Western Sydney Wanderers finally return to finals football on Saturday, and they do so in a manner that could hardly provide a grander stage: An elimination final, at home, against crosstown rivals Sydney FC in the first Sydney Derby played in the A-League Men's finals series. It's big.
After half-a-decade in the wilderness, cast in a Sky Blue shadow of one of the most successful dynasties in Australian football history, fortune (and an i nability to hold out for a draw against Melbourne City last week) has given the Wanderers an opportunity to make history. Win, and a message is sent that an epoch of errors is well on its way to being exorcised. Defeat, however, signals that year one of the coach Marko Rudan's project does end in sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
Flashing back to February 2022, Rudan, then the WSW interim coach, clearly had said project in the works. Making his way into the bowels of McDonald Jones Stadium after a 1-0 loss to Newcastle Jets, Rudan left no doubts over how he rated his squad.
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"I know exactly what needs to be done moving forward," he said at the time. "I don't care about names.You either shape up or ship out. I'm not going to take anyone that's going to go through the motions and pick up a pay cheque."
Rudan declined to elaborate when asked that night what exactly needed to be done, at the time making it unclear if it was a genuine mission statement, an audition for the full-time position amid rumoured interest from Macarthur FC, or a sermon with some other motivation. Two weeks later, that became redundant when the interim tag was removed and he was named the permanent boss of the Wanderers until the end of the 2023-24 campaign.
If Rudan didn't have a plan before (he probably did), he needed one at that point. And it needed to be good. The Wanderers hadn't made the finals since Tony Popovic's abrupt exit from the club on the eve of the 2017-18 season. Their fanbase, once the envy of the league, had been worn away by years of mediocrity, false promises and Carl Robinson. A newly built crown jewel in Parramatta was becoming more sparsely populated with each season that passed without a winning team to fill it.
The routine for the club had become well worn and the benefit of the doubt was lost. Stage a clear-out of the squad during the offseason, sign a bevy of high-profile players (being sure to play up their connections to Western Sydney if they had any) and release a slickly made hype package before the campaign started. If there were any side that had perfected the art of becoming offseason champs, it was the Wanderers.
Unfortunately for Rudan, and anyone looking to history to predict his tenure, his project apparently necessitated a similar, ruthless beginning. Between the previous offseason and January's midseason transfer window, 19 new faces arrived at Wanderland and 21 were jettisoned (two -- Sulejman Krpic and Ruon Tongyik -- have both come and gone). Only four players in the 18-player squad for their clash with City last week were actually at the club in 2021-22.
"One of the main things were people that had a genuine ambition to win things," goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas told ESPN. "For [Rudan], good people in general, personality-wise. He wants to build the club and get back to where it deserves to be. It's a massive footballing area."
Beyond the football, Rudan, especially in Sydney Derby weeks, has sought to connect the values and ethos that he sees in Sydney's west with his own side, as well as reiterate the importance of representing them against their rivals.
"There's a clear disparity between the people who live in the east and west -- it's blue-collar against white-collar," he said in February.
Of course, those of a Sky Blue persuasion don't buy into all of this. In their eyes, Saturday is less an ideological clash of class, clans, and values than it is an opportunity to put down the rowdy neighbours in a manner that reminds them of their place in the pecking order; it is a chance to show the detested rivals who run the town and what success means.
"I don't buy into [clash of cultures] as much," said Sydney captain Alex Wilkinson. "I know 'Rudes' is pretty vocal on that stuff throughout the year in terms of white-collar, that sort of stuff; I don't buy into that as much as obviously they do.
"Over the last couple of years, things have died off a little bit but I get the feeling that that rivalry is coming back this year and it's getting stronger again."
It bears noting that these identity battles aren't new; the Wanderers media team deserve an award for the way they've hyped up the club's previous seasons and identity in spite of what was happening on the pitch. But without results on the field to match the fighting rhetoric, it increasingly became hollow and tokenistic. Unlike previous coaches Josep Gombau, Markus Babbel, and Robinson, though, Rudan is both delivering results and is actually from Sydney's west, so at least the rah-rah rallying isn't completely artificial.
"In the preseason, we had a day where the playing group was split up and we all went out to different areas and occupations and did a day's work," said Thomas. "I was with three or four of our boys and we went to a logistics warehouse. We had to unpack big crates coming in. I think we started at about nine and by about 10, my back was gone.
"I said: 'S--- I don't know how people do this all day.'
"So you appreciate the work they do on a daily basis just to survive or just to get by. They haven't had too much to cheer about the last few years with this team, so we're trying to give back to the community."
It was a good thing that Thomas' back was OK because he's been one of the biggest contributors to the Wanderers' turnaround, a resurgence built upon the best defence in the league. No team in the ALM conceded fewer goals than their 27 across 2022-23 (no other team conceded fewer than 30) and no other side kept more clean sheets than their 10 (38.5% of their games). Demonstrating the keeper's worth, their expected goals conceded of 34.9, per Fotmob, though still good for third-best in the league, was seven more than their actual total, in part, because of Thomas' prowess.
Alas, at times this season, all that defensive fortitude and resoluteness in defence looked likely to go to waste, saddled with an ineffectual attack that lacked inspiration, incisiveness, or ingenuity. Despite conceding more than a single goal just once across the ten games after the league's return from the World Cup break, the Wanderers won just twice in that stretch, against five draws and three losses. That run reached its nadir with a 1-0 loss to Sydney FC in Parramatta in which striker Brandon Borrello, despite the defeat, declared the Sky Blues "bang average."
Perhaps that bombastic declaration was a turning point. The Wanderers won five of their remaining 10 fixtures, including a 4-0 evisceration of Sydney FC in March. Settling into a central attacking role, Borello became one of the form players of the competition, while Amor Layouni arrived on loan from Norweigan side Valerenga and helped fans forget Krpic's abject 13-game stint, and 22-year-old starlet Calem Nieuwenhof continued his meteoric rise.
From a personnel perspective, Nieuwenhof might be the best bit of coaching Rudan has done during his tenure: Pinching an undervalued prospect from Sydney FC and giving him enough consistent minutes and scope to turn him into one of the competition's best midfielders.
Now, the Wanderers appear to be a team capable of beating anyone on their day: They have an iron-clad defence supplemented by an attack that has finally found the right combinations to capitalise on the talent that has been stockpiled. Will it be enough for the finals? Maybe. The cliche is that defence wins championships, but, at the same time, the Wanderers have only won back-to-back games on three occasions this season and failed to produce any three-game winning runs.
"We're a really hard team to get away from, we always tend to hang in the game; even if [we] don't pay very well, we're a very hard team to put away," said Thomas. "I think if we have an intensity and rolling fire, I believe it can beat anyone.
"But even if we're off on a day, I still feel like we can stay engaged very well and then we obviously have the quality on top to pinch goals at any time."