Preparation in football is critical, so the theory goes. Videos are studied, opponents scouted, formations drilled for hours and pre-season programmes tailored to allow players to reach their physical peak at the right time.
So, in 2012, when newly-formed A-League club Western Sydney Wanderers started their pre-season games without enough players to make a team, plenty at the club were worried.
“I think I was the 10th player signed,” says the club’s former full-back Adam D’Apuzzo, who left the professional game for a period to concentrate on a career in accountancy before being tempted back by Wanderers.
“In that first training session some of the old emotions of why I left football came back. I even went to the CEO and said ‘I’ve made a mistake here’. There were trialists and young kids but I was only the 10th one that had signed and the season was just around the corner. The other teams had full squads so it was a concern, but it turned out to be enough.”
D’Apuzzo is speaking from his family accountancy office in Burwood, Sydney, where the 30-year-old now works after a couple of years with Wanderers. He is looking back on an incredible 31-month period where an unfancied band of players signed from state leagues, disbanded clubs or relatively obscure European outfits, went from nothing to top the A-League and become Asian champions.
It wasn’t always obvious, at least to outside observers, that Wanderers could mount any sort of challenge. Though certainly not outclassed, they failed to score in their first four league games, picking up a solitary point against Central Coast Mariners.
But what they did have, instantly, was the league’s best support. From the moment Football Federation Australia decided it would finally accept a team from the football-crazed western suburbs of Sydney, the new club were keen to reflect their heartland and the people in it.
Alex Cauchi was one of those people. He attended an early fan forum that would ultimately define the way the as-yet-nameless club would be run.
“A few hundred people turned up and it had a real positive vibe,” he recalls.
“Like we were on the verge of something exciting and that people were genuinely listening to us. The crowd seemed pretty united on a few core things – that the club had one ground, Parramatta Stadium, that the team wore red and black and that the name Western Sydney was in the title.
“If the FFA didn’t listen to the fans, we would have potentially seen some marketing wank of a club – wearing fluoro-green and with a name like Fury. Instead, that early engagement resulted in a proper football club. A traditional looking kit, an excellent logo, a perfectly sized stadium centrally located.”
Western Sydney has long been home to a large immigrant population, initially European in origin but increasingly Asian in recent years. Cauchi, who is of Maltese descent, explains that to many Western Sydneysiders like him, Sydney FC – based in the east of the city and erstwhile home to Alessandro del Piero – never felt like their team. The new outfit united the ethnic-based club factions that had long defined Australian football.
“Wanderers engaged with many of the old-NSL (National Soccer League) crowd. Those that grew up supporting clubs like Marconi (Italian), Sydney United (Croatian), Melita (Maltese), Sydney Olympic (Greek), Bonnyrigg (Serbian) – even clubs like Rockdale (Macedonian) which isn’t even anywhere near Western Sydney. When those old NSL supporters came to their first Wanderers game and heard the chants, smelled the flares and felt that buzz in the crowd – they were home again.”
D’Apuzzo, who grew up in the area in a household of Italian heritage, says that connection cut through to the players, who were staggered by the immediately passionate nature of the support.
“I could already feel something special was about to happen,” he said of the days leading up to their first match. “I’ve got friends and family out west and I’ve played a lot of soccer out there. Those people didn’t feel a connection to Sydney FC and so they were waiting for something.
“It’s the old cliche but they were definitely our 12th man. It motivated me to go out there, knowing they were chanting for the whole game. It was awesome. I’m sure they intimidated most teams but maybe it also pumped a few up because they weren’t used to playing in front of those type of crowds but it gave us that edge because they were cheering for us.”
That edge saw Wanderers eventually pick up their first home victory at the third attempt, claiming a 2-1 win over Melbourne Heart (now City). Local boy Mark Bridge – the club’s all-time leading goalscorer – got his team off the mark, while current Huddersfield Town midfielder Aaron Mooy was also in the Wanderers’ winning line-up.
