This weekend will mark the first time Western Sydney Wanderers play a finals match at their home ground, CommBank Stadium. It is not, however, the first time the post-season has come to the banks of the Parramatta River; Wanderers’ opponents on Saturday night, Sydney FC, have been here three times before.
It is one of the greater ignominies Wanderers supporters have had to suffer during a streak of playoff absences – which has finally been broken thanks to this season’s fourth-place finish – that the first time a trophy was lifted at the club’s shiny new home was by their most bitter rivals. Back when the Covid-19 pandemic made grand final relocations less controversial, the Sky Blues saw off Melbourne City 1-0 in the 2020 grand final.
There have been other indignities across Wanderers’ half-decade in the wilderness, but it is primarily this memory that gives the first-ever Sydney derby finals encounter an extra dimension. On that August evening three years ago, Sydney stole a moment that the Wanderers will never be able to get back. And on Saturday, the Sky Blues can purloin another piece of history by raining on their rivals’ parade like the sky blue confetti that came down in Parramatta in 2020.
But this has been a good season for Western Sydney. After numerous ill-fated attempts to replace foundation coach Tony Popovic, Marko Rudan has finally found the formula to return to the club to some level of respectability. It hasn’t always been pretty, it hasn’t been reliably dominant and it remains to be seen if long-term foundations have been laid. But it has been effective.
No team has defended better this campaign: five fewer goals conceded than next-best City, and a clean sheet kept in more than a third of their matches. Thanks in large part to the shift of Brandon Borello to a central attacking role, they have finally found a way to consistently score goals in the latter stages of the year, netting 16 times in their last six matches. When they’re not clicking, their structure and discipline can give them time to find the on-switch and even when it doesn’t, they can’t be discounted from dragging opponents down to their level and finding a goal in transition anyway. Their 11 wins are the equal third-most in the club’s 11-year history and in a one-off game, they can probably beat anyone.
Despite all this, for all the fanfare and talk of a revival, the Wanderers have only finished three points clear of Sydney, with the same amount of wins. Goal difference – plus-16 for Western Sydney compared to plus-one for Sydney – talks to the performance gap that has been evident, but the Harboursiders will still enter Saturday’s clash unbeaten in their last five, riding a three-game winning run and with clean sheets in their previous two outings. Yes, the vibes are good and the future looks promising, but the Wanderers’ best season in years to this point has only just outpaced a Sydney campaign in which the rumour mill had sacked Steve Corica and replaced him with Dwight Yorke in January.
With finals taking on an oversized role in setting narratives, the Sky Blues have an opportunity to symbolically put their rivals in their place, demonstrating that when it comes to finals football, their dynastic experience and trophy-laden cabinet still rule the roost. It’s an opportunity to remind the Wanderers that a finals berth in a league in which 50% of the teams make them isn’t a T-shirt-worthy moment.
For the Wanderers, a desire to avoid this opprobrium is obvious. But just as a Sydney win would put them in their place, a triumph on Saturday would prove symbolic. Sure, the buzzsaw that is City may lie in wait in the semi-finals, but the changing of Sydney’s tides would be undeniable with a win. And with the grand final location already locked into Parramatta, who knows what other historical wrongs might be righted in coming weeks?
Alas, any result will come against the backdrop of a much greater discontent gripping Australian football. Standard fare, really.
Sydney supporter group, the Cove, has announced its intention to boycott the derby to protest league administrators, leaving the Red and Black Bloc with unfettered control of the surrounding ambience. Then, as if on cue, a further distraction arrived on Tuesday when it was confirmed that Bayern Munich had withdrawn from a planned role in a planned “festival of football” after state government funding was withdrawn. “Obviously, that would have cost taxpayers money and that won’t be proceeding,” NSW jobs, tourism and night-time economy minister, John Graham, said on Wednesday. “Look, it’s a good idea but we can’t do every good idea.”
Really, it wouldn’t be Australian football if the games weren’t being overshadowed by some off-field nonsense. But whoever loses on Saturday, given what it would mean, might be hoping for a bit more come next week.