Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

10 years on: Wanderers legends relive historic Champions League victory

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May30,2024
Came From Nowhere, a documentary about the incredible rise of the A-League’s Western Sydney Wanderers, premieres May 26 at 7:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.
“We were called a small club yesterday. Today we are the biggest in Asia.”
It’s been 10 years since former Wanderers coach Tony Popovic uttered those famous words – 10 years since an unfathomable dream was made a reality by a club barely two years old.
Football has a funny way of conjuring up fairy tales, though not even the most optimistic of supporters could have predicted what happened on that fateful night in Riyadh, nor the first leg in Parramatta before it.
For Nikolai Topor-Stanley, though, the magnitude of each knockout match never cast too big a shadow.
Not even Laurențiu Reghecampf’s infamous ‘small team’ jibe – laid bare before the final’s second leg – disrupted the Wanderers captain.
In his words, it was about setting the example – about buying into Popovic’s message and exhibiting it in a matter that inspired the rest of the squad to do the same.
One would forgive the Wanderers for collapsing under the pressure, under the weight of a run that included K League giants Ulsan Hyundai and FC Seoul; Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale; and even defending continental champions Guangzhou Evergrande.

On paper, they, a club founded in 2012 with a handful of signed players at the start of pre-season, weren’t supposed to be there – let alone make the final against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, arguably the biggest team in Asia.

According to Shannon Cole, who played 74 games during a five-year spell with the club, the belief began to manifest once the group stage came to a close.
“Looking back, topping the group was a real statement,” Cole told SBS Sport.
“Not just for everyone else, but for us to realise – look at the teams in our group and we’ve topped the group.
“There were teams in our group that could be expected to go on and challenge for the title and we’ve just topped the group, so why not us?”
Kawasaki Frontale, Ulsan Hyundai and China’s Guizhou Renhe could not halt the Wanderers’ unexpected run to the knockout stages, and it was Cole who kept their hopes alive during the second leg of their Round of 16 tie against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“Popa brought me on as a left-back, 3-1 down,” Cole said.
“He basically said to me, go and attack as much as you want. Join the attack as often as you can… that was obviously something that I loved to do as much as possible.
“We were very, very disciplined in our structure on defensive moments and the goal came purely because of defensive discipline and how good we were at that.”
Defensive solidarity was often the backbone of Popovic’s Wanderers setup, and as Cole’s goal sparked hope around Parramatta Stadium, Brendon Santalab’s eventual winner soon sparked wild scenes of celebration.

Guangzhou Evergrande, now Guangzhou FC, followed in the last eight, as did Seoul in the semi-final, but never did the Wanderers flinch, perhaps hardened by the standards and expectations Popovic set before them.

“The expectation was set really, really high from day one,” Topor-Stanley told SBS Sport.
“And that was from everything you did in training, preparation – I never experienced that level of detail before.
“It was easy for me at the time to buy into it because I wanted to prove to myself that I was a serious footballer and I wanted to win things, which I hadn’t at the time.
“So I was hungry for that and I was probably mentally ready for that intensity.”
Cole, too, was prepared for said intensity, having played alongside Popovic during his time with cross-town rivals Sydney FC.
“Playing for him is not for everyone,” Cole said. “You’re going to be pushed harder than you thought you could be pushed.
“This is the goal that we’re all looking to achieve at the end and if we achieve that goal then all parties are happy, so you accept it up front, whether you’re fully aware of the sacrifices you’re about to make or not.”

Popovic’s standing as a Socceroos legend certainly commanded the respect of his players, but, perhaps more than that, was his ability to make them believe.

“From day one, when there was only seven of us in an office – in a makeshift office, should I say – he basically said that it doesn’t matter that we’re starting late and that we’re up against it,” Topor-Stanley said.
“His expectation and his drive to win and for success is going to be unparalleled. Where we end up is where we’ll end up, but regardless of where we are in the season, he’ll always drive us to be better and better every day.
“And if we buy into that as a group, the sky is the limit for where we can go – and it’s fair to say that we all bought into it.”
The Wanderers’ Champions League campaign was a result of their title-winning debut season, soured only by a Grand Final defeat to the Central Coast Mariners in 2013.
Nevertheless, that level of success quickly set the tone for their continental exploits, where Tomi Juric’s first-leg strike, coupled with Ante Covic’s goalkeeping heroics, helped the Wanderers overcome Al Hilal 1-0 on aggregate.
Surrounded by more than 60,000 supporters, against a club who had won more than 50 trophies and a coach who considered his opposition irrelevant; it was the Wanderers – buoyed by belief – who prevailed.
A sea of red and black supporters greeted them upon their return to Sydney airport, an extension of the party that began when the full-time whistle sounded across Australian screens.

For Cole and Topor-Stanley, sharing their victory with the fans was the icing on the cake – a chance to celebrate with a group of people who, in their words, played just as big a part in their success.

“We represented them on the field but they were just as important as the playing group,” said Topor-Stanley, who played 120 matches for the club.
“I felt the football on the field and what they all created off the field was bringing football to a new level. Football fans crave that story, that point of difference, that spectacle in the stands and that’s what the biggest games of football are all about.”
“Real football fans get that, you know, and they understand that that’s a collective,” he added. “It’s not just the scoreline. It’s not just, you know, one player. It’s that whole club, the identity, how you bring it together, and how you compete against other clubs.”
“That’s what I played for,” Cole said.
“That’s why I wanted to play professional football, to feel that, to have a home crowd of 20,000 people behind you.
“That’s what it’s about, right? It really takes the energy up to another level.”
In the 10 years following the Wanderer’s Asian Champions League triumph, no Australian club has reached the quarter-finals of the competition.
Unparalleled budgets and resources have certainly played their part against A-League clubs, but, according to Cole, that shouldn’t stop people from believing another miracle run is possible.
“It was insanely difficult to win even back then but I’d like to believe that, at some point, there’s going to be another fairy tale that unites all football fans behind a club,” he added.

“I’d like to believe that there’s going to be that run somewhere that pulls everyone together and gets behind the underdog.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “10 years on: Wanderers legends relive historic Champions League victory”
  1. As an avid fan of Western Sydney Wanderers, I am so proud of their historic Champions League victory. The determination and unity displayed by the team truly embodies the spirit of football. Can’t wait to watch ‘Came From Nowhere’ and relive those unforgettable moments!

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