‘Fork in the Road’ Time for Western Sydney Wanderers…

WHEN I SAT down to write a piece ahead of W-League Round 9 on the extraordinary transformation of the Western Sydney Wanderers this season, I mused for a moment whether I might be putting the dreaded ‘kiss of death’ on their unbeaten start to the campaign. Sure enough, Brisbane Roar turned up on Sunday afternoon and thumped them 4-0 – all four strikes coming in a second half deluge.

But here’s the thing: I’m going to block my ears, close my eyes and go ‘la, la, la’ while you all snigger at my timing, and crack on with this blog regardless. The wheels needn’t fall off after one bad result. The ‘Wanderwomen’ haven’t suddenly become a bad team. I hope… But Round 10 against winless Perth Glory feels like it could have a big impact on their push for the playoffs. They just need the right reaction…

Twelve months ago the Wanderers were propping up the W-League and, frankly, a bit of a laughingstock. Now, (despite the Brisbane humbling) they are genuine W-League championship contenders, recently handing out a walloping of their own to fierce cross-City rivals and 2019 Grand Final Champions Sydney FC. Currently sat 3rd in the table (or ladder as they say in ‘Oz’), Dean Heffernan’s side are having an unprecedented season, going unbeaten up to round eight and already breaking the club’s record points tally for the season. They are closing in on the goals scored record as well.

It just hasn’t been like this before. In fact, the Red and Black have a breathtakingly appalling record in the W-League since their inaugural campaign in 2012/13. That first season was the best it got – a 6th placed finish including four wins and accruing 13 points overall. How fans ahead of this year must have craved a repeat of those ‘halcyon days’, enduring one footballing disaster after another, including three seasons where their points tally didn’t even reach double figures.

Then, in 2018/19 the club plumbed new depths, finishing dead last and racking up just 4 points – 9 behind nearest rival Canberra United. Veteran midfielder Kylie Ledbrook led the way with 3 strikes in a campaign that generated just eleven goals. In a season that kicked off in late October, Wanderers didn’t score until December (game five) and only secured their first point the following week.

Adelaide United would suffer the ignominy of being the only team to lose to the Western Sydney Wanderers last season (a staggering 4-1 result and they won’t thank me for telling you that). But this did not inspire any kind of longer-term recovery for the Red and Black with 1-5 and 1-4 defeats to Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets bringing the curtain – and the curtain rail – crashing down on the final weeks of the campaign.

What a difference a year makes. Western Sydney have had the club’s best ever start to a Westfield W-League season, surpassing the most points they’ve ever accrued in a single season and securing their most impressive victories over Sydney FC (5-0) and Canberra United (4-0).

So, what’s changed?

Rookie Coach – Dean Heffernan, he’s getting something right – the Wanderers are breaking club records.

Well, the coach for starters. On 24 April 2019 Dean Heffernan was appointed manager of the Red and Black, and he moved quickly to bring Michael Beauchamp and Catherine Cannuli into the coaching team as assistants. Heffernan had enjoyed a decent professional playing career as a full back which included 88 A-League appearance and spells in England and China. But this was his first coaching role, so the situation would understandably be viewed as an unknown quantity arriving at a club groaning under the weight of perpetual failure. Success was not a sure thing.

“So much work has gone into it behind the scenes. Obviously, a lot of people only see game day and that is fine, it’s not a problem. The thing is, this is our first-time coaching in a professional set up like this and I feel like we are doing what we set out to do at the start. But, we are always looking at things we can improve on and always reflecting every day after every session ‘how could we have done that better’ and how we could have got more out of that (training) session for the players.”

Dean Heffernan, Manager, Western Sydney Wanderers

Secondly Western Sydney made a commitment to raise and invest more money. To facilitate this the club board sealed a five-year sponsorship deal for the Wanderers’ women’s team with construction / fit-out firm Intermain back in September, and it was reported in Australian dailies that this deal was believed to be the most lucrative of its kind in the W-League. Over the winter they invested that money on improved training facilities and on recruiting players that Heffernan and his crew believed could deliver at the requisite performance levels for the W-League.

The manager cleared out all but four players from last year. He brought in 9 professionals that have plied their trade in Australia’s and / or America’s top-flight. In Americans Kristen Hamilton (5 goals) and Lynn Williams (4), the Red and Black have two of the three championship and Shield winning North Carolina Courage forwards that terrorised the NWSL this year. Wanderers then secured a loan deal for Courage teammate, box-to-box midfielder Denise O’Sullivan, to supplement the supply line and show the rest of the team how to win the ball high up the pitch and transition quickly into attacking situations.

