Somewhere between the laughing fans of every other team and the decreasing number of Wanderers faithful still basking in the afterglow of Champion’s League glory, Western Sydney fans are coming to terms with what can only be deemed a failure of a season.
With a finals run now just a laughable mathematical possibility, the time comes to analyse and ask questions. How can a team can go from the heights of a continental championship to the depths of one of the longest winless runs in A-League history in such a short amount of time?
There have naturally been changes, not just in form. As well as being sold to a consortium fronted by a group of salami specialists, the pre-season saw the departure of a host of players who most fans would agree played important roles in the two successful years prior.
The influence of Shinji Ono is inarguable, and he was always bound to depart, but players like Aaron Mooy, Youssouf Hersi and Jerome Polenz saying goodbye came as both a disappointment and a surprise to many.
Mooy is now an instrumental shining light for Melbourne City. Hersi, while currently injured, was enjoying a good run of form over in Perth. Polenz, after a short stint in Norway, is now a regular starter for Brisbane Roar. All three of them are sorely missed in Parramatta, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Perhaps more surprising are the departures of newer foreign players Vitor Saba and Seyi Adeleke. Both were highly lauded and well marketed, particularly Saba. There were hopes from many that he would be the technically gifted, creative passing replacement for Ono and Mooy. While it can be said that he hadn’t quite met expectations, there were signs of potential, with the technical elements and tenacious defence all there.
Six months later and both of them are gone, released by the club. Neither of them was given what any rational fan would call an adequate opportunity to prove themselves.
In one of the last home games before his departure, Saba came up on the screen, sitting in the stands. The crowd cheered heartily, and Vitor waved, giving the distinct impression that all parties wanted to see him in the Red and Black again, and soon. It never happened. This is a guy that shaved his imposing trademark beard off just to appease Popa – how much more commitment do you need?
Instead, the fans are now so frustrated that they’re booing passes to the keeper as early as the 14th minute, when the score is still 0-0 (as happened in Penrith).
Of all the departures, the most disappointing is that of Kwabena Appiah-Kubi.
The combination of Hersi’s departure and his scintillating Asian Champion’s League form led many to believe that Appiah would be a regular starter in the A-League. When Romeo Castelen got seriously injured, Appiah seemed like the natural replacement. Instead Popovic continued giving the wide roles to Labinot Haliti and Nikita Rukavytsya, who have been inconsistent at best. Appiah didn’t even fit into the rotation – despite the obvious fact that the Wanderer’s starting XI just wasn’t working.
For Appiah to be sold to an Asian club would be understandable, given the form that resulted in him being voted the Wanderers Champions League Player of the Year. That he is instead going to Wellington after his contract was terminated says more about a club that wasn’t willing to give a proven young player a go than the player himself.
One of the few remaining midfield stalwarts, Mateo Poljak, is also bound for the exit door after not being named in the squad for this season’s ACL.
Of course it’s not all gloom and doom. Nick Kalmar, in his limited opportunities, has shown an energy and creativity that has been missing from midfield, though only providing it in limited opportunities off the bench.
Anthony Golec is proving himself as much on the attacking end as on defence. Nikita Rukavytsya has helped create plenty of chances, although his inability to convert them has been a source of frustration for everyone.
The club’s two new Japanese signings, Tanaka and Takahagi, have the potential to be good as well, with Tanaka in particular showing some early solidity in his Wanderers career.
Meanwhile, at the heart of the Wanderer’s backline, Nikolai Topor-Stanley is starting every game, despite the fact that most sides have become aware of his continued reliance on the 40/20-style clearances that were surely part of the reason he didn’t make the cut for the Asian Cup. It worked well for two years, but it was bound to dry up.
Golgol Mebrahtu is still on the roster despite being injured for a longer time than Saba was a Wanderer.
There is hope off the pitch as well. Despite the way the season has unfolded for the Wanderers, the stands at Parramatta are consistently full. There are few clubs (apart from the likes of Melbourne Victory) who could go so long without winning a game, and still have the stands so full and noisy. Teams like the Mariners can’t even get that many people to the stadium when they’re winning.
In Saba’s final statement, made on Instagram, he included the words ‘you will never know the whole truth’ – and perhaps that’s the problem, hidden there amongst the cynicism.
Players have been released after no time, long-serving players have been released due to failures to ‘reach an agreement’, a winning formula has been tinkered with. Changes were always going to be made, and the wins were always going to dry up, liked the cured meats sold by the clubs new owners.
What appears to be as frustrating for the players as the fans is a clear lack of communication, certainty and vision for the future. For everything that has happened this season in the west of Sydney since last November, the simple question of ‘why?’ is proving to be the most complex of them all. Things will turn around, as they always do in football, but if the club keeps employing its somewhat crazy methods of player management, it might not be for quite a while.