(Wanderers fans gather in Gosford to march for their team... PIC: Moussa Azzouni)
This is the photo that heralds the next progression for the A-League, the next big step we need to take and, as in a number of areas on and off field, Western Sydney Wanderers is showing the way.
The sensation that is WSW is due to many factors, not least the fact that all of the lessons of the first eight years have been synthesized in one start-up entity: Wanderers has a strategic plan, embedded culture, engagement with community and has created an atmosphere at matches that has challenged even the fantastic Melbourne Victory.
Last year, when a team in the west was to be rushed, I asked Lyall Gorman on air if he had learnt the many lessons of the recent past. He answered yes, and has proven true to his word.
But there is one area where the club has overtaken its counterparts from down south: away support.
When the league was started, the issue was how to fill home stadia, to encourage memberships and home support and translate that into regular attendance and fanatics.
This took some years, naturally, and wasn’t helped by the management of the league that failed to aggregate learnings and ensure excellence was institutionalized within all of the clubs. The inertia has been overcome.
Fans attending matches and buying memberships is the first important step towards building a football club but the true test and core difference between an 'event’ or social occasion at a match in one’s home city and real, raw fanatical support, is the away match.
Economically, regularly attending away games in Australia is difficult and expensive, given vast distances. We have a natural barrier compared to many countries, particularly in Europe, however the size of a club’s away support has always been a barometer of the passion that exists.
Back in the 1990’s, Perth Glory fans were famous for demonstrating tremendous loyalty by traversing west to east regularly to sing their hearts out.
In the A-League’s early years, Melbourne Victory fans would come to Sydney for the Big Blue in numbers and turned Moore Park Road into a sea of dark blue and white as they thrilled to the exploits of one of the giants of the league at that time.
More power to them as they continue to send sizeable contingents around the country in season eight, but the match at AAMI Park two weeks ago changed the dynamic completely, and threw down the gauntlet for every active supporter group to step up to the plate.
The Wanderers’ active support, the Red and Black Bloc, was the first 'away' group to ever take up all of the mandatory 800 tickets for away support, and turned the match against Victory into the first, true glimpse of the future of a mature league.
In time, every match will feature at least this amount of away fans, with more proximal matches many thousands more, such as the several thousand that invaded Gosford on the weekend, so that every single matchday becomes a festival of supporters interacting, singing in the streets and later singing through the match to create a true football atmosphere that requires both sides of the equation, two different sets of voices and songs, two different experiential outcomes.
For those of us who played in Europe, and those of you that have attended a big matchday in South America or Europe, this is part of the wonderful theatre of football that we most miss.
We want to live in a world where every A-League matchday, thousands of away supporters arrive with the colour, noise and celebration that accompanies football and builds the anticipation and suspense throughout the day until the climax at whistle time, when it’s game on.
Every weekend, Sydney should be invaded by hoardes from elsewhere, as should Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, with everyone in town knowing that a football match is being played.
The RBB has set a new benchmark in support and the next step for the league is for the most passionate fans to demonstrate as such, and travel away from home every second week to show their colours and support the champions that represent their club.
Season eight will be remembered as the moment the A-League took another step to maturity, when the fan culture grew up and became more real, more intense.
The football experience is every day, every week, every circumstance. Home, and away.