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Jul 26, 2012

Wanderers finding their home

The A-League's newest club was born this week as the Western Sydney Wanderers took their place among Australia's top flight, but it will be off the pitch where the club will have the opportunity to show its true value.

Though the decision to allow the Wanderers into the competition was made by Football Federation Australia in early April, it was not until Wednesday evening that the players, for an historic first time, took to the pitch wearing their red and black hoops.

Cook Park was the modest location for the event, with the Wanderers ultimately coming out 5-0 victors over amateur side Nepean FC in a pre-season friendly. Former Crystal Palace coach Tony Popovic - who will guide the team in their maiden A-League campaign - was understandably delighted by the team's first performance as they embark on a mission with a great deal at stake.

"I'm buzzing," Popovic explained after the win. "I'm very happy with tonight's performance, it was a great atmosphere and a fantastic turnout - I think it showed a lot of the players what they have become a part of. I'm pleased with how we played in our first outing and all the players on trial acquitted themselves well."

For Popovic to succeed at the helm of the fledgling club, he will, of course, need to do far more than win comfortably in pre-season fixtures. Indeed, winning on the pitch throughout the A-League season will only go so far in meeting the club's standard of expectations; winning over the hearts and minds of those living in Sydney's outer-west will provide the greatest indicator of their achievements.

In the fast-growing region of western Sydney, cultural tensions within a diverse community occasionally spilled onto the football pitch during the old National Soccer League. For many non-followers of football, images of crowd violence became an enduring image of the game as a result. For the Wanderers to work as a concept, they must first and foremost overcome the challenge of uniting this broad spectrum of society.

And that's neither taking into account the manner in which the Wanderers were conceived, nor the recent fate of A-League clubs during the expansion phase of the competition.

The region was earmarked for a club upon the A-League's inception in 2005, but a bid from the Sydney Blues was outshone by Sydney FC - who entered the competition and won the inaugural Grand Final courtesy of a fine display from ex-Manchester United great Dwight Yorke.

Sydney Rovers were the next entity to attempt establishing a professional club in western Sydney. When funding for the proposed club collapsed, their entry into the 2011-12 season was denied and it seemed the potential of the area may be squandered.

But the FFA, desperate to make the most of the vast number of juniors playing football in western Sydney, decided to take the plunge on April 4. Utilising Government grant funds, the FFA installed the Wanderers franchise into the competition, ending Gold Coast United's ill-fated tenure in the process.

Clive Palmer's Gold Coast are not the only A-League expansion club to have departed so soon after entering the league. The Robbie Fowler-led North Queensland Fury were also forced out - again due to funding difficulties. Western Sydney will no doubt look to avoid this fate by following the infinitely more successful model adopted by fellow expansion side Melbourne Heart.

Crucially, FFA chief executive Ben Buckley pointed immediately to community engagement as a key area of operation. Potential supporters of the club have already had the opportunity to have their say on club colours, logo, playing strip and culture, with a view to community ownership evidently a genuine prospect. Only time will tell if this vision becomes reality in the long-term.

On the pitch, Popovic has thus far brought together a group of proven A-League footballers to launch the season. Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Michael Beauchamp will provide the spine in defence, while Ante Covic offers an experienced pair of hands between the sticks. In attack, much of the impetus will fall on Labinot Haliti and Mark Bridge, with Tarek Elrich giving the team width. For many, the progress of former Bolton midfielder and current Australia youth international, Aaron Mooy, will be another point of particular interest.

The potential for the club to make an impact off the pitch, meanwhile, is simply overwhelming. With a football-hungry community of nearly two million people ready to be engaged, the stage is set for something special in the western suburbs. And with experienced administrators Lyall Gorman and John Tsatsimas involved, the ingredients for a successful club are already there. This Thursday, the club announced it had landed a major sponsor, pointing to the sense of anticipation building in the region.

For those living in Sydney's west, a trip to Bluetongue Stadium on the Central Coast of New South Wales is often less time consuming than heading to the Sydney Football Stadium - the home of Sydney FC. And when the Wanderers take on the Mariners at Parramatta Stadium in the first round of the new season on October 6, it will be the spirit of this community that will hold the future of the club in its collective hands.

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