But the floodgates didn’t open yet. Wanderers, while exceptionally defensively organised under head coach Tony Popovic, were still struggling for balance, with a 1-0 away win in Perth the only other points they picked up in the next four fixtures.
Suddenly it clicked. A 1-0 win over Brisbane Roar, secured by a penalty from marquee signing Shinji Ono, was followed by a raucous 2-0 win over already fierce rivals Sydney FC at the Allianz Stadium in the city’s wealthy east side. Those wins began a run of 18 games in which Wanderers dropped just seven points, breaking league records and eventually pipping Mariners to the title by three points.
“Even though we were a combination of misfits or guys that had lost their way, we had all played (at the top level) before,” says D’Apuzzo. “We all had that experience of how to execute a game plan and knew what it took to play at A League level, but Tony put us back on the right track again.
“That, with the fitness training, which probably none of us had experienced before, gave us this quiet confidence. We knew we were structurally sound enough to grind out a result and then the goals started to come because we had the talent there.”
Despite losing the final of the somewhat bizarre play-off system that decides the Australian champions (the team that wins the league are known as minor premiers), a club was born – one with an identity both off and on the pitch.
Wanderers had established themselves as a formidable outfit, thanks largely to Popovic, a former Crystal Palace defender born and raised in Western Sydney, while the fans – led by ultra group the Red and Black Block (RBB) – were gaining admirers in the footballing community and detractors in the rugby-league obsessed Sydney sports press almost by the week.
But Wanderers weren’t done yet. Their table-topping feats earned them a seat at the 2014 Asian Champions League table. After some teething problems, Popovic opted to play an almost entirely different XI in continental games. It was a mark of the esteem in which he was held that the decision had a galvanising effect.
“I didn’t play many Champions League games, which I was disappointed by,” says D’Apuzzo. “But I think he was trying to keep everyone fresh.
“In my Newcastle (Jets) days I would have resented that, but the way Tony set the tone at the club made it ok. He even wouldn’t take Shinji (Ono) to Perth because maybe his legs couldn’t deal with the flight or the short turnaround.
“But everyone believed in the cause and they didn’t think it’s because they’re a bad player or the coach doesn’t like me, it’s just because he has the game plan he wants to execute and he thinks is going to get the job done.”
The full-back stopped playing football professionally midway through the ACL campaign, which doesn’t entirely run in sync with the A-League season. But his teammates went from strength to strength, beating Marcelo Lippi’s big-spending Guangzhou Evergrande in the quarter-final and the 2013 runners up FC Seoul in the last four before meeting Saudi Arabian outfit Al Hilal in the two-legged final.
In the style that they had already made their own Wanderers barely gave their opponents a sniff, a first leg goal from substitute Tomi Juric proving enough to settle the tie and cap a remarkable couple of years.
Of the key figures from that time, only Popovic and Bridge remain. Wanderers have had a couple of second-place finishes, a pair of ACL group stage exits and a prematurely ended World Club Cup campaign since, as they belatedly experience some of the issues expected of a club that’s still only five years old.
The ramshackle but intimidating Parramatta Stadium is gone, to be replaced by a gleaming new 30,000 all-seater in 2019, meaning Wanderers are currently playing at the unlovable Sydney Showgrounds AFL arena and the cavernous Sydney Olympic Stadium.
A few years have passed since the glory days but a sense of optimism remains through this period of stasis. D’Apuzzo points to the growing population of Western Sydney and the club’s engagement with the continually shifting immigrant communities in the region as reasons why their success will be much more than a flash in the pan. Cauchi is equally confident.
“I never thought we’d be so successful in our first few years,” he says. “Although we shouldn’t complain about a few crap seasons, I have no doubt we’ll be a superior force in seasons to come.”
Even if they do come to dominate Australian football, topping the sensational success of those early days may prove their toughest task yet.