They’ve blended youth and experience – young players like the prodigious 17-year old Kyra Cooney-Cross (4 goals) and excellent Washington Spirit rookie defender Sam Staab who have the hunger to succeed; alongside more seasoned heads such as former Melbourne Victory midfielder Ella Mastrantonio and ex-Sydney FC attacker Amy Harrison (4 goals) – incredibly still only 23.

Kyra Cooney-Cross, remember the name, this 17-year old is going to be a Matildas star…

But investment and recruitment are only half the battle. A talented group of individuals, they have had to gel into a cohesive team; generate a new culture and mindset; work up tactics that bring out the best in their key players. Recently, striker Kristen Hamilton gave some insight into the new squad culture in an interview with the W-League:

“I had played for the Western New York Flash back in the NWSL my first year. We were the same [as WSW], just trash – like not good at all. The next year a new coach comes in; revamps everything. We just had this underdog mentality and this drive to work for each other, develop this family culture and we end up winning the championships next year – which we had no business winning! This feels very similar to how that team felt. It’s a really special moment to be part of.”

Kirsten Hamilton, Western Sydney Wanderers

The group has bags of pace, particularly the front three who are terrifying. They work relentlessly hard and there are goal scorers throughout the team – three of whom have already surpassed Ledbrook’s 3 goal tally from last year. Cooney-Cross was named the League’s Young Player of the Month in November and looking every inch a prospective driving force for future Matilda’s sides.

Defensively too, they’ve looked more resilient, organised and composed – with central defender Staab and Utah Royal’s loanee keeper Abby Smith developing a good understanding – supplemented by a ‘front foot’ attacking approach that seems designed simply to reduce the amount of defending required. Just 3 goals had been conceded until bogey-team Brisbane loosened the wheels on their wagon.

Their abject past-seasons record against city rivals Sydney FC was given a Gok-Wan-style makeover in round six with a 5-0 walloping of the 2019 Grand Final Winners courtesy of goals from Harrison, and a brace apiece for Cooney-Cross and Williams. Suddenly the champions had some noisy neighbours.

Hitting new heights in the round 6 Battle of Sydney…

Sydney, of course, are in amongst the leaders again, sat second at the time of writing having thrashed Canberra United 4-0 in a rescheduled round 8 game this week. But assuming the Red and Black can regain their form there is the mouth-watering prospect of a Sydney showdown in week 12, followed by an exciting round 13 match-up with the current ladder leaders – the defensively frugal Melbourne City – at the Marconi Stadium. City and the Wanderers will only meet once during the regular season but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they will get another opportunity in the Grand Final.

Going up against tough opponents at the end of the season is a challenge that Heffernan will relish. But there are other bumps in the road.

Pacey forward Lynn Williams had to head back to the States prior to the Brisbane defeat to join up with the US Women’s National Team. Denise O’Sullivan’s loan has now ended, and she will return to Ireland to spend time with her family before the forthcoming 2020 NWSL season. These players have been central to the Wanderers’ success up to this point so the coaching staff will need to make the right adjustments to ensure that round nine was just a ‘form blip’.

Denise O’Sullivan – the combative NCC and Ireland star has been pivotal to Western Sydney’s turnaround.

“It’ll be hard to leave but I know that this club will be making big strides and I helped … I’ll be happy.”

Denise O’Sullivan, Sydney Morning Herald, Christmas Day 2019

It was always a bit of a risk writing a transformational piece about the Red & Black. Unbeaten runs end every week in football leagues around the world – ok, perhaps not quite as cataclysmically as this one… But a transformation is a transformation. More points than ever before; likely to surpass their best goals total and looking a strong contender for the post-season playoffs. The Wanderwomen have come on in leaps and bounds.

In a way, the Brisbane result (not perhaps so much of shock when you consider Western Sydney’s awful record historically at home to the Roar) will allow Heffernan and his squad will find out what they are really made of. The mark of top performers is not wholly evident when things are going well. Top quality, strong mindset, courage to take risks: these attributes appear in the best players at the very moment that things could go off the rails.

Back down to Earth with a bump with the annual home defeat to Brisbane…

Perth Glory await in the next round of games. The Glory have not been good so far. It’s a winnable game. There’s a talented group of players and a determined coaching team at Western Sydney, but there’s no guarantee of three points if they can’t react to adversity the right way and get back to their best. Yep, this is the fork in the road of their season. Sure, they’ll likely break a number of club records whatever happens, but they need to push on and ensure that this already historical season ends up being remembered for all the right reasons…

Kristen Hamilton (turquoise band) seals her hat-trick in the Round 3 match-up with… Brisbane. See? They can do it.

Last week D2B reached number 32 on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much good stuff out there. Check it out, there’s a heap of really good blogs and websites written by people who know their stuff and have a infectious passion for the women’s game…

T

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