The hottest ticket in Sydney this weekend is the A-League Grand Final between newcomers Western Sydney Wanderers and the perennial bridesmaid, Central Coast Mariners. They have been the top two teams of the competition in 2012-13, with Western Sydney taking out the premiership in their inaugural season.
Eleven months ago, Western Sydney Wanderers didn’t formally exist. While a western Sydney team had long been on the drawing board of football's governing body, Football Federation Australia (FFA), their previous attempt at having a team led to nothing without sufficient funding support.
But in April last year, no-one less than the Prime Minister announced a $5 million grant to FFA to establish a team in the region that is not only football’s traditional ‘heartland’ – but also very important to the ALP’s election strategy.
Some people didn’t give the club much hope in its first season, an assessment which overlooked a number of factors.
- First, because it is the game’s heartland, there was significant unmet demand and demonstrable community support for a club in the A-League competition. This support is most demonstrative in the guise of the 'Red and Black Brigade' (RBB).
- Second, the club had the start-up funding they needed from the Federal Government and, therefore, didn’t need to focus on raising any further funds as a priority. As it happened, they received also received sponsorship from NRMA Insurance (the Chairman of which is also the Deputy Chairman of FFA and Westfield).
- Third, the Executive Chairman and General Manager of the club were highly experienced operatives who had both been involved in start-up A-League franchises previously.
- Finally, they appointed the obvious inaugural coach – Tony Popovic, a former Socceroo, a western Sydney born and bred man, who had stints as an assistant coach in both the A-League and the second tier competition in England. 'Popa' is like many of the new breed of coaches in Australia: a serious student of the game with a methodical and professional approach to his craft. He was justly rewarded with the Coach of the Year award at the A-League awards on Monday night in Sydney. Regardless of Sunday’s result, his efforts in guiding his ragtag team of (mostly) other teams’ cast-offs has been remarkable and a case study for building a champion team rather than having a team of champions.
By contrast, Central Coast Mariners has been in the A-League since its inception in 2005. This is their sixth appearance in the finals series and their fourth in a Grand Final, but they haven’t won any of them. They have twice previously been the top team after the home-and-away series which most ‘real’ football fans consider the true measure of a champion.
Unlike the Western Sydney Wanderers which has not had any financial concerns, and has been given special dispensations around player regulations that no other A-League team has enjoyed, the Central Coast Mariners has had a season from hell.
According to newspaper reports, their owners – which included until recently the Executive Chairman of the Western Sydney Wanderers – had a large tax liability and a superannuation liability. On at least two occasions, according to respected football journalist, Ray Gatt of The Australian, the players and staff were not paid – at one stage for more than two weeks, with coach Graham Arnold loaning up to $500 to individual players to tide them over for food and ren/mortgage payments.
Despite - or maybe because of - this, under the guidance of coach Arnold or 'Arnie' (also a former Socceroo), the team kept training, playing and winning. They've also had to fit in their participation in the Asian Champions League competition for the past two months. The Asian Champions League comprises the top club teams within the Asian region of football from the previous season.
Only weeks ago, the Central Coast Mariners was sold to an Anglo-Australian telecommunications entrepreneur and its future looks more certain and secure for the first time in its eight year history.
While many consider that a win by the Western Sydney Wanderers would be a fairytale, there are those who are sentimental enough to believe that the Central Coast Mariners are deserving of their own fairytale ending also - and they've continued to be-there-or-therabouts throughout their history, despite being the club for a small community and with the least secure financial backing up till now.
The A-League Grand Final will be held on Sunday 21st April at Allianz Stadium, Paddington (the home ground of Sydney FC), with kick-off at 4pm.
If you haven't been to an A-League match before, it will be full of colour, noise, excitment, passion and some fast, skillful football in a fun and secure family environment. The Wanderers wear red and black and the Mariners are in blue and yellow.
Tickets are on sale to the general public tomorrow from 9am at www.ticketek.com.au. Prices range from $55-$115 for an adult, $30-$55 for concession and $140-$285 for a family. Public transport to and from Allianz Stadium is included in the ticket price. For transport details visit 131500.com.au. It will be shown live on FOX Sports.
Players to watch:
Central Coast Mariners - Daniel McBreen, Michael McGlinchey, Trent Sainsbury, Mat Ryan
Western Sydney Wanderers - Shinji Ono, Michael Beauchamp, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Mark Bridge
Which fairytale do you want?
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A version of this article also appears at Sports Business Insider.