Markus Babbel knows there is a long way to go for Western Sydney Wanderers but it was a case of new home, new team, new mentality on their return to Parramatta.
The extent of the German tactician’s off-season rebuild was emphasised when the team sheets were released for Western Sydney’s Wanderland homecoming.
Seven players in the starting line-up made their Wanderers debuts in the 2-1 triumph against the Central Coast Mariners at Bankwest Stadium.
When the club’s sole remaining foundation player, Tarek Elrich, was forced off with a hamstring problem on 16 minutes, the 11 players in Babbel’s team only had 73 appearances between them in Red & Black, and Keanu Baccus had 46 of those.
Western Sydney stuttered to an eighth-place Hyundai A-League finish in 2018/19, so often losing games late as they leaked 54 goals, an average of two per game.
Although Babbel admits his side rode their luck at times to register a win that the Wanderers’ faithful will remember forever, he believes that change was in the air the all-new Wanderland.
“It was not easy, the boys were fighting,” said Babbel.
“The good thing is tactically we can do a lot better but the most important thing in the first game is to win.
“It’s always difficult when you don’t know where you are, the pressure is on after the last seasons and we have to learn to win games and today is a good start.”
After three years in the wilderness, this unique occasion has been on the minds of Western Sydney’s players and staff for some time, but Babbel explained their preparation was far from ideal.
“Many players joined up with us late, many injuries in the pre-season came late to us, and you see many young players on the pitch,” he said.
“Mitch [Duke] is a very important player. He was in top form, got injured, had four or five weeks out and now is only three weeks in training again so he was fighting. I’m really happy for him that he could score.”
The difference on the day was Duke. Babbel’s inspirational captain delivered one moment of magic and one moment of composure.
He reacted fastest to be first to Pirmin Schwegler’s 41st-minute corner, heading the equaliser after Milan Duric’s goal had crashed the party five minutes earlier.
Then Duke stepped up with the weight of Western Sydney on his shoulders and delivered an ice-cold penalty kick on 82 minutes to clinch a historic victory.
“The start of the season, there’s always a lot to improve on,” Duke said.
“There’s a lot of new faces and a few boys a bit underdone still.
“We’ll keep working hard and the most important thing over the first few games is getting those points.”
Duke was turning out for Western Sydney for only 12th time but, having grown up 20km down the road from Bankwest Stadium in Liverpool, understands what Wanderers fans have been through.
That is why the Caltex Socceroo is desperate for the Red & Black supporters to enjoy the ride as a much-changed Wanderers aim to deliver much-changed performances.
“It’s the best feeling to be be back home,” he said.
“It’s a great feeling and an unbelievable atmosphere. Hopefully they keep turning up like that through the season.”