Western Sydney Wanderers 1 Sydney FC 2
As Sydney derby games go, this elimination finals game was the biggest ever, and it lived up to its billing with drama and excitement across the 90 minutes at the temporary home of APL Finals football in Western Sydney. Western Sydney Wanderers shaded the first half and were rewarded with a contentious penalty, dispatched by Morgan Schneiderlin. The hosts failed to turn up in a strange second half, and it seemed like a matter of time before Sydney FC got their reward for almost 100% possession, a classy Robert Mak strike and a pinpoint Adam Le Fondre header turning the game in the Sky Blues’ favour. What an evening in ‘West West’ Sydney.
This was as peculiar a lead-up to a game as we had known. The Cove were definitely not coming to the game, making a stand against the APL’s decision to move the Grand Final to Sydney on behalf of all active supporters in Australia. Apart from the Wanderers. There was therefore an element of unease at attending without the magnificent support of the Cove, and it felt like we were entering enemy territory on a covert operation before the battle was due to start. Playing local club football and a work shift made the run to Parramatta later than wanted, and we were snarled up on Victoria Road, passing the Rose and Crown where the odd brave Sydney FC fan was enjoying a schooner surrounded by Wanderers shirts. We then endured the dizzy ascent to the very top floor of the Leagues Club car park, but still had plenty of time to take in the RBB march. The swarm of red and black entered the stadium forecourt with a police horse escort, the two horses at the back seeming to rejoice when they completed the job. The RBB stopped outside the ticket office to sing their final anti-Sydney songs before entering the stadium. We continued on to Gate A, which was unnervingly quiet.
We weren’t the only Sydney FC fans to make the short journey. There was a decent bank of fans, and we had tickets in the top tier, the steep pitch of the seats giving the feeling of closeness to fellow supporters. A section at the front of the bottom section behind the goal was covered in a blue tarp, and that would be a somewhat unintended message that the Cove had boycotted the game. The Cove marshall stood in front at one point pretending to be watching, a very funny moment for anyone in the know. The teams were read out over the PA system, the Sydney line-up completed with coach Steve Corica, and there were boos through the away fans as his name was read out. That was quite telling after a season of under-performing.
The lower tier of the north stand, where the RBB enjoy their safe-standing area, was filling fast and the songs started as the players entered the stadium and the highly anticipated banner unfurled with streamers pouring down over the field. The choice of banner was unexpected – it wasn’t anti-Sydney – and everyone, myself included, had to re-read it to understand it. There was a murmur through the stadium as the banner became a conversation starter for all the wrong reasons.
The scene was set, there was no Cove to lead the chants and we were unsure of the etiquette, so we settled in to listen and watch as the RBB went through their extensive and colourful repertoire. We didn’t know whether it was appropriate to sing, given the boycott.
I urge you to watch the highlights of the game if you haven’t watched them. The short highlights package doesn’t do it justice though. The home team were on top during the first half. We did have some half-chances though, Jack Rodwell heading just over the bar and a long-range effort from Anthony Caceres (or it might have been Paulo Retre) just clearing the bar. Wanderers had clear-cut chances though, Marcelo heading wide when completely unmarked, Milos Ninkovic firing in a shot that Andrew Redmayne tipped over, and they were giving Joel King the run around.
A break down the right from ex-Sydney man Calem Nieuwenhof then saw Harry Styles look-a-like Amor Layouni play the ball in, and the ball bounced up into Alex Wilkinson. The immediate though was ‘That’s a penalty’, and sure enough the referee blew for the spot kick as Sydney scrambled to clear. What seemed like a nailed-on penalty was then cause for much debate after seeing the replay on the big screen. All chest was the view we had. No way this was a penalty and VAR would overturn it. There was even cheering as the replay was shown again and we were supremely confident that it would not be given. The referee though wouldn’t change it, and was surrounded by Sydney players. The mood was getting ugly as ex-Manchester United player Schneiderlin drilled his penalty home. Celebrating in front of the Sydney fans was not classy, Brandon Borrello one of the most vociferous, and there was a genuine feeling of injustice.
A flair lit up the RBB. This was just what the home fans had been wanting and expecting. Half time arrived and the referee was booed off the field from our end.
The half-time break lightened the mood. The bubble-soccer matchup saw Sydney FC win, there were daredevil kids unknowingly risking injury by getting in the way at the start of it, the half-time heroes football bonanza was actually fun as the organisers tried to manufacture goals to the weaker side up at our end. A couple of DJs then played some doof-doof that didn’t really work, but they seemed to have a willing audience of crazed loonies around them. We were set for the second half, and this was probably going to be tough viewing.
