The hottest ticket in Sydney this weekend is the A-League Grand Final between newcomers Western Sydney Wanderers and the perennial bridesmaid, Central Coast Mariners.
They have been the top two teams of the competition in 2012-13, with Western Sydney taking out the premiership in what has been a remarkable inaugural season.
Eleven months ago, Western Sydney Wanderers didn’t formally exist. While a western Sydney team had long been on the drawing board of FFA, their previous attempt at having a team led to nothing without sufficient funding support. Along with clubs in North Queensland and the Gold Coast, a make-shift franchise was hurriedly given the nod at a time when FFA was more intent of finding 12 stadiums for their World Cup Bid rather than looking at what was best for the long term strategic development of the game.
But in April last year, no-one less than the Prime Minister announced a $5 million grant to FFA to establish a team in the region that is not only football’s traditional ‘heartland’ – but also very important to the ALP’s election strategy.
Some people didn’t give the club much hope in its first season, an assessment which overlooked a number of factors.
- First, because it is the game’s heartland, there was significant unmet demand and demonstrable community support for a club in the A-League competition. This support is most passionately demonstrated in the guise of the ‘Red and Black Bloc’ (RBB). (By the way, management of the Wanderers must be grateful that red and black were assigned as the colours for the aborted western Sydney team four years prior after market research!)
- Second, the club had the start-up funding they needed from the Federal Government and, therefore, didn’t need to focus on raising any further funds as a priority. As it happened, they also received sponsorship from NRMA Insurance (the Chairman of which is also the Deputy Chairman of FFA and Westfield).
- Third, the Executive Chairman and General Manager of the club were highly experienced operatives who had both been involved in start-up A-League franchises previously.
- Finally, they appointed the obvious inaugural coach – Tony Popovic, a former Socceroo, a western Sydney born and bred man, who had stints as an assistant coach in both the A-League and the second tier competition in England. ‘Popa’ is like many of the new breed of coaches in Australia: a serious student of the game with a methodical and professional approach to his craft. He was justly rewarded with the Coach of the Year award at the A-League awards on Monday night in Sydney. Regardless of Sunday’s result, his efforts in guiding his ragtag team of (mostly) other teams’ cast-offs has been remarkable and a case study for building a champion team rather than having a team of champions.
The development of the Western Sydney Wanderers should form the model for further expansion of the A-League. The eventual sale of the Wanderers provides the start-up capital for establishing clubs in new regions such as Canberra and the South Coast.
By contrast, Central Coast Mariners has been in the A-League since its inception in 2005. This is their sixth appearance in the finals series and their fourth in a Grand Final, but they haven’t won any of them. They have twice previously been the top team after the home-and-away series which most ‘real’ football fans consider the true measure of a champion.
Unlike the Western Sydney Wanderers which has not had any financial concerns, and has been given special dispensations around player regulations that no other A-League team has enjoyed, the Central Coast Mariners has had a season from hell.
According to reports in The Australian, their owners – which included until recently the Executive Chairman of the Western Sydney Wanderers – had a large tax liability and a superannuation liability. On at least two occasions, according to Ray Gatt, the players and staff were not paid – at one stage for more than two weeks, with coach Graham Arnold loaning up to $500 to individual players to tide them over for food and rent/mortgage payments.
Despite – or maybe because of – this, under the guidance of coach ‘Arnie’, the team has continued to train, play and win. They’ve also had to fit in their participation in the Asian Champions League competition for the past two months.
Only weeks ago, the Central Coast Mariners was sold to an Anglo-Australian telecommunications entrepreneur, Michael Charlesworth, and the club’s future now looks certain and secure for the first time in its eight year history.
While many consider that a win by the Western Sydney Wanderers would be a fairytale, there are those who are sentimental enough to believe that the Central Coast Mariners are deserving of their own fairytale ending also – and they’ve continued to be-there-or-therabouts throughout their history, despite being the club for a small community and with the least secure financial backing up till now.
If you’re a neutral supporter this Sunday for the A-League Grand Final, who you want to win depends on which version of a football fairytale you prefer.
This article also appeared on www.motherpedia.com.au