Western United start A-League life hoping to turn fantasy into reality

Jonathan Howcroft on 9 October 2019

George Orwell’s 1946 depiction of the perfect pub leaves the reader gasping to slake a thirst. The prospect of a pewter tankard brimful of a “soft, creamy sort of stout”, served by personable staff in an unfussy side-street hostelry structured to cater for drinkers, dartists and dedicated dads alike will make even the driest mouth water. “Drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights,” Orwell writes. It sounds too good to be true.

The template for an ideal A-League team might include some of the following: a standalone purpose built stadium; a sizeable local population in a geographically distinct catchment; backers with deep pockets; administrators immersed in football, both at the grassroots and overseas; faith in Australian coaching; and an ambition to speculate on high-reward marquee signings but the foresight to invest in promising youngsters. That is by no means an exhaustive rundown, but a sample of why the introduction of Western United offers cause for optimism.

The stadium underpins everything. For all its ubiquity football in Australia has surprisingly little to call its own. On a practical level that means A-League clubs are tenants at the mercy of their landlords, and they endure these sub-optimal conditions while simultaneously failing to benefit from capital investment. “The historic deficit of football infrastructure,” is how PFA boss John Didulica describes it. On a cultural level this has prevented clubs from tailoring the supporter experience – what should be every team’s biggest recruitment tool. United’s 15,000 seat facility is at least three full seasons away. Its timely delivery will be crucial to the prosperity of the enterprise.

By then the A-League’s newest concern should at least have a clear identity on the field. Squad building bears the hallmarks of Lou Sticca, one of the best connected operators in Australia. The headline-grabbing signings of Alessandro Diamanti and Panagiotis Kone ensure United will gain an instant level of recognition internationally, and they are recruits that come with cachet in Melbourne’s large football-mad Italian and Greek communities.

Establishing the club’s culture has been part of Steve Horvat’s remit as director of football. No staffer has fronted more microphones or been photographed shaking hands more often since the bid was announced than the 32-cap former Socceroo. And it makes sense. Horvat traverses the big stage and the grassroots in Melbourne’s west as well as anybody. His playing career involved stints at Melbourne Knights, Sunshine George Cross and North Geelong Warriors, and he remains a resident in the club’s catchment area, where he is an active contributor to the local football scene.

Alessandro Diamanti
The signing of Alessandro Diamanti has piqued interest. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

The addition of Mark Rudan as foundation head coach is also logical. While Rudan may not be a Victorian product he is Australian and intimately aware of the specific local demands. Alongside Sticca and Horvat, Rudan’s NSL background and uncompromising demeanour provides United with a blue collar sensibility, ensuring there is grit underpinning the grand designs and continental glamour.

At Rudan’s disposal will be some of the finest young Australian talent: players like Dylan Pierias, Apostolos Stamatelopoulos and Seb Pasquali. The latter, still only 19, could yet blossom into a once-in-a-generation talent after spending three years at Ajax’s youth academy, one of the finest finishing schools in football.

If the structural reasons alone weren’t sufficient to draw you in, the visceral reaction United are likely to generate as they upset apple carts around the country provides the kind of spectacle competitions like the A-League thrive upon. Wellington Phoenix fans, for example, may have reason to dispute any positive sentiment towards Rudan, but their animosity also offers a rare incentive for the Australian football community to glance over the other side of the ditch. And nobody whips up an opposition crowd quite like Besart Berisha.

If the building blocks for an A-League success story are apparent in Western United, the comparison with Orwell’s pub is to provide a cautionary counterpoint. You see, the Moon Under Water was too good to be true. “That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any pub with just that combination of qualities,” Orwell conceded.

The stadium could be a game-changer, but it is yet to be built. Western Melbourne ticks the metric box but converting football fans into paying customers has long been the great unsolvable riddle of Australian football. Bigger marquee signings have come and gone without a legacy. And those (hopefully) future Socceroos are competing with a host of experienced professionals for minutes.

The addition of an 11th team has provided this pre-season with a flicker of optimism and a nod to the A-League’s future. Western United’s progress will be studied with interest to see if the fantasy can become reality.

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