Wanderers hope once more after Rudan’s radical surgery

Countdown to 22-23: Mark Rudan’s bid to reverse Western Sydney’s decline has left no stone unturned, as some of his new arrivals tell Tom Smithies.

It started months ago with phone calls to Europe, and developed over coffee in a Paris cafe. It’s based on talk of family and friendship, and pitching a project that resonates with Australian and foreign players around the globe. 

The trail snakes throughout Europe and to the Gold Coast but all roads lead back to Western Sydney, and one of the most radical overhauls in the history of the A-Leagues.

Even before he had put pen to paper on a long-term deal as Wanderers head coach at the start of March, Mark Rudan – at that point only an interim appointment – was laying the foundations of wholesale change for the season kicking off next week.

Rudan isn’t inclined to talk about his work of the past few months, acutely aware of the continuing cycle of big promises and under-delivery that has haunted the club since Tony Popovic dramatically quit in 2017. Hope springs eternal for every club at this point, but there is a genuine fascination in seeing how a squad with 19 new faces can be brought together and actually fashion a title challenge.


Certainly the seeds were planted months ago. Potential visa players with significant potential were approached long before this season, likewise talented Australians in Europe who were at career crossroads.

A decade after he signed for English Premier League side Newcastle United, French attacking midfielder Romain Amalfitano had only just departed Saudi club Al-Faisaly at the end of January when he took a call from Rudan, eager to discuss a move to Australia.

The timing wasn’t a coincidence, as Amilfitano had told his agent he was open to a new experience in a different culture. 

“So then we start speaking about the club – what do you want to build?” Amalfitano recalls. “What do you want from me? And also (finding out) about our team. So yeah, it was just easy to speak with him. We maybe spoke for one or two months. And then we agree that I will come.”

In parallel, Rudan had initiated contact with the agent of Yeni Ngbakoto, the French-born Congolese winger who had played in the EPL with QPR but was playing on a short-term deal with Nancy in France’s second tier.

“My agent called me, I think it was match day, and he said: Do you want to come to Australia? I’m like, ok, we can talk about it and see… and after one or two months, in May maybe, Mark (Rudan) called me and he was in France. 

Yeni Ngbakoto playing for Queens Park Rangers in 2017.

“He says, I want to meet you and speak to you – with your wife too if you want,” Ngbakoto recalls. “So I met him in Paris and we spoke for two hours and the feeling was really, really good. My wife also had a really good feeling. 

“We spoke about life in Sydney and he spoke about building the team – that a lot of players leave the club and he will bring new players for a good project. 

“For me the reason why I signed is because he spoke about family also, because he spoke about building the ‘family’ in the club as well as the families of the players. That’s when I thought, ‘That’s the place to go’.”

Crucially, both players agreed to move in June – with no Australia Cup ties after losing a play-off, Rudan could concentrate on melding a squad of so many new faces.

Among them was Brandon Borello, the fringe Socceroos winger whose injury-hampered five years in German football had ended with his release following the relegation of his side, Dynamo Dresden, to Bundesliga 3.  

Brandon Borrello of Australia looks on during a Socceroos training session in January.

At 27, Borello had offers to stay in Germany that were potentially more lucrative. Instead, “the atmosphere, the coach and the team is what has me most excited about coming back to Australia,” he said on signing. “I think it’s a great fit for me.”

The sheer scale of Rudan’s revamp has encompassed the whole club. Longstanding academy technical director Ian Crook left, to be replaced – to quite a few raised eyebrows – by Jean-Paul de Marigny, who had left the club in difficult circumstances as first team head coach only in 2021.

Alongside Rudan for the recruitment drive has been Eddie Bosnar, once a hugely experienced defender in Europe and Asia (and who also happens to be Rudan’s brother in law). At times it has looked like a real-life game of Championship Manager, assembling an on-paper enviable squad – but the challenge then lies in that squad becoming a coherent whole.

“That’s why he wanted to fix the team before the pre-season,” notes Amalfitano, whose early arrival allowed for his three children to be quickly placed in schools. “It’s a good idea.”

Even the lack of an Australia Cup tie was a bonus, adds Ngbakoto, “so we have a full three months of pre-season to build this. Maybe three (more) players came after two or three weeks but when you start like this with the full team, it’s much easier to make the connections automatic.

“We are all clever, clever players, we know that these guys prefer the ball to the feet and these guys like more running. So you can see it, you can feel it, the culture is part of this project.

“I’m very, very happy. I didn’t expect that, because when you move it’s always about competition (with existing players), I might have to play against this guy – but here it’s really different. There’s healthy competition between us but everyone wants to help everyone, even if I play in the same position.

“We have so many new players but in one to three weeks, we know each other, we joke. That’s really, really fantastic. We did (some of) pre-season in Gold Coast so we know each other more. We go to dinner together and everyone is there, not just 10 or five.

Yeni Ngbakoto
Credit: Western Sydney Wanderers

“Also with the personnel who work in the office, I think it’s very important also to know them. We try to have dinner together and stuff like this, we did one barbecue together, we did all the stuff.”

Amalfitano is nodding hard in agreement. “We have one boss who make rules and everything,” he says. “And then you have players who bring the fire.”