• Patrick Brischetto

Wondering What Went Wrong in Wanderland

It was supposed to be the year that the Wanderers put themselves back on the map. It was supposed to be the year where the club returned to their spiritual home in the heart of Parramatta. It was supposed to be the year where the found their soul.

By season’s end however the club had missed yet another finals series, with yet another manager at the helm and yet another statement from the chairman saying, ‘things will get better’.

Certainly, it didn’t start that badly. Cast your mind back to nearly a year ago and the Wanderers, after a victory against bitter rivals Sydney FC, sat top of the league after three rounds with a 100% record. There was a belief that perhaps the team had finally gotten a backbone and a winning mentality that had been missing since Tony Popovic’s sudden departure. A winless run that lasted until after Christmas made us realise where the club was really at.

The Wanderers celebrating an opening day win over the Mariners, back when we thought we were good again...

By that time the club had fallen to 8th and damning reports had emerged that claimed assistant coach JP-de Marigny had attempted to undermine Markus Babbel and take the top job, claims that were denied by the club and de Marigny. Be it through undermining or otherwise, he would take over from a sacked Babbel only a month later.

There was a brief upturn in form under JP, with a four-game unbeaten run putting the Wanderers back in the hunt for the finals. However, a return to their inconsistent ways saw the Wanderers finish in a miserly 9th place, their equal lowest finish in their short history.

The Wanderers have missed out on the finals for three seasons in a row, after making three grand finals in their first five seasons. Whilst no one was expecting them to keep at that pace season upon season, the fact that every team (apart from the Mariners) in a salary capped league has made the finals in that time suggests that there are deeper lying problems in Sydney’s west.

As the season has progressed much of the anger at the Wanderers predicament has been directed at owner Paul Lederer and CEO John Tsatsimas. Having taken over at the end of the 2013-14 season, they oversaw the club’s finest hour when won they the Asian Champions League.

However, patience with the pair is wearing thin in Western Sydney and many on social media have expressed their displeasure with the way the club has been run.

It cannot be denied that there has been significant investment into the club, most notably with the $30 million Centre of Excellence and youth academy being constructed in Blacktown. It is the first training facility in Australia exclusively for an Australian football team and is something for which Tsatsimas and Lederer deserve significant praise. Lederer also played a key role in lobbying the State Government to construct a state-of-the-art stadium in Parramatta, from which the club began to play in October 2019.

The pair’s role in the club’s lack of success on the pitch does warrant criticism, however. The quality of player recruitment in particular has been well below par. As much as a salary capped league does restrict who can be signed, teams like Sydney FC, Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory show that there is more than enough room in the cap to create a high-quality team.

And whilst rivals have been blessed with foreigners like Milos Ninkovic, Diego Castro and Ola Toivonen; the Wanderers have been left disappointed by Alex Meier, Alvaro Cejudo and Aritz Borda, to name a few.

Like many foreigners the Wanderers have signed recently, Alex Meier failed to impress in the Red and Black

The Wanderers have also struggled to create a cohesive identity within the playing squad and the staff. There have been three distinct and varying styles between the three managers that have succeeded Popovic; with the Spanish-possession based style under Josep Gombau being replaced by whatever ‘Babbelball’ was. Now the Wanderers have gone local with de-Marigny, as Lederer argues that foreigners ‘tend to struggle to adapt to the A-League’.

This lack of collective vision on and off the pitch could be easily solved with the installation of a Director of Football. It is the norm in Europe and clubs like Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory have created these positions in the last few seasons. Yet no such role exists at the Wanderers.

The continued poor recruitment in the playing and coaching staff has led to a gradual erosion of the culture that served the club so well in its early golden years. Back then it was clear that every single player, whether they were local boys or from Croatia, would run through brick walls for the badge. The fans could see that at every game the players were giving everything they had and that’s the mentality that Popovic wanted to create.

It is how the club won the Asian Champions League against the biggest clubs in Asia with the likes of Shannon Cole and Labinot Haliti in the starting line-up. They may not have been pretty on the eye but they would give everything they had. And when it was clear that new signings didn’t fit that mould, they would quickly fall out of favour.

That warrior mentality is not present at the club today, and in truth, has been absent since Popovic departed. The number of abject and lifeless performances has increased over the past few seasons and this season in particular has highlighted how fragile the squad is mentally. It seems that unless the squad was playing in a derby match, they would wilt horribly under any period of sustained pressure or setback.

This stems from the lack of consistent leadership from above. Not only have the Wanderers churned through coaches, but there have been four different captains in the last four seasons. All have left at season’s end. And this season is no different, with Mitchell Duke taking up a more financially sound offer in Saudi Arabia.

Successful clubs are not run this way, lacking a clear vision and leaders. And, coming from a Wanderers fan, we’re beginning to get tired of it all.

We’re tired of the rudderless leadership. We’re tired of the PR statements and interviews. We’re tired of the club not adequately standing up for the fans when they have been treated poorly. We’re tired of being told constantly about our state-of-the-art academy, yet having a coach that reportedly treats youth players ‘like shit’.

There are doubts as to whether de Marigny and his 'old school' methods will bring success to Parramatta

When you get constant talk and no results, it all begins to seem like bullshit. And fans are beginning to stay away. Average crowds in 2018-19 fell to 9,000, and before the COVID crisis the Wanderers were struggling to get 10,000 to Bankwest Stadium. Where once Parramatta on gameday was filled by fans in Red and Black singing and shouting for their club for 90 minutes, now is replaced by a thick fog of apathy and disillusion.

The people of Western Sydney were desperate for an A-League club; they clamoured for it. Even through these times it still means so much to so many people (believe me, I am one of those poor people.) But under the watch of Lederer and Tsatsimas the club has changed. It may have the same name and colours, but in so many ways it is different from the club that we fell in love with. And that perhaps, is their biggest crime.

This was supposed to be the season that reunited the Wanderers with Western Sydney, yet it left the fans more disillusioned than ever before with the club that they helped create.

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