The Sydney derby and the battle of the west

Unlike the Wanderers, their cross-city rivals, Sydney FC are struggling to figure out who they represent, and what they stand for

On the afternoon of last season’s grand final between Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners, I walked down Fitzroy Street in Surry Hills to a local pub, the Cricketers Arms. Alongside me marched several hundred Wanderers fans, snaking their way east from Central Station to the Sydney Football Stadium. The column of red and black pulsated with nervous energy in anticipation of their first-ever grand final deep in Sydney FC territory.

As I entered the Cricketers, two women with whom I had once played futsal were chaining up their fixed-gear bicycles to a lamppost. Despite their red and black Wanderers jerseys, these women were inner-city residents. Wandering over to say hello, I queried their loyalties to the Wanderers.

Without a hint of sheepishness or guilt, they replied simply that while they weren’t from Western Sydney, they had never really connected with Sydney FC, and were taken by the Wanderers thrilling debut season. I nodded in understanding, wished them luck with the final – which the Wanderers would end up losing – and we ordered a beer. How could it be, I wondered, that Sydney FC had missed out on the affections of these two?

The story of Wanderers’ breakthrough season has been told and retold several times over. It needs no embellishment here, except to say that their introduction has shifted the cultural axis back to Sydney as the centre of football in Australia. This weekend, Sydney FC host the first Sydney derby of season nine. In the three derbies last season, there was a sense that both sides were feeling each other out, with one win each and a draw.

After seven lonesome seasons in the country’s biggest city, Sydney FC finally have a cross-town rival. It’s a rivalry that is still young, and if you ask most Sydney FC fans, one that still doesn’t hold the same resonance fixtures against Melbourne Victory.

Still, the startling success of the Wanderers is hard to ignore, and it reflects poorly on the Sky Blues. They won’t admit it publicly, but the club know it, the CEO Tony Pignata knows it, and the fans resent it. While the Wanderers had to cap their memberships as over 15,000 people signed up, Sydney FC stumbled to their goal of 10,000 members.

Where Western Sydney have quickly crafted a club culture based on not making the same mistakes as other clubs have over the past seven seasons, Sydney FC have been guilty of repeatedly wasting opportunities, high attrition rates for players, boardroom staff and coaches, not to mention considerable financial losses. The seven-year head start has proven to be a burden rather than an advantage.

Led by Lyall Gorman (no relation in case you ask), the man who has been at the coalface of club and national administration for the past decade, the Wanderers succeeded in establishing a coherent and romantic narrative that spoke to the very genesis of the nation’s football culture. Gorman likes to suggest that the club “stands on the shoulders of the NSL giants” and are the A-League’s “newest, oldest club” by virtue of their nickname. It’s all fairly contrived of course – culturally the Wanderers have little more to do with ‘old soccer’ than any other club, while their lineage has more to do with the dummy spit of Australia’s most eccentric mining tycoon than the pre-ordained second coming of Sydney’s first football side.

But good PR shuns fact and figures in favour of seductive myths and carefully worded messages. To rework that famous line from French philosopher Ernest Renan, getting your history wrong is part of becoming a football club.

Symbolism plays an important role. On game day, Parramatta Stadium is plastered with images of local boys turned good Aaron Mooy, Mark Bridge, Michael Beauchamp and Kwabena Appiah, along with the junior club they hail from. More shameless is the enormous red and black football at the northern end of the ground inscribed with the words “football comes home.”

It’s this sort of imagery that enticed fans of all persuasions along to games last season, and a strategy that has quickly turned the Wanderers into one of the most potent cultural symbols of Australian football. Of course, on-field success also helps, but Gorman and his colleagues have played their hand perfectly off the field, and deserve all the praise that has been showered upon them.

But where does it leave Sydney FC? While the ‘Western Sydney’ in the Wanderers name suggests a geographic divide, the reality is that the Sky Blues still draw a considerable number of members and fans from households west of Concord Road. And while two fans don’t make for concrete evidence, my encounter at the Cricketers Arms might suggest the split works both ways. You’ll be just as likely to spot a red and black cap as a sky blue scarf in the trendy inner west suburbs of Marrickville or Leichhardt.

Sydney is a diverse and transient city, and as much as there are differences between east and west, north and south, in football the divide owes more to perception than reality. There are those who like to paint the Wanderers as a working class club, while others imagine the club to have a more multicultural fanbase, but these assessments are riddled with confirmation bias.

What is very real though, is that Sydney FC’s once expansive catchment area is rapidly shrinking. The west might not be lost completely, but the ‘team for all of Sydney’ is looking more hopeful by the day. While the Wanderers are elbowing the Sky Blues out of their backyard, this season the Central Coast Mariners will continue their efforts to make inroads in Sydney’s northern suburbs by taking a community-round fixture to North Sydney Oval, that quaint cricket ground on the other side of the Harbour Bridge.

Hemmed in, Sydney FC have never had a more pressing need to develop their own narrative, one that recognises the important role they have played in Australian football for the past eight seasons. When he took over as CEO at the club, Pignata stated that Sydney “have a good story and a good history”.

Telling that story, however, has proven difficult. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that the breakthrough success of season eight was predicated largely on Sydney FC’s investment in Alessandro Del Piero. The biggest signing in Australian football history had a domino effect on the competition, and wherever Sydney’s No10 has gone, crowds and excitement have followed.

Del Piero is likely to be out of action this Saturday night with a calf injury, adding to Sydney FC's significant injury list. That the coaching staff are thinking about risking him off the bench says much about their over-reliance on their marquee man. 

As much as he has boosted the profile of the A-League, off the pitch time is fast running out for Sydney FC to capitalise on his presence. He was rarely spotted in pre-season, and when he returns home at season’s end, the club is likely to be back at square one. How many of the new fans that came to see Del Piero play will hang around to watch Sydney FC in the long term, particularly considering the lacklustre football on display? Sadly, Sydney’s marquee player might be just another costly short term investment.

The lack of boardroom stability and vision has left the club in a perpetual state of flux, constantly agonising over whether to embrace or shelve the Bling FC tag they’ve been burdened with. They’ve flirted with stars and experimented with blue collar cred, but nothing has really ‘stuck.’ Perhaps the only consistent message has come from the home end in The Cove.

It is said that Sydney is a city that loves winners, but in a 10-team competition levelled out by the salary cap, no club can hope to hedge their future on success alone. There needs to be a more nuanced understanding and articulation of why Sydney FC exist, who they represent, and what they stand for. Otherwise, the Wanderers will win more than just the west.


Joe Gorman

The GuardianTramp

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