The unsung hero helping Rudan’s mission to get Wanderland rocking again

AAMI Park was full of colour and noise for Saturday night’s Isuzu UTE A-League blockbuster between Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers, and it was not just the hosts that provided the atmosphere.

The away bay was sold out in Melbourne as Wanderers fans crossed the border to watch Western Sydney preserve their perfect start to the season by updating Victory 1-0 in a statement win on the road.

Tomislav Mrcela was the unlikely hero thanks to his 41st-minute goal – the Wanderers making it two wins from two games to spoil Nani’s home debut for Victory in front of more than 18,000 supporters.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 15: The Wanderers celebrate winning the round two A-League Men’s match between Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers at AAMI Park, on October 15, 2022, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Watching the new-look Wanderers take down Victory in such an atmosphere only highlighted Mark Rudan’s mission to not just bring finals football back to Western Sydney, but their passionate fanbase after years of pain.

“This is a fantastic atmosphere. One of the best in the league,” Wanderers head coach Rudan told Network 10 post-match.

“We have an important job to do at our own football club. Everyone keeps talking about it’s important for the Wanderers to play a part in the competition and I couldn’t agree more.

Our fans came out and they were superb all night and we need to get them back. 

“We’ve done a lot of work in the off-season connecting with them. If you look at the squad we’ve put together – Gabriel Cluer is a Fairfield boy. Ramy Najjarine got re-contracted, so did Jarrod Carluccio. Obviously Lawrence Thomas is a Western Sydney boy as well. There’s been a strong emphasis on trying to recruit either players overseas or players here to come back to the club. That connection is important because we’re just an extension of them.

“What they want to see more than anything else is a representation of themselves as fans. When they see a performance like that, we will slowly start to build the club back up again and where it deserves to be.”

Rudan added: “It’s part of all of us. Football, it’s such a beautiful game.

“I keep telling the players, never forget when you were a young kid and you got that ball and started playing in the backyard. Then you started playing with your mates, then the street and then organised games.

“That love has to be there. We love the game so dearly and we need the game to move forward. We’re all playing our part for the game to move forward.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 15: Tomislav Mrcela of the Wanderers (R) celebrates scoring a goal during the round two A-League Men’s match between Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers at AAMI Park, on October 15, 2022, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

NIEUWENHOF AND THE ‘PERFORMANCE REALLY BEYOND HIS YEARS’

Calem Nieuwenhof. The 21-year-old was able to walk out the door at Sydney FC and make the cross-town move to Western Sydney Wanderers at the end of 2021-22.

What is Sydney’s loss is Western Sydney’s gain, with Nieuwenhof barely putting a foot wrong through two matches of the A-League Men season and he was at it again in a man-of-the-match performance against Melbourne Victory on Saturday night.

Nieuwenhof was everywhere at AAMI Park, snuffing out the danger and even producing a rugby-style tackle to thwart a late Victory counter-attack as the new-look Wanderers kept their 100% record intact.

In a midfield headlined by two-time Johnny Warren Medallist Milos Ninkovic and French import Romain Amalfitano, it was the unheralded midfielder who stood out.

“Tonight he outshined Ninkovic and Amalfitano. There was nothing not like about his performance,” Network 10 analyst Daniel McBreen said following the 1-0 win.

He did the gritty hard work, the tackles, the sweeping up. When he was in tight areas, he distributed the ball.

It was a performance really beyond his years. He showed a good and calm head in moments he needed to, but he also made that professional foul in a key moment.

“They were under big pressure, and he just gave the ball which he hadn’t done much in the game. But he had the awareness to go ‘I need to take one for the team here and snuff this out because it’s a dangerous position’.”