Wanderland legend Ante Covic has declared the season a “write-off” for troubled Western Sydney Wanderers, insisting pride in the shirt has gone missing on Markus Babbel’s watch.
With the 2013 premiers facing a rebellion from disenchanted fans after managing just two victories from their opening 10 A-League games, former goalkeeper Covic said the winning mentality had disappeared, adding the team was “going through the motions”, and was bereft of belief and on-field leadership.
Covic, who wrote himself into Wanderers folklore as the MVP of the club's fairytale 2014 AFC Champions League final victory, delivered his damning verdict in the aftermath of the limp 2-0 New Year’s Day home to loss Melbourne City, who played with 10 men for the last half hour.
To compound matters, active fan group the Red and Black Bloc, staged a second-half walkout, prompted by the performance and alleged banning of a number of their members after they blasted Wanderers’ players by the tunnel at half time.
What action, if any, they might take for Saturday’s visit of Melbourne Victory to Spotless Stadium remains to be seen.
“They’re in all sorts at the moment,” said Covic. “Things haven’t been as they should be since Tony Popovic left a couple of seasons ago, and there’s been a shift in what was once a winning mentality.
“Obviously moving away from Parramatta Stadium (while it’s been rebuilt) has affected things, but on the field you see the body language just isn’t the same anymore.
“I also look at their squad and there just isn’t any depth. The players don’t seem to be able to push each other. I don’t see any leaders.
“When I was playing there was myself, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Michael Beauchamp and some of the foreigners - we pushed each other and expected the best from each other. Right now you’re not seeing that.”
With Babbel’s initiation looking every bit as fraught as his predecessor Josep Gombau, the German is feeling the heat.
“It looks like his team are going through the motions,” observed Covic. “It’s as if suffering a loss is no big thing and they just move on to the next match.
“It feels like some of the pride which the club is famous for has been lost. I look at Babbel and I can see the frustration every time he talks.
“Is he the right man for the job? Well, he has a certain pedigree and maybe he sees this season as one to change things. For me, though, it’s already a write-off.
“You even look at the fans situation and the club looks a bit lost at the moment. This has been building up over a couple of years now since Tony Popovic left.
“The club seems to have lost a bit of its identity and what it means to play for them. With two wins from the first 10 confidence must be shot at the moment.
“There’s simply no mongrel in the team right now and that’s sad to see.”
Covic is sure that Babbel, who has been repeatedly scathing in his criticism of the team, may also be taking a look at himself.
“I don’t think any coach after such a start would not look at himself,” he added. “He’s been around the game long enough for that, so I’m sure he’s reflecting and thinking what he can do better.
“He’s been pretty vocal in his criticism of the squad ... some players will react positively to that and some may react negatively.
“Maybe the experience so far has been an eye-opener for him. He’s a German coach and is very direct and disciplined and maybe he has to find a balance between what he knows and has done and what the A-League is about and what the players are like over here.
“Maybe it’s a learning curve for him as well.”
Covic can’t see Wanderers progressing, even if they squeak into the finals - they are currently six points adrift of sixth-placed Wellington.
“Any team they come across thinks they have a good chance of three points against the Wanderers,” he noted. “Once upon a time teams feared us.
"Going back to Parramatta Stadium can’t come quick enough. The atmosphere was a big part of what the club was about.
"People went to watch the team because there was a special vibe - and that’s disappeared on and off the field.”