Opinion

How the Sydney derby became one of the hottest tickets in town

Ante Civic saved Alessandro Del Piero's penalty but the Italian tucked away the rebound. Source: AAP

When a crowd of 19,174 raucous and expectant fans packed the old Parramatta Stadium to the rafters for Sydney's first ever A-League derby in 2012, little did they realise that the fixture would become one of the highlights of the Harbour City's sporting calendar.

Western Sydney Wanderers hosted Sydney FC in round three of the competition and for the record the 'visitors' went home with a 1-0 win thanks to a retaken penalty from Alessandro Del Piero.

It was not a particularly enthralling match from a purely technical point of view but derbies are not meant to be beauty contests. Never were and never will be.

The beautiful game is not just about invention and improvisation. Sometimes artistry has to make way for industry.

The colourful atmosphere created by two sets of passionate supporters and the uncompromising, full-on approach adopted by both teams ensured that the eagerly-expected confrontation representing Sydney's geographical and cultural divide would be just what the doctor ordered for a young competition that was still trying to establish itself.

The Melbourne derby had preceded Sydney's crosstown clash by two seasons but it was crystal clear from the outset that there was something special and visceral about a raw contest that transcended sport and meant so much to so many people.

The clash also provided great television for broadcaster Fox Sports.

Players from both camps will tell you that Sydney's original derby - we now have new boys Macarthur FC in the mix - is the match they most look forward to, perhaps because they are the only occasions that make them feel like they are playing in Europe or South America.  

Subsequent derbies would become some of the hottest tickets in town with the 'house full' sign put up on more than one occasion.

Such was the demand for tickets that the Wanderers were more than happy to move their home derbies to the larger Stadium Australia when their ground in Parramatta was demolished to make way for the sparkling new Bankwest Stadium.  

The Olympic venue would record the A-League's biggest ever crowd in October 2016 when no fewer than 61,880 fans turned up to watch Sydney thrash the Wanderers 4-0.

Unfortunately, current pandemic measures will limit the crowd for the weekend derby at Stadium Australia to about 25 per cent of the ground's 80,000 capacity.

Two players who took part in that first derby just over eight years ago said they knew there and then that the Sydney derby was something else and would grow into the behemoth it is today.

Experienced Ante Covic was in goal for the Wanderers and remembers the occasion with fondness.

He is proud to have played his part in a little bit of Australian football history and to have saved a Del Piero penalty before the Italian star tucked away the rebound.

"I had played in a Melbourne derby which is fantastic but the first Sydney derby was a little bit extra for me firstly because I am from Sydney and secondly because it had a geographical element to it ... east versus west. You could feel that more than in any other derby in Australia," Covic, 45, said.

"Sydney's west had been yearning for a team at the top level for a long time and you could sense that the public was fully embracing the Wanderers. The atmosphere in that derby and others that followed was like playing in Europe."

Sydney's young fullback Rhyan Grant recalled his excitement at being named to start the derby and share the pitch with such famous World Cup players as Del Piero and Japan's Shinji Ono.

"I was only 21 then and I remember it being a massive game with all the hype surrounding it," Grant said.

"I was very excited because it was my first match of the season. We had lost the first two matches so there was extra pressure on the team. But we had the win so it was very enjoyable."

Did the two players envisage at that stage that Sydney derby's would transform itself into one of the strongest selling points of the competition?

"Initially, before it was even played, I would say probably not," Covic said. "The competition was young but after the first few derbies you could tell that the rivalry was genuine. The derby had become such a big event that it was the fixture you looked out for whenever the competition draw was made."

The derby's growth in stature and appeal has not surprised Grant.

"Straight away the two sets of fans made it very clear that we were dealing with a huge rivalry that was real," he said.

"The Sydney derby would grow into a bigger and bigger event every year and to be honest I am not surprised one bit about this."

The weekend clash will be the 25th league derby - the two teams also met in the FFA Cup in 2018 - with the Sky Blues holding the upperhand after 13 overall wins to the Wanderers' six.