The Best and Worst of Wanderers Season 2017/18

Welcome to the Best and Worst of Wanderers Season 2017/18 where I’ll try and sum up the entire season in my regular format. I hope you all enjoyed my ramblings and rantings this season and it has been fun writing them.

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Worst – Popovic Leaves on Eve of Season

This is the first, and big one. After arguably our best prepared preseason with countless friendlies and the most expensive squad we’ve ever assembled, Popovic sensationally quit a week before the season started to go to a bottom team in Turkey where he lasted 2 months (as we all predicted). This threw the entire season into turmoil. Assistant coach Hayden Foxe who didn’t follow Popa to Turkey unlike the rest of the coaching staff was given caretaker duties until Josep Gombau was given the reigns 5 weeks later. A lot of the playing squad signed with WSW because of Popa. Him leaving pissed most of them off, pissed us off and effectively turned the entire season into a write off. We never recovered. We were true contenders going into the season, with me personally stating I wanted the domestic treble.

But looking deeper into our performances, we still struggled under Popa with this squad. We struggled against a third string Wellington side in the Round of 32 needing a 120th minute winner. We struggled big time against Blacktown City in the Quarters and had to win on penalties. Again saved by Riera’s last minute equaliser. Some of our performances were dire in friendlies against state league teams. So there is no real evidence that we would have been contenders. We were still playing the same style and lacked creativity or ambition. It is the great unknown now, but needless to say, Popa leaving on the eve of the season was the catalyst for a mediocre season of ups and downs and an unsettled playing group.

Best – Vedran Stands Tall

One of the shining lights of the season was Vedran getting out of Kalac’s shadow and standing on his own two feet. When Popa and Kalac left, he adapted to Gombau’s style relatively quickly and is so far ahead of every other goalkeeper in the competition when it comes to saves it’s ridiculous. Most weeks I had Vedran as a Best in my column and his howlers that he is known for seemingly disappeared. Many times his efforts saved us points or embarrassment. I for one was not happy he signed with us last season because I don’t forget his antics in Sydney Derbies against us (the club and fans). But his performances and attitude don’t lie. If only he had a defence in front of him that complemented his dedication.
Vedran was rewarded with a 4 year extension to his contract and I don’t think too many are upset over this. He also won the members player of the year in the WSW award night.

Worst – Defence Shambles
The old saying is true. Defence wins championships. And ours was terrible this season. Every week we had a different back line and what we thought would be our starting centreback pairing were both gone by January. Cornthwaite went to Malaysia and Aspro unfortunately did his ACL in the Youth League final. We ended up with Hamill and Thwaite as our pairing with Clisby cameos. Essentially our 3rd and 4th choice. It showed. Lack of cohesion, silly errors, leaking goals galore. We were all excited with Risdon’s signing but aside from a few assists, defensively he was disappointing and to think he’ll probably be going to Russia 2018 is a worry. Llorente was good going forward and was one of the fittest on the park, but again, defensively was suspect. Clisby, Hamill, Baby Baccus all had a go at the fullback positions and the fact I’ve written 8 names already is telling in our defensive woes. So much chopping and changing and nothing settled just added up to a woeful defensive campaign which left Vedran isolated and having to do double the work as his goalkeeper counterparts across the league.
This is truly one area that needs a massive overhaul in the off season.

Best – Captain Hamill Steps Up

Rate him or not, I think most can somewhat agree that this was arguably Hamill’s best A-League season at the Wanderers. He had to step in at right back, centre back and even captain after Cornthwaite left, and Bridge got injured late in the season. He got a few assists and even scored a few goals. Defensively he was okay and had some good performances but not really the howlers week in, week out that we all expected. Credit where credit is due. I did mention Hamill in a positive light on a few occasions on my weekly Best and Worsts so its fair to name him when looking back at the season as a whole. Whether Hamill retains a Starting XI position next season is anyone’s guess. Personally I think he is a good back up defender since he can play across the whole back line, but I wouldn’t be putting my entire campaign’s faith on him. But, a new coach, a new lease in life and he can always step up and prove us all wrong again.

Worst – Not So King Bridge
After much fan fare of his return, Mark Bridge’s season was, to put it lightly, mediocre. Is it because he never fully recovered from the injury he sustained in Thailand? Was it merely Father Time catching up to him? Or perhaps the fact that he came back for Popa – whom he has had his best seasons playing under – only for his mentor to leave on the eve of the season? Bridge never really hit his stride this season. He always seemed a step off the pace. Whether it was Gombau’s playing style that didn’t suit him, the pace required, the first touch required or the movement off the ball that was essential. But Bridge of 2012-2014 he was not. Most games I didn’t even realise he was on the pitch, that’s how anonymous he was. He popped up for a goal here and there, but overall it was a very disappointing season from him and who knows if he’ll be a part of the new WSW in 2018/19.

Worst – Midfield Struggles
If you can’t settle on a defence, then at least you can have a settled firing midfield right?
This was more of a shambles than the backline. We started with OG Baccus, Herd and Roly. Then Herd left for personal reasons and was finally released at season’s end. OG Baccus wanted to leave and was given #TheTreatment. Lustica had turns in the midfield, Roly was pushed back to the defensive role, Baby Baccus started getting game time, Cejudo was played out of position as 1 of 2 number 10s. Carrusca came in and had a turn. Every week our midfield formation was different. The triangle was one way, then inverted the next week. Gombau never settled on his midfield trio and it cost us. We finally got some cohesion towards the end when Gombau realised our defence was terrible and we needed two defensive midfielders. But it was too late. Persisting with Bonevacia as a lone screener or deep playmaker didn’t work. He needs someone alongside him to do the dirty work. We actually looked pretty good with the original trio in the opening rounds but it all changed once Foxe left and Gombau inverted the triangle and took months to implement a style. The whole thing was unsettled and a mess.
If you lose the midfield battle, you have a high chance of losing the game. We rarely won it, and hence we ended up where we are on the table.

Best – Riera, Goal Machine

I admit, I wasn’t sold on Oriel Riera when he first signed and after a few games. He looked like he had potential, but I’ve been burned by marquee forwards in the past so I wanted to bide my time before making judgement. It didn’t take long. He scored in every FFA Cup game, he scored in the derby. He scored against everyone. He scored in multiple weeks in a row, and scored his way to have the highest goal tally in a single A-League season for the Wanderers and across all competitions. He is now 3rd overall in WSW goal scoring charts.
All this despite his very public “spat” with Gombau. He is a professional and put it all aside and did his job. He scored goals. He dropped deep to add another man in midfield, laid off the ball perfectly to a winger and finished the move by putting the ball in the back of the net.

I can’t give the guy enough plaudits. I think Riera was in the majority of my weekly lists because he was always a shining light in a dour season. His off the ball work rate was second to none and he played 90 minutes most weeks. He was versatile enough to drop behind Santalab when he was subbed on so they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.
The positive of Gombau leaving is that Riera stays. This is a good thing. If he can have a consistent performing team around him, he’ll get the golden boot next season.

Best – January Transfers
I was going to give Jumpei leaving his own heading but figured it all goes under this banner. Jumpei left and was replaced by young Australian Chris Ikonomidis on loan from Lazio. Ikonomidis had instant impact, weaving past defenders with ease, setting up goal scoring opportunities and scoring a few himself. He was a breath of fresh air. He is what Jumpei (and Cejudo) was supposed to be, but I did say 18 months ago that Jumpei was a J2-League squaddie at best. He was a waste of a Visa spot and especially a waste of the +1 for the ACL. Ikon was a huge improvement on that right side.

Marcelo Carrusca was another good addition. He came straight into the lineup and obviously understood what Gombau wanted. He linked up with Ikonomidis and Riera with ease. He read the game well and created multiple chances. He was a quick fix to our attacking midfield problems.
So overall, the January transfer window was good. It needed to include a good central defender though and we might have had more luck in the back half of the season.

Worst – Price Gouging and Scheduling
Its been a sticking point with me the last couple of years but this year took the cake. I paid upwards of $90 to an away Sydney derby for 2 adult active away tickets. Its a joke and absolute robbery. To top it off, we stood in pouring rain for 5 hours on a Sunday night. Money well spent. All away tickets for WSW members seemed to be more expensive compared to when other teams travel to Newcastle, Melbourne and Gosford. A-League teams obviously take advantage of travelling WSW support and try to get a few extra dollars from them. Its ridiculous and a rip off. I for one didn’t go to any away games other then the derbies, and I won’t be going to them in the foreseeable future either. When the A-League scheduling is so skewed towards screwing over away fans, why participate in it?

It annoys me that every year our fixtures for NSW teams is either 2 away, or 1 away game for all 3 teams. So one year we have 6 NSW away games, the next year we have 3. Its been like this since 2012. Can we get some equalisation please? 6 NSW away games costs more than my membership. Hence why I don’t go anymore. Its asking too much of people and there needs to be a $20 cap on away tickets.

On top of the price gouging, the scheduling was terrible this season. I pointed it out before the season started. Friday night games, Monday night games, Sunday games interstate. Every major fixture or enticing away game was hindered by the stupid schedule the FFA created. It was as if they did it on purpose to limit away support. Even big games like the Big Blue suffered. In years gone by (pre WSW), the Big Blue used to get 30,000 in attendance. Now they are lucky to get 15,000. Why? Have they played each other to death? The timing of the fixture? The price? Or the fact they killed all Melbourne Victory travelling support? Probably all of the above are factors.

For a thriving competition, away support is paramount. And for a country of Australia’s size, surely its in the competition’s best interest to help those fans travelling by air or long drives to attend these matches? Having back to back away games in Melbourne, twice, is stupid. Having WSW play against a NSW team on a Friday night away, is stupid. Having a midweek game between 2 teams that are NOT in the ACL, is stupid. We had weekends off for some reason even though our opponent wasn’t in the ACL. Having Sunday 7pm kickoffs, or Thursday night games when everyone is back at work instead of during the Christmas/New Year break was stupid. It made no sense.

High ticket prices, stupid scheduling. And they wonder why ratings and attendances dropped across the board.

Worst – Fan Issues, Boycotts, Threatening Letters
When fans get a threatening letter in the middle of the off season that the active area could be shut down at any time, right before a heated fan forum, you know its going to be one of those seasons. I don’t think either party recovered from THAT letter and the Marconi Fan Forum. There were agendas on all sides, finger pointing, the blame game, you name it. The whole season was doomed after that night.
I’ve spoken at length multiple times about the issues at the Homebush precinct with over the top security and police presence. Dwindling numbers at both Spotless and ANZ coupled with increasing pressure from authorities just led to a miserable season in the terrace. It ended in a whimper as the RBB boycotted the last few rounds after firstly being banned from their area one week then having the capo banned from the Olympic Park precinct for swearing (FFA insist they were against this ban and its a precinct ban only – outside of their control). It all just got too much. Too hard, too miserable, too much effort.

Let’s remember. ALL fans do so in their free time. ALL fans attend games, home and away, in their free time. They spend their hard earned money to enjoy themselves at the football with their friends and family. To spend your free time preparing for these game days, spending countless hours and money making banners, flags, tifos, merchandise etc. Then to have someone just shit on it all for whatever reason. People tend to forget that we all have day jobs. We would love to do all of these football related activities full time, but the reality for most of us its a passion project. To have your passion clamped down upon very hard and suffocated, it becomes too much. And so boycotts happened. People were over it.

The issues on the pitch. The issues off it. The entire season was a write off.

Let’s start from scratch. Open the dialogue across the board. Be open to opposing ideas and come to a compromise. Football without fans is nothing. WSW without fans is nothing. Fans without WSW are nothing. We all need each other and we all exist because of one another. We need to work together so we can have fun again on weekends.

Worst – Seventh Heaven
Missing out on the finals is a disaster for a club of Wanderers’ stature. If you want to be the best club in the country, then you have to act like it. You have to be at the top of the table or thereabouts. Barely scraping into the finals is not an achievement. Missing out because of one game’s performance is hiding the true facts. We were woeful for large parts of this season. Dropping points galore. Our second halves were terrible and this table based on first half performances prove it:

We couldn’t score in the 2nd half. And this is not a Gombau problem. We pointed it out at the beginning of the season and during FFA Cup performances. Despite apparently having the best preseason ever, our fitness levels beyond the 60th minute were terrible. Teams ran all over us. If you can’t compete for 90 minutes, then you can’t compete full stop.

I don’t think any of it helped with the change of the philosophy from the head coaches. Popovic’s season goal was to win it all. Gombau came in and said “yeah, 6th place is enough”.
When the boss doesn’t have the belief or ambition to challenge from the outset, of course it filters down to the players. Gombau wanted a preseason of his own, to mould the team in his image. But he forgot where he was and Western Sydney has little patience for heartless performances.
It all culminated in us finishing 7th on the table and Gombau fired.

Worst – Future of Uncertainty

Questions definitely need to be raised. Back when Popa left, we all debated who we thought should come in. Milicic or Gombau.
I said Milicic because he would continue in Popa’s footsteps and the transition should be smooth. Others said Gombau for a complete overhaul of philosophy but accepted it would mean the season would be a write off. With all the money the club reportedly spent on this squad, could they afford a write off?

Milicic was apparently the preferred candidate but he was needed at the Socceroos after Ange left. The FFA didn’t want to let him go so gave him the u23 job too and he recently moved to Europe to help with national team scouting. Wage demands increased and it didn’t happen. Instead the FFA were happy to release Gombau from his Olyroo duties and lo and behold he was announced as the WSW coach for the next few years. Right away he said words like “project”, “system” and “patience” in needing time to implement. So the excuses for a poor season were already laid out.
Everyone reminded everyone else about his slow start in Adelaide. To be patient because we’ll see improvement as time goes on.

The first game under Gombau was a disaster. No one knew where to stand, where they should be and our defence was all over the place trying to adapt to his style. It slowly got better. We started seeing improvement and some belief in the system. Incremental improvement was acceptable.

But then it all fell apart. Public spats with players, later downplayed. Rumours of more in the dressing room, at training. The captain leaving in January out of nowhere. The rumours grew more and more. Gombau wasn’t a great man manager. He wants to be the players’ friend. But not all players thrive in this situation. Our mediocrity and inconsistent performances and results just wouldn’t go away. The pressure started to build. In the end, the patience was exhausted and he was let go.

But why sign someone like Gombau in the first place? If you knew he needed time to implement his style but you didn’t have that time to give him, why go down that path.
Was it just a matter of him being the best option at the time? Hope it works and then build on it? But then it started to dawn on those in charge that maybe perhaps he WASN’T the right man to lead Western Sydney Wanderers into the future.

Opinion is mixed on Gombau. Some love him. Others don’t rate him. His departure from the club has similar reactions.

I for one am glad the club made a decision, either way. If he was going to stay, they had to announce it right away and back him. If he was going to go, it had to happen right away so a complete fresh start can happen.
I don’t think the club feels it can risk another mediocre transition season or write off. If they stayed with Gombau, gave him what and who he wanted and it still didn’t work. Do the club fire him in Round 8 and it’s another lacklustre season? The club cannot afford that.

The next appointment however has to be spot on. They have to understand what they are getting in to. Who they are representing. And they have to hit the ground running.
Popovic is not the man for the job. Surely that bridge is burned. It’s uncertain times ahead for the club, but it’s exciting also.

Congratulations to all our winners at #WanderersMedal 2018! #WSW

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Thank you all for coming on this journey with me every week. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed writing them. ATB isn’t going anywhere so keep an eye out for us on all your social media platforms and this very website for things in the off season and the pre season as another journey begins.

See you space cowboy…

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