‘Tonight isn’t about… It’s about the people we represent’: How the Wanderers made a derby victory a win for the West

The Allianz Stadium atmosphere was pumping – but inside the Western Sydney Wanderers rooms, you could hear a penny drop as head coach Marko Rudan delivered his pre-match address.

“Tonight isn’t just about us,” he told his players. “Tonight it’s about the people we represent.”

The Wanderers were the enemy in Moore Park, at the shiny new home of Sydney FC. 

But they certainly weren’t alone. Of the 34,000+ fans flocking to the first Sydney Derby of 2022-23 in Round 6, head coach Rudan reminded his squad – a playing group of many origins and backgrounds – of the vast demographic of the area their club was forged in, and the array of cultures their fans come from to form one of the loudest, proudest support bases in the country.

“Their story is our story,” Rudan continued. He’s captured by the A-Leagues All Access crew, following Wanderers midfielder Milos Ninkovic for episode six of the A-Leagues’ ground-breaking docu-series.

“They’re proud of who they f****** are. They’re proud they can speak another language, they’re proud of the culture they f****** brought into this country. It’s a diverse f***** area. We are diverse. And this is their moment as well. 

“This is their moment to put one over this other f***** team… be f**** brave. Be courageous. Like our people of the West are and were. Be f**** warriors.”

It was a pre-game speech which struck a chord with the Wanderers team – a matchday squad featuring players born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, France and Côte d’Ivoire, with Australian players descending from many countries such as Croatia, South Sudan and Italy. Together the Wanderers walked out onto Allianz Stadium as a proud representation of a region with 170 different nationalities in its 2.5 million population.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 12: Wanderers fans show support during the round six A-League Men’s match between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers at Allianz Stadium, on November 12, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The crucial goal in a 1-0 win was assisted by Ninkovic, who in midweek earned his Australian citizenship, and scored by Kusini Yengi, born in Australia and of South Sudanese heritage. 

Ninkovic is one member of the squad deeply connected to the culture of his homeland.

With the A-Leagues All Access documentary crew in tow, episode six introduces Ninkovic’s family to the viewers, as well as his personal connection to god and devotion to the Serbian Orthodox religion. 

Milos’ wife Dejana recalls meeting Milos “in a small town where I grew up” – and it didn’t take long for the pair to find love and tie the knot.

“It lasts 17 years now almost – (but) the wedding happened (overnight),” Dejana says.

“He’s like: ‘I’m coming tomorrow, call the priest and ask if we get married on Tuesday’. I said: ‘What do you mean on Tuesday!?’.”

Milos replies: “That was perfect for me because in Serbia you have like, how to say…”

The pair exchange words in Serbian to find the right way to express the turn of phrase in English: of wanting to avoid the ritual aspects that would come along with a big ceremonial wedding.

“Kissing three times with each person – can you imagine 400 people?” Milos finds the right words. “I was like, no chance.”

Milos then plays cards with his children in the family home after he and Dejana cut fruit for their kids. Watching on, Dejana begins to reflect on Milos’ qualities as a dad. It’s what makes it all the more difficult for the family’s preparation for the Sydney Derby in which they all knew their husband, or father, would be villainised by the Sky Blues faithful.

“He’s a very good dad,” Dejana says. “Every time he has an opportunity he will go out and play with them all the time. 

“He’s the biggest kid in the room, so they have fun all the time.

“I know all the things that are going to happen on Saturday (will) make him go even harder. Us surviving two wars makes you grow stronger for everything in life. I know he did this decision because of us as a family. The family comes first.”

It’s at this stage Angelina, Milos and Dejana’s 10-year-old daughter, interjects.

“I love going to his games, watching him play and cheering for him,” she said.

“Some people are upset because he moved teams. I just want them to know that he changed because of his family – and I’m actually happy he chose a team that’s in Sydney.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 12: Marko Rudan and Milos Ninkovic during the round six A-League Men’s match between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers at Allianz Stadium, on November 12, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Steve Christo – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

A decision made to elongate Milos’ football career whilst preventing a young family from relocating; it’s understandable when observed through that particular lens.

But to the Sydney FC fans, it was a decision which could only be taken personally, as arguably their greatest player in club history switched allegiances to the red and black of the Wanderers.

“I haven’t spoken with my kids about what’s going to happen on Saturday,” Dejana says. “I think they’re two very clever girls who will understand whatever is happening, it’s not right – and you don’t treat people like that.”

“In this job you’ve got to sacrifice a lot,” Milos adds. 

“I think your family needs to sacrifice as well.”

Find out how the Ninkovic family dealt with an emotion-charged night at Allianz Stadium when A-Leagues All Access Episode Six: Pressure is a Privilege, airs on Thursday night.