The A-League is desperate for a derby in Sydney
Whatever happened to the #SydneyDerby?13 February 2019 | Stuart Thomas
Former rep tennis player & golfer, former high school teacher & now full time sports writer
There is nothing that incites more passion in football supporters than a derby. Across the globe there are hundreds of examples, with attention on them often surpassing interest in the remainder of the competition.
Scotland’s ‘Old Firm’ derby is perhaps the best example; a match in which Celtic and Rangers lock heads. They have been doing it since 1888, a total of 415 times and whilst many football fans have only a fleeting interest in the Scottish Premier League, attention is well and truly garnered whenever the derby rolls around.
The Merseyside version in England is almost as old (1894) and the Turin derby began in 1909 with Torino toppling Juventus by three goals to two.
When the A-League was born in 2004, the notion of rivalries that added spice and meaning was valued by those charged with building interest in the new league. The ‘Original Derby’ between Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory was a logical place to start and, along with the ‘Big Blue’ and the ‘F3 Derby’, formed the basis of the derby concept.
When Melbourne City entered the competition in 2010 the Victory finally had what they wanted; a little cross city brother to beat up on every ten or so weeks. Interestingly, it hasn’t quite worked out that way with Victory only holding a slender 12-9 win advantage after nearly ten years of play.
That rivalry draws big numbers, with 40,505 people attending the first instalment of the 2018-19 season. It is one of the few matches were seagull jokes are not fired in the City fans’ direction.
Sydney once had a derby as well.
It was logical that Australia’s largest city would be represented in the A-League and be successful at the same time. Sydney FC won the inaugural competition, as well as two further titles and in 14 seasons has only missed finals play on three occasions.
When the FFA finally saw the need to tap into the vast human and financial resources lying in western Sydney, the notion of a new Sydney team became real. In April 2011, the Western Sydney Wanderers arrived. Through early 2012, a patient search for players began with manager Tony Popovic casting his eye over hundreds of players.
What followed was astonishing. Their debut A-League season brought a Premier’s Plate, 18 wins and a loss to the Central Coast Mariners in the grand final. It exceeded all expectations and gave the Sky Blues something to ponder.
Alessandro Del Piero scored 14 goals for Sydney FC that season; carrying an inconsistent team on his back at times, yet Sydney would finish seventh, miss the finals and fear the beast that had been awoken in western Sydney.
When Popovic’s men did the unthinkable and won the Asian Champions League in 2014 the future of the city looked very much red and black.
The derby grew and passionate it was. Reflecting club form, the Wanderers won three of the first five matches after Sydney won the inaugural clash.
Parramatta Stadium was packed to near capacity each and every time the Wanderers hosted and the Sydney Football Stadium swelled with over 40,000 fans in six consecutive derby matches.
Such glowing numbers led to a derby move to ANZ Stadium and when 61,880 people filed into the venue on 8 October 2016, Australia had its biggest club football rivalry.
Sadly, it was not to last. After a third grand final defeat in four years in 2015-16, the Wanderers slumped to sixth place the following season. Soon after, Popovic departed for Turkey and Josep Gombau failed in his tenure as manager.
German Markus Babbel now mentors a team that has won just 10 of 43 A-League matches since Popovic’s departure. The fans have disappeared with around 7,000 frequenting matches in the ghost town that is ANZ Stadium on a quiet night.
The RBB has fractured and somewhere along the line, the Wanderers have lost 10,000 regulars. After a seventh place finish last season, they currently sit eighth just one point clear of Brisbane Roar.
Sydney’s derby has lost its lustre. Sydney FC has won 9 of the last 13 matches with three draws in the records books and a lone triumph for the Wanderers. Only 18,043 fans braved the weather for the most recent edition in December and it said everything.
Admittedly, Western Sydney have been nomadic this season as Parramatta Stadium is transformed into what will be the best football stadium in Australia once completed.
However, Sydney FC have been in the same boat, using Kogarah as a temporary home. Yet the Sky Blues’ crowds are slightly up on last year’s figures and almost double those of the Wanderers.
Perhaps Sydney will have to wait for Macarthur South West Sydney in 2020-21 for a meaningful derby experience.
Right now, what should be the biggest game of football on the domestic calendar is something of a dud.
#sydneyderby, sydney fc, western sydney wanderers, a-league