Three years ago Sydney FC fans endured what was, in their eyes, an unforgivable betrayal. Vedran Janjetovic, having lost his spot in goal to Danny Vukovic, defected to Western Sydney. The move, completed in December after much speculation, was sacrilege, a contravention of the golden rule: do not cross town.
Janjetovic was seen as the ultimate deserter, a turncoat of the highest order, and supporters made their dissatisfaction known in his first Sydney derby as a Wanderer.
A month after securing a swap deal with Andrew Redmayne – the Sky Blues’ first choice today – Janjetovic returned to his former home ground of Allianz Stadium. The Red and Black Bloc, stationed behind their new recruit for the opening 45 minutes, played their praise in forte for a stunning save.
After the break, he took his place at the other end in front of the Cove and got pelted with toy snakes. Down they came in their dozens, tangling themselves overhead in his net, a symbolic spew of venom built up over the preceding four weeks and reserved especially for a man they had once cheered. Janjetovic turned around to face the mob, cracked a grin and stared down his former followers. Then he shrugged off the snake shower and proceeded on his way to a clean sheet.
Tribalism, by its very nature, is vociferous. Of course, recent events have taught us the line between banter and harmful discrimination of athletes is increasingly difficult to tread, the balance between active support and outright abuse more blurred than ever.
When delivered in good spirit though, it can light up a contest.
A move perceived as disloyal can be an unpardonable sin in football. It is why, when the new Wanderers coach Carl Robinson and winger Bernie Ibini returned to Newcastle for the first time last weekend, it made for a narrative with proper niggle.
Nothing against the pair – or Janjetovic, for that matter – because cold, hard business wins titles. But the spice surrounding their return to McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night was exactly what the A-League needed.
This was an impressive coach who signed a three-and-a-half-year deal with the Jets last February, offered the cash-poor club a glimmer of hope, and then departed in October. Part of it, he said, was the lack of funds coming from the owner Martin Lee, who had failed to finance his club in more than a year and was a week ago relieved of his licence.
Still, in the fans’ eyes, the former Wales international not only joined a rival outfit but also disemboweled the one he had left. With him went his assistant, Kenny Miller, followed by Ibini in December, while the midfielder Steven Ugarkovic is believed to be heading to the Wanderers next season.
Novocastrians have since made ironic reference to Robinson’s very first press conference as Jets coach. “The last thing I want to do is try and get a job, accept the job and then three months later say I’m not happy and want to leave,” he said at the time. “That’s not what I’m about as a person.”
Ibini, for his part, was so eager to rejoin his former Vancouver Whitecaps coach in Sydney – where he grew up – he personally paid out the remainder of his contract in exchange for permission to leave.
Such storylines, regardless of who did what and whether it was justified, engender spiteful reunions.
Robinson had been expecting it. He had said as much last week. The best part was that he did not care. When the 2-1 away win came it was punctuated by “a few explicit words” behind the dugout, while Ibini was booed on his 68th-minute introduction and every touch of the ball thereafter.
The snakes, plastic or proverbial or otherwise, were out. Pantomime villains were delivered on a platter and the fans turned up to feast. Well, as many as were allowed – mandatory masks and a cap on crowds at 25% capacity make it difficult to rouse a rabble. Regardless, this was a rare chance for tribalism in a competition that has, over recent years, been slowly but surely sanitised.
In seasons past the A-League has been blessed with its fair share of villains. Besart Berisha, Kevin Muscat, Matt Simon, Roy O’Donovan, David Carney and John Kosmina all possessed an uncanny knack for riling opposition fans. Then there were the personal battles: Miron Bleiberg v Kosmina. Kosmina v Muscat. Berisha v Pascal Bosschaart.
These do not have to be a distant memory. Unlike many world leagues operating in the Covid-19 era, Australia’s top flight allows crowds into stadiums. The first Sydney derby of the season is this Saturday, and there has never been a better time to relight the touchpaper.