Lost Wanderers: Western Sydney’s homecoming spirals out of control
By Vince Rugari
"The truth is on the pitch," said Markus Babbel on Friday, two days out from a match that has the potential to end his stormy tenure as Western Sydney Wanderers coach.
It's an illuminating phrase, worthy of further consideration.
If what the Wanderers have produced for 90 minutes each weekend since since Babbel joined the club is the truth, he ought to buy a lottery ticket. Because no manager in the history of the A-League has been so fortunate to keep his job in the face of such damning evidence.
Markus Babbel has coached Western Sydney to just 10 wins from 40 A-League matches.CREDIT:JAMES ALCOCK
This was supposed to be the season Western Sydney roared back to life. With three painful years of homelessness ended by a new stadium, and with new state-of-the-art training facilities to match, everyone agreed the excuses were gone. It was time to deliver.
"We're back, baby," declared chief executive John Tsatsimas back in July as they prepared to welcome Leeds United for a glamour friendly at Bankwest Stadium. "Mark my words: Markus and the team will be making a statement this year."
For a short while, it seemed Tsatsimas' prediction might actually come true. Wanderers spent the first four weeks of the season in the top two on the ladder – and after a lucky but gritty 1-0 win over Sydney FC, they were in first place. The football itself was uninspiring, but the results were there. If the mark of a good team is to win while playing badly, the expectation was that their performances would sharply improve.
Since the derby, Western Sydney have won just one game, drawn two and lost six. Allegations have emerged – which have been denied by the club –that Babbel's assistant, Jean-Paul de Marigny, has been working behind the scenes to undermine him. Their star midfielder, Olyroo Keanu Baccus, wants out. Despite the best attempts from players to put on a brave front, it is not a happy camp.
'For a club like this, from where we started, the culture, the supporter base, the belief, the respect ... it just seems to have faded away.'
Wanderers legend Ante Covic
All this pressure has weighed significantly on Babbel, whose frustrations have repeatedly boiled over amid an almost comical run of VAR interventions, prompting FFA to twice sanctioning him for swearing during press conferences.
Babbel was given the resources to shape his squad to his liking in his second campaign at the helm. Having spent the fifth most of any team in the A-League this season, on paper, they look good. Much better than this, at least.
But Babbel has brought them no closer to establishing a discernible style of play, chopping and changing his personnel and structure on an all-too-regular basis.
"There doesn't seem to be a clear vision of the way they want to play," says Ante Covic, the hero of their famous 2014 AFC Champions League triumph. "It does feel disjointed. There's changes here and there, but what are the changes for? Where's the base they started from?"
Western Sydney's 2014 AFC Champions League win feels like a lifetime ago.CREDIT:REUTERS
Babbel often blames his players for straying from his blueprint, at one stage slamming them for "freestyling" in attack. That doesn't wash with Covic, from his experience with successful coaches who possess a clarity of purpose that is woven into the fabric of the team.
"It's a year in," Covic says. "There's one person in charge ... it's your job to portray that to the players and give them full understanding. Under Popa [foundation coach Tony Popovic], we knew exactly what he wanted and you do not deviate from that. If things don't go well, you keep going at it, because it's going to come."
Alex Meier's short stint at Western Sydney will not be remembered fondly by supporters.
This week, Babbel severed ties with marquee player Alex Meier, the so-called "fussballgott" from Germany who turned out to be more dud than deity, having tried and failed to adapt his lanky 37-year-old frame to the unique demands of the A-League.
"Off the pitch, you couldn't fault the guy," says captain Mitchell Duke of Meier, who was supposed to be his strike partner. "But, unfortunately, we needed the job done a bit more on the pitch, and I think he himself also realised he just doesn't have it quite as much as he used to.
"I wish him all the best, but it was a good decision for us to move forward."
Babbel has steered the Wanderers to a total of 10 wins in his 40 A-League games in charge. He still believes this season can be salvaged, pointing to the fact that they're only three points adrift of the top six, and insists he is the man to do it. But it pains ex-players such as Covic to see how low Western Sydney's ambitions have fallen.
"That's not really where Western Sydney Wanderers should ever be placing themselves," he says. "But we've been through quite a bit over the last few years and that's become the norm, scraping into the six. It should be unacceptable.
"For a club like this, from where we started, the culture, the supporter base, the belief, the respect as a club ... it just seems to have faded away. There's just something missing."
The team's malaise has broader implications. Western Sydney is supposed to be one of the A-League's flagship clubs and a major contributor to off-field metrics.
Wanderers chairman Paul Lederer with Blacktown Mayor Stephen Bali at the opening of the Western Sydney Wanderers Centre of Football in September.CREDIT:GETTY IMAGES
In the seasons leading up to the current broadcast deal, the region of western Sydney – including the south-west, which will have its own team next season in Macarthur FC – made up more than 30 per cent of the total Fox Sports audience for the A-League. When the heartland is hurting, it hurts everyone.
Schwegler in doubt as Wanderers confirm Alex Meier exit
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Hopes were high that the move into Bankwest Stadium would spark excitement across the competition, but attendances have diminished game-on-game since the Sydney derby. With wet weather forecast and barely any hope for supporters to cling onto, it would not surprise to see a sub-10,000 crowd on Sunday for the visit of Popovic's Perth Glory.
But the club's problems don't start or end with Babbel. For instance, Meier was his signing, but the lanky veteran was the latest in a long line of failed recruitment moves for import forwards by a football department that should take some of the blame.
Tsatsimas, the club's foundation chief executive, declined to speak on the record for this story, while chairman Paul Lederer is overseas, as is most of his board. Lederer is due back in Sydney soon and what he does next will be fascinating, especially now that two other clubs are in the market for coaches. Where the Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory took decisive action, Lederer has hesitated, opting to give Babbel more time to fix things. He still has another full season to run on his three-year contract.
Meier's axing and the signing of Irish international Simon Cox as his replacement suggest Babbel may get one last roll of the dice but, then again, a heavy defeat to the Glory could leave Lederer with little choice but to swing the axe.
In a way, it's fitting that it could be Popovic who delivers Babbel's last rites. The Wanderers have never recovered from his departure on the eve of the 2017-18 season. The club's identity was built in Popovic's image and the sudden nature of his exit left a vacuum that has still not been filled. That's not just on Babbel, or his predecessor Josep Gombau, but the people who put them there.
The truth, after all, catches up with everyone eventually.