One of the Western Sydney Wanderers first recruits was Shannon Cole, who made the brave decision to sign with the new A-League team after being released by his former club, Sydney FC.
It was mid-2012 and these were supposed to be the glory days for Australian footballers. People were still basking in the afterglow of the Socceroos’ first back-to-back World Cup appearances, the A-League was chugging along into its eighth season and Cole’s former club had just shelled out an Australian record $3.5 million to secure the services of Italian football superstar Alessandro Del Piero.
So here was Cole in a team literally without a starting XI, sans a regular training base and with around three months to prepare for the start of a debut season. “At the very beginning, it was interesting,” the 31-year-old says. “It was a different experience. We only had a handful of players on board. For the first few months, we didn’t really have a solid core group of players. We didn’t really have facilities and just had to make do with whatever we could.”
The fact we were a new team, made up of a lot of players let go by their previous clubs, helped us gel much quicker than we might have if things were perfect.
In an age of slick sports science and micro-managed millionaire players, it was a scenario that could have had car crash written all over it. It turned out to be more like a Camry jostling for the chequered flag at the Bathurst 1000.
“While it wasn’t an ideal situation, it kind of brought us together closer as a group,” Cole says, recalling the early days at the Wanderers. “It was an interesting experience to bond over. It was almost like we could prove everyone wrong. The fact we were a new team, made up of a lot of players let go by their previous clubs, helped us gel much quicker than we might have if things were perfect.”
That sense of belonging and shared experience among team members was just one part of the pie. Teamwork went beyond the playing group and staff all the way to the community the club represented. While there was less than six months from the club’s formation – under the initial ownership of Football Federation Australia – to its first A-League game, the governing body made sure locals had their say. A series of meetings and workshops were set up in western Sydney where people could offer their opinions about everything from the team name and colours to their playing style.
“The western Sydney region had been aching for their own team for a long time,” says Wanderers chief executive John Tsatsimas. The area encompasses 14 councils and has an estimated population of about two million. “The area is very different to other markets in Australia. There’s been a feeling about the place that western Sydney wasn’t given the attention and the respect it deserved – not just in football, but across society as a whole.
“The community buy-in and consultation with the western Sydney area as a whole was vital. Once the voices were heard, we set it up based on the feedback and we had a starting model to work on. It’s all about the fans.”
The synergy between players, fans and the club paid off. In their first season, the Wanderers finished on top of the table, but went on to lose the grand final to Central Coast Mariners. The next season, they also made the decider, but went down to Brisbane Roar. However, eclipsing both these achievements was an incredible run to the Asian Champions League final of 2014, where they defeated Saudi team Al Hilal to become the first Australian football title-holders in the region.
But after a fairytale two years, a few cracks started to appear in the red-and-black cement. After constant travel across the country and Asia – the club played in an Australian football record of 44 games during 2014 – the Wanderers slumped to second-last in the A-League season of 2014/15.
In May last year the Wanderers coach, Tony Popovic, cut 10 players in the biggest personnel clean-out in the competition’s history. Tsatsimas says it was a hard but necessary call made by an ethical and hard-working coach who always makes his decisions based on the good of the club.
“It’s not like a block of units where you can sit on it for five years and maybe put on a fresh coat of paint. You can’t – not if you want to stay relevant,” Tsatsimas says of the player cuts. “They were difficult times. And when you are dealing with people’s emotions and futures, they are very difficult conversations to have. No-one wants to do it, but we had a vision of where we wanted to be in a short time.”
THE WANDERERS’ FAMOUS FANS
Tsatsimas was also forced into a rebuilding mission to strengthen the bond between the fans and the club last February, when ugly scenes involving flares and crowd violence at matches saw the club fined $50,000 and given a suspended three competition-point deduction.
Their fans, most notably the Wanderers’ Red and Black Bloc (RBB), are seen as the most passionate in the local game – and players admit they couldn’t have reached the levels they have without them. Attempting to reassure the core fans while clamping down on the rogue elements, Tsatsimas commented, “Fans are an integral part of the club. Let’s be quite clear – the RBB is different to those morons in that group that act like idiots.”
“A lot of people come into a new job and talk about giving them time and having two or three years to implement change. But if everyone is on board, it can happen very quickly.”
Less than a year on from that 2015 purge, the Wanderers have come full circle. At the pointy end of the 2015/16 season, they again found themselves in the mix for an A-League title, topping the league ladder in the lead-up to the finals series.
Cole says it simply demonstrates the club-first ethos that the Wanderers have. “It shows how good our set-up is – not just the coaches and the players, but the backroom as well – to be able to have that success so quickly again,” he says. “A lot of people come into a new job and talk about giving them time and having two or three years to implement change. But if everyone is on board, it can happen very quickly.”