Western Sydney Wanderers: why does the potential giant continue to sleep?

<span>Nicolas Milanovic of the Wanderers celebrates with Dylan Pierias after scoring in the Wanderers’ A-League Men win over Melbourne Victory.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images</span>
Nicolas Milanovic of the Wanderers celebrates with Dylan Pierias after scoring in the Wanderers’ A-League Men win over Melbourne Victory.Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Is it better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all? It’s a question the men of Western Sydney Wanderers may be mulling on Monday after their season came to an end at the conclusion of a rollercoaster weekend.

Having moved into the finals places after coming from behind, twice, to defeat Melbourne Victory in a manic 4-3 win on the penultimate day of the season, Marko Rudan’s side were then forced to watch on helpless as they slipped back out of contention with Melbourne City scraping to a 1-0 win over Western United the following afternoon.

City will play finals football for the 10th straight season thanks to Jamie Maclaren’s 19th-minute winner, while the Wanderers will be forced to watch as bystanders for a sixth time in seven seasons. Only Newcastle Jets have a worse finals attendance record over this period and even in the one year Western Sydney did qualify, Sydney FC marched into Parramatta last season and sent them packing with a 2-1 defeat. At least there was a T-shirt.

Recollections of a red and black behemoth standing astride Australian football feel increasingly distant in these moments; memories of premierships, grand final appearances, and a 2014 Asian Champions League crown – probably the greatest achievement of any Australian club – fade amidst a near decade of mundanity. Each new season, the legacy of these accomplishments helps to drive narratives that this season will be the one in which fortunes are turned around. But then the actual football begins and Wanderers fans are left frustrated once again. 2023-24 is but the latest example.

It should not be this hard to be the Western Sydney Wanderers.

This is a club that, as Rudan noted on Saturday, want for nothing thanks to the benevolence of chairman Paul Lederer. Their facilities are amongst some of the best in the country, as is their home stadium in Parramatta. There is no greater hotbed for footballing talent than Sydney’s west, a region overflowing with a footballing history and culture, with a community willing to rally around the club. The Wanderers consistently sign well-credentialled (if not always high-performing) talent. And yet for all the advantages inherent and material, what should be Australian football’s giant lies sleeping.

With another finals absence confirmed, the heat on Rudan inevitably rises – even accounting for his mid-season contract extension and the deluge of injuries he has had to contend with this season. But against the backdrop of such a poor seven-year run, the question has to be: how and why will a decision be reached? What goal does his sacking or retention achieve? How will it allow the Wanderers to avoid being back here next season, the season after that, or in seven years time?

Since Tony Popovic departed on the eve of the 2017-18 season, the club has lurched from Josep Gombau to Markus Babbel and from Jean-Paul de Marigny to Carl Robinson before Rudan arrived. The 48-year-old was appointed full-time boss with “direct control of the football department”, but there has been little consistent philosophy within the club’s coaching hires. And while Popovic’s sudden exit was destabilising, enough time has passed for it to no longer serve as a fig leaf for constant squad overhauls and sharp shifts in philosophy.

Still, Rudan’s work may be the way forward. He indicated on Saturday night he was excited about what was ahead. Equally, it could be time for another rebuild. But what do the Wanderers want to be? Not just when it comes to (very good) promotional videos, but actually on the pitch, where inherent character and purpose cannot help but shine through. Bravery, determination, vigour and fight are frequently deployed in rhetoric but how does that manifest on a grassy canvas?

At the moment, the Wanderers exist as something of a fable for the rest of Australian football; not a unique one but a relevant one. Contrasted to the impecunious Central Coast Mariners – who are on track to follow up last season’s championship with a premiership and an appearance in an AFC Cup final – they are a reminder that there remains a distinct gap between the resources the game needs and those it has.

But they also demonstrate that filling this shortfall doesn’t represent some kind of panacea. The Wanderers have everything they need but not the thing they want the most.