Almanac Soccer: Love in the time of COVID – an A-League tale

 

 

 

 

 

Just as asking couples “how did you two meet?”, the question “why do you barrack for your team?/how did you start supporting your team?” is a favourite question of mine, often eliciting interesting history. I‘ve always especially wondered how people choose to follow new clubs and what the experience of supporting a fledgling club is like.  In the past twelve months I’ve taken the plunge and found out myself.

 

Passionately following two football clubs – Collingwood and Tottenham Hotspur – takes a lot of my time (on top of work and family commitments!), especially when Spurs play the vast majority of their games at ridiculous times if you live in Australia.  The recent and very welcome expansion of both clubs to include women’s teams has made it an even more demanding commitment of time and passion. This at least partly explains why I’ve never supported an A-League club.  At least I hadn’t supported a club until 2019/20, when Western United were “born”, confounding the pundits’ expectations by being selected as the FFA’s new franchise holder.

 

Despite having lived in the western suburbs of Melbourne for 23 years, I confess I didn’t really know they existed until a few days before the A-League season started.  I was curious – about the new club and about an opportunity to experience being part of a new club, my existing sporting passions being large clubs steeped in  tradition and history, albeit having had little ultimate success in my lifetime. I was especially curious about how Western would try to build an identity while competing in a city and state with two well established A League franchises – Melbourne Victory, boasting the biggest membership in the league, and Melbourne City being part of the Manchester City stable of clubs worldwide and its apparently bottomless petrodollars.

 

I wanted to be part of it and on the day of the first game, bought a membership – the cheapest one on offer, as I wasn’t really planning on attending games, with Western sharing its home games between Ballarat and Geelong ahead of building its own stadium in Tarneit in a few years’ time.  Watching that first game on TV, it was apparent that Western were well-organised on the field, having acquired the highly rated coach Mark Rudan from Wellington Phoenix. The other thing that stood out like a beacon was the brilliance and charisma of their marquee player, Alessandro Diamanti, who had represented Italy 17 times and was now 36 years old and the captain of the outfit.  There were some other familiar faces including former Victory talisman Besart Berisha, former Socceroos and Celtic striker Scott McDonald and last season’s A League Goalkeeper of the Year Filip Kurto.  Western won that first game and my interest was piqued.

 

Early results continued to be promising, in particular the win over Victory after trailing by 2 goals within ten minutes.  I watched as many games as I could, followed scores when I couldn’t and would classify myself as interested and following at this stage. The home games at Geelong and Ballarat appeared on TV to have very limited atmosphere, particularly at Kardinia Park, with the 5,000 or so attending creating limited noise and presence in the comparatively cavernous stadium.

 

As the weather got hotter the team’s form deteriorated, with a spate of injuries suggesting limited list depth, and some mid-season departures, including McDonald, suggesting some weren’t loving life at the new club. There were also some new additions, particularly in the defence. I was still interested and following.

 

January saw me attend my first games – the clash against Melbourne City at AAMI Park and the Whitten Oval home game against Adelaide United. Western scored a combined 5 goals in these two games – and lost them both.  The Adelaide game was a cracker, with four goals in the first 20 minutes and Western clawing back from 1-3 to draw level before a late Adelaide winner meant no points. The atmosphere was terrific, with the pitch located on the grandstand side of the oval, and plenty of noise being made, including by the very lively Western Service Crew.

 

Attending these games definitely transformed me from interested and following to an active supporter, looking forward to games and making an effort to clear time to watch the games. I was particularly entranced by seeing Diamanti play live – he starred in the Whitten Oval clash, scoring and setting up multiple opportunities for Berisha, and looked both a class above most others on the pitch and an inspiration to his teammates with his class and charisma.

 

Despite my boosted enthusiasm, pickings were lean, with the Adelaide match being the start of a period of one draw and three losses for Western.  It looked like they might have run their race for the season after an initial bold showing. But extraordinary things happen in sport and in early March they resuscitated their hopes, both scoring heavily and winning.  More incredibly, attacking midfielder Max Burgess, who had by this stage played 40-odd A-League games for three different clubs without scoring, started scoring, and didn’t stop, with a hat-trick in the 6-2, followed by another goal in the 5-1 win the next week. Things were looking up and not only were Western winning again, they were playing the most attractive football in the league. Even stranger things happen in life than in sport and in March the COVID pandemic meant the suspension of the A League, with Western perched sixth on the table (with six making the finals).

 

When the season restarted in the Sydney hub in July, I don’t think anyone knew how teams would come back, with most teams having lost overseas players who were either unable or unwilling to leave their home countries. Having played two games fewer than most of their rivals, Western faced a packed schedule, their last 6 games in 26 days. Their rich vein of form from before the break continued, winning 4 of the first 5 games to clinch a finals berth before resting some key players and losing the final match.  They have been fortunate with few injuries during this period and media reports suggest that they have benefited more than most from the huge amounts of time spent together in hub life.

