and wondering why you are wasting your precious life watching a team that are not able to achieve much on the pitch.
A different type of Groundhog Day occurred at the latest Sydney Derby however, with the Wanderers once again defying the odds to beat their rivals, Sydney FC, 1-0. Like the corresponding fixture, striker Mitch Duke scored the only goal with a header, in a game where Sydney FC played most of the football.
Unfortunately, whilst most of the media attention and discussion after the game should have been focused on bowing down to the A-League’s new super coach, JP De-Marigny, and his tactical masterclass (slight dash of sarcasm), the talking points before and after the game centred around matters off the pitch. And not for the right reasons.
The Red and Black Bloc (RBB), the main supporters group of the Wanderers, after staying relatively out of the media limelight throughout this season, catapulted themselves straight into the media glare last week when they made homophobic references towards Sydney FC fans. They subsequently issued an apology, but the half-heartedness of it was clear for all to see. A small minority of fans in the Wanderers section also lit multiple flares during the game.
It was after the second set of flares were let off that the real issues began. In the midst of police and security walking throughout the RBB section in an attempt to find the culprits of the flare lighting, the ‘capo’ or leader of the RBB was evicted. His crime? Standing on the seats.
As a result, around 100-200 RBB members decided to leave the venue, with many congregating on a closed off road just outside the ground. When the Wanderers scored their goal in the 81st minute, those outside began celebrating widely, including letting another flare off.
It was at this point at the other end of the road “40-50 riot police” began to approach the group, blocking off the road with horses. They began to force the group down the road at a fast pace, reportedly pushing fans and swearing at those who got in their way or asked any questions. One lady in the crowd was allegedly pushed over by the police and sworn at. The overbearing police presence continued at Kogarah Station, with fans waiting for friends on the platform told to “get on a train or f*** off”.
I don’t know about you but it seems pretty clear that most of the fans in the ground or in the group outside the ground probably did not warrant that sort of treatment from those in authority who are supposed to ensure their safety. And don’t get me wrong, the use of flares is not something I condone and is something that the police and security have every right to jump on. However, it is in no way appropriate for police to verbally abuse and use excessive force against supporters who have shown no signs of disorderly conduct.
Whilst the RBB have made significant improvements in their behaviour this season, with many games passing without incident. The events at the latest Sydney Derby highlight the glaring issues that remain both within a minority of the group, but more pertinently within the way A-League games are policed. The one trump card that the A-League has, or used to have, over other sporting codes is at stake.
In a league of lower quality when compared to the rest of the world, and in a country where many casual fans are more likely to watch the higher quality, more famous European leagues over watching Kwame Yeboah attempt to be a professional footballer, the colourful and vibrant atmosphere of the active support groups was the thing that helped the league transcend into popular media. It made the game marketable and was an endearing feature that drew in casual observers and families alike. However the FFA’s asphyxiation of many active support groups and their inability to be in touch or communicate with football fans has seen this wane in the previous few seasons.
Combine these issues with incidents such as those in the derby and we are in serious danger of crippling the league in a critical time. Attendances and viewership on television is declining, with the A-League struggling to compete with the more family-friendly and, lets face it, more popular with the media Big Bash League, and even the NBL.
The popular phrase that is commonly used by the anti-football media is that A-League football and the active supporter groups, such as the RBB, make games ‘unsafe for families’, which for the most part is just untrue considering, that many families brave the dangerous environment and take their children to games. On many occasions I have gone to games with my younger cousins and they have not once felt unsafe or intimidated or scared.
What is intimidating, somewhat scary and at times even unsafe for spectators is the police and security acting in the manner they did at the Sydney Derby. In that crowd, grown adults probably felt one or more of those emotions; how do you think young kids would feel?
It is the job of the police and security to make supporters feel safe at football games, and to protect them from any dangers. No matter what the anti-football media or fans of other codes tells you though, they are doing the exact opposite. It is now up to the FFA and the clubs to step in and protect the supporters and the atmosphere that they bring. Atmosphere that could be the key spark to jump-start a league that has been stalled for too long.
Due to the fact that I was unable to attend the match itself, details of the incidents that occurred inside and outside the ground have been taken from the Around the Bloc podcast episode ‘Derby CopWatch’ as well as other media excerpts