A-Leagues mystery that’s left Simon Hill ‘utterly clueless’ & the key to fixing it

As Alen Stajcic takes charge at the Western Sydney Wanderers, Network 10 commentator Simon Hill speaks to aleagues.com.au about the club’s recent history, the challenge facing the new coach and the key to finally solving one of the competition’s biggest mysteries.

After ending their six-year Finals Series drought in 2022-23, Western Sydney Wanderers then somewhat reverted to type last season, missing out on the top six in the last round of the campaign as their 2023-24 campaign ended on a sour note.

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A season which initially promised plenty ultimately delivered little as a combination of bad luck, injuries and poor results saw Marko Rudan’s side fall short of making it back-to-back Finals appearances.

Despite that crushing disappointment, the Wanderers hierarchy still believed in the project being undertaken by Rudan and, as such, locked him down on a new contract until the end of the 2026-27 season. 

Head coach Marko Rudan had signed a new contract until the end of the 2026-27 season, but four months after putting pen to paper he departed the club due to personal reasons.

It has led to former Matildas, Central Coast Mariners and, most recently Perth Glory boss Alen Stajcic being installed as the new Wanderers boss, tasked with leading the club back to the Finals series and beyond in the upcoming season.

Just hours after departing the Glory on mutual terms, the 50-year-old was announced as the man chosen to lead the Wanderers into the new season, despite overseeing a difficult campaign in Western Australia which saw the Glory finish last on the ladder, losing 15 of their 27 games and conceding a whopping 69 goals.

“I think people sort of understood that Staj was operating in a difficult environment (in Perth),” Network 10 commentator Simon Hill told aleagues.com.au.

“But I remember a similar scenario with (Stajcic) at the Mariners. The first season, I think he actually only took charge of a handful of games but they finished bottom that first season… but they stuck with him and the season after, you know they were in the finals and really that was the start of the Mariners’ renaissance.

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“Now he’s at the Wanderers where the expectations are, dare I say it, even larger, it’s a big season for him as a coach, big season. You know, they’ve got to be up near the top of the table.

“I think one of the things he’s got to do at the Wanderers is lighten the load of the jersey for a lot of players.

“I think it was Mark Bosnich who said a few years ago that when you watch the Wanderers play – and I’m not talking about every player here – but he said it feels as though the jersey weighs heavy on them because there’s always such a weight of expectation. Obviously for much of the last decade, they haven’t been able to deal with that.”

For Hill, the Wanderers lack of recent success is one of the biggest mysteries in the A-Leagues.

Since winning an Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership in their inaugural season and the AFC Champions League not long after, the club has not tasted silverware.

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“The Wanderers to be honest, for me, were a surprise last year,” said Hill.

“I thought they’d make the finals quite comfortably even though they did have a lot of change – but it’s still a head-scratcher to me that they dropped away so badly (over) the last few months of the season. Is that a mentality thing? Is it a quality thing? I don’t know.

“It’s really hard to put your finger on it with with the Wanderers. I can’t fathom why they struggle so often, and have done really ever since Tony Popovic left. They had that one season where they got to the finals, but were out after the first week.

“I think Marko Rudan tried to sort of build that (identity) I mean, you can argue whether it was the right identity or not, but he tried to adopt that sort of siege mentality ‘nobody likes us, we don’t care’ all that sort of stuff… ‘we’re the battlers from the West’ which probably resonates with a lot of Wanderers fans – that’s how they were built in the first place really under Tony Popovic.

“But I don’t know, maybe things have moved on from that? As I say, it’s really hard to put a finger on why they struggle so much.”

So what then is expected of Stajcic and the Wanderers in the 2024-25 Isuzu UTE A-League season?

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“They should have made finals as a bare minimum last year,” said Hill.

“So that, again, is Stajcic’s challenge. I go back to this ‘does the jersey weigh heavy on the players?’ Do they feel it too much? Do they not feel it enough?

“You know for a club that has everything going for it; training facilities, the stadium, the backing…I’m utterly clueless as to why they continue to struggle.

“However Staj knows the area, he knows the league so it’s all on him now to try and find the answers. Rudan, (Josep) Gombau, (Markus) Babbel, (Carl) Robinson, Jean-Paul De Marigny briefly, you know, they’ve all tried and all failed really to resuscitate what Tony Popovic built.”

As ever in football, a new season brings with it the promise of new beginnings.

The new boss and his coaching staff will have some pretty large boots to fill in the dressing room this season.

With club captain Marcelo departing after seeking an early termination of his contract, Stajcic is now searching for leadership and a top quality central defender.

“I remember when they signed Amor Layouni, I was like who is this guy?” laughed Hill.

“You know, it could be a Thomas Broich or It could be a Mario Jardel. Now Layouni was excellent but unfortunately, they couldn’t keep them and that’s probably to do with finances as much as anything else.

“With (Morgan) Schneiderlin it was the same, (Romain) Amalfitano I thought was a terrific player, an underrated player and really fitted that system well but then when you’ve got to have that big change at the end of the season, limited by the money you’re able to spend, so trying to find that quality and that absolute right fit for your system is hellishly difficult.”

The Alen Stajcic era at the Wanderers officially gets underway on July 31 when Western Sydney travel to Queensland to face Brisbane City in the Australia Cup Round of 32.

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