Even in Round 1, the Wanderers vs Sydney FC is a game with huge meaning, writes Tom Smithies
On derby day, passion is everything. Reason goes out the window, and the emotions flow from the top of the stands down onto the pitch.
When that derby day comes on the opening weekend, even better – there is hope and belief in among those emotions, with a whole season to play for.
But for the long term, fans need a reason to believe. Whether it’s silverware, or the hope of an upset, or simply seeing players give everything in the name of your club, the dreams of fans must be rooted in something they can see and feel.
That’s what makes the opening derby of this year’s campaign so fascinating. It’s renovation vs stability, overhaul against familiarity.
After years of failure, Western Sydney’s fans need to believe there are sunlit uplands ahead. After an off-season of painful (and brave) introspection, those in red and black have ripped it all up and started again.
They have, in a sense, gone back to basics. A club that was founded on the back of a series of town-hall meetings with football people across the Western Sydney region, and which set its values based on their feedback, returned to its roots.
Dialogue between the coach, the captain and the CEO on one side and impatient fans on the other produced a conscious set of beliefs the club wants to stand for.
As Wanderers coach, Carl Robinson has emphasised the recruitment of players who hail from Western Sydney, who should feel the same sense of belonging as the fans and carry more than a cursory attachment to the club’s fortunes.
Late last season Robinson put his squad on notice, demanding they show why they should be retained. By the close of the campaign he was ready to be ruthless and more than half of those who would expect to start most weeks had gone.
By contrast, those in the Sydney FC end believe in the process – three grand finals and two championships in three years gives them reason to trust in the same-again mantra of Steve Corica’s tenure as head coach.
Of Sydney’s usual starting XI from last season, only Ryan McGowan departed – and only because he had a lucrative offer in the Middle East take up. In a league that at times had become a byword for turnover in the playing ranks, the Sky Blues have consciously gone the other way. Corica is loyal to a fault, and trusts those who have delivered for him so far.
The clash of the new and the old is fascinating, but both strategies come with risks. Robinson has been backed by his club – again – in terms of building a squad. His first A-League tenure, at Newcastle, brought vibrant football and promising results, but so far his Wanderers teams have failed to build any head of steam. The spotlight is on the coach as much as the players, particularly when so many new faces have to be amalgamated into a coherent whole.
The questions over Sydney FC are the opposite – whether a team so familiar with itself has the hunger to deliver once more. Corica’s squad is a year older, a factor that needs taking into account given the advancing age of much of his forward line.
Who prevails tonight won’t matter much in the grand scheme of the whole season. But fans want reasons to believe, even at this early stage. Momentum counts for a lot in a league of 26 games.
Derby day is always something special. One of the coaches will have a little more of a spring in his step by the end of this one.