By Michael Turner
On the eve of the new A-League season, one of the biggest stories is the homecoming of the Wanderers. I’ve never really been one for clichés, but there’s really no other way to describe what this coming Saturday night really means.
The past three seasons have been agonising to say the least. Moving from Parramatta has been an enormous part of that. Around the country, fellow football fans have been scathing, and understandably so. The once raucous Wanderers Club was a shell of what it was. Dwindling crowds, low active support, and poor mentality on the field.
Now there are a lot of reasons that led to such a drastic shift in the western suburbs of Sydney – police and security overreach and poor performances to name a couple. But none as devastating as the move to Homebush.
Sydney is a big city. Not just in population, but in geographical size. It’s also poorly planned – but maybe that’s a column for another publication. Western Sydney alone is an extremely vast place: an hour to Parramatta from the far reaches of the Hawkesbury and Macarthur. An extra 20 or so minutes to Homebush Bay just increases the hurdle.
Our fanbase is very family-orientated. The normal kick-off times became late kick-offs. The game experience left much to be desired. Some members finding themselves 20 metres away with limited view to the pitch. Combine that with our performances the last three seasons, let’s face it: Sydneysiders are fickle sports consumers.
The biggest problem, however, was what you couldn’t see on TV. Homebush is a desolate place. Those who have visited ANZ Stadium or Spotless will know that the precinct is devoid of food and drinking options, in stark contrast to Parramatta.
On matchday, Parramatta was quite literally red and black. No matter what time you arrived, every café would be full. Restaurants filled with groups grabbing a pre-match lunch or dinner, and hundreds filling Parramatta Square, partaking in family friendly events or street festivals.
It was a true melting pot of Western Sydney culture. The Western City and its constituents converging on its CBD, culminating in the main event, the march and the Wanderers game day. It’s hard to really imagine without seeing it with your own eyes. The match day was an event in itself, and its attendance was at capacity.
For any Wanderers fan, coming back home isn’t just about the State-of-the-Art stadium or less travel time, it’s about the cultural game day experience. The family day out, the social gatherings and being part of the greater Western Sydney family.
When the Wanderers opened the stadium against Leeds United, I was driving to the ground and found myself in traffic. Something I’m really accustomed to as a Sydneysider, but this was a Saturday. I remember sitting at an intersection, looking to my left and seeing a bus stop. Filled with red and black. Scarves, jerseys, and flags and all.
I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to struggle to find a parking spot once I arrived in Parramatta, driving around the city, witnessing what made match day great once again. Cafes, bars, restaurants all filled with red and black. Families walking around hours before kick-off, groups of friends all clad in their jerseys, smiling and laughing.
On Saturday night, we play our first A-League fixture at Bankwest Stadium, fittingly against the team we first faced back in 2012. No coincidence I’m sure, but the perfect return fixture. A decent contingent of travelling away fans, and a family friendly 5pm kick-off time. The ingredients are all there for a real homecoming, and the accompanying parade. A chance for the family of Western Sydney to rediscover what made them so loud and proud to have a team that represented them, and the true, raw cultural experience that is being a football fan in Western Sydney.
Michael Turner is a co-host of Around The Bloc – the supporters podcast of the Western Sydney Wanderers. Catch ATB every Wednesday from 5pm AEDT on FNR, or subscribe on your favourite podcast app.