 

And so it comes to an elimination final this Sunday after another short (4 day) break, with the side brimming with confidence and Diamanti this week announced as the winner of the Alex Tobin Medal (awarded by Professional Footballers Australia for leadership and achievement over the season). The club had several weeks ago asked members for expressions of interest in attending an online member forum – last week they announced the time and date, Friday evening, two days before their first final. The club showed that this was much more than lip service by providing members with access to key club personnel – the coach, senior player Andrew Durante, the CEO and the General Manager of Football. It was a terrific evening and an incredible opportunity to pose questions to these club leaders.  I think that many others ended that forum feeling like I did, more connected and committed to Western and jumping out of our skins for the game Sunday evening.

 

Western’s future has many challenges ahead – raising capital to build a stadium in a COVID and eventual post-COVID world will not be easy, and there are big decisions to be made about the venue(s) for home games in the 2020/21 season as the club tries to capitalise on their very promising start and build a community of supporters, as well as women’s and junior teams.

 

It feels like they are in good hands, and I’m really looking forward to putting on my green and black striped shirt to watch the game tonight. It’s been a very enjoyable ride so far and long may that continue.

 

 

Read more from Steve Fahey HERE

 

 

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Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says

    Great stuff Steve, it can be really exciting to be on board with a brand new team right from the start. I never had a local team until the A-League started, followed the Victory from the start and despite this being a bad season, have had plenty of good times watching them.

    Western United have been very watchable in the games of theirs I’ve seen. Made a point of watching the Whitten Oval games, the atmosphere looked great, maybe playing in Footscray will make for a better following than way out at Tarneit?

  2. Peter Fuller says

    Steve,
    I’m pleased that you’ve climbed aboard the WU express. They have done well, and Wednesday’s match is an intriguing prospect. I have been with Heart/City from the beginning, and have hopes that this will be the year, but your blokes represent a significant hurdle.
    My support for City is qualified not just by the unfair “advantages” they enjoy, but the questionable source of Man. City’s wealth. I’ve hesitated about renewing in the past couple of years and I am a doubtful runner for 2021.
    It now appears that the competition is headed for winter, when my focus will be on the long time coming revival of the Blues. I think the A-League is in trouble in the crowded sporting landscape and the pandemic might be its death knell. If that proves to be the case, it will be particularly unfortunate for Western United and all who sail in that good ship, that they may have arrived just as the party is breaking up.

  3. I am right with you, Steve.

    As a western suburbs boy, I jumped right on board as soon as the A league announced that this franchise would be taking one of the expansion licences. The black and green colours are superb.

    I watched last night’s match. Diamantini’s goal was brilliant

  4. Steve Fahey says

    Thanks gents.

    Luke – yes, Victory supporters from the get-go have had a very good run. I agree re Footscray – n=1 is a small sample size, but it worked well there. It isn’t perfect from a stadium shape perspective and the timing of the season will mean clashes with AFL and AFLW commitments, but i think it’s a good short-term option.

    Peter – I hope that you’re not right re the death knell, but the minute coverage offered to the A League finals ATM given the AFL gamesfest does offer a glimpse of the challenges of playing in winter, notwithstanding the standard of the A League games has been very good since the resumption. City have had our measure so far, winning all three clashes so I think it will be tough for United tomorrow night, especially coming off a very physical game Sunday night and a short break. But I do have some hope, we are playing with spirit and cohesion – and we have Diamanti !

    Smokie – very nice to know a fellow fan, hopefully the supporter train will gather some more momentum with our finals campaign. Diamanti’s highlights package for the season is just ridiculous – just a pleasure to watch. And Sunday was a terrific game and had a lot more to offer than the very mediocre fare that our AFL clubs put on last night !

  5. Steve Fahey says

    Peter, good luck to city on Sunday. It’s clear that the best two teams over the season are in the final and I wish you well. Of course I don’t wish you well in the curtain raiser, so to speak, the AFL game Between our two clubs!

    Great effort by Western United last night, played extremely well, on the back of a heavy schedule, We played city four times and lost four times and that was by far our best performance. Their goalkeeper Tom Glover was outstanding and made the difference. A very strong first season from Western.

  6. Smokie, was that deliberate. Diamantini. The boy from the Diamantina. Too much listening to bush ballads, but brilliant. I will not be able to call him Diamanti from now on.

    Lovely piece Steve. Its a long story but when I was writing for the media I felt I could not be a member of any club, so I bought memberships of both Victory and City for my wife. When West started we both joined. We thought three clubs was too much, and City were unwatchable the season before. So I rang the club and said I would make a donation, but not renew our membership, whereupon the enterprising young man on the phone said ‘I’ve got just the membership package for you which costs less and you don’t have to watch them!’ Bingo.So we were happy when West started playing in Geelong, though Kardinia is never a good place to watch soccer, and worse, as you say, when 5-6,000 are rattling around like peas in a pod. But particularly in the last phase Mark Rudan’s boys have been quite marvellous and I loved the way they worked out the opposition on the field to conjure up victories against more fancied opposition. I think they have a fanatic opportunity when they start on their new stadium/community centre in Tarneit. there is a huge potential membership with a soccer background within striking distance of the venue. As an employment generating operation in the area during and post-COVID it could not be better. The first season has been brilliant and future is limitless. Stick with them Steve.

  7. Steve Fahey says

    Thanks Roy, you have been a great supporter of the world game. I wish City and their supporters well tomorrow, they have been very patient and I think their time has come.

    United will need be able to ride through the financial bumps of COVID and hopefully they can build on this terrific start.

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