Could this full circle moment finally unlock ‘the heartbeat of Australia’s football talent’?

It is a homecoming of sorts for new Western Sydney Wanderers head coach Alen Stajcic.

The former Matildas and Philippines women’s coach was unveiled as the man to replace Marko Rudan heading into the 2024-25 Isuzu UTE A-League season, just hours after his Perth Glory departure was announced.

Stajcic, who spent one season at the helm in Perth, is a Western Sydney local whose professional playing career started less than 10km away at Mount Druitt Town Rangers.

The 50-year-old has a wealth of experience at international and club level.

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“It’s a special feeling to come home and represent the region in which you were born and raised. I’m proud of the area and want the club to be a flagship and source of pride for the football people of the Western suburbs,” said Stajcic.

“The members and fans have always been amongst the most loyal, passionate and knowledgeable in the country, so I feel grateful, honoured and privileged to be given an opportunity to represent them by leading this great football club.

“My hopes are high and my ambitions are even higher as we look to collectively bring success back to the Wanderers. 

“The West of Sydney has always been the heartbeat and lifeblood of footballing talent in this country and with hard work, desire and commitment, I will aim again to make this club the pinnacle of Australian football.”

We look at some of the challenges awaiting him in Parramatta.

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New-look Wanderers

In the dugout and on the field, three-time runners-up Western Sydney are shaping up as a much-changed outfit in 2024-25.

Rudan, another Western Sydney local, departed the Wanderers due to personal reasons after more than two years in charge.

In terms of playing personnel, there has already been movement.

Daniel Margush, German loanee Sonny Kittel, Valentino Yuel, Doni Grdić, Nathanael Blair (Perth Glory) and Dylan Pierias (Adelaide United) have departed and there could be more to follow.

There has been speculation over the future of captain Marcelo – a 2023-24 All Star representative against Premier League side Newcastle United in May.

The same goes for Nicolas Milanovic following a breakout season with the Wanderers that saw him score 10 goals and earn a spot in the All Stars squad. He also scored against Newcastle at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne.

Home woes

The 2023-24 season promised so much for 2012-13 premiers the Wanderers.

A year earlier, Rudan’s Western Sydney ended their Finals Series drought, returning to the top six for the first time since 2016-17. While they fell at the Elimination Final stage, it was a sign of progress for the 2014 AFC Champions League winners.

Last season started positively. Despite losing Kusini Yengi (Portsmouth) and Calem Nieuwenhof (Hearts) to overseas transfers, the Wanderers still opened the campaign by going six matches without defeat, which included a 5-0 rout of Western United and 1-0 derby triumph away to Sydney FC.

But from Round 7 until the end of the season, they only won a further eight games (L12 D1) as they missed out on the Finals. That run included a history-making 7-0 humbling away to Melbourne City and a forgettable 4-1 rout at home to Sydney FC.

At the crux of Western Sydney’s woes was their home form, or lack thereof.

They only won four of their fixtures at CommBank Stadium (L7 D2).

Compare that to 2021-22, when the Wanderers dropped just three matches on home soil, winning eight and drawing two.

Utilising young talent

Before Rudan departed the Wanderers, he spoke passionately and proudly about overhauling the club’s youth setup across his time at the club.

Back in April, as Western Sydney’s youth side topped the NPLM NSW standings, Rudan spoke to reporters after his side’s 2-1 loss to Melbourne City in the Isuzu UTE A-League.

“The first thing I did when I came here was re-structure the academy. We got (head of academy coaches) Jason Culina in there, (head of youth development) Corey Gameiro is doing a fantastic job. Eddy Bosnar is taking a hold of that on that as well,” Rudan told reporters after last week’s 2-1 Isuzu UTE A-League loss to Melbourne City.

“We were in the second division when we first got there and in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been here, we’ve gone from second division to topping the NPL. That’s not an easy feat. There’s a lot of work that goes into that but that’s part of my plan.

“You have an area that’s been a hotbed for talent, girls and boys and I wanted to tap into that and fix that. They’ve done phenomenal job in the last two-and-a-half years the people involved, not to mention the coaches and everything else.

“I place a huge importance on that built this is their first year as A-League players. A lot of them got debuts and match minutes. They’re going to be so much better going forward. That’s what excites me.

“When I see the young ones in every morning, I always tell them: ‘put a smile on your face, you’re doing the best job in the world’. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, you’re great, you’re good. Just work to get better.

“Every time they go out there, the last thing I always say is enjoy it. They should enjoy it.

“I’m really proud of everyone that’s worked so hard in that academy and NPL space because that was all part of the plan when I first came.

“Not enough gets mentioned because I know what my job is that is with the first team but for me it’s all encompassing. It’s the ALW side, we’re going to have a girl’s academy. This is a big club but it takes time.

“Sometimes head coaches like myself don’t have time but while I’m here, it’s certainly something that’s important for me. I’m really glad just how well the young ones are going.

“I think 10 out of the starting XI have a scholarship with me and have been with me for the last 12-18 months. I love watching them every week and seeing them going about their way and get better and better. It’s a big difference from where they were to where they are now.”

Rudan has since departed, and so has one of club’s most lethal goalscorers at NPL level – Nathaniel Blair – who has been lured to Western Australia by Perth Glory.

He scored 13 goals for the Wanderers in the NPL this season, though the 20-year-old made just seven appearances in two campaigns at Western Sydney.

The Wanderers’ youth setup has been a hotbed for talent but like Blair, exciting prospects have come and gone.

Nectar Triantis played one game for the Wanderers before moving to Central Coast Mariners and winning the 2022-23 Isuzu UTE A-League Championship. He is now playing for Sunderland in the EFL Championship.

Olyroos and Newcastle Jets star Mark Natta also found opportunities hard to come by prior to leaving the Wanderers and it was the same for the likes of Mohamed Al-Taay (Wellington Phoenix), Kosta Grozos (Newcastle Jets), Fabian Monge (Melbourne Victory) and Daniel Wilmering (Newcastle Jets).