A chorus of “We Are Sydney…” had started up earlier in the game that grew through the away end, and now that everyone was okay with singing, it started up again.
The second half was totally unexpected. Sydney had almost all of the possession. King played in Le Fondre, out of nowhere, who let fly with a stinging effort that Lawrence Thomas tipped around the post. Luke Brattan volleyed just over the bar, and Maxi Burgess was at the heart of everything good, including a number of glorious back-heels shared with Caceres. There was a bit of biff on the far side as Brattan got involved, Ninkovic hitting the deck too easily. Paulo Retre though was earning the ire of the Sydney fans – at one point we had possession for what seemed like 5 minutes, and Retre simply gave the ball away which almost led to a goal up the other end. Despite his obvious hard work, he wasn’t endearing himself to the fans with his wayward distribution.
Just as we started to think that time would beat us, a brilliant moment from Burgess saw the ball swung into the area. Adama Traore’s headed clearance was dreadful, straight to Mak. He took the ball on with a touch past one defender, and seemed to be crowded out, but got the shot away which hit the post and bounced into the net for a dramatic equaliser. The Sydney end went nuts. The loudest “Fuck you Western Sydney scum…” I have ever heard eventuated after the goal had been celebrated and one unnamed Sydney player had twerked in front of the visiting fans. Game on! “We Are Sydney…” then started up again and was so loud, although fizzled out without the aid of a drum. There was a feeling of being united with fellow fans in adversity, a desire to support the team when it felt wrong, and that brought the best out of the supporters, everyone standing and cheering as the game swung in the Sky Blues’ favour.
Retre made another rotten pass and Corica seemed to react as we have never known before, throwing Joe Lolley on to replace the much maligned midfielder. Sydney were going for it. A corner by Mak sailed into the penalty area. Le Fondre leapt and seemed to hang in the air below us, Jack Rodwell also there unmarked. Le Fondre executed the perfect header and sent the ball into the net past Thomas. A header direct from a corner, when did that ever happen? The away fans erupted in joy and disbelief. Everyone was up saluting our famous Sky Blue wonder, and he was loving it, showing his badge to the Wanderers fans in the East Stand as the players celebrated in front of them and we aimed our vitriol at the other end of the stadium.
Sydney almost immediately reverted to game management mode. We had seen some elements of that from the Wanderers before the first goal, players going down and taking time, and now it was being firmly shoved back in their faces. This was fantastic. The away end was pumping, the songs ringing around the whole stand, sometimes starting from the left, sometimes from down below, but eventually all merging into the one chant. Dare I say it, it was refreshing, it was organic and it mirrored the ebb and flow of the game.
The scenes at the final whistle were superb. Adam Le Fondre was flexing. Rhyan Grant was up to mischief. Steve Corica was hugging players, showing emotion like we’ve never seen.
The players eventually made their way to where the Cove would normally be and celebrated, Rhyan Grant running along to high five as many people as he could. Luke Brattan was loving the sing-song as the away supporters burst into song again, and it was a love-in as fans, players and staff celebrated together. As the fans continued to leave and there were a smattering of people still left around the perimeter hoping for selfies and signatures, a handful of young punks ran onto the field. A few of them scarpered back into the stands and disappeared into the throng, but one unlucky soul was captured by security and led away down the tunnel. Not sure if it was anything sinister, or merely high jinks from some local hoodlums. There were hugs in the Sydney end, and we made our way into the bowels of the stadium that literally smelled like shit. There must have ben an issue with the sewage system and shirts were over noses as we left the away end.
Talk started about what was happening next, there was conjecture as to which day we would be playing Melbourne City in the semi-finals, which was eventually confirmed at the Leagues club when we were having a celebratory drink while the car park emptied. Some of the Sydney FC staff were there celebrating too and they confirmed the Friday night fixture at Allianz. Bonus! The season goes on; we get another chance to put it all right.
The car park was almost deserted as we left, and were back along Victoria Road to home, landing at around 11.30pm. What a night, what a breathtaking game of football for an away fan in a derby, and we were all buzzing, incredibly eager for this horrible season to continue to a glorious conclusion.
The Cove’s boycott appeared to have the desired effect. The players noticed it, the opposition noticed it, everyone was talking about it, and most importantly the APL and the media were well aware of it. This commendable action, taken on behalf of all active fans in the A-League, showed that football is indeed nothing without fans and threw light on an issue that was until now confined to football circles. A massive thank you to those active fans who made the sacrifice, and it will be no consolation to know that you missed a great occasion at the home of the ‘Westie scum’. Drink it in ladies and gentlemen. We beat the scum at the shit-hole.