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Apr 16, 2013

Sydney's west in A-League Wanderland

One of the greatest fairytales in Australian sport requires one last fabulous chapter to ensure its heroes live happily ever.

But even without the glorious climax demanded by football romantics, historians of the future will surely scratch their heads and wonder how the Western Sydney Wanderers ever managed to top the A-League in their first year, let alone contest or even win a grand final.

Wonder is the key word. Wanderers fans have a name for their Parramatta Stadium fortress that would bring a smile to the face of Lewis Carroll: Wanderland.

The only thing missing in their miraculous first season has been Alice, but Tony Popovic and his unlikely band of giant-killers must feel as if they have fallen down a rabbit hole in her place, and tumbled into a fantasy world where debutants end up with golden crowns.

They have been, quite literally, wonderful.

An even greater wonder, perhaps, is why it has taken so long for an elite team to emerge from the plains of greater western Sydney, dedicated specifically to the rich catchment area that has spawned Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer and a host of other football luminaries.

This region is home to over two million people, or one in 11 Australians.

Its population is greater than South Australia's, and greater than Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT combined.

It is a multicultural mecca for the world's most multicultural game. One of its suburbs, Auburn, is home to people from 100 nations.

It is also young, a factor of critical importance for the future. One-third of its people are under 24, making it the focus of an intense turf war in which the big-spending AFL and NRL are turning somersaults to win hearts and minds.

For years they have been screaming for an A-League team. Now they have one they can really scream about.

Six weeks before the start of their first season, the Wanderers had only six contracted players, and only nine at their first training session.

Marquee player Shinji Ono, the Japanese star who has proved a game changer, signed on eight days before the first ball was kicked in anger.

The back room staff never panicked.

"Time was not our friend but we were determined not to let it become our enemy," said chief executive Lyall Gorman.

"To rush decisions would have been to err.

"We had hundreds of potential players to think about, but we wanted the right ones. We had three criteria.

"What sort of person is he? Does he fit the culture and values of the club? What skills set does he bring to our club? In that order."

Though a 0-0 draw in their first match against the might of the Central Coast Mariners hinted at solid prospects, they were kept goalless and winless for their first three matches.

But as the season progressed, so did the Wanderers.

Winning became a habit.

So much that the club won 10 successive matches, taking the Premiers' Plate for finishing on top of the table at the end of the home and away season, a feat considered the grand prize in most countries.

Now they have made the world sit up and take notice. News of their exploits has even made the pages of the New York Times.

And they have the grand final in their sights, too, after a 2-0 victory over Brisbane Roar in their first finals appearance.

No Australian football club in any code has achieved such a feat in any established competition, and it is difficult to find a parallel anywhere in the world for such instant success in team sport at elite level.

The Wanderers have confounded everyone, including their established cross-town rivals Sydney FC, who boast a team led by Alessandro Del Piero, the biggest name to hit the A-League.

Though Del Piero commands $2 million a year, has won a World Cup and starred with Italian giants Juventus, he will be watching Sunday's final, which ironically will be held at FC's home ground, Allianz Stadium.

The red and black army of Wanderers fans are expected to come close to making it the stadium's first ever 45,500 sellout.

The only team standing in the way of the perfect finish for the Wanderers are Graham Arnold's Central Coast Mariners, who will either break their grand final duck or limp home with a fourth grand final loss in eight seasons.

No matter what happens, the Wanderers have seen enough already to believe the sky is the limit.

"In years to come this club will be massive," said Gorman.

"I have no doubt it will rival Collingwood in the AFL or the Broncos in rugby league.

"This is not the end of the journey. It is just the beginning."

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