Wanderers: The Espanyol of the A-League

Since I’ve moved away from Sydney, my traditional derby day sequence of ’bus, pub, train, march, lose voice, kebab, train, home’ has been replaced with something most Australian fans of European football will be familiar with – ‘set alarm, wake up early, watch game on other side of the world’. Not being able to attend A-League games has been something I’ve missed, but of course there is enough football to go around in the UK that I am able to somewhat curb my cravings for the beautiful game.

Watching English or European games during normal waking hours is still somewhat of a novelty. Recently, my football app told me that the Catalan Derby between Barcelona and Espanyol was on. 3 times in two weeks in fact (a home and away Copa Del Rey tie, and a league match).

Who Barcelona is, is obvious. Even non-football fans are aware of Messi, and for most football fans, a trip to the Camp Nou is a bucket list item. Espanyol are their ‘noisy neighbours’ – less likely to win the derby but always a thorn in the side of one of the best teams in the world. In these three games, the underdogs came away with a win and a loss in the cup (which ultimately knocked them out), and a draw in the league.

Given who their biggest rivals are, I can’t imagine the frustrations of the Espanyol fans, constantly being beaten by their cross town rivals, gaining only rare glimpses of excitement when Barca are having an off day…

There is a familiarity at the moment with that situation though – and despite all of our Barcelona connections, are Western Sydney Wanderers the ‘Espanyol of the A-League’?

Before anyone points out some sort of obvious reason behind the rivalry between Espanyol and Barca that I’m not aware of (though I can put 2 and 2 together given the name of the former – quick maffs), I’m talking purely in footballing terms. There was a moment in time where Sydney were getting it all wrong and we were getting it all right, but Graham Arnold, to his credit, has managed a phenomenal record against us, even when his team weren’t necessarily performing against other clubs. Now that Sydney are near unbeatable (in the A-League at least), Wanderers fans are left clutching to that one night last season where we had an incredibly hard fought victory against them – in true underdog style. I personally bragged on multiple occasions that we were the 1 in their ‘L’ column on the table – that they were #Vincible – but how have we fallen so far behind in a salary capped league?

I have heard the suggestions that Sydney have exceeded the cap of course, and that they wouldn’t get in trouble for it even if they had because they’re the FFA’s darlings – but surely that’s clutching at straws at best, right? If it was found to be true, it would be the end of the FFA, the end of one of the bigger clubs in the league, and the end of the next Socceroos coach – so I struggle to believe it.

The fact is, since we won the ACL and Popa changed his style of play, we’ve gone from playing boring football and getting results to playing boring football and not getting results. It’s been mediocrity on tap – poor signings, a year where we barely had a striker, failed marquees, inability to finish teams and this year, inability to even finish games. We’re usually out of gas by the 65th minute. Popa seemed to make signings that nobody had ever heard of, and it showed when most of them were persistently frustrating to watch. Meanwhile, the crosstown rivals are signing people whose names nobody can say (Buijs) or spell (miez…meijz… Adrian) and winning everything.

When the Wanderers came into existence, we quickly had the upper hand on the football pitch, numbers in the stands, merch sales, atmosphere and success. Players were coming to WSW and getting noticed for the Socceroos. League fans were going ‘actually soccers alright ay?’. We immediately needed a new stadium and it was approved. In broader terms, we weren’t riding a wave of success – we were the wave, and football was Surfin’ AUS. We should have been the Barcelona.

When a new coach comes in, I always feel they need the benefit of the doubt. I always liked Gombau, and I don’t feel it’s been long enough to ask for his sacking or assume things won’t get better. I do often wonder though, if we should have ever left Parramatta, even if only temporarily. I’m looking forward to the new stadium, standing on a terrace with my friends knowing that this is what we’d dreamed of when the club started, but I dread finally getting there and realising the damage is irreversible, and we won’t get those glory days back.

It’s at this point where I think ‘do I just hit submit?’ and leave it at that? A sad, negative ending? Then I remember where I’m posting this article – on the website of a respected (arguably) podcast that my football friends and I created. We went through those good times together and in football, you can’t have the highest highs without the lowest lows. In 5 and a half seasons, we’ve had them all – some of these experiences were absolutely life-changing. Things might feel bad at the moment, but there’s some of the club in me and some of me in the club, and I’m not alone – not by any stretch. Football’s resilience comes from its fans. There are no fans on Earth that show their sport as much love as football fans, and there’s no club in Australia capable of what Wanderers fans are capable of when we’re at our best. I’ve been to the Camp Nou and it’s got nothing on the atmospheres created by Wanderers fans on their day. We don’t need to be Barcelona, or Espanyol, or anyone else – we are Wanderers and that’s all we need. I don’t hope – I know that we’ll return, better and louder than ever, making more great memories for years to